A bottle of Red Hook Rye recently sold at auction for $43,750. I was with LaNell Camacho Santa Ana when she picked the first two barrels of Red Hook Rye for her store in Brooklyn, New York. It was a team of tasters that included LaNell, myself, John and Linda Lipman and a couple of other friends of hers who she thought had good tasting skills. Drew Kulsveen took us into the warehouse where he had barrels of twenty-plus year old rye whiskey that were consolidated barrels they had purchased from the United Distillers barrels. The whiskey was rye whiskey made for the Cream of Kentucky brand in the 1980s. Our goal was to pick a couple of excellent whiskeys to be bottled for the label LaNell had created for her store. We succeeded with that goal.
In this modern world, many liquor stores purchase private selection single barrels. The selection of barrels is much more limited today than it was when we picked these barrels, but there are still good barrels to be offered. One reason there will probably be very few barrels of that quality picked today is the people choosing the barrels. So many of the big liquor stores have the attitude of “it does not matter what we pick because they will always sell”. They pick their barrels using people who have never tasted whiskey for this purpose and tend to get whiskey that tastes just like the brand they are going to bottle. There is nothing wrong with that philosophy, but it does not lead to extraordinary bottles such as the Red Hook Rye. This means that there is not going to be that extraordinary bottling that people are willing to pay extraordinary prices for in the secondary market.
When we picked the Red Hook Rye, we were looking for a whiskey that had a complex flavor other than just oak. We wanted notes of fruit and spice, sweet caramel and maybe a note of wood tannins, but not dominated by the oak. These barrels fit this bill. LaNell had Willett Distillery bottle the barrels at barrel strength with minimum filtration – just enough to catch the larger lumps of charcoal from the barrel. It was as close to the flavor we tasted that day as possible.
Today, the closest I have experienced to barrels of that quality I have tasted come from Westport Whiskey & Wine barrel picks. Chris Zaborowski, the owner of the store, has an excellent palate. He also picks people who also have excellent palates to help pick the barrels. He also limits the number of people who are helping with the pick. To me, the perfect number is no more than five people. An odd number of people so there will be a clear favorite without ties when they vote for a favorite barrel. The tasters should be looking for characteristics that make the barrel good, but different. Barrel selections are limited to what the distillery has to offer the store, but there are good barrels on offer.
Unfortunately, the days of going in the warehouse and picking the barrels to taste are long gone. The distilleries are keeping the excellent barrels for themselves and picking barrels for their single barrel program that are similar in taste to the brand they bottle.The demand for barrels has increased in the last two decades and the old barrels like we had to pick from are a thing of the past.
There are going to be excellent barrels of whiskey picked for private selection single barrels in the future, but the Red Hook Rye experience is not likely to be repeated in the near future. A legendary bottle does not have to be over twenty years old. As long as the emphasis is on the taste, bottles of whiskey can become exceptional. A good selection group can make this happen and pick whiskey that is a step above the normal bottles of store picks.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller