Kentucky’s Private Barrel Whiskey Scene Gets a Makeover

Kentucky whiskey fans need not fear—private barrel picks from the state’s distilleries are here to stay. Earlier this year, the practice of having retailers, restaurateurs, bars, and clubs select their own special barrels from Kentucky distilleries suddenly came under scrutiny, as the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board ruled that the practice had no statutory authorization—meaning it wasn’t clear that private barrel selections were entirely legal.

Of course, Kentucky distillers had been running private barrel programs for years—some of them for decades—and in recent years private barrel selections have become a hot item at retail. So when this issue was called into question, the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) sprang into action. Ultimately the group worked with state lawmakers to draw up new legislation—HB 500—that not only made private barrel programs fully legal, but also enhanced their role.

Jimmy and Eddie Russell are looking forward to selling up to 30% of Wild Turkey’s private barrel whiskeys through the visitor center, thanks to HB 500.

Distillery Exclusives

So what exactly does the new law mean for private barrel selections? Aside from ensuring that they’re here to stay, there will be far more availability at the distilleries themselves. “In the past, whether you sold to individuals, companies, bourbon clubs, or whomever else, you always had to go through a retailer,” says Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell. “Now we can sell up to 30% of our private barrel whiskeys through our visitor center.” (No bottles were permitted for sale in the distillery shops before, so this move marks the first time this is actually codified.)

Wild Turkey debuted private barrel sales in 2013, and the program has since expanded by leaps and bounds. In its first year, the distillery sold a mere 50 barrels, exclusively to Kentucky retailers. More recently, Russell has limited sales to around 600 barrels a year, with allocations going to different states. He’s quick to note that the limit isn’t about lack of supply. “In the last five years, we’ve reached a point where we can sell as many private barrels as we want,” he explains. “So it’s about trying to keep this a unique thing. In the beginning, anybody who wanted a barrel could get one, or two, or three. But now it’s about partnering with the right people to keep the program special.”

At New Riff Distilling, founder Ken Lewis enthuses about how the new law will change the landscape for Kentucky whiskey lovers. “It enables exclusive sales at our gift shops, meaning these are small production, individual items that don’t have to go out to anyone else—that we have the legal right to sell just in our gift shop,” says Lewis. “The whole point there is to create a treasure hunt for individuals. It’s going to dramatically draw people in for tourism, which is another extremely important part of this very prescient, far-reaching piece of legislation.” New Riff, founded in 2014, has been a trendsetter in private barrel sales, which have become a big part of its success. Lewis expects double-digit growth going forward, and he’s already looking at ways to expand the program to include more single barrels and half barrels for gift shop sales.

A trendsetter in private barrel sales, New Riff’s founder Ken Lewis (pictured) is enthused that single barrel selects are here to stay.

Added Experiences

There’s even more reason for single barrel fans to celebrate HB 500, as the law legalized satellite tasting rooms, where distilleries can offer samples, bottles, and cocktails. Barrel-aged and batched cocktails, too, are mentioned within the new legislation; previously this practice, though fairly common, was not specifically authorized at distilleries.

In New Riff’s case, the current distillery experiences will remain. “We prefer that the consumer group or bourbon club come to the distillery, to our production campus, which is not ordinarily open to the public,” says Lewis. “We give them an extensive tour, and it’s a couple-hour experience that bonds them to the brand, and it’s no longer just a business transaction.” In the future, Lewis wants to shorten the turnaround time of bottling individual barrels after groups pick them out, to the point where it’s a one-day turnaround.

Maker’s Mark is a longtime player in private barrels whose team is also thrilled by the passage of HB 500, especially as it pertains to visitors. The Maker’s program is cherished because its participants get wide access to the entire production process. “We host some amazing account partners who get to come down to the distillery and physically create their perfect version of Maker’s Mark—it’s not just picking a barrel, which is incredibly cool on its own, but it’s taking that experience even further and letting these folks come and create their own whiskey,” says senior manager of private selection Rachel Harb. “They learn about the wood and what it does to the whiskey, and they come up with their own unique recipe.”

Then there are others who have a different take on the private barrel experience. Woodford Reserve, which has been fine-tuning its private barrel program since 2003 (making it one of the longest-running in Kentucky) batches two barrels together for every private barrel whiskey. “A customer will come and taste a number of single barrels with myself or assistant master distiller Elizabeth McCall, and then once we understand the flavors of those individual barrels—they’re coming from different production dates, warehouses, etc.—then we can combine them in two barrel combinations, which is the smallest batch possible,” says master distiller Chris Morris. From there, customers pick one of the two barrels for bottling. Woodford’s program originally covered bourbon only, but has since grown to include private barrels of Double Oaked and rye. Because of sky-high demand, the Woodford program is occasionally forced into a hiatus, though the distillery is now making around 2,000 private barrel whiskeys a year.

Excitement Ahead

The new law hasn’t moved the needle much yet for Rabbit Hole Distilling, which came out with its first private barrel whiskeys last July. But founder Kaveh Zamanian foresees a major impact from HB 500 on Kentucky as a whole. “The most important thing for me is to see the law’s impact in terms of being able to bring more attention to Kentucky bourbon, extend much-needed tourism dollars, and allow parity—with wine, for example,” he says. “This law definitely allows bourbon to be a little bit more like Napa, and reach a wider consumer base. It’s going to take time, but the news will get out, and people will have this option to go deeper in terms of interaction with their favorite distilleries.”

While private barrel whiskeys might not necessarily become easier to find—distillers will still like keeping them fairly exclusive—HB 500 has assured they’re being permanently etched into the scene. And perhaps equally importantly, it has made a visit to Kentucky an even sweeter proposition for us all.

More From News