A Day on the Trail: The Single Barrel Bourbon Selection Experience at New Riff Distilling

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For distilled spirits fans the idea of doing a single barrel selection of their favorite bourbon whiskey is a dream come true. There are likely as many ways to do a single barrel select as there are distilleries in the United States. Most of the larger heritage distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee have been offering single barrel picks for several years. As more of the 1,000 plus craft distilleries start to get some age on their spirits we are starting to see more distilleries opening up their barrel warehouses to single barrel fans.

A Day on the Trail at New Riff Distilling

We recently had an opportunity to ride along with the Bourbon Brotherhood on a single barrel select at one of Kentucky’s larger craft spirits makers, New Riff Distilling in Newport, Kentucky. New Riff Distilling was founded in 2014 by Ken Lewis. In a previous life, Lewis was a school teacher and later a retail store owner. In 2005 he started The Party Source and built it into one of the largest liquor stores in the country. The 80,000 square foot store is more like a high end grocery store that features unique hands-on experiences seven days a week that focus on a variety of culinary, mixology and entertaining classes. In 2014 Lewis sold the business to his employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) to start a distillery. He didn’t go too far, the distillery he founded is right across the parking lot.

Lewis started New Riff Distilling in 2014 with Jay Erisman, who was The Party Source’s Fine Spirits Manager. As the name implies, Lewis wanted to take a new riff on an age old business – distilling. He didn’t set out to be the biggest distillery in the state but one of the best small distilleries. When starting the distillery, the pair hired long time Seagram’s Master Distiller Larry Ebersold. The former Seagram’s distillery is located less than 20 miles away just across the Ohio River in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Most people today would recognize this as the MGP Distillery. If you like the bourbon and rye whiskies products you’ve tasted under multiple labels from this somewhat secretive distillery you will no doubt like what you taste from New Riff Distilling.

Creating an Experience as Transparent as the Building

Being in the retail liquor business the New Riff team knows a thing or two about working with distilleries, buying single barrels and creating memorable customer experiences. One of the things you’ll notice from the photos of the distillery is it’s all about transparency. They share the source of their grains, their mash bills and don’t try to hide behind a fictitious relative that died 200 years ago while making moonshine in the nearby hills. As you arrive at this new urban bourbon distillery you’ll see the 60′ tall Vendome Copper & Brass Works copper column still shrouded in glass. It looks equally magnificent in the day or lit up like a Cape Canaveral rocket at night. You will immediately know you are in the right place when you pull in.

How to Buy a Single Barrel of Bourbon Whiskey

Before we get into the details of our New Riff experience you should know that with the Three Tier system that was established just after Prohibition you cannot buy a barrel of whiskey directly from a distillery. You can start the conversation with the distillery but you’ll end up working with one of their many licensed retail partners that sell their distilled spirits. The distillery technically sells the bottled product to its distributor who sells it to the retailer who then sells it to the consumer.

A Note About Terms.
New Riff sells single barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey at retail. So in this case, we’ll shift our language slightly and call these private barrels so as not to confuse them with the regular retail single barrels. Another thing that will vary from distillery to distillery is the final proof or % ABV of the bottled product. Some distilleries will sell their spirits at whatever standard proof they sell at retail. For example, if the distillery normally sells their bourbon at 92 proof (46% ABV) they may add water to your bourbon prior to bottling to bring it down to their TTB authorized proof. In the case of New Riff they are already approved to sell barrel strength or cask strength bourbon whiskey so that’s what you’ll get once everything is bottled cask strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey, uncut and without chill filtration, the way God meant it to be.

A Distillery and Barrel Warehouse Tour

Once we arrived the day kicked off with a tour of the distillery. We met in the gift shop then moved to the second floor that features a bar and large event space. Similar to the parking lot view with lots of glass, you can see the 60′ tall copper still from the bar area. Next we moved on to the distillery where you are quickly greeted with the familiar smell of cooking and fermenting grains. Then on to the room that is home to the heartbeat of the distillery, the column still. Fortunately they were running at full steam when we were there so our tour host let us taste some white dog directly off the still. After that it was on to barreling where the white dog is pumped into 53 gallon toasted and charred new American white oak barrels from Independent Stave Company.

Being an urban bourbon distillery space is limited so barrels are stored offsite about two miles away. We took the short ride to the barrel warehouse facility to continue our journey. The barrel warehouse space is made up of multiple historic buildings from the early 1900s that were once home to Newport and Cincinnati Green Line trolleys until 1972. Their first and now four plus year old bourbon barrels are stacked four to five barrels high in a single story brick warehouse. They also have a newly built barrel warehouse that looks a bit more like a traditional Kentucky barrel warehouse with ricks that go up to 15 barrels high and 25 barrels deep with a total capacity of 17,640 barrels. Like most distilleries, they are on the lookout for more space to store their future bourbon barrels.

Picking the Barrels

The actual barrel pick process can vary widely from one distillery to the next. In some cases, the distillery will select three barrels of various differences either based on general tastes of the whiskey like spicy or fruity, the location of aging in the barrel warehouse which can effect flavor and proof or any other considerations. In the case of New Riff they give buyers a wide choice of more than a dozen barrels that are all aged four plus years.

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We asked New Riff’s Jay Erisman how they selected the barrels for their private barrel program and here’s what he had to say.

“We evaluate each lot of whiskey. A lot being a fermenter, a batch that four years ago we distilled. The resulting 12 to 14 barrels are checked as a lot,” said Erisman. “From that lot we select various single barrels and then taste those to go into the single barrel or private barrel program. That’s where those notes that you saw on the barrel get generated (see below.) The tasting panel is led by myself and our head distiller Brian Sprance and consists of a number of our other distillers and experienced people. We check quality control and the nature of the whiskey across the board, we select single barrels that way.”

“We preserve the integrity of each lot as it is. So in our single barrel program, what is there in those racks is individual single barrels from multiple lots (fermentation batches.) There might be three barrels from one lot, three barrels from another lot and three barrels from another lot that are there in that rack. Which we think makes a single barrel all the more interesting because there’s an opportunity not merely to have the endemic or the natural slight variation from barrel to barrel but also from lot to lot.” Take a look at the details of what barrels were offered the day we were there you’ll see this theory played out.

Some distilleries will allow customers to purchase a private barrel remotely without ever visiting the distillery by sending them three 100ml samples by mail. The customer can then do their own taste test and choose from one of those samples. At New Riff they really try not to do that because they want customers to visit the distillery.

“We want people to come to the distillery and experience New Riff,” said Erisman. “We worked hard to make it a nice experience and we think the process of picking a barrel deserves a visit and we’d like to restore a little luster to the process.”

Step 1 Tasting the Bourbon with Your Imagination

Now its time to get down to business – bourbon tasting. First things first, before we get into barrel pick mode we are handed a Glencairn glass filled with cask strength bourbon to wake up our palates. Now that our palate is paying attention its time to choose some barrels. We are handed a list with a whopping 17 barrels with a variety of tasting notes. The notes were created by the distilleries tasting team that Erisman mentioned above. You can match the notes up to the barrel to see what it looks like and put your nose in the open bung hole if you’d like. (Yes, it’s ok to snicker each time someone mentions the bung hole.)

Now it’s time for bourbon bingo. Our tour guide and host Alina Allread the Single Barrel Brand Ambassador calls out barrel numbers one by one. 15-1478, 15-1919, 15-2201 and so on. With each reading the participants raise a hand to signal their favorites as Alina and team take a count. By the time we make it through the entire list there are a few clear winners and a couple of ties. We take counts again to break the ties and pick the first round contestants.

With the barrel picks narrowed down to five, it’s time to break out the barrel thief to ‘steal’ some whiskey from the barrel for the tasting. We take turns to draw the bourbon whiskey out and drop it into the clear glass container where for the first time we can see and start to smell the four year old amber spirit.

Step 2 – Seeing, Nosing and Tasting the Bourbon

Ok, now this is getting real as we move on to the tasting room. Each place at the table is set with a tasting matte, a bottle of water, pretzels to clear your palate, a notebook that includes an outline of how to taste whiskey and room for notes, a water droplet that you can use to open up the whiskey and a spittoon that you can spit the whiskey out into. Honestly, I don’t know why they provide the spittoon I didn’t see anyone go near it except to say, “What is this?”

Each tasting matte is marked for three rounds of tastings.

  • Round 1 starts out with the five blind samples.
  • Round 2 is narrowed down to two samples for the double blind tasting.
  • And then there is the final single circle for the private barrel pick winner.

Here’s the short version of the New Riff tasting tips included in the booklet. Swirl! Nose! Taste! Lightly dilute! Nose! Taste! Debate! Ponder! Things to consider are the appearance, the nose, the taste and the finish. If you want to learn more about tasting whiskey here’s a good whiskey tasting resource.

Step 3 – Narrowing the Bourbon from 5 to 2

Now it was time for the next round of bourbon bingo to narrow the list from five down to two. Number 5 was clearly a favorite and number 2 came in second. Once we agreed on the two for the next round Aliana shared the barrel numbers for the three that were knocked out. So long 15-2356, 15-2322 and 15-2341, it’s been real.

Step 4 – The Double Blind Final Round

For round two, the double blind round, we start over with fresh glasses in a random order that are now referred to as A and B. Time to start tasting again. The room is now echoing with comments like, “I think A is 5” or “I think that A was 2.” It doesn’t really matter because it’s all about the experience, the taste and picking the one.

Step 5 – The Private Barrel Pick Winner

Time for the final vote. We go back and forth, taste, ponder, share thoughts until its time to vote and agree on the private barrel winner. Drum roll please… the Bourbon Brotherhood team of professional bourbon drinkers (made up of a chiropractor, an HVAC specialist, an financial adviser, an IT pro and others of diverse backgrounds) select glass A. It turns out A was number 2 in the first round.

And now its time for the big reveal, what did we pick? The final selection was barrel number 15-2298.

Tasting Notes: A drop of H2O explodes into berry fruit, rose, pink pepper and mint. A real lip smacking, head-nodder of a Bourbon! JE

The bourbon whiskey was distilled on March 13, 2015 and was entered into the barrel at 110.6 proof. We won’t know the final barrel strength proof until the day the bottles are delivered to the retailer.

Connecting the Dots – It turns out this barrel with a fill date of March 13 was destiny. It’s the birthday of Thomas Yono, the Bourbon Brotherhoods official photographer who was on the trip. He could have saved us a lot of time if he had told us that in advance but hey, what fun with that be? It was all meant to be.

The Private Barrel Goodie Bag

Before the day was over our barrel was marked as sold, we all got to sign it and have our picture taken in front of the new baby. Each participant was provided with a goodie bag that included a New Riff Glencairn glass, a sampling of chocolates and the best part a 100ml sample of cask strength, unfiltered bourbon whiskey pulled directly from barrel 15-2298.

Now we hurry up and wait for the day the empty barrel and full bottles of bourbon arrive at the retailer. We’ll update this story with the final proof upon its arrival. Cheers!

The Bourbon Brotherhood was founded by Bruce Corwin in 2014. It’s a monthly social gathering of men (and women) who enjoy bourbon and camaraderie. The events take place at various distilleries or related locations. The Bourbon Brotherhood joins forces each year with the Whiskey Chicks each year for the Bourbon Mixer an annual fund raiser event for various local charities. The 2019 Bourbon Mixer event takes place August 17 at the Henry Clay in Louisville, Kentucky.

Questions? Email us at Info@DistilleryTrail.com.

Resources
New Riff Distilling
View all Kentucky Distilleries.
Take The B-Line Northern Kentucky’s Bourbon Tour.
The Kentucky Chew – A Simple Guide to Tasting Bourbon
10 Steps: The Fundamentals of How to Taste Whisky

Full Private Barrel Bourbon Tasting Notes

New Riff Distilling - Private Barrel Select Tasting Notes

Resources
New Riff Distilling
View all Kentucky Distilleries.
Take The B-Line Northern Kentucky’s Bourbon Tour.
The Kentucky Chew – A Simple Guide to Tasting Bourbon
10 Steps: The Fundamentals of How to Taste Whisky

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