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In recent years, the popularity of American whiskey collecting has soared (Read An Expert Guide to Collecting American Whiskey). Now firmly in the sights of global whisky enthusiasts, a particular sub-segment of bourbon has become all the rage - private barrel selects, colloquially known as ‘barrel picks’ or ‘store picks’.

Although they have taken place for decades, over the last five years they have exploded in popularity and the secondary market value for some single barrel picks is drastically outstripping their equivalent core offerings. As new generations of enthusiasts and collectors emerge and establish their tastes, they are increasingly seeking out private barrel picks for their unique variations, celebrated quality and exclusivity.

So, what are they? A private barrel selection is where private parties (namely retailers, bars, whiskey clubs, or individuals) sample various casks and select their favourite interpretation of that brand. Once selected, this will be produced for them with an exclusive label, tag or small sticker, and they will receive the full allocation of bottles to sell as an exclusive offering.

Joe Wilson, Whisky Auctioneer's Head Curator & Spirits Specialist, has long had a passion for the history of American whiskey, and so I've reached out to him alongside some other experts and Master Distillers to discover why private barrel selects are so popular with collectors today.

Legendary Van Winkle and Willett Family Estate private barrel selections

An Industry On The Rocks

The 1970s and 1980s were a difficult time for almost everybody involved in the whiskey business. A period of overproduction in the 1970s, coupled with a younger demographic’s changing tastes in alcohol delivered an (almost) fatal blow to the whiskey industry. Many distilleries were shut down for good, and the industry was left grasping at straws.

Even for names such as Van Winkle, it was no different. Faced with a surplus of product, Julian Van Winkle Jr. turned to various marketing ploys to try and sell bottles from ‘tacky’ commemorative decanters to hand-written personalised labels. Like many industries, a quick and easy solution to this problem was to sell in bulk. And for the whiskey industry, this meant to sell whiskey by the barrel.

 

Going as far back as the 1980s and 1990s, modern brands basically made their living off barrel picks. One of the most important ones for private barrel selections, is Van Winkle. For Julian Van Winkle it was one of the only ways that he could keep the lights on at his distillery.

 

The roof was leaking, but he had incredible demand for private barrel selections. Knowing what we know today about that whiskey, we understand why.

 

Fred Minnick, Award-Winning Author and American Whiskey Expert

A selection of Stitzel-Weller bourbons bottled for Berghoff in Chicago

After Prohibition, the majority of the Van Winkle's business was private bottling. Their largest customer was the Berghoff, a famous German restaurant and bar in Chicago, Illinois. Julian Van Winkle Snr. approached the Berghoff family after the end of Prohibition with a business proposal and they became partners to select exclusively labelled house bourbon until the 1990s. After the Stitzel-Weller distillery was sold to Somerset Imports, the Berghoff continued to buy its bourbon from Julian Van Winkle Jr. and then from Julian Van Winkle III. 

Julian Van Winkle III also provided privately labelled whiskeys to Darrell Corti of the Corti Brothers store in Sacramento. Darrell was the one to introduce a specialist spirits knowledge to the business, and they contracted their first exclusive Van Winkle Special Reserve bottling in 1987. Corti had heard of Julian Van Winkle through his old friend Gordon Hue, the owner of the Cork n’ Bottle in northern Kentucky and the man responsible for creating the legendary 1974 A.H. Hirsch products.

Connoisseurs such as Darrell Corti were the first to demonstrate a more discerning approach to selecting these types of whiskeys. Darrell evolved the entire process with a new level of involvement, advancing the idea of evaluating the liquid and feeding back to the bottlers and distillers about what he felt was the best interpretation of the brand.

 

Darrell was not only particular about the whiskey but its presentation and his direct involvement in selecting the casks for his private labels has proven to be a pioneering moment. Today his Van Winkle selections are legendary among collectors.

 

Joe Wilson, Head Curator & Spirits Specialist

Joe Wilson with the Van Winkle 1975 Special Reserve 19 Year Old for Corti Brothers

 

The Van Winkle Special Reserve bottlings were very good, but at the time very few people were interested in buying them. A lot was actually sold or given away in Europe.

But these are probably some of the finest whiskies I have ever tasted. Curiously, even these are more famous after the fact than when they were for sale. And then, they were not very expensive.

Darrell Corti, Corti Brothers of Sacramento

At the time these bottles featured in the Corti Brothers newsletters, they were advertised at a princely sum of $29.99. In 2021, an equivalent bottle sold for upwards of $30,000. Surprised at the attention that this bottle was getting, a perplexed Mr. Corti simply had nothing to say on the occasion, except "Incredible!".

 

Modern Tastes

At the turn of the millennium, the American whiskey market was flourishing following a renewed interest in America’s whiskey heritage. It was a different industry that had emerged from the lean years, and connoisseurs were searching for premium expressions, such as limited editions and single barrels.

As the popularity of single barrel bourbon began to rise, distilleries began to formalise their private barrel programs. This offered retailers and bars a route to diversify their offerings and provided enthusiasts the opportunity to seek out unique and exclusive variations of their favourite brands.  One of the first distilleries to introduce a private barrel program was Four Roses:

 

The program began 15 years ago when we had a request from a retailer to sell them a Single Barrel of a particular recipe. This created a lot of excitement, and we knew it was a great way to showcase our ten different recipes, so we started offering more and more individual barrels to retailers and it grew from there.

 

The Four Roses barrel program offers all of these individual recipes with an age range of 8-12 years, which creates a wide spectrum of flavors. Single Barrels are each unique unto themselves, but we add an extra dimension in our program by showcasing our different recipes. No two barrels are ever exactly the same, so each private barrel is unique. This appeals to the modern Bourbon enthusiast who is looking for variety. When someone selects a Four Roses private barrel, they are selecting something that suits their particular taste.

 

Brent Elliot, Master Distiller at Four Roses

 

As the modern market for private barrel selects has grown, there has also been an increased interest in historic selections. A key aspect when selecting private barrel picks for modern collectors is the person that picked them. There are several highly acclaimed barrel pickers, and aficionados will be well versed on names such as LeNell's, Heinz Taubenheim, and Bill Thomas of the Jack Rose Dining Saloon. Their private barrel selections are recognised as some of America’s rarest and most sought-after whiskeys. 

 

My first barrel picks were on behalf of my first bar Bourbon, in the early 2000s, with some of the major distilleries. But most wouldn’t let me bottle at cask-strength or non-chill filtered. However in late 2006/early 2007, Drew Kulsveen over at Willett Family Estate opened up his barrel program, and it was a game-changer, especially for the breadth of barrels that Drew gave us access to, and the fact that he let us bottle the way we wanted it. It was as close to pure whiskey as you could get.

 

I ended up choosing four barrels, some of the most iconic single barrel picks in bourbon history (The Velvet Glove & The Iron Fist 23-year ryes). We were also the first ones to release our single barrels to everyone — other bars, restaurants, liquor stores — because DC laws are advantageous for that. After that, more major distilleries started to open their programs to cask-strength expressions, and at that point, we helped push the market to have higher expectations of what they wanted from their whiskey.

 

Bill Thomas, Owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon

 

Collecting Mania

The desirability of private barrel expressions is driven by their exclusivity - every single barrel selection is unique and cannot be replicated. They are often also exclusively available from one source or location, which adds to the thrill of the chase for many collectors. I asked Bill Thomas how important private barrel picks have been to both Jack Rose and their customers,

They mean everything. The present and future is single barrels. During COVID, all of the distilleries stepped up and let us purchase single barrels, and that was the turning point for Jack Rose to make it through the pandemic. To our guests, it gave them a reason to come back to us every week, just to pick up something new and spend serious money.

 

And then and now, they’ve always been great juice at great values, and attract whiskey lovers from all over the world just to try something they can’t try anywhere else.

 

Bill Thomas, Owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon

 

As private barrel selects surge in demand, there has never been a better time to explore them. The industry is changing and producers are slowly beginning to limit their single barrel programs. Legendary barrel picks from the 1990s and early 2000s are becoming much harder to get your hands on,  and represent an entirely different era of private barrel picking,  

A lot of these private single barrels of the ’80s, '90s and early 2000s is when the bourbon distillers were putting out their very best whiskey because those were the only people that were very passionate about bourbon so they would give them the very best.

 

Fred Minnick, Award-Winning Author and American Whiskey Expert

 

Back in the day, you actually went into the rickhouse with the master distiller, cracked open a barrel, extracted the bung, tasted straight from the barrel. Now, most places will pull samples in advance, or they’ll let you select from 3-5 barrels. It’s not the same. The chances of you stumbling upon the ultimate barrel are minimized.

 

The good thing is, if I’m having trouble finding a selection, some of the old school folks will still let me into the rick. You’ve always gotta be careful though — everything tastes better in a rickhouse. The magic of the setting.

 

Bill Thomas, Jack Rose Dining Saloon

 

The expansion of private barrel programs offered an affordable step into this 'exclusive' arena for consumers, opening the doors of rare bourbon to everyone. 

That small group of private parties from the 1980s has set the tone for people to be increasingly involved in the production process and created a new audience of engaged connoisseurs who know more about the product than they ever had.

 

The introduction of private barrel programs from distillers has opened this up to a diverse audience and given the customer the opportunity to escape the roll of passive consumer and transform themselves into active co-producers in the creation of these products.”

Joe Wilson, Head Curator and Spirits Specialist

 

A collection of privately selected Willett Family Estate expressions

 

As the secondary market for rare bourbon continues to grow and interest in private barrel selections is at an all time high, Whisky Auctioneer presents American Whiskey | An Enduring Fascination. Featuring over 70 rare barrel picks, I asked both Joe Wilson and Fred Minnick what they have their eyes on:

A fascinating 1903 vintage bottling of Hannis’ Mount Vernon Rye from Macy & Jenkins. The brand was an homage to the distillery operated by President George Washington. The bottler was a New York institution that survived the Dead Rabbit’s Riot and a gunpowder plot at its former Fulton Street store in 1857.

 

Every inch of this is steeped in history and the deeper you delve, the more you find. It is also the oldest private barrel bottling in the auction, is exemplary of the practice in its original form, and very much the opening chapter in our story.

 

Joe Wilson, Head Curator and Spirits Specialist

 

There’s a couple genres that are unique and hard to come by. Obviously, the Van Winkle bottles are right up there, but there’s also some Elijah Craig’s from a long time ago, there are some special Four Roses from the early 2000s, the private barrel Willetts that had gaudy ages on them. When they’re gone, they’re gone.

 

Fred Minnick, Award-Winning Author and American Whiskey Expert

 

Whisky Auctioneer regularly welcomes rare and collectible American bourbons and rye in our monthly auctions. Browse all past and present lots or contact us if you are interested in selling a bottle of rare American whiskey.