Mike F recently wrote of his trip to the Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery, the female planner of which (LadyDrammer?) checked with me before making arrangements as to whether I thought it would make a good holiday surprise and if I was interested in joining. Although the distillery canceled their tours for the day on which I was on the east coast and able to go, in looking at the Tuthilltown website, I saw that they offer the option to purchase a barrel of whiskey. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but have always been scared away by a) the cost and b) the lack of options available. It seems that Tuthilltown whiskey was able to counteract both.
Tuthilltown offers the option to buy barrels in 3 gallon, 5 gallon, and 7 gallon sizes. On their website, they estimate that each gallon will produce 8 to 11 Tuthilltown-sized bottles (375 ml). Whenever I have seen the opportunity to buy barrels before, it seems like the up front commitment is thousands upon thousands of dollars. A 3 gallon barrel seemed totally doable without much hassle for me and my friends (we figured that it wouldn’t be too difficult to find buyers for between 24 to 33 bottles of whiskey), and after a few e-mails to test the water, we decided to go through with it. Turns out, after only a couple of e-mails, we had every bottle spoken for at both the minimum and the maximum count (24 to 33).
The first step was placing the order for a 3 gallon barrel online through their website. I then waited for them to make contact. At this point, I hadn’t specified the type of spirit we were looking for - only the barrel size. It wasn’t long before they got in contact, and we started discussing some of the particulars. Throughout the process, Gable Erenzo and Luz Reid from Tuthilltown were amazing. I had to give them my credit card to let them know I was serious (as well as to put a deposit of under $100 down to pay for the barrel). And then our conversations continued.
Throughout this period of about a week and a half, Gable and I spoke about what was available. At that time for 3 gallon barrels, we could have chosen single malt, baby bourbon, or rye. He also amended the website’s statement to let me know that we’d probably get about 6 to 8 bottles per gallon (he said the angels had recently been taking a larger share), and then we discussed shipping options. We were responsible for paying for all bottles that came out of the barrel, at a price discount of around 10% per bottle. My friends and I decided to go with the single malt, which due to local regulations prohibiting the sale of non-NY products at the distillery (as we indicated in an earlier post, the barley is from Canada), Tuthilltown arranged for us to purchase our whiskey at a local liquor store. This just added an extra process as I had to call up the liquor store and give them my credit card.
Out of the barrel, we actually got 23 bottles - closer to the original website-stated minimum estimate. This had us scrambling a bit after we had originally told people that they couldn’t take part based on the reduced estimate of 6 to 8 bottles per gallon (after people dropped out, the numbers did not work out as smoothly). My only complaint throughout this initial process might be that we talked too many times, and I found myself having to repeat things as they wanted to make sure they got everything the way we wanted it. Perhaps when it comes down to it, this isn’t such a bad thing, but I felt at points that they might not have the best internal communication or have written everything down that was spoken about and relevant.
Making it Special
Some other interesting things came out of this - first, as far as customization of the label when you buy a barrel, your options are extremely limited. All liquor labels are approved by the NY State liquor board, and that process takes months and resources far beyond what we had (and probably beyond what Tuthilltown should reasonably be willing to do). Your option is to basically choose a label that they have already approved with the state liquor board and customize it through the batch number and date space. Most often with the barrels they have available for purchase, they recommend their “New York Whiskey” label. They did not actually have enough of these current labels to cover our order (they ran out). We lucked out and got the last batch of their initial run of these labels, which are actually longer than the current stock and therefore slightly more rare and “custom”. However, we didn’t see pictures of the labels beforehand and they were described as ‘just like the current “New York Whiskey” label but longer’ which turned out not to be entirely true; some of us considered the large pregnancy warning covering the original label to be overwhelming and vastly different than the ‘New York Whiskey’ label we were shown. Some also complained that the labels weren’t affixed to the bottles very well, as a few wound up crooked and unaligned.
Second, we also got to keep the barrel. I had it shipped to a friend who homebrews beer so that we can try our own barrel-aged ale. This was pretty great of the distillery (it didn’t actually add to the cost of the whiskey - the original deposit went to the total purchase price).
Third, though we wanted some aspect of immediate gratification, Tuthilltown will work with you to really get whatever it is you may want. They’ll age something longer, find fun barrels for you, or just tell you what they have in stock on hand and let you come in and taste it. Obviously we didn’t go for these options and our original plans to taste before bottling did not pan out, but it’s nice that they exist.
We will post our tasting notes and review of the whiskey itself in another, forthcoming post. However, regardless of how the whiskey tastes, I’m happy we went through with this. It’s an interesting process in which to take part, and something as I said before I always wanted to do. We did it on the cheap, relatively speaking (mind you, I understand and acknowledge that $40 dollars for 375ml of whiskey is not cheap, but in my mind, the ability to have your own unique barrel of whiskey for that price amongst some friends is worth it, especially when you only have to cover 23 bottles in total). It’s worth noting that not every member of WhiskyParty or the group of friends at large feels this way.
Would we do it differently next time? Probably. I think we’d have to taste the product beforehand. $75 for a bottle of whiskey is a bit much right now to purchase a whiskey without knowing how it tastes. In addition, I’d ask more specific questions up front on the barrel used and the aging time (vs. standard aging time for official bottlings). There’s too much risk involved in not finding something with a taste that everyone will be excited about. However, all in all, the process was easy, the distillery was extremely helpful and supportive, and cracking open a bottle of whiskey out of your very own barrel is something special.
Doing it Again (Other Opinions)
Though limited, there are indeed options to buying barrels from distilleries. In general, buying a cask or barrel of whisk(e)y is extremely expensive up front, involves patience (usually) and is then expensive because of duties and import fees on the tail end. The options seem to change often, so there is no real master list, and as usual, opinions vary greatly:
- The Scotch Blog has a great, researched and detailed post on it (though it’s a couple of years old at this point). He basically says it’s not a smart move if you’re doing it for investment purposes.
- John Hansell posts about some of his experiences with buying a Bushmills Millenium cask and then asks the community where purchasing casks is an option.
Current (though not extensive) options available:
- Bruichladdich allows for purchases of casks, with different wood types and potentially different peat levels.
- Though removed from the website currently, Tuthilltown obviously has recently offered barrel purchases.
- Tullibardine offers cask purchases.
- GlenGoyne offers cask purchases of different wood types and potentially may have stuff not part of the catalogue.
- Isle of Barra, which I hadn’t heard of before, also allows for up front cask purchases.
- Nant Distillery in Australia has what you’re looking for (if you’re looking for casks).
- Half a year ago, John Hansell posted about Glenglassaugh offering purchases and they may still. The distillery put out a nice (if not necessarily well organized) FAQ afterwards.
- QuarterCasks offers you the option to go in on casks from a variety of distilleries.
- Bladnoch offers you to buy a heavily peated lowlands malt in a full cask or a tenth share. Pretty cool!