Bourbon Industry

The Spirit of Kentucky: Custom bourbon, bought by the barrel, is winning recipe for distilleries

Tolga Sevdik picked out a barrel in June for his Pittsburgh restaurants, Meat & Potatoes and Butcher and the Rye, at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort.
Tolga Sevdik picked out a barrel in June for his Pittsburgh restaurants, Meat & Potatoes and Butcher and the Rye, at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort. Herald-Leader

VERSAILLES — A few years ago, a group of friends — four couples who like travel, horses and bourbon — visited Kentucky for the races and toured a distillery.

"We noticed this plaque on the wall and asked about it," said A.J. Jattuso.

On a wall made of old barrel staves was a copper sign that said "Woodford Reserve Personal Selection," with the names of groups that had bought barrels.

Their own barrels, hand-picked, and bottled with special labels. What an idea.

"We were laughing about it at dinner that night, and said we ought to buy a barrel," Jattuso said.

The Hampton Cove Bourbon Society was born. Next thing you know, they picked out two barrels of Woodford Reserve to take home to Huntsville, Ala.

That was in 2011, and between Christmas gifts and neighborhood parties, the 45 bottles that each of them got are about gone.

This spring, they came back to pick out more barrels.

All are already Woodford fans. Asked how often he drinks it, John Beyersdorfer of Cincinnati, said, "At least once a day."

"You brush your teeth with it," teased Ted Schmidt of Huntsville.

That would be some pretty pricey mouthwash: The sticker price for Woodford Reserve's barrel selection program (you get 180 bottles) is usually about $10,000, according to Chris Morris, Woodford's master distiller.

But they get much more than just bourbon.

They get their bourbon.

And they get to be part of its story, with a tour of the distillery and lunch with Morris, who helped them sample eight different barrels of bourbon, then create a customized blend of two barrels of Woodford Reserve.

"We're going to experience these collectively," Morris said as they got started. "We're going to nose each one, then taste individually. I recommend you spit ... Because these are barrel proof. These are high-proof samples."

Everyone laughed; it seems they had no problem with that.

Then he started.

"First barrel," Morris said, taking a big sniff. "Think of the proof. It's 133 proof, but there's no heat in that. It is really mild. What character are we getting? You've got vanilla. ... And a little below the vanilla, I'm getting a lot rye spice. Leather patch ... black pepper. ... The lead dog on this is the spice character coming from the rye."

Then a taste.

"That rye is really apparent in the taste," Morris said. "But what's neat is that rye slid right into dark chocolate, right into baker's chocolate."

Under his expert guidance, the group narrowed the field and then tried them in different combinations until they found a winning pairing.

How did the Hampton Cove Bourbon Society's blend turn out?

"It's a lot different from the first time," Jattuso said. "Much smoother. It maybe doesn't have as much spice as the last barrel. Both are wonderful, but different. That's the cool part of the personal selection: It's still Woodford, but you've personalized it to your taste."

That's the goal, Morris said.

"They can blend and mix to make something better," Morris said. "You hope for something they like as much as Woodford Reserve, that's maybe just a little better."

But why? If they already like Woodford Reserve — and they drink it — why does any distillery go to the extra effort?

Because it creates enormous and valuable good will for their brands.

"We are building friends and ambassadors for Woodford Reserve," Morris said. "You're willing to invest the time and money to come, have this wonderful experience, learn how we craft and batch together Woodford Reserve — that's why we do it. It helps spread our message, our craftsmanship message. ... These people are great ambassadors for us. How can you turn down that enthusiasm?"

Bourbon societies, hipster bars, Las Vegas casino hotels, horse farms — they all want to have their own special whiskies.

Kentucky distillers will help them pick just the right barrels.

When the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville wanted to do something unique to honor the 40th anniversary of Secretariat's Triple Crown season, they brought the famed horse's owner, Penny Chenery, to Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg to select a barrel with master distiller Jim Rutledge.

Putting racing, Secretariat, the Kentucky Derby and bourbon all in one package just made sense, said Leonard Lusky, spokesman for Chenery.

"Mrs. Chenery, being an aficionado of bourbon, said that sounds like a lot of fun, to taste different recipes of bourbon, and have a special run of bottles," Lusky said. "Penny flew in, was told to sip and spit, and half the time I think she did, but there was some swallowing. It was a lot of fun."

The 3,500 commemorative bottles sold out immediately, he said, and raised a substantial sum for the Kentucky Derby Museum and the Secretariat Foundation, a nonprofit that benefits equine-related causes in racing.

Barrel selection programs have become a major marketing tool for most distilleries.

Along with Brown-Forman (Woodford's parent) and Four Roses, Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill also let bars, restaurants, liquor stores and others pick out their own barrels. And it boosts sales: Heaven Hill's barrel selection sales to bars and restaurants are on track to triple this year.

Besides the usual bar and liquor stores, there is a wide range of fans, said Amy Preske, spokeswoman for Buffalo Trace in Frankfort.

"We have a cosmetic dentist who comes every year and buys a barrel to give his customers bottles from for Christmas. We've had one guy who has brought his three sons here when they turned 21 and bought a barrel on their birthdays to commemorate it," she said "We had a group of young Internet millionaires who made their money off Google charter a private plane and buy a barrel."

Pittsburgh restaurant owner Tolga Sevdik picked his first Buffalo Trace barrel out this spring to use in barrel-aged Manhattans and as bourbon "on tap" in Meat & Potatoes and Butcher in the Rye.

"You're buying this single-barrel bourbon that's unique to you and your restaurant; no one can get it anywhere else," Sevdik said. "You can never taste this anywhere else."

Woodford takes the selection a step further than the other distilleries, Morris said. "We're the only one that lets you blend barrels."

If the copper wall is anything to go by, this has been very popular with places like the Bellagio and MGM Grand casino resorts in Las Vegas and The Edison, a Deco/industrial-chic bar in Los Angeles that uses their Woodford for a new signature cocktail each time the barrel selection changes.

"We let the customer make their own flavor, their own personal expression of Woodford Reserve," Morris said. "I think a lot of trendy bartenders and food beverage managers like that."

Now the ever-growing Hampton Cove Bourbon Society has its own spot on the copper wall, with two barrels notched in and more to come.

"We've really already got people begging to be part of the next one," Jattuso said. He is quietly planning a trip for next year. "We go through it pretty quick."

The 2013 batch was split between 10 people, so he got only 18 bottles, he said. "This time I wish I'd bought two shares instead of one. I could kick myself."

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