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A couple of years ago Jerry Rogers, the owner of Party Mart Liquor Stores at that time, decided to put together a “Bourbon Board of Directors” to pick his barrel selections for the store. Besides myself he asked Susan Reigler (co-author with me on the Bourbon Tasting Notebook) and Carla Carlton (The Bourbon Babe blog and a book soon to be released) to be on the board. Three people for the board is perfect in that it is small and manageable and an odd number to prevent ties. He agreed to pay us a small fee for our time since it can take up to 8 hours to make a selection in cases like Maker’s 46 and he values our experience and taste buds.
The three of us do have a philosophy for picking a barrel for the store. We want it to be different from the flavor profile of the brand. We want it to taste good, but we want it to be a different flavor profile than that the customer expects from the brand. That is the whole point of making a barrel selection after all. Why go to all of the trouble of doing a selection if it tastes just like the mainstream offering? In my opinion the further away you get from the main flavor profile the better the selection. Carla and Susan agree with this philosophy and we have picked some real gems for Party Mart.
When the Bourbon Board of Directors receives an assignment we take it very seriously. We want to pick a great barrel of whiskey because after all, Party Mart also puts our names on the bottle. Sometimes we go to the distillery for the selection, but we often have the samples sent to the store on Brownsboro Road and do the selection there. We have all been to distilleries many times and have all pulled whiskey from a barrel with a whiskey thief, so we do not feel the extra time needed to drive to a distillery is worth the effort. If the samples are sent to the store we often gather together to do the tasting, but there have been times when each of us have come in on our own to taste the samples and vote on our selection.
Even when gathered together, either at the store or the distillery, we will taste the samples and take notes without making comments that would influence the other members of the board. Each Board Member will then rank the samples from favorite to least favorite. After all the samples are tasted we will review our notes as a group and make the selection. In the rare case of a three way tie we look at which of the choices had the most second place votes. We usually have a winner after that scoring. It should be remembered that none of the barrel selections are going to taste bad. If they do then someone at the distillery screwed up. The real choice here is the flavor profile that is the best tasting yet further away from the normal profile. Jerry or one of his store managers will often be at the tasting but do not vote on the selection. It is all up to the Bourbon Board of Directors to pick the whiskey.
The Bourbon Board of Directors works for Party Mart. The barrels do not last too long in the store and that is the point – to sell Bourbon. Some of the barrels have not made it past the first day or so from being put on the shelf. The longest lasting have been the barrels with the most bottles like the Maker’s 46 or the Woodford Reserve since you get a full barrel with no angel’s share with these selections.
Should every store have its own Bourbon Board of Directors? In my opinion yes. The biggest problem with selection of a barrel is who is picking it. You want to keep the number down to three or at the most five people. The more people involved the more likely you will have an “average” flavor profile versus a “great” flavor profile. Keep the numbers down to a manageable group. The tasters do not need to be “super tasters” but do need to know what they like and why. Is it sweetness or spiciness or wood tones that they look for in their bourbon? They need to pick barrels that are different from the regular product so the store is not simply paying to have a label put on the normal brand. Once a team is put together I would recommend that the store sticks to it so the customer has an idea of what to expect from the bottles. Think of the team as reviewers – once the customer learns their style and the y like it, they will come back for more.
The Bourbon Board of Directors is a very good program. Jerry Rogers should be complimented on the program and its results. The next time you are in Party Mart you should look for the latest bottle and pick it up.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl