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Private barrel selections bring exclusive booze to T-Town



Private barrel Four Roses bourbon, bottled exclusively for Pub W in Tulsa.

Greg Bollinger

When it’s time to pick the single barrel of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey that will be yours and yours alone, sitting across the table from you in Lynchburg, Tennessee, will likely be Randall Fanning. He’s been at the distillery for more than 40 years, and now his main job is tasting single-barrel selections with prospective customers. Choose the one you like best, and within a few months, you’ll have about three-dozen cases of whiskey on a pallet at your bar, restaurant or liquor store.  

“When we first started the program, we were afraid we wouldn’t sell enough barrels to make the program worthwhile,” Fanning said. “In 2019, we’re on track to sell more than 10,000 barrels.” 

Seems it worked out. 

If you’re a whiskey fan and your only experience of Jack Daniel’s is Old No. 7, you owe it to yourself to try the single-barrel whiskey and rye selections. They are widely available in bars and restaurants, but those aren’t the barrels Fanning sells. His task is to choose three barrels that have passed the panel of masters’ selection process and are eligible for private stock sales. 

“Forty percent of our single barrels are rejected by the panel,” Fanning said. “They will be sent back to the warehouse and they become mingling barrels for Old No. 7.”

Hal Smith Restaurant Group (HSRG) is one of the customers who buys the private single barrels from Jack Daniels. Rachel Custer, the group’s beverage director for Tulsa, said the Jack Daniel’s single barrels are divided between Smitty’s Garage and Pub W. 

“As with any single barrel program, the allure to customers is in the exclusivity,” Custer said. “These are whiskies that we have hand selected for our guests, lovingly curated to be the best expressions of the season.”

A few distillers, like Maker’s Mark, will actually allow some customization in the process. Customers use “flavored” staves to change the taste of the final product, but most distillers simply allow customers to choose a favorite barrel from among a designated number of selections.

“Am I going to tell the master distillers along the Bourbon Trail that I know their product better than them?” Custer asked. 

“God no! These whiskies offer a singular experience, and one which we think is the most unique and best offering.”

HSRG also features single-barrel bourbons from Four Roses, which, although known for being a very popular well spirit, also makes outstanding higher tier products. 

“I always recommend trying them that way first,” Custer said. “Then add a couple drops of water, and finally an ice cube or a little more water. The water separates, or opens up, the liquor and creates more room for your nose and tongue to pick up more subtle flavors. Tasting should be a multi-step experience.”

Aaron Post, owner of Valkyrie, calls himself an equal opportunity taster. “Drink it like you like it,” he said. “Just make sure you use high quality ice so as not to negatively impact the taste of the whiskey.”

Valkyrie currently has a single barrel of Elijah Craig on the back bar, but a new barrel of Knob Creek Rye will be arriving late this year. “I think we’re the first in the state to do a private selection rye,” Post said. “I like the different expressions you get from rye.”

Valkyrie makes some of their stock available for local retailers, as well, including Ranch Acres and Old Village Wine and Spirits. “We like to offer it to guests as a kind of personalized experience,” Post said. “We choose the barrel based on our tastes. It’s a reflection of what we’re excited about.”

Fassler Hall, McNellie’s downtown, The Tavern and Bull in the Alley have selections from Woodford, Eagle Rare and 1792 on the back bar, according to Brian Fontaine, VP at the McNellie’s Group.

“We might be a little biased, but our McNellie’s Group barrel whiskeys are fantastic,” Fontaine said. “We send passionate managers down to taste, blend and purchase barrels of whiskey from several of the distilleries that offer this program. The trips offer our employees a one-of-a-kind learning opportunity. The distilleries of Kentucky are national treasures, so it’s pretty cool to taste whiskey right out of the barrel in the warehouses.”

As for how to drink it, Fontain offers the following advice: “I learned from Elliott Nelson that you drink Old Fashioneds before dinner, and then on the rocks after dinner.” 

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