“Are single barrels dead?” David Thomas Tao asked me, to which I replied, “Yes. Y’all killed it. Congratulations. Thanks for killing the single barrel.”
My response reeked of a Skip Bayless “hot take,” but I was fed up. I had just walked into a retailer who was stocking multiple single barrel picks of the same label. How can you tell a consumer that you found this many picks all at once that are magical? The promise of a single barrel a decade ago was that the retailer/picker was finding a unicorn of some kind. A magical barrel that was bottled in the same fashion as your regular choices, but it was… special.
Fast forward a decade later and account managers and marketers have picked up on this. No need to chase the seasonal allocations! Your local store gets store picks all year long! The premise was touted and celebrated. It was a way to give smaller brands and just-as-small retailers a reason to be considered.
Many of us have experienced a single barrel that was flat or not to our liking. Perhaps the pickers palate didn’t align with ours, and that is OK. However, that makes it hard to promise every consumer that a single barrel is the way to go.
My comment section and DMs filled up. I could tell who listened to the whole video and those that simply commented after the first 5 seconds. I felt like a professional athlete who was misquoted! Ah yes. I finally made it.
I went on to say that if you have a club or person whose picks you like, then you should continue supporting them. Don’t trust big box picks that simply have a sticker on them. It doesn’t mean that it’s any good.
I got several offers from people who wanted to send me their picks to prove me wrong. I personally try not to review single barrels because they are one-time offerings that most of you can’t get your hands on, so what would be the point in me scoring a single barrel that you can’t get?
One person that stepped up to the plate was Michael from The Prime Barrel. Like the others, I took at look at his page and noticed something that caught my eye: He had Lucky Seven picks. I had previously reviewed The Frenchman, and my favorite bottle of 2021 was Holiday Toast Batch 1. Could Michael (and his team) really beat out the blending prowess of Lucky Seven? The greediness got the best of me and I asked Michael if he could send me the Lucky Seven picks. I figured an article comparing my previously scored bottles would be a good litmus test for the premise of Single Barrel picking.
Michael then went overboard and sent me close to a dozen samples. I will be sharing a few with Taylor to have him compare the picks with some of his favorites. More on that to come. Overwhelmed with all the choices, I dove in to my original premise. I will present to you my original review of the Lucky Seven Frenchman and Holiday Toast, then how the picks from The Prime Barrel compare.
I also wanted to learn more about Michael and how his picks come to be. He was kind enough to answer the questions here:
Malt: Why get in the single-barrel game? What motivated you to get into the whiskey business?
Michael: After over two decades in the corporate world, holding various senior roles at Fortune 100 companies, I reached a turning point. The realization dawned that working in a high-level corporate environment no longer brought the joy and fulfillment I sought. In August 2020, amid the uncertainties of a global pandemic, I made a pivotal decision to leave my secure corporate life and pursue my passion. This led me to fully immerse myself in a boutique wine and whiskey shop I co-founded in 2014. The decision wasn’t just about a career change; it was about following a calling that resonated deeply with my personal interests and values.
My love for whiskey was kindled back in 2007 at my uncle’s 50th birthday celebration, where I was introduced to a bottle of Dalmore 15-year-old Scotch. It wasn’t merely the whiskey itself that captivated me – though it was exceptional – but the experience of sharing that bottle. It provided a medium for quality time and profound connections with close family members during a snowy, memorable day. That moment set me on a path towards creating similar experiences for others.
The Prime Barrel Club is more than just a business venture; it’s a mission-driven project aimed at strengthening a community of whiskey enthusiasts who appreciate the spirit for the same reasons I fell in love with it. In our eyes, good whiskey isn’t just about taste; it’s a catalyst for creating lifelong memories with people we cherish.
Malt: What sets Prime Barrel apart from other single-barrel pickers/providers?
Michael: The Prime Barrel differentiates itself in the whiskey world by being both a retailer and a club. This unique position means we don’t rely on third-party retailers to source our barrels. We have direct access, which allows us to handpick and offer a diverse range of products to our members.
While our love for whiskey is paramount, we are also passionate about other spirits. To cater to the varied tastes of our members, we host monthly virtual tastings with brand ambassadors and often master distillers. These events aren’t limited to just whiskey; they include bespoke scotch blends, specially selected tequila barrels, and offerings from non-traditional whiskey regions like Australia and Taiwan. Our aim is to expand our members’ palates and introduce them to a broader world of spirits.
The sense of community is the cornerstone of The Prime Barrel. We actively involve our members in both in-person and virtual barrel-picking trips, fostering a sense of camaraderie and friendship. This collaborative approach not only builds a strong community bond but also ensures a more refined and universally appealing selection of barrels.
Our premium membership further elevates the experience with perks like a bi-annual randomizer, giving members the chance to purchase allocated bourbon at or near MSRP. We have innovated the membership model by issuing digital membership cards as NFTs on the blockchain. This forward-thinking approach allows us to scale our membership efficiently, keeping overheads low and maintaining affordable prices on our barrel selections. And for those daunted by the technicalities of blockchain and crypto, we’ve made the process seamless and accessible – no crypto knowledge is needed, and credit card purchases are welcome. For more detailed insights into our premium membership, one can visit our site.
Malt: What is the hardest and easiest part of picking a single barrel?
Michael: The most challenging aspect of selecting a single barrel lies in finding those unique expressions that stand out distinctly from a brand’s standard lineup. My biggest frustration is encountering a selection of barrels that taste too similar, lacking that special quality that makes a single barrel unique. The complexity of uniting various palates and preferences during the selection process can be challenging but is crucial for choosing a barrel that appeals to a broad range of whiskey drinkers.
In today’s landscape, with the proliferation of single barrel clubs, groups, and store picks, the market has become saturated. This saturation makes being selective more important than ever. We often find ourselves in the tough position of having to say no to certain barrels, a necessary step to ensure we only bring in the best and most distinctive selections.
On the flip side, the easiest and most enjoyable part is the enthusiasm and eagerness of people to participate in these events. Our members often find that the experience of the pick, the joy of discovery, and the bonds formed during the process are more valuable than the pick itself. It’s about more than just selecting a great whiskey; it’s about building a community of like-minded individuals who share a passion for whiskey. This communal aspect, where friendships are forged over a shared love for whiskey, is what truly drives us and makes each barrel-picking event a memorable and rewarding experience.
Malt: Do you believe in picking the best whiskey regardless of label? Or the best version of the whiskey that is being selected?
Michael: Our guiding principle at The Prime Barrel is simple yet profound: “taste before anything else.” We adhere to a comprehensive system where every whiskey is tasted blind and scored independently, focusing on its inherent quality rather than the brand or label it carries. This process involves a team discussion, where each score is deliberated, ensuring that our selections are based purely on the merit of the whiskey’s character. When it comes to whiskey aficionados, preferences can vary, with some prioritizing the nose, others the palate, or the finish. In our experience, a standout palate is the most crucial factor, as it’s the heart of the whiskey experience.
Our approach also involves introducing “curveballs” – unexpected selections like Australian whisky, Scotch, custom blends, and even tequila. These choices aim to broaden our members’ palates and introduce them to a wider array of flavors and profiles. In the case of selecting something like Knob Creek (the example you cited), if we find a whiskey that tastes superior but leans more towards a Booker’s profile, we would choose the latter. It’s all about finding that exceptional taste that stands out, irrespective of its original label or expected profile.
Malt: What is your favorite style of American whiskey?
Michael: My personal preferences in whiskey are ever-evolving. Currently, I find myself particularly drawn to American Single Malts and heirloom ryes. These categories have shown some of the most exciting and unique flavor profiles I’ve encountered recently. Each offers a distinct character that captivates my palate and keeps me eager to explore more within these styles. Alongside this, my interest in peated scotches has been growing. While peat can be a divisive flavor among whiskey drinkers, I find the complexity and depth it adds to a whiskey to be intriguing and rewarding. This journey of discovering and appreciating different styles is what keeps my passion for whiskey alive and vibrant.
Malt: Do you take part in any rituals or traditions before a pick?
Michael: Our barrel selection process is underpinned by a structured scoring system. This methodology ensures a systematic and unbiased approach to evaluating each sample. We assess each whiskey on three key aspects: nose, palate, and finish. It’s fascinating to observe how different members prioritize these categories, often leading to lively and insightful discussions. This scoring method provides a framework for our decision-making, with the cumulative scores serving as a guide for our conversations.
A general rule we adhere to is if we cannot select a winner within 15 minutes, we walk away. This rule stems from the belief that a barrel worth selecting should evoke an immediate and strong positive reaction. Our approach ensures that we only choose barrels that truly resonate with us, enhancing the overall quality and appeal of our selections.
Malt: Virtual pick or in-person pick? I’m sure you enjoy in-person but are there pros/cons for the two formats?
Michael: While in-person barrel picks are our preferred method, offering a fuller sensory experience and the opportunity for deeper connection, we recognize the value and flexibility of virtual picks. In-person selections provide a chance to taste a wider variety of options and foster stronger bonds with both fellow members and producers. The experience of being at the distillery, engaging with the process, and forming personal relationships is unparalleled.
However, there are times when an in-person pick isn’t feasible, and that’s where virtual picks come into play. They offer greater flexibility, allowing more members to participate in the experience. Virtual picks, though more logistically challenging with the distribution of tasting kits, enable us to include a larger segment of our community in the selection process. We’ve even successfully created custom blends through virtual sessions, proving that while different, virtual picks can be equally effective and inclusive.
Malt: How can people find your single barrel picks?
Michael: Finding our single barrel selections is straightforward and accessible. Interested whiskey lovers can visit our website, primebarrel.com, or join our vibrant Discord community at vip.primebarrel.com/Join. While our premium members enjoy first access to our new drops, we are committed to making our selections available to a wider audience. Any remaining barrels, following our premium member allocation, are offered to the general public through these platforms. Our approach ensures that all whiskey enthusiasts, regardless of their membership status, have the opportunity to explore and enjoy our carefully selected barrels.
Thanks to Michael for sharing his time and insights. Now, onto the reviews and picks!
Lucky Seven The Frenchman – Original Review
Batch 01. 113 proof (56.5% ABV). $79.99.
Color: Melty mocha.
On the nose: Tons of strong wood almost overpower the senses. A hint of spearmint evolves into another wood note. You close your eyes and cedar/bourbon scented soaps come to mind: Dr. Squatch or Duke Cannon, take your pick. While those soaps can be woody woodpeckers, this elevated spearmint makes you think you’re about to take a walk through the woods.
In the mouth: If you have ever wondered what it would be like to taste a Frosted Pine Cone air freshener, this is your chance. This is the most refreshing bourbon I’ve had in a while. The honey/cinnamon flip switch that the Holiday Toast employed is a far cry from this tribute to the winter wonderland that is to come. The French oak is drying on the mouthfeel. Not surprising, as I have noticed the effect that French wood seems to have in another of my favorites, the Maker’s Mark Private Selects.
The drying effect with the lasting mint and cedar combo make you want to take another sip. It is here that you realize… I’m drinking a bourbon that tastes like a rye. Absent are dill and pepper, but it’s a unique middle ground that I am happy to return to over and over again.
Fall is coming. This cool woody wonder takes me to the woods and gives me that cool rush that reminds me of a splendid summer season and the spring that awaits me on the other side of winter.
Lucky Seven The Frenchman The Prime Barrel Pick – Review
119.1 proof (59.55% ABV).
Color: Melty mocha.
One the nose: The spearmint and woody combo are here. If there was ever a fireplace sipper this might be it. The scent is more balanced and pleasant than batch 1.
In the mouth: There is a magnified intensity of flavors that I recognize from my first bottle of The Frenchman. In this case the mint flavor stands out even more for me.
Is this a better version of the Frenchman I reviewed? Yes. What I love about it is that it magnifies the flavors that I knew and liked from the original. So, kudos to the team that picked it. Malt doesn’t do half points in its scoring, and I would love to give this a 7.5, but also do not feel comfortable rounding up to 8 that would put it in Holiday Toast territory for me.
Lucky Seven Holiday Toast – Original Review
Color: Deep and dark wood with a reddish tint.
On the nose: Honey up front, with a red hot cinnamon lurking. Will this be a sweet treat or a spice bomb? You become intrigued. Rarely do I see people hesitate with this one. It’s been smell and go in the best way. The warmth of the honey but promise of cinnamon dares you and welcomes you all at once. Straight to the palate we go.
In the mouth: The honey fades to the back as the cinnamon comes raging up front. The honey and cinnamon wane and meld to merge with a woodiness; a nod to the second barrel. Maybe it’s the Hollywood vibe, but I can only describe the trip a lavish thriller with a twist and a subtle turn at the end. The higher proof on this one helps it stand out against the current market (Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel, Old Forester 1910, and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked all come in under 100 proof).
To make sure I wasn’t smitten and just bouncing back from my mineral-driven Tennessee hangover and easy on the rebound, I suggested the bottle to those that would ask. In the past six weeks I have done three tastings and suggested this to four people who have all come back raving. It stands out, it really does. Blender Ashley Barnes has created a uniquely approachable, high proof finished whiskey. I want to give this my highest score ever. Perhaps it’s an 8/10 because I was burned out on bourbon at the time? Should I allow the ravings of everyone else that has tried this influence me, or does it just make me more confident in my first impression?
They say time tells the tale and – all these months later – I still say this is a must-try.
Lucky Seven Holiday Toast The Prime Barrel Pick – Review
118.5 proof (59.25% ABV).
Color: Light amber.
On the nose: The nose isn’t as prominent as Batch 1. Bits of cinnamon and light black pepper with a hint of wood.
In the mouth: Let’s go! The lush, sweet honey hits up front accompanied by honey dew and a touch of other fruits. The cinnamon from Batch 1 hides in the back until it’s time to step on stage toward the finale. The earthy woodiness of Batch 1 is now a more intense oaky note. It borders on too many tannins towards the end but a delightful pour.
Putting this up against my highest rated whiskey ever on Malt might have been an unfair challenge, but what the Prime Barrel has chosen is an equally spectacular pour. The extra fruit in the beginning was a welcome surprise and a delightful start. The woodier finish is a flavor I often enjoy but for me it wasn’t as lovely as the earthy and mellow finish of Batch 1. Still a fantastic pour and thanks for Michael for providing it!