Barrel Hunting in Kentucky
Since about 2009, when Kentucky whiskey became all the rage once again, the available supplies of unique single barrel selections have been more difficult to come by each year. Not only for stores like K&L who have a history of working directly with distillers in the region, but also for other suppliers who have traditionally purchased excess barrels of Bourbon and blended them into their own proprietary expressions. Ever wonder why you can't find that Black Maple Hill whiskey you used to get all the time, or those Willett single barrel selections that used to be so delicious? It's because the supply chain has been cut off to third-party bottlers who have long brought balance to the ebbs and flows of the whiskey business. Distilleries like Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, and Wild Turkey have long sold superfluous casks to these NDPs (non-distiller producers as they're called in the trade) to help manage the books and thin out extra inventory. Today, however, with demand through the roof and stocks tighter than ever, Kentucky whiskey distilleries are finding it difficult to provide retailers and NDPs with the inventory they're looking for. We went out to Kentucky this past Fall to scope out the situation and check the pulse of the industry status.
Our first visit was to Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, one of our long-time partners from whom we've purchased dozens and dozens of single barrel selections over the years. While most of the selections were previously done via mail (they send small barrel samples in 50ml bottles to taste), the distillery is now requiring that all barrel selections be done at the distillery—meaning you have to actually fly out there and make an appointment. That was their way of slowing down the mad rush from retailers on private single cask expressions—a program that has taken its toll on the distillery's available inventory. "We're having to bottle younger whiskies in order to keep up," Mandy Vance told us, the Four Roses head of cask management. "Whereas nine years old was always the minimum age statement for all single cask selections, we've had to lower that down to seven and eight in order to continue supplying orders." Needless to say, we loaded up on nine and ten year selections while we still could!
Over at Jim Beam we met with head distiller Fred Noe and tasted through a number of Knob Creek selections. Beam being the largest distiller in Kentucky, they're still sitting on solid inventory. We were able to find a few tasty barrels that we felt would be perfect for K&L, the only drawback being that Beam doesn't allow retailer casks to come in at full proof or with any personalized customization. Nevertheless, beggars can't be choosers at this point. With the situation as dire as it is, we were grateful that they even opened the door and let us in!
Whereas previously we had been able to purchase single cask selections from Brown-Forman's Old Forester label, the company quickly reversed their decision to jump into the customized barrel game and halted their cask selection program not long after it began. Over at Heaven Hill distillery, the Bardstown giant was only able to offer barrel selections of their Bernheim wheat whiskey, which we happily tasted through and even found some viable contenders. The Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, and Henry McKenna labels were currently off the table, however. Times were tight and supplies were locked up for the time being.
Needless to say, we found some great barrels during our run through Kentucky, but it was not easy. Not because of the quality of the whiskey, however, but simply because of the availability. At this point it's not so much about what you know, but rather who you know.