One of my favorite things to do is select private barrels for our stores. At one time barrel picks were an alternative to chasing down hard-to-find allocated liquors, but these days barrel picks sell out almost as quickly. If you can’t find an allocated item, your next best bet is to look for a barrel selection. Though mostly bourbon barrels, I also frequently select rye whiskey, tequila, rum, and brandy.
Each time is a little different, but there are a few tried-and-true rules that I always follow when doing a barrel selection.
Going to a barrel selection on an empty stomach is a bad idea, so I start the day with a good breakfast. In addition to being well-fed, it’s also vital to stay hydrated. I drink water before, during, and after a selection. Drinking barrel-proof spirits can catch up to you quickly, so it’s a smart idea to have a designated driver or take an Uber or Lyft home. Never take any chances when it comes to safety.
If I am on-site at the distillery, I always like to inspect the barrels. First, I lift the barrels to see if they’re heavy or light. Lighter barrels are not always the best, but they often have unusual qualities due to the evaporation and subsequent concentration levels. I also look for warped pieces on the barrel head, which hint at fluctuations of heat and moisture throughout the barrel’s life. External signs like these usually indicate some unique flavors and characteristics, so if possible, I look for them.
Now it’s time for the best part: sampling! As the first drink of the day, the initial sample can be a shock to the palate. I always take the first sip without thinking too much, treating it like a warmup for the rest of the tasting. When tasting barrel-proof liquor, I take small sips and roll the liquid around my tongue before swallowing. Taking larger sips can lead to having a little too much to drink, though, most distilleries also provide a bucket or glass into which you can spit the sample to avoid consuming too much alcohol.
During the tasting, there are few variables we take into consideration.
Color: The first thing I look at is the color of the liquid. Are any of the samples noticeably darker or lighter than the others? Generally, darker is better, but that doesn’t automatically determine the best sample.
Aroma: I find soft, easy sniffs pull out the best aromas, which can change as the samples sit out and interact with oxygen.
Taste: When it comes to taste, there are a few components. First, the initial palate, meaning the immediate flavor(s) you get when the liquid hits your mouth. I pay special attention to the mid-palate profile, as I like something rich and flavorful that leaves you wanting more. Finally, there’s the finish, or the lingering flavor once you swallow. Typically, the longer the finish, the better.
The winning selection should have great color, aroma, and flavor.
Once the selections are made, we decide what to put on the brand’s medallion. This can be a number or name that allows consumers to track down more bottles if they wish. Barrel selects offer a great alternative to your every day, hard-to-get bourbons. Trying different selections of the same brand over time is a great way to have some fun by comparing the different versions. Happy hunting!
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