I was recently told by a representative of a local liquor store chain that they did not really care what goes into their private selections because they will sell out no matter what goes into the bottle. I find that other chain stores seem to have that same attitude. They seem to pick their barrels based upon the age of the offering and not the complexity of the flavors. I believe that to them, age sells so why bother with looking for the best that is offered. They are right on both counts as that people do believe that age means quality and their bottles do sell and don’t sit on the shelf. This makes me less enthused about private selections bottles from these stores.

For me, there is a criteria for purchasing a private selection of a whiskey. I thought I would talk about what I look for in a private selection.

  1. I like to know who picked the bottle. I know Chris Zaborowski at Westport Whiskey and Wine, Jason Brauner at Bourbons Bistro and Larry Rice at The Silver Dollar do their own picking and have tastes that align pretty well with what I like. It is always good to know who is picking the barrel.
  2. Look for a flavor profile that is different from the normal bottling of the whiskey. If it tastes the same as what they normally offer then why pay extra for a private selection? This is becoming harder to find as many of the distilleries are picking the barrels they offer upon their flavor profile. Ask the store for a taste before you buy if you can. Many of the stores now offer tasting rooms where you can sample before you purchase.
  3. Look for bottles picked early in the year. Most distilleries set aside barrels for their private selection program at the beginning of the year. As the year goes forward people have less to choose from in the selection process. The best barrels will often go first. However this is not always the case. A store that lets age alone determine their selection will often pass on a superior barrel because it is not the oldest offered in the selection. Another reason to taste first if you can.
  4. Talk to friends who have purchased bottles of private selection whiskey. This is another way to get a taste before you purchase a bottle.

Private selections can be an excellent purchase. The distilleries are very good at making good whiskey available for these selections so even the picks based upon age are going to be bottles of good whiskey. They do cost more so they do need to be a different flavor profile from the normal offering. When I select a barrel in the private selection programs, I look for something different. If the normal offing is spice forward, I look for fruit or caramel forward barrels. The whole idea is to pick a barrel that stands out and is different. Age can be that difference but also where it was aged in the warehouse or even the weather during fermentation can give the whiskey a different flavor than expected. You are paying extra for that bottle so it should be special.

Private selection bottles are fun to explore. It is also a good way for liquor store owners and bars to offer unique bottles and make some extra money. If you use a little forethought and effort can help make your investment in the bottle a true pleasure.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller