I’d be lying if I said marketing e-mails didn’t work on me. There I was, just minding my own business, and I see the Seelbach’s “’Must Try’ Of The Month” show up in my inbox. The description of the bottle and its attestation from Blake piqued my curiosity enough to make me pull the trigger. The whiskey in question was a single barrel release, picked by Blake at Seelbach’s, of Shortbarrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. This release, a 5.5-year bourbon from the top floor of Green River, seemed too interesting to ignore.
Around the same time, I jumped on the opportunity to buy a bottle of Single Batch Nation, and all along I’d intended to review the two bottles together. However, after speaking to both brands, there was enough difference between the two to break this into distinct reviews. Truthfully, I’m glad it worked out as it did; both conversations were delightful in their own ways, and giving each their own spotlight seemed appropriate as I learned more.
Below is the transcription of an interview I had with two of Shortbarrel’s three founding owners, Adam Dorfman and Patrick Lemmond. This was truly a laid-back conversation, and I tried to capture that; the answers are a little on the longer side, but they offered so much in their responses that I couldn’t bring myself to leave it out.
Malt: In my conversation with the fine folks at SCN, they taught me about the term “independent bottler.” Does that term apply to you guys, or does non-distilling producer (NDP) fit better?
Adam: I don’t know how they produce their whiskey. To be an independent bottler, that sounds like they are buying a ready product and putting it in bottles. We are producing whiskey in the sense that while we may not distill it, we find the casks that we like, and we treat those casks in a way that we believe will improve them.
For example, our toasted bourbon, we don’t just bottle that bourbon. We proof it down before it goes into toasted barrels to 104 proof, then we refill toasted barrels, we taste along the way, we know when it’s ready, we pull them out, we blend those barrels back again, we proof it down to 94, and then we bottle it.
For any of our finishing series, we fill those finishing casks ourselves. So, this is not a situation where we’re just buying barrels and taking it straight from wood to glass. To me, I’ve never looked up the term independent bottler versus NDP, but I think the fact that we do treat the whiskey and not just bottle it would probably put us in the NDP category.
Patrick: I just became familiar with the term [independent bottler] in the last few weeks. I think we’re pretty agnostic to what we’re called; we just want to be transparent about what we’re doing. That’s what it boils down to with us. Whether we do a single barrel, barrel proof and we take it from barrel to bottle or blending this, finishing this, putting our own twist on it somehow, however you want to categorize that. I don’t know what the legal definition of independent bottler is, but we’re going to be as transparent as possible about what’s in the glass and want you to follow along the way with what we’re doing.
Malt: What made you take the leap from picking barrels for yourselves to doing so as an NDP? And what was that time like for you?
Adam: We got to a point where we had picked 350 barrels of spirits as a team; and we would post something on Instagram about our store pick coming out and barrels would sell out in a couple of hours. It was fun going to Kentucky and doing all of this, but it was an expensive hobby for us! We didn’t ever have a chance to monetize it, and it was a time where I was running my own business, and I thought to myself it would be cool if we could find a way to potentially make money off this one day. More than anything else, it was a chance at fate. We had always talked about it, but never really laid in on it. Then one day, a few of us were up in Louisville doing a barrel pick.
Patrick: Yeah, I didn’t even know this world really existed until we were bidding on some private barrels and were presented with an opportunity to buy our own barrels. I didn’t know you could even go that route and what the legal process was with it.
We were up in Louisville doing some picks of Eagle Rare, Blanton’s and Old Weller Antique at Buffalo Trace. We went to the one bar that was open during COVID in downtown Louisville, and you know, four hours later at the bar getting the tab, the guy who owned the store asked if we wanted to buy some barrels. This was the first time it had run through our heads that people were lining up around the store for our barrel picks, so why not our own barrels?
So. we ended up buying some barrels from a broker, and the next morning when he reached out to ask for a wire, we realized what we had just done and how much money we were out. So, we started with the first six barrels of six-and-a-half-year Barton high-rye.
Adam: We do have one major regret.
Patrick: We didn’t buy all of it.
Malt: What’s been the biggest learning experience for you all in this venture?
Patrick: Well, we’ve messed up at about every step along the way. We didn’t know what we were getting into; the licensing process is insane. It took us nine months to get set up in the state of Georgia. Everything’s a learning curve; luckily, the three of us are all entrepreneurial enough that we’ll roll up our sleeves and get in there, but everything’s been a learning curve. We’re learning how to proof whiskey properly – which I didn’t know was a thing until we met the right people. At this stage in our careers, starting at zero and realizing you don’t know anything, you realize you need to sit down, learn, and listen to the right people.
Adam: Be careful about the toes you step on, because they may be connected to the [rear end] you have to kiss on the way up! Any success we’ve had has been attributed to the genuine relationships we’ve taken the time to build. I’m a Georgia native; we’re all neighbors and friends first. Above and beyond anything else, with any relationship we have, we want to give more than we receive and our attitude about that has really made an impression on the community.
Malt: What are you looking for when you select a barrel for your Single Barrel Series? Is it something unique, or just an exemplary sample of what that spirit has to offer?
Adam: When we first started, we were picking for us. We were whiskey nerds; we liked the high proof, aggressive, unusual stuff. Now when we’re doing single barrels for people, we have conversations about what they like; what do you want for your store, your restaurant, you know? We might pick barrels for two different customers that are complete opposites of each other. But when we pick for our core toasted 94-proof bourbon and 101-proof rye, we’re buying large lots of whiskey and then tasting and blending for consistency. We want it to taste similar all the time. If you’re going for the single barrels, we want you to find something you’ll love.
Malt: Tell me more about the flagship offerings you mentioned there.
Patrick: For our toasted bourbon, that’s a minimum 4 years old Kentucky straight bourbon, with at least 45 days in a toasted barrel. We’ll go longer if it doesn’t seem ready yet. There’s a lot of variables that go into a toasted finish, and we’re trying to keep a very consistent product on the market for everyone.
Adam: The base product for our Toasted Barrel is a blend of Green River and Bardstown, a 70-21-9 mash bill, and it’s all over four years old. We get our newly toasted barrels from Kelvin Cooperage. So, the core product is always going to be the same, the barrels and the barrel treatment will be the same, and now we have an 1,100-gallon tank we’ll use for continuous blending.
Patrick: We’ll do the same kind of blending for our rye. Our rye is a minimum five-year age, but a lot of our stock is getting older than that right now.
Malt: In your eyes, what makes you stand out from other NDPs?
Adam: Patrick is really handsome, so we’ve got that going for us.
Patrick: (unfazed) If you had interviewed us all independently, I think we would all say that we are as transparent as possible about all of this. We didn’t find some old recipe, we’re not legacy whiskey families. We’re three guys in Georgia who had a passion for really good bourbon, and wanted to bring a brand that supports our experience picking barrels and different profiles that we love. We have the ability to give out a product from Beam, Wilderness Trail, Green River, or MGP, and we’ll tell you as much as possible about what’s in the bottle. All of our press releases tell you exactly where the bottle came from, unless it’s a rare exception where we have an NDA.
Adam: The other thing is, if you read the back of the label, it doesn’t matter which bottle it is – the last line of the description says, “Welcome to Shortbarrel.” We started as a club, and we want it to feel like a club still. We want to price things fairly; we want people to feel like it’s an approachable spirit; we want people to approach us with questions. We really do operate as a family…we’re at all major life events for each other.
Patrick: It makes me cringe when people say, “Can I ask where the bourbon is sourced from?” I mean, why wouldn’tyou ask that? Why wouldn’t I tell you where it’s from? I don’t get that part of the bourbon culture right now, and I think it’s important that we remain transparent with what we have.
Malt: Is there anything in the near future you’re excited about?
Adam: We just acquired Old Forth Distillery this year. We just signed a lease for 10,000 square feet in North Atlanta, and by May we’ll have every barrel we own brought down here for continuous aging. This will give us the ability to be more experimental with our blending, our finishing, and we’ll be able to do a lot more hands-on. We loved our experience with our partners in Kentucky, but now we’ll have more control and it’s going to feel like we’re bringing a puppy home. We’re also really excited about the staff we’ve hired from the Old Forth team, they’re a great addition to the family and we’re excited to grow with them.
Patrick: With Old Forth, we’re going to bring some more transparency to that label first and foremost; let people know where the source is, and where the source will be from in the future. [Hint: To be continued…]
This was a fun interview with two of the three owners at Shortbarrel. The third owner, Clinton, had just recently welcomed his first child, and (for good reason) wasn’t able to make it. We here at Malt wanted to congratulate Clinton on the addition to his family and hope to talk with him in the future!
The whiskey being reviewed today is out of their Single Barrel Series. As mentioned above, the whiskey is 5-year, 6-month-old bourbon from Green River, which we noted was punching above its weight last year. I purchased the 120.6-proof pick for $74.99 from the Seelbach’s website.
Shortbarrel Single Barrel Series, Seelbach’s Pick – Review
Color: Cherry wood.
On the nose: At first, I’m met with alcohol vapors that indicate this may be a high-octane burner that seems hot just for the sake of being hot. However, on second nosing, this relaxes into a luxurious sweetness. Caramel, butterscotch, maple syrup, honey, chocolate, and perhaps even more.
In the mouth: The sweetness comes with more balance right away. Caramel and toffee are met with cherry, but then a surprising pause. Suddenly, in a second wave, black coffee, and Folger’s coffee grounds. This is a true sipping bourbon; anything more than a sip comes with an outburst that fades too quickly. Honestly, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the whole experience.
I understand that part of the price for an offering from an NDP includes finding and potentially storing stock from other sources, and in many cases, that keeps me away from buying something from a brand like this. However, I’m very glad I took a chance on this bottle. Although I’ll have to try one or two more releases from Shortbarrel before I’m completely on board, this is a wonderful introduction for me personally.
(See our scoring model here)