Interview: Picking Barrels for the Kentucky Bourbon Fest

Every September, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival offers attendees the chance to buy from a wide array of single barrel whiskey picks. This year’s selection of 20-plus labels includes Four Roses, Blanton’s, Wilderness Trail, Maker’s Mark, Russel’s Reserve, Old Forester, Elijah Craig, Knob Creek and other leading distilleries.

The line to purchase these offerings can stretch the length of the festival grounds. Suffice to say, whiskey picks have never been more popular. Why? For answers, we recently interviewed veteran whiskey writer Steve Coomes, who takes part in the KBF whiskey-picking process.

Beverage Dynamics: What was it like selecting barrels for this year’s festival?

Steve Coomes: It is always fun! You get to meet so many new people, especially post-Covid, because every distillery is doing something different these days.

One thing I see now is a greater sobriety consciousness at the distilleries. Some insist that you arrive with a designated driver. Others will take you to lunch before or after the picking process. I think that’s a really good decision by the distilleries.

BD: What are you looking for when you help make these picks?

SC: I’m looking for something that when the consumer drinks it, they say, ‘Yes, that’s this whiskey brand, but it’s the coolest version of that brand I’ve ever tasted.’ Especially when you’re dealing with a larger distillery that has a dump size of 2,000 barrels. Single barrel picks allow consumers to have something a little different. It’s like going to a restaurant and asking for something special, off the menu.

It also shows off how much variation there is in the barrels. That’s fun. I don’t want to chase all those rare, ‘unicorn’ bottles. I just don’t see it as a good use of my money. Single barrel picks, those are my level of unicorns. I want the opportunity to open three to four single barrel bottles of the same brand and compare them. Single barrels are an affordable splurge.

BD: I hear that refrain a lot, single barrels as ‘affordable’ or ‘findable’ unicorns.

Steve Coomes helps pick barrels at Barton 1792 distillery for the 2022 Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

SC: To truly be a unicorn, a bottle must be rare. And what’s rarer than a single barrel? It’s unique. A single barrel is on the mark and off the mark at the same time. It’s on-brand while also showing uniqueness. 

I’ve had guests come over my home and try some single barrels, and they’ll say, ‘You know, I didn’t like that brand before, but I like this single barrel.’

Single barrels represent a specific slice of time for a whiskey. That date, that time: you’re never going to see it happen again.

BD: What do you do when one of the samples offered to you is way off the beaten path?

SC: I think it’s a blast. This just happened at Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., when we were picking a barrel there for the KBF. We were given three samples and one of them was really corny in flavor. I’m talking corn nuts type of corn flavor — darker corn. At first, I didn’t think the corn flavor integrated well with the whiskey. But as it sat in my glass and opened up — as I swirled it and we talked about it — and as I listened to the other people say that they liked it because it was so different, I realized that of the three samples we had, it was the most unique. Sometimes people come together like that, and decide that the statement we want to make with our pick is about being unique.

But sometimes you’re tasting samples and you say, ‘Hell yeah, I like high rye! And I like it in a Four Roses’. That’s why I like the argument and the debate so much when picking these barrels. Giving each other crap about our favorites, but also listening to one another with respect about why we like it or not. It’s not just about enjoying a unicorn whiskey with everyone, but also picking it and having a great time with friends.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com. Read his recent piece Why Beverage King is New Royalty in Store Picks.

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