Limited-edition whiskies are fueling a large growth sector in the spirits industry— the harder it is to find a specific Bourbon the more consumers seem to want it. This has been great for producers and retailers who can get their hands on allocated labels, but it’s also caused prices to creep steadily higher and created stiff competition among buyers—both at the retail tier and in the consumer sector—as people scramble to find small-production bottlings. Partly for that reason, many retailers are now turning to private barrel offerings to get a limited-edition spirit unique to their store.
Buying an entire barrel of whiskey is a great way to offer something that no other retailer has. One barrel of whiskey can create anywhere from 150 to 250-plus 750-ml. bottles, and many distilleries offer special labels for retailers who buy a full barrel so that the exclusive selection is clearly labeled as one-of-a-kind. Off-premise operators around the country are buying into distillery private barrel programs and reaping big rewards along the way. And while Bourbon and rye are driving the trend, many retailers are now experimenting with private barrel purchases of other aged spirits too, primarily Tequila and rum.
“The single barrel program at Frugal MacDoogal has been a huge success,” says store founder and owner Charles Sonnenberg. With its location in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, Frugal MacDoogal moves a big amount of American whiskey, and private barrel offerings are a major draw. Sonnenberg says the store averages 20 private barrel labels at any given time, led by Bourbon but also including rum and brandy. The special bottles retail anywhere from $45-$150 a 750-ml.—and are usually priced about $10 more per bottle than a standard label from the same distillery—and most sell out in about three months, but some big-name labels go much faster.
“Usually, our private barrels sell out in less than 90 days, but we’ve had several picks sell out in less than five days and a handful have sold out in less than a full day,” Sonnenberg explains, adding that the private barrel offerings are sold primarily in-store but are sometimes also listed online. “Consumer demand for store picks has fluctuated over the last three to four years, but a store like ours in a market like Nashville will always have a demand for single barrels. Our single barrel program creates a lot of energy and excitement in the market for both the staff whose job it is to select and promote them, as well as for the single barrel Bourbon fan who’s always looking for the next special bottle.” Some of Frugal MacDoogal’s recent offerings have included store-picked barrels of Bulleit Bourbon ($60 a 750-ml.), Cardinal Spirits High Rye Bourbon ($70), Nashville Barrel Co. rye ($80-$90), and Starlight Distillery Bourbons finished in Armagnac and triple sec barrels ($80-$82). Beyond American whiskey, the store has also purchased entire barrels of Rolling Fork Single Cask rum ($80) and Nashville Barrel Co.’s Barrel Aged Agave spirit ($67).
When making single barrel picks, Frugal MacDoogal often sends staff members to nearby distilleries to taste through several options. The visits can take hours and once a barrel is selected it often takes upwards of six months to receive the final bottled product. In 2021 and 2022 combined, Frugal MacDoogal’s team made 36 trips to 20 different distilleries in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana. Usually it’s only store employees who are involved in the barrel selection process, but Sonnenberg says sometimes they do invite customers with “trusted palates” to take part, and he adds that his team has discussed creating more opportunities for consumers who are interested in the experience.
Selecting a single barrel isn’t easy. The tasters are usually presented with three or four barrels and they have to consider a lot of factors, from taste and aroma to the level of oak and the mouthfeel on the palate. Alcohol content is also important, as single barrels aren’t blended to achieve a standard proof-level, so some barrels have a higher alcohol content than others. Cost comes into play too, as most full barrels of whiskey range from $6,500-$10,000, though some run upwards of $13,000 each.
“It’s a fascinating process,” Sonnenberg says. “Like a lot of stores, we pursue brands we know people enjoy the most, but we’re also known for offering single barrels that might be a little out of the box. Bourbon lovers are passionate. A program like ours, with as fast as it moves, allows us the opportunity to keep our name in front of people and to meet a lot of interesting people in our community.”
For many retailers, private barrel selections are a significant investment that net a significant return. The Pascale’s portfolio of three beverage stores in greater Syracuse, New York has a robust private barrel program. Pascale’s Liquors in Liverpool, New York generally offers four to five private barrel whiskies at any given time, averaging roughly 20 per year; this year was the first time the store also added a Tequila and rum, both of which did well. The private barrel offerings generally range from $35-$135 a 750-ml. bottle, and most sell out in two or three months. General manager Nick Pascale says private barrel labels like his Elijah Craig 94 proof sell out in about ten weeks, which is about three times faster than the standard Elijah Craig label, but specialties like Old Forester Barrel Proof Single Barrel can be completely depleted during pre-sale before they even hit store shelves.
“Barrels are some of the largest investments we make on the liquor side of our operation, so we make sure to pick barrels that exceed the value of the price on the shelf,” Pascale says. “The benefit is really the velocity at which they sell. Bourbon is still the best category for us in terms of barrels and the brands that do best are usually high-proof, limited offerings by Old Forester, Russell’s Reserve, and King’s County. We were lucky enough to acquire a Buffalo Trace barrel this year that, based on the name, sold out almost instantly.”
Pascale’s assistant manager Peter Slisz says the store’s team visited nine Kentucky distilleries in 2023, plus three or four local distilleries. Slisz looks for a quality level that exceeds price, and of course unique flavor profiles, when selecting private barrel spirits. “The biggest benefit is getting customers in the door,” Slisz adds. “If we’re the only store in town where they can get a certain product, they’re more likely to drive to us. And typically, when they’re here, they purchase more than just the single barrel product we’re offering.”
Pascale’s has been selling single barrel spirits for about five years, and Pascale adds that the program is something he hopes to continue. Though he notes that finding worthy barrels has become increasingly difficult as competition increases. Now, many distilleries sell their own private barrel expressions and more stores and restaurants are buying into the programs, creating a tougher market. “The opportunity to buy barrels is still massive, as many more companies have started offering single barrel programs, but the price-to-quality ratio often doesn’t match our criteria,” Pascale notes. “As long as we’re able to find good barrels at good values, we’ll continue the program.”
Purav Patel, the owner and general partner of Village Liquor in Houston, is equally selective in his private barrel picks. His group of four stores offers a handful of private barrel spirits at any given time, focusing on whiskies but also often including agave spirits. Patel says consumer demand is strong and that much of his private label stock sells quickly. Recent offerings have included a Jack Daniel’s Barrel Proof Single Barrel, complete with a special Village Liquor plaque ($68 a 750-ml.), and special bottlings by Oak & Eden ($60), Heaven’s Door ($58), and Desert Door sotol ($60).
The Village Liquor team usually does its barrel tastings in Texas, choosing to have distilleries send samples directly to the company instead of making distillery trips. Patel says that many times the distilleries will send a representative out with their spirits selection to guide the team through the process. His employees who participate in the selection generally look for a flavor profile that reflects the spirit’s category and specific brand but also includes something different from the regular core product, whether that be a particular taste, aroma, or something else entirely.
“Barrel picks offer us a way to create and sell something unique that can only be found in our locations,” Patel says. “Barrel picks are here to stay but I think their growth will slow. Early on, barrel picks were always superior to the core product and only a handful of brands offered them. Now that consumer demand is strong, many more brands have barrel picks, but the quality of those picks are not necessarily better and consumers are starting to notice. We only do barrel picks when we feel our pick is better than the core label.”
It’s true that a wide array of whisk(e)y brands big and small now give retailers the chance to buy a full barrel of their spirit and label it as an in-store exclusive. And off-premise operators around the country are taking advantage of these programs. In Colorado, Molly’s Spirits gets as many as 50 private barrel selections annually, and the set of two stores has a whiskey subscription program, through which shoppers can receive one bottle of a store exclusive private barrel pick monthly for $60. Meanwhile, in suburban Los Angeles, the five-unit Mission Wine & Spirits boasts a full roster of private barrel American whiskeys, as well as several exclusive barrel bottlings of Scotch, rum, and Tequila, and in Chicago, Warehouse Liquors lists roughly 25 store-picked spirits, including Bourbon and rye, Scotch, Irish whiskey, and rum.
In Bourbon country, private barrel labels have become a necessity for many retailers looking to attract the area’s knowledgeable whiskey tourists and local fanatics. Justins’ House of Bourbon in Lexington, Kentucky makes a huge commitment to barrel picks, stocking as many as 150 exclusive labels a year and showcasing anywhere from ten to 20 at any given time. “Our private barrel program is booming,” says Justins’ whiskey historian Caroline Paulus. “We’ve really become known for them. Our private barrel labels usually sell out within a month. It’s a fun way to get a whiskey you won’t find anywhere else.”
Paulus adds that at Justins’, the staff aims to find whiskeys that taste great to both the store’s experienced staff members and to shoppers who visit from out of town and have less experience with Bourbon. She points to labels from heritage distilleries like Old Forester, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, and Willett as being a big attraction for whiskey drinkers and notes that sometimes the store has a line around the block on the day it releases a private barrel offering from one of those producers. Though she adds that smaller craft Bourbons by New Riff, Rebel, NuLu, and Barrell Craft are also important to the private barrel program (Justins’ private barrel offerings range from $50-$300 a 750-ml., on average).
“Because we’ve become a tourist destination on the Bourbon Trail, this gives visitors a chance to get a bottle they would never find in their hometown as a souvenir of their trip,” Paulus says. “Our pick program will certainly hold steady above 100 barrels a year and it will always be a central focus for our shop. We’ve found that barrel picks are the perfect intersection of rarity and affordability.”
The notion of scarcity among whiskies is fueling the private barrel trend. For Wally’s Wine & Spirits, with locations in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, California, and Las Vegas, private barrel selections oftentimes require more consumer education, but the effort is worth the reward. Wally’s spirits buyer Daniel Franks says the company usually stocks about 12 offerings a year, spanning from whiskies by WhistlePig, Old Weller, and Great King Street to Gosling’s rum ($55-$225 a 750-ml.). Wally’s is a hybrid retail store and restaurant, and the exclusive barrel labels to do well in both formats.
“More than anything, we want a barrel that’s true to the flavor profile the distillery is known for, but with additional complexity and depth that allows us to showcase their full artistry,” Franks says. “Whiskey set the tone for private barrel programs, but it’s becoming popular for all types of spirits. Personalization is a huge benefit to the modern-day consumer, so the more opportunity we have to do this, the better. It’s a great opportunity to build brand partnerships, foster unique marketing avenues, and reinforce the message that our customers will always find something special at our store.”