Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Retailer Bottlings

Retailer whiskey picks are big these days.  Whiskey companies allow retailers to select their own barrel of whiskey and the retailers can then advertise them as a special, one of a kind release.  But how different are retailer picks from the distillery standard offerings?  That will depend on the offering and the retailer. Sometimes, retailers can pick a single barrel of a product that is not usually single barrel; picks like that can have a substantially different flavor from the regular whiskey which is the product of many barrels blended together.  But what about a retailer pick of a single barrel product?

I recently participated in a blind tasting of eight bottles of Wild Turkey's Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon from various retailers as well as a regular non-retailer bottle.  The retailer bottles included three offerings from K&L in California, two from Liquor Barn, one from Westport Whiskey and one from Cox's Liquor Barrel, the latter three of which are in Kentucky. As with the standard offering, all of these were 55% abv.  The cost was similar to the regular edition and all were non age statement bourbons.

The result was that most of them were pretty similar.  I liked a few better than the standard offering and a few worse (and of course, the standard offering will vary from bottle to bottle, since it is a single barrel). None of them were bad, but many were boring and they ran too hot, even with water. Most of them had the same profile which I suppose is a credit to Wild Turkey in keeping them consistent; there was only one that was off the profile, with many more herbal notes.

My favorites of the nine was Barrel 24 from Westport Whiskey followed closely by Barrel 19 from K&L.  I've rated all of them on the LA Whiskey Society page. As you can see, the ratings all ranged from B- to B+.

What does this tell us about retailer picks?  Well, in this case, they weren't that different from each other or the standard offering.  At least in some cases, retailer bottlings may constitute a distinction without a difference.


NewYorkJosh said...

An interesting question. You'd want your store pick barrel to be a good selection. But you'd also want it to clearly represent the style of the expression and brand on the label. I'm not surprised at this result. It also help explain why.Four Roses sells their OB single barrel at 50% abv. and the store picked single barrel selections have the option of bottling at barrel proof. That's a real distinction. Sounds like a fun evening in any case.

sku said...

Excellent point Josh. With the Four Roses Single Barre bottlings, the retailer can both pick a different recipe and a different proof from the standard Four Roses Single Barrel.

The Russell's Reserve is interesting to me because there is no variation in proof or recipe from the standard offering. It's just a question of how well a retailer can cherry pick a barrel.

Anonymous said...

On a different point, I was impressed by your honesty as to this review, and the one on Cut Spike. Good job, since I know that it can be hard to say something that you know will disappoint someone you like personally.

Josh said...

Sounds like a fun event, and I’m with you on barrel 19 being the best of the K&L barrels (19 -> 14 ->13 for me). I completely agree with you that a shop’s SB needs to be a good representation of the brand they’re selecting from and comparable to the quality that is released in the brand’s own SB offering, but often you don’t know that aspect until after you’ve purchased it because not all shops will let you “try before you buy”. So how do you go about considering a shop’s SB over the standard issue? For me it comes down to 2 main things, but I’d love to know what goes through your mind when staring at the shelf and weighing your options.

#1 Do I know, and trust, the spirits buyer and their palate? The guys at K&L know their stuff and have yet to steer me wrong. They consistently pick out really great barrels so I'm wiling to get their shop SB offerings over the standard ones because I know they do their best to get quality barrels.

#2 Supporting the retailers I like. The shop's SB is typically more than the standard SB offering, but I also know that if they went to the distillery themselves to select the barrels there is an increased expense that went into acquiring those bottles sitting on the shelf. I also know that as a business they need to recoup at least some of that expense and if the shop hires great people who go out of their way to get great barrels I don’t mind paying a little more to support that.

So would I take a chance on a higher priced single barrel that was "selected exclusively for BevMo"? Nope. I don't know anything about it and I don't feel that “shop loyalty” to Bevmo. Will I take a chance on any single Barrel K&L rolls out? Yup, but that's also because I know if I ever was disappointed with one of their picks they'd let me exchange it or work something out, which goes back to supporting good shops.

Apologies for the long comment. I got on a track and just kept going, but I am interested in knowing what you consider when choosing a retailer’s SB over a standard issue SB.

sku said...

I think you hit the nail on the head Josh. Retailers like K&L, Party Source and Binny's have a proven track record, and I trust their judgment.

Having done this blind tasting, the other thing I think I would consider in the future is how different is the retailer bottling than the standard. As noted above by Joshua Feldman, Four Roses retailer bottlings differ in both proof and recipe. These Russell's were at the other end of the spectrum in that there is really nothing that distinguishes them from the regular release except for the particular barrel the retailer picked.

Shane Campbell said...

I'm lucky to live near Louisville and regularly buy whiskey from Westport Whiskey and Wine. I have a bottle of barrel #24 which was your preferred as well as two others, #23 & #57. While I agree that 23/24 taste similar, wow #57 is a pecan nut bomb that tastes nothing like the others. Recommend you get Chris to send you a bottle. Thanks for what you do, Cheers! Shane

Chris said...

We work hard to pick single barrels that we feel show the "parentage" of the distillery, yet have their own personality. We are glad that you found our #24 to be worthy of a mention. Thanks. #singlebarrelbourbon