We all do it. We walk into a store, scour the shelves, ever vigilant, seeking out those rare bottles. We’re the bane of liquor store worker’s existence. “Do you have anything special in the back or behind the counter?” is our mantra. This is how you get the good bottles, right? Those prized, highly allocated releases that are being flipped for hundreds or even thousands on the secondary market are what we’re after. What if I told you that you’re hunting for the wrong bottles?
Okay, so let’s get this out in the open because it’s a big part of why The Hunt sucks. There is a secondary market and the prices on it can be insane. When you can flip that $30 bottle of Weller 12 for $160 or more, you’re going to have more people chasing it, either to flip, or to not have to pay the absurd secondary market value. Furthermore, you’ve created a whole new breed of hunter: the bottle flipper. They have zero intention of opening anything they buy, but will clear the entire shelf of any product that is allocated. That (now) $25 bottle of Weller SR you used to buy? Nope, little Billy just waltzed in when the truck was unloading and bought the entire case so he can make a cool $5 profit after selling it for $40 and paying shipping. They do the same from the bottom to the top of the spectrum and make finding anything rare or allocated near impossible for people that are just looking to get a bottle to drink. This in turn also pushes actual bourbon drinkers to buy up allocated bottles whether they want them or not because they can trade them at secondary values towards things they do actually want. The Hunt has become a problem and I’m not sure what’s going to fix it, or even if it can be fixed.
With that said, many people are coming to realize that it’s not worth all of the trouble, time and money chasing down these impossible to find bottles. So what’s a bourbon lover to do? Store picks, my friends. So let’s define what a store pick actually is for those uninitiated. Essentially, a store can request their own private barrel of product from a distillery. They can either physically send someone to the distillery to select a barrel from samples that are provided (the process varies distillery to distillery) or they can be sent a few samples to their store so that they can taste and select a barrel. Once selected, that entire barrel is sold to a store and is bottled only for that store.
So what’s so special about these store picks? They’re unique. You will not get the same bottle anywhere else, with most being single barrels, that means that the flavor profile will typically be within the same ballpark for the brand, but may have a slightly different taste than what you would find in their normal releases. Being single barrel also means that the age may vary significantly from what you would typically get in their normal release. For example, Knob Creek Single Barrel is usually at least 9 years old, but I recently purchased a store pick that was 14 years and 6 months old, quite the difference. What would you typically pay for an age-stated 14 year old bourbon? Probably upwards of $100 nowadays. I bought the Knob Creek for $45 and I’ve seen store picks for even less. Many times, these single barrels will be higher proof as well. That 10 year WhistlePig you like so much? I just bought a 13 year version of it that’s way better at 110.8 proof with deeper, richer flavor. Then you have the wonderful Four Roses Single Barrel store picks where you not only get barrel proof and a varying age, but you also get a completely different recipe (one of ten!) , providing even further unique value to the bottle. These, for me at least, are must buys when I see them.
More and more stores are getting on the barrel selection boat. Having a product that you can tell your customers is unique and only available at your location is a great way to bring in repeat business. Availability is also a major factor when compared to allocated product. You can’t walk in and just buy a bottle of Four Roses 130th, but you can almost always walk in and find a store pick of Four Roses at most larger stores. Store picks will also usually taste as good or better than their normal release counterparts. I’d put this bottle of WhistlePig 13 year store pick up against any other rye at a higher price point and it would hold its own. The same goes for a Blanton’s store pick I got last year, it’s simply a fantastic bourbon that drinks like a more expensive bottle. Store picks are where the value is, where you can get a bottle of something you already know you like that’s typically better than the normal release, usually for the same price or maybe $5-10 more.
If you have a favorite store that does store picks, talk with them about who did the selection and why they selected the barrel that they did. Many times, you’ll find someone with a similar palate to yours and they’ll be picking barrels that are outstanding for your tastes. Some stores just pick random barrels which may end up being good or bad, but finding someone that is passionate about their selections will lead to consistent good barrels at their stores. I’ve also discovered that buying store picks can also sometimes lead to access to those allocated bottles you’re looking for as well. While not always the case, they may be more willing to hold that bottle of Blanton’s for you when they know that you’re coming in and buying bottles from barrels that they personally selected. It helps to build a relationship and shows that you trust their palate when selecting barrels.
In closing, if you’ve always wondered what those single barrel store picks were, or you just haven’t bitten the bullet yet, now’s your chance. I’m not saying that you should stop asking for those allocated bottles behind the counter, because every now and then, even a blind hog will find an acorn. However, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how good some of these store picks can be and you don’t even have to really try too hard to find them. It also makes The Hunt more bearable when you know that you’ve got some excellent juice in the meantime. Cheers!