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I want to start out with by admitting that I am no expert on barrel picks. I don’t know what happens after you’ve picked the winner and decided that’s the one you want (How do you pay? How is it delivered to your store?). I
have been involved with three on-site barrel picks and 10 barrel picks that were done via samples sent to a liquor store. I am writing this purely as a person who carefully observes what they see about a process and dissects what makes it good and bad.
But if you do get the chance to participate in the magical event of a barrel pick (and yes, it truly is magical) then I have compiled a couple of things for you to consider.
And if you are leading the barrel pick, I also have a suggestion for getting the most honest opinions out of your helpers.
How to Get Invited
Before I get into how a barrel pick goes, the one piece of advice I have on how to get invited to a barrel pick in the first place (after finding a person/store who gets to do store picks in the first place, of course) is to establish a repertoire of what your personal tastes are.
Anyone can approach a store owner and tell them that they love BTAC or Pappy releases, but the store owner probably wants to know what your preferences are on everyday bourbons and across all brands.
This way, they get to know your baseline with how you experience whiskey and how well you can dissect them. Store owners aren’t usually looking for someone who will just pick a whiskey based on if it’s good or bad, but they want someone who has given their whiskey some thought.
Then again, I have seen plenty of guys go on picks who only declare that they like it or they don’t!
The first rule of the barrel pick is that there is always a leader. Whether or not it is the person who is going to shell out the money at the end of the day or the person who leads a group that is buying for a much bigger group, there is usually always a leader.
That person gets the final say. Even if everyone else in the tasting party likes a particular barrel and the leader picks a different barrel, don’t hound them to reconsider.
It is their money and they usually know what’s best (especially if it’s for a business). I have heard of stories of heated arguments where a non-leader is arguing with the leader about which barrel should be picked.
This is a great way to never get invited to another pick!
Prepare Yourself for the Day of the Pick
With the first rule out of the way, let’s focus on what you can do as a participant. First of all, you should prepare yourself for the day of the pick.
This means hydration in the days before a pick. Having dinner the day before and breakfast the day of are other “musts” of a pick. Also, bring along some snacks and water.
Even if you’re a person who doesn’t eat breakfast (or lunch), you should on this day. And I emphasize the snacks part because even if you and the group have a plan to stop for a meal before or after, plans have a tendency to change especially when travel or drinking come into play. Barrel picks are not a frat boy party, so you don’t want to get hammered and show your ass.
There is always the long-standing issue of “do I drink before I do the barrel pick?” that is an issue of personal preference. Personally, I think that a “warm up” pour (maybe 1/4 to 1/2 ounce) is appropriate to get your senses warmed up.
Some heavier drinkers will find this to be a necessity, and that’s okay. But my one word of advice is to try and “warm up” with a whiskey that is similar to the one you’re going to pick that day.
And if you can’t do that (maybe it’s a new release), then at least don’t drink over the proof that you’re going to be trying (believe it or not, not all barrel picks are done straight from the barrel).
I have heard stories of barrel picking groups literally treating the 30-60 minutes prior to the pick as a giant bottle orgy where everyone brings a bottle of something extraordinary and everyone is trying to get a pour from one another.
This is probably the last thing you want to do. Save those bottles for the celebration afterwards.
Focus on the Sights and Aromas around You
So moving on to the barrel pick: focus on the sights and aromas around you. Let your guides tell their stories, give their instructions and give you the pointers; even if you’ve already done this before.
That’s what they’re there for and they’re just as eager as you are to get the show on the road. Maybe write up a couple questions before you go so you can ask them and maybe get them to spill the beans on a certain mashbill or length of time it’s aged or some other secrets of the industry.
Even questions that can’t be officially answered sometimes lead to information about future releases, etc. And everyone there probably loves to talk about whiskey anyway!
Whether drinking from a whiskey thief or having pre-filled glasses in front of you, do your best to block out everyone else for that limited time to get as many profile notes as you can.
I personally whipped out my phone and tapped in a couple of tasting notes on each glass. It helps me remember what I liked about each one as I moved down the line.
I’ve even heard of people giving a quick rating system to determine which one they favored. I believe Fred Minnick uses a series of arrows pointing up or down with the maximum being three arrows up and the minimum being three arrows down.
I imagine one arrow up is a perfectly average bourbon.
As the tasting goes on, people are going to talk about what they’re tasting and smelling. The downside to this is as people talk about what they are tasting, they may be influencing the profiles other’s haven’t yet found (or maybe aren’t even there) into a whiskey that somebody else is still decoding.
One person, depending on how respected they are, could persuade the whole group about how good (or bad) a particular whiskey is. On the other hand, a barrel pick is a joyous time that is great fun and can get the shy-est guy to open up.
I would advise a group leader to suggest a rule that you all may talk about generic things during the actual tasting, but to actually have a silent vote on which barrels are their favorite (this can be done by bringing along post-it notes and pens for everyone).
Everyone has an off palate day, so what would happen if the group leader or influencer is telling other people that they already know which barrel is the best before the tasting is even done?
The Silent Vote
The reason behind the silent vote is because I have seen most barrel picks go in the direction of everyone is initially quiet, doing their tasting and nosing.
But then as people start to talk about what they like, the collective conscious of the group begins to persuade people’s minds toward a decision they may not have been thinking of in the first place.
Especially when the barrel selections are very close. There is one distillery that does this the best: Four Roses.
Apparently at Four Roses, you are led into the tasting room with all the samples poured for you. There are usually 8 samples in total. At the end, the group will vote on which ones they liked and those votes are tallied on a white board.
I heard a story of a guy I know who swore up and down how much he disliked Four Roses “Q” yeast strain recipes before and during the tasting.
But lo and behold, guess which barrel he liked the best out of all of them? A Q yeast recipe! This just goes to show that when people are given the opportunity to vote without knowing what their friends truly think, the results can be surprisingly honest.
Once the barrel pick has concluded with a group vote and a barrel selected, it is usually standard that everyone gets to sign the barrel. Most places will actually receive that barrel if they want when their bottles are delivered.
Then, depending on the distillery you’re selecting from, you may be surprised by how quickly the whole event comes to a close, but just remember that there may be other barrel picks waiting on you to finish.
Also, there’s a chance that things could get broken or stolen the longer a bunch of semi-inebriated people get to hang around the tasting area.
This is where ensuring that a designated driver comes in handy and is really a necessity. Some distilleries have a restaurant nearby or on site, so it is probably advisable to have a plan of where you’re going afterwards to reflect about the pick and have a good time.
Don’t forget to bring some extra spending money as well because chances are after you complete the pick, you’ll feel a connection to the distillery and want to buy some merchandise, and that’s a great way to remember your day there!
Be respectful to your host/group leader. They probably get asked dozens of time each week (depending on who they are) if they can invite people to their next barrel pick, but in the end, they’re going to probably pick the people that are the most grateful and well-mannered during the pick. So just enjoy your time there and let them know your appreciation!
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