“Blended” is no longer a dirty word in American whiskey. Before, the term had mostly meant cheaper products on bottom shelves. Now, this is a fast-expanding category that showcases premium whiskeys concocted by artful blenders.
One of the brands helping lead this revolution is Barrell Craft Spirits. Launched seven years ago, the company is emblematic of modern blending. Barrell works with about 65 suppliers in amassing an array of bourbons, ryes, other whiskeys and rums for blending. Every bottle released is cask strength, single barrel and limited edition.
For a deeper dive into this innovative company, we recently spoke with Founder Joe Beatrice and Master Distiller Tripp Stimson.
Beverage Dynamics: Why has blended whiskey taken off at the premium level?
Joe Beatrice: People are looking for whatever’s new. They’re not looking what is old. There’s been this dynamic shift in consumer behavior towards, ‘I want something different’. Surprisingly, this is still a relatively new phenomenon in the bourbon category, coming in in the last few years.
When we started the company, we decided that every product would have three points of differentiation. Everything would be cask strength, single barrel and limited edition. I wanted to provide people with a wide range of products.
Tripp Stimson: It’s fun from the consumer perspective. People are starting to ask more questions about flavors. They’re looking for more complexity.
A company that uses the same raw materials every time in their whiskey, it’s pretty amazing that they’re able to create such great products. But you can only get so much complexity when you use the same raw materials every single time.
With blended whiskey, you can take all these different flavors and create wonderful products that are very complex and flavorful.
In the past, ‘blended whiskey’ by the TTB terms generally meant the inclusion of GNS [Grain Neutral Spirit]. So it’s important to remember that what we’re doing is not ‘blended whiskey’ but ‘blending with whiskey’. We do not use GNS. The only products we’re blending together are whiskeys.
BD: Does the TTB definition still cause confusion?
JB: We are burdened by the TTB, and what we can and cannot say on our products. It’s maddening on our end. There are times when we cannot specifically say what is in a bottle because of the specification. We had a five-month battle with the TTB about the packaging for our Dovetail whiskey.
It’s maddening because some of these products end up in the same category, and on the same shelves, as a flavored grapefruit vodka.
BD: How important is transparency when dealing with sourcing and blending?
JB: It’s very important. Since we launched four years ago, we tried to be as transparent as possible. We work with 65 companies, so we can’t be that transparent, of course.
What happened with the class action lawsuits regarding craft distilling — against companies like Tito’s, Bulleit and Templeton — it really opened people’s eyes. It opened their eyes that there are six major suppliers supplying everyone in this industry. Everybody is doing it.
We wanted to be in front of it. We wanted to establish an underlying trust with consumers, because what we say is in the bottle is the truth.
BD: Why the decision to bottle everything at cask strength?
JB: I remember when I was first thinking of getting into this business, drinking a whiskey straight from the barrel. I wondered, ‘Why isn’t everybody drinking it like this?’ You really experience the true flavor of the whiskey when you drink it at cask strength.
There’s no legal definition of cask strength. However, we do bottle at true cask strength.
BD: Do you offer a single-barrel pick program for retailers?
JB: Yes. We did about 350 barrels of it last year. When we identify a barrel that could be used for the program, we get samples of it and then provide them to the sales team. Then we begin bottling immediately.
That way, we can deliver product for a retailer in as little as two-to-three weeks, or up to several months, depending on where we are in the process. We’re constantly bottling single barrels, so we’re always prepared.
BD: What are you looking for in whiskey when sourcing barrels?
JB: We’re looking for a combination of things as we try to maintain an inventory of different ages and categories. We’re very careful. We reject far more whiskey than we buy. We’re looking for a certain profile.
We do try to use smaller producers whenever we can.
TS: We’re looking for a balance. We don’t want too much of anything. We’re looking for flavors of fruit, vanilla and wood, with a certain mouthfeel.
We have a good idea now of how all these things interact on the blending side. The world is our pantry. If we’re missing a flavor that we want, we have a pretty good idea from which producer, and in which of their warehouses, we can find that flavor.
BD: You also release blended rums. What’s your opinion on that category?
JB: We think that the rum market is bifurcated. There’s people who like white rum, blending it with coke and other party-drink stuff. We’re not discounting that side of the category, but that’s not where we’re playing.
We’re looking for a more sophisticated drinker, someone who is crossing over from bourbon.
That said, we don’t see rum as the next whiskey. It has a smaller subset of drinkers. Rum is a nice compliment to what we’re doing.
BD: What’s next from Barrell Craft Spirits?
JB: We had a series of rums, some more Jamaican-forward and some more Barbados-forward, blended together and then finished in 18 different barrels for 18 different releases. Those sold so fast. We’ll be replicating that project again in about a month [Editor’s note: Depending on the Coronavirus, of course].
TS: And we’ll be doing the same thing with 18-year-old Kentucky bourbons, blended together. That will come out with sets of different finishes.
We love what we do, spending all our time in blending. We do hundreds and hundreds of combinations. People always ask us: ‘What’s the secret?’ Taste it. That’s the secret.
This interview was edited and condensed for publication.
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece What’s New at Buffalo Trace, Bulleit, Barton 1792 and Michter’s.