In the summer of 2019, Lorri and I were lucky to be invited to join a Bourbon Trail tour group planned by J.A.W.S. (the Josephine Avenue Whiskey Society from Somerville, Massachusetts) and guided by the inimitable Nick Taylor of Taylor and Taylor Whiskey Co. (who was also the guide on our raucously epic Scotch tour of which most of our livers are STILL recovering from).
One of the major goals of the tour was to procure a private barrel of bourbon – who doesn’t want their own exclusive whiskey? It’s the ultimate trump card in whiskey society (unless it tastes like trash, in which case it’s the ultimate dunce hat). There are several US distilleries that sell barrels to private buying groups but demand has skyrocketed in the last few years (and it hasn’t helped that liquor stores have gone deep into the private barrel game to the point where any decent liquor store has a rack of their own picks). It’s gotten competitive and the waits can be many months long.
After MUCH wrangling with logistics and scheduling on our part (the New Riff folks were super accommodating), we were able to secure one of the last private group barrel picks in 2019 at New Riff Distilling Co. (one of the newest Kentucky bourbon distilleries) in Newport Kentucky (an hour and a half from Louisville, the heart of bourbon country and about 15 minutes from Cincinnati OH). Since New Riff has yet to secure distribution in MA, it’s got some cult cachet up here … and we were already in that cult.
Lorri’s son (a Cincinnati-an) gifted us a bottle of New Riff awhile ago and while we were impressed that he had found a new bourbon we assumed it would be in the same galaxy of new young bourbons that were long on potential but longer on jagged, glorified rubbing alcohol, not-ready-for-prime-time rawness. So it was with substantial surprise that New Riff’s Bottled in Bond (their standard release, so 4 years and 100 proof) punched WAY above expectations, brimming with high rye spice and well developed caramel-vanilla richness. Later, a few New Riff single barrels sealed the deal for us – this was a bourbon worth following closely.
There are several advantages in getting a private barrel through New Riff:
• Your initial commitment only needs to be a quarter barrel, with the option to upgrade to a half or full barrel. In our case we initially committed to a half barrel because we were yellow-bellied cowards but soon upgraded to a full barrel as we got inundated with folks wanting in.
• You’re guided through the process with a Single Barrel Sales Coordinator (the wonderful Sarah, who cheerfully fielded literally dozens of my inane questions) and a Single Barrel Ambassador who conducts the tour and the tasting/pick process (the hilarious and spectacular Alina)
• The selection process itself is wildly entertaining – it begins with a distillery tour unlike any other, then pulling samples yourselves from selected barrels, then the final sampling and selections in a nifty tasting room. Our group ranged from bourbon newbies to jaded industry veterans and still everyone was impressed with the experience.
- The available bottle customizations and the entire single barrel package are the most extensive that I’ve seen. If you purchase the entire barrel, you get:
- Custom engravings on every bottle (up to 2 designs)
- Custom logo on the printed label (up to 2 designs)
- Custom text on the printed label (up to 2 sets of ~100 characters ea), which we used to put the last names of the bottle buyers (until we ran out of letters)
- Gift boxes and bags for each bottle
- A decorative barrel head engraved with up to 25 characters of your choice
- The actual barrel itself (optional, but we eagerly grabbed the barrel and later used it to age our Privateer Rum release, Young Americans)
In preparation for the trip, I led a couple of bourbon tastings:
Bourbon 101 was for the bourbon newbies and covered the four broad categories Low Rye (Buffalo Trace, Elijah Craig). High Rye (Four Roses, New Riff), Wheated ( Bernheim and Larceny which I keep trying to sneak into tastings since it’s one of the few affordable and readily available wheaters but it’s always so disliked I’m just gonna switch to Maker’s), and my completely made up category, Peanut Butter Funk (Russell’s Reserve/Wild Turkey, Knob Creek) – IMHO, it’s a distinctive enough flavor that it’s worth determining if it floats your boat or not. As usual, I had the tasters taste the samples blind so they could determine their favorites without bias.
And just for fun, we later did a Weller vs New Riff Face-off. I was a little hesitant because I expected the more mature and time tested Wellers to crush the younger upstart New Riffs AND crush the motivation for the group to do the THREE hours of driving between Lousiville to Newport. But shockingly, the New Riff lineup (the standard Bottled in Bond and a Single Barrel) scored higher than the Wellers (Weller 12, Old Weller Antique 107 and Weller Special Reserve). This I attribute to the fact that if Weller 12 is Michael Jackson and OWA is Jermaine Jackson, Special Reserve is pretty much Tito Jackson … or Jimmy Osmond … or Scrappy Doo … or Cousin Oliver … anyway, you get it – the super inferior, brand-desecrating leech hanging onto a classic roster.
So full of bourbon education and snarky opinions, we pulled up to the New Riff visitor center/distillery … and were surprised to see that it was REALLY close to Party Source, one of the best liquor stores in the country. No, I mean REALLYREALLYCLOSE, like literally in its PARKING LOT.
Turns out that Ken Lewis, the owner of Party Source wanted to start a distillery but legal restrictions forbid simultaneous ownership of a liquor store and a distillery, so he sold Party Source to his employees minus a chunk of parking lot real estate where he realized his dream of making his own bourbon. It’s a great story and a shining example of how capitalism can make winners of owners and employees, definitely worth reading here.
This was not the first unusual aspect of the New Riff distillery – the tour and the distillery are excellent examples of how to turn apparent physical limitations and lack of tradition into significant advantages.
Typical pre-distillery tour video:
“Back in the year [enter random year from the 1900’s], our illustrious founder [enter name of some Scottish rebel or Civil War era namesake that never set foot in the distillery] discovered the magical water that flows through our distillery. [Show stock footage of random gently babbling brook] Its unique character comes from filtration through the local [limestone/mossy peat/sheep dung] and gives our whiskey its unique character that can’t possibly be replicated anywhere else in the universe.”
New Riff tour:
” See that spray painted arrow in the parking lot? That’s where our water comes from. Let’s move on …”
Our tour guide Alina (Instagram @silencealinasilence) was simultaneously hilarious, well prepared and super knowledgeable and the distillery was a modern marvel of solid science and unsentimental efficiency in pursuit of superior bourbon.
At the time we’d toured toured about 40 distilleries and the New Riff experience was one of the most entertaining and original we’ve ever had (not to mention that their gift shop/swag game is strong and their small in-house bar is smartly executed – you can taste the single barrels that they have for sale JUST a few feet away – I TOLD you these people were good capitalists!).
After the first part of the tour concluded, we piled back into the bus and took a short ride to the barrel facility which also houses the formal tasting room where the single barrel selection takes place. We toured the main rickhouse and the bottling facility before starting the barrel selection – I always get a kick from seeing a bottling line because it’s somewhat rare for distilleries to do their own bottling AND because I watched too much Laverne and Shirley back in the 70’s (shut up millenials, this was before TikTok and Netflix and even friggin’ HBO).
In true New Riff fashion, the selection process was highly original and entertaining:
Step 1: Selecting 5 barrels from 15 text descriptions
15 barrels are laid out for your visual inspection and you’re provided a paper listing of the 15 barrels with tasting notes so powerfully evocative that I suspected that they were written by moonlighting Hallmark greeting card writers. Alina warned us that these tastings were done with the bourbon watered down to a seriously puny ABV so to take these notes with a grain of salt. Each person selects their favorite 5 barrels and the most popular 5 barrels go to the next step. Yes, it’s HIGHLY unscientific to select barrels based on how they look and what someone else tasted … but in the right group of people it’s a hoot to fight over whether “candy corn finish” vs “sangria-like medley” should advance to the finals.
Step 2: The Thieving of the samples
We then took turns using the “Thief” (a long metal tube) to pull samples directly out of the barrels. No matter how many times we do this, it’s still a thrill to see that golden liquid come out of the tube while you’re basking in the heady aroma of cask strength whiskey.
Step 3: First Tasting
The beautifully appointed tasting room accommodates 10 people across 2 tables (or in our case 12 people because we begged and pleaded). The whiskies are anonymized so you can’t be swayed by their text descriptions (though it’s fun to guess which was which). The tasting is fairly unstructured, allowing you to taste at your own pace and engage in free discussion/open combat. Water and droppers are thankfully provided (doubly so since these are cask strength samples). I’m always amazed by how many tastings do NOT include water & droppers- we’ve taken to always carrying our own dropper bottle because there is a long sad graveyard of small but precious whiskey samples that I’ve murdered through my lack of water portion control without a dropper.
Doing a barrel pick tasting is high stakes business. Screw it up and you’ve got 200+ bottles of pure regret in your basement for the next decade. Do you play it safe and get a crowd pleaser that comes across uninspired and boring in the long run? Or do you go for something bold and unique but risks turning off 50% of the people who try it (and possibly wears out its welcome by the 5th bottle)?
Luckily, we had the prior experience of doing a barrel pick at the Mecca of all Scotch, Gordon and Macphail, an overwhelming 11 sample experience that nearly culminated in my untimely death on a picturesque Scottish roadway (look, after inhaling that much stunning Scotch, I challenge YOU to remember what side of the road these Scots drive on!). I learned the hard way that when death is on the line … err … BARRELS are on the line, you gotta pace yourself before your palate is totally burnt.
My strategy (forged in Scottish humiliation and defeat) is to taste in ROWS, not COLUMNS! This means go through the lineup as many times as possible instead of trying to extract each barrel’s cosmic essence one at a time.
Two reasons for this:
- The sequence of the whiskey makes a big difference – Some palate fatigue and/or palate skewing occurs by the time you get to the last sample. Don’t wait too long before getting to the last one; get as even a playing field as possible.
- With whiskey of any quality most of the barrels are going to be at least PRETTY good, so it’s the side by side comparisons and contrasts that will really separate the good from the great to the sublime.
After the first round of tasting occured, Alina has everyone indicate their favorites (with eyes closed so we couldn’t influence one another) and the results are used to choose the two finalists.
Step 4: Final Tasting
Presumably the two finalists are poured again and a final tasting determines the winner. However in our case, 10 of the 12 tasters selected Barrel #5795 as their first choice … and the other 2 selected that barrel as their second choice! Since it was a complete landslide, we just skipped the final tasting.
To be honest, I couldn’t have been happier OR more relieved. I had #5795 as my first choice because it had immediate drinking pleasure that developed into something brawny, complex and spicy. There was another barrel that was a very easy drinker that would have been the safer pick, and frankly I would have thought the bourbon rookies would have gone that way … but I underestimated the group and we formed a very happy consensus around #5795 (maybe all that bourbon education we did beforehand burned all the rookie out of our newer drinkers!). While the process-creator (it was a major part of my job when I owned a software company) and group-event-coordinator in me really loved this process I did have a fear that barrel-pick -by-mob-rule might not result in the best selection … but not to fear, no Whiskey Electoral College skewing was needed and Bourbon Democracy carried the day!
About a month later, my wife and I rented a decently large SUV and trekked down to Cincinnati and Newport (since there was no New Riff distribution in MA OR a MA liquor store to run this purchase through, we had to pick up at New Riff and drive it all back). Choosing the SUV was harder than choosing the bourbon – with 200+ bottles AND an empty bourbon barrel to bring back we really could not run short of space without incurring ANOTHER trip (a one-way rental was prohibitively expensive also, so were definitely talking a round trip drive). Determining storage volume vs case dimensions and door opening sizes vs barrel diameter and height was the kind of whiskey calculus that really should have been done by Isaac Newton with four fingers of Glenlivet instead of me.
To make things even more fun, three days before we left, some moron got busted on I-495 NOT far from our house for illegally transporting an INSANE amount of booze ($36,000 worth of the CHEAP stuff). This guy reinforced the floor of his van and stacked booze up to the ceiling, obviously for super profitable resale. It turns out that it’s technically illegal to transport more than a few liters of booze in a private vehicle in MA. Man, if they started enforcing that for real, half of our friends with be making hooch out of applesauce with us in Walpole’s Cedar Junction.
Luckily, everything went well – everything fit beautifully into our Dodge Grand Caravan (the ability to fold the “Stow and Go” rear seats completely into the floor was a big difference maker) and we returned in triumph with booty in hand!
Young Americans – We teamed up with Privateer (a spectacular rum distillery in Ipswich MA) and had them finish one of their “RIch/Fine” rums in our JAWS barrel for about 7 months. It turned out better than we could have ever hoped for, a Guayana-esque brown sugar vanilla frosting cask strength bomb.
Notorious Rum BG – We’re currently using the JAWS barrel again to age one of Privateer’s Bottled in Bond rums (4 years at 100 proof) – it should be ready in the next month or so, and we’re dubbing it the Notorious Rum BG, with $10/bottle going to RBG’s favorite charity, the Malala Fund. Post to follow soon!
Madtree Brewing – The FOURTH (and probably final) use of our beloved New Riff Barrel #5795 will be used by Madtree Brewing in Cincinnati (where Lorri’s son works) to put the finishing touches on some crazy-ass beer he’s dreaming up.
JAWS 2: We weren’t about to let COVID ruin our New Riff fun in 2020 and we’re currently in the process of selecting our second New Riff barrel. Of course we’re calling it JAWS 2: Just when you thought it was safe to start drinking again! New post to follow!