With the ever-growing popularity of bourbon, especially over the last 15 years, has come a scarcity of sought-after bottles such as Pappy Van Winkle, W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, and William Heavenhill, amongst others. As a result, the increasing demand and the swallowing up of the supply of these and other bottles have led bourbon drinkers, consumers, and flippers (people who buy allocated bottles of bourbon at retail price from a liquor store or distillery and sell them on the secondary market for substantially more) to look elsewhere for other bottles that may be considered a “unicorn.”
That “unicorn” has come in the form of “barrel picks.”
What is a Barrel Pick?
A barrel pick is a group of bottles (usually between 100 and 250) that come from a single cask/barrel that a bar/restaurant, retail liquor store, group, or individual purchase and sell at an exclusive offering.
Why are Barrel Picks Popular?
Part of the reason barrel picks has become popular comes from the rise of single-barrel and small batch whiskeys dating back to the 1980s that ultimately ushered in the Bourbon Renaissance.
Bourbon’s Decline & Rebound
For those unfamiliar with the history of bourbon, following its initial peak of popularity in 1964 — which led the United States Congress to designate bourbon as a “distinctive product” of the United States through H. Con. Res. 57, sales slowly declined due in part to the younger generations favoring vodka and gin as the preferred spirit. With distilleries shutting down and bourbon all but left for dead by the early 80s, single barrel and small batch whiskeys were introduced by the George T. Stagg Distillery (currently known as Buffalo Trace) and Jim Beam respectively to give the spirit its jump-start (and it did). Barrel picks became a seamless extension of that.
Are Barrel Picks Worth the Price?
While barrel picks have become a great business move to foster relationships between the distillery and the bourbon-buying consumers when they can’t get bottles like Pappy Van Winkle, Old Fitzgerald, and others, over the last couple of years, the continued demand has led to retailers and bars buying up the supply and charging more to the public, especially to whiskey social groups such as the Palm Beach Bourbon Society.
Ultimately, the consumer pays the price literally for a bottle of bourbon that shouldn’t be going for hundreds of dollars in the marketplace. Barrel picks are no longer as plentiful as they once were. And when you’re able to pick up a barrel pick, the quality and experience of sipping the bourbon don’t justify the high price compared to what’s regularly available in the stores.
For example, Woodford Reserve produces its Double Oaked Bourbon, that’s a blended release, but also does barrel (or store) picks of it as well to certain retail stores. The price may range from $10 to $30 more than the regularly produced Double Oaked. However, there is no guarantee those bottles coming from that barrel will be any different, let alone unique, for any drinker to say is extraordinary.
As the market continues to be a boon for bourbon, the likelihood that you will be disappointed with purchasing a barrel pick has become more likely. More frequently, we see on online retail websites as well as in local retail liquor stores, barrel pick bottles going for $75, 80, or $100, whereas not too long ago, they were going for $50 to $60.
Ultimately, the skyrocketing costs of bourbon, let alone barrel picks, will hurt the market due to consumers growing fed up and moving on to other whiskeys, spirits, and other types of alcoholic drinks. With no regulation in place to control these costs due to the demand, it’s a matter of when not if, people tire of spending a small fortune on one bottle from a store or one pour from a bar, and turn their back on an industry that needs those dollars to thrive and survive.