Wild Turkey 8 Year 101 Bourbon review
My Opinion: Barrel Picks Are Great, But The Process Is Flawed
Why Would I Say Such A Blasphemous Thing?
Barrel picks are awesome: a cool way to experience variation in a whiskey you may have had before, support a distillery / store, try something new, and more. I enjoy doing picks myself and have also bought some incredible ones (e.g., Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, Widow Jane 12 Year, Woodinville Cask Strength Bourbon).
But I’ve noticed a problem: the process is flawed because it’s almost completely dependent on the distillery picking and offering a limited number of samples to select (usually 3-5, with Four Roses being the exception with 10).
While it makes sense that the distillery picks the barrels to offer (it is their product after all), ultimately you can only pick the best barrel that is offered (keyword on offered). This is unless you’re one of the few people with enough clout to have the freedom to wander around rickhouses and pick anything you want. Maker’s Mark is the exception since you pick staves to create a certain profile, not the barrel itself.
Before I go any further, I want to clear up a few things. I’m not writing this to attack or criticize anyone. Barrel picks are fantastic and I’m excited that distilleries offer them, but this topic has bugged me ever since I started doing them. This is for understanding and discussion’s sake, and to offer my thoughts on how distilleries might be able to improve the process and experience.
This is a longer read, so buckle up.
As an FYI, I bought and use these Glencairn glasses for my reviews and comparisons (because they’re the best): Glencairn Crystal Whiskey Glass, Set of 6, Clear, 6 Pack. Full transparency, this is an affiliate link, so I may earn a commission if you buy this or something else from Amazon.
What Is The Process & Why Is There A Problem?
Here’s the general barrel picking process, regardless of whether it’s done in person at the distillery or not.
1. Distillery gathers samples from rickhouses and provides them in the agreed-upon format
2. Group gets the samples and pour them into glasses. Chat with the company rep who talks about the company, the whiskey, and potentially the samples.
- 3. Smell and taste samples, discuss.
- 4. Discuss what’s good / not good about each sample, and take out barrels that aren’t “worthy” of being picked
- 5. Smell and taste some more
- 6. Decide what to pick / not pick
- 7. be happy because barrel picks are fun
- I bolded step 1 because sample selection affects every other step of the process. As much as it makes sense that pickers depend on the distillery to select samples and use their own skills to select what’s best, the barrel pick can only be as good as the best one offered, making it a massive dependency.
Distilleries may have their own internal process for choosing barrels for picks, but you as the picker likely have little to no idea how the barrels were picked, so for better or worse you’re mostly stuck with them unless the distillery / salesperson is willing to bring you more. Going forward, I’m also going to be using “worthy” in quotations because I recognize that everyone’s interpretation of worthy may be different.
So here are the possible outcomes of a barrel pick, and I’ll highlight the issues with some of them.
- Only one barrel is “worthy” and all the others are not
- There are multiple “worthy” barrels to consider and you can pick the right one (or even multiple)
None are to the group’s liking so nothing is picked (yet)
This is not a great outcome because you have to wait even longer for the distillery and/or salesperson to get more samples. It’s not a bad outcome in the sense that the group is being discerning and turning away “unworthy” barrels, but it’s a bad use of time to have to repeat the entire process again…well at least trying them again is fun.
While I guess part of the task is filtering out the “bad barrels”, I think the ideal experience should focus more on deciding between multiple “worthy” barrels, what makes them different, and ultimately which one is the best in that moment. In my experience so far, there are not enough opportunities to discuss multiple good options versus having to take the one only good one you have.
How Do We Make It Better?
Because the core issue is having too many “unworthy” barrels to sift through before actually picking something “worthy”, I think the ideal solution focuses on getting more “worthy” samples in front of pickers. For better or worse, whiskey is very subjective so we’re not all going to agree on what’s “good” and “worthy”. Nonetheless, I have a few ideas to improve the process and experience.
Distilleries Provide More Samples
– Pro: Sort of addresses the underlying issue by increasing the chance for more “worthy” barrels
– Con: More work for a distillery to get more samples, with no guarantee that the incremental barrels will be better. May also lead to greater sensory fatigue for pickers, making it difficult to effectively evaluate all the extra samples. I know my palate gets tired after 3-4, so rolling out 6+ samples might actually defeat me.
– Verdict: Probably not worth trying yet, but there’s a reason why Four Roses provides 10 samples.
Bring your own barrel pick / batched version as reference and sanity check
Distillery does an OPTIONAL quality check before finalizing the sample set
Barrel picks will always heavily rely on the distillery, but the process can still be improved. For those picking, bringing another pick or batched version could be a useful sanity check. For distilleries, testing out an initial barrel quality check process could make barrel picks even better. I’m basing this recommendation on the huge assumption that distilleries don’t do this already prior to providing samples, but I don’t think that they do given some of the samples I’ve tasted.
The beauty of that quality check is that many distilleries can use their existing in-house single barrel selection process to do that, and it should be easy enough to discontinue if it doesn’t work out. There are no new and expensive facilities, warehouses, or machinery to buy. It may take more people-time to collect and try samples, but I hope that there is way to make it more efficient.
Regardless, the opportunity is there to try it, get feedback, and decide what to do after that. I don’t know if anyone will seriously consider my recommendation, but it’s worth a shot because a lot of barrel picks are being done now and it only continues to grow, so any meaningful change could make a big difference.
Thanks for reading!
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