Barrel Selection: A Little Tech & A Lot of Tasting

Whether we’re choosing thousands of barrels to make a batch of our most popular bourbon or picking just a few for a limited release, it takes a lot of veteran employees and a bit of technology to find exactly what we want. Currently, we have over 1.2 million barrels of whiskey aging in 54 rickhouses at six sites throughout Central Kentucky. If you’re thinking that’s a lot of whiskey to monitor, you’re right. But by using computers to track those barrels’ locations, our experienced crews can quickly target the exact ricks where the best whiskeys lie waiting. Technology helps, of course, but when it comes to taste, humans make the decisions at Heaven Hill.

“When we do a bottling run for Evan Williams black label, we’re typically going to dump a few thousand barrels,” says Heaven Hill Distillery Master Distiller Denny Potter. Using proprietary barrel inventory control software (known to us as “BIC”), Denny starts the search for 5- to 6-year-old barrels of our bourbon rye mashbill. And while he could select that number of barrels from within any of our 20,000-plus barrel rickhouses, he never pulls the entire lot from just one.

“We spread what we choose out across multiple warehouses, because you get so much variation in flavor from different warehouses and even warehouse sites,” he says. “For Evan Williams black, we like to take a cross-section of those barrels from three to four sites because we’re mingling the whiskey in those barrels to create a consistent flavor profile. “If we pulled all of the barrels out of our Deatsville location at one time, and pulled just from a Bardstown warehouse the next, every batch of that whiskey would taste different.”

BIC is also used to identify each barrel’s specific location in every rickhouse. If located on the highest floors, where Kentucky summers heat the air to 115 degrees, water evaporates from the whiskey and boosts its alcohol content well above its initial 125 proof at barreling. By contrast, barrels resting on lower levels can see proof decrease. There, in the damp coolness of the rickhouse, water stays behind while some of the alcohol evaporates. Barrels in the middle levels, as you might expect, yield a balance of water, alcohol and flavors from the wood.

Recently, Denny let a small group of guests taste these weather-influenced changes for themselves by sampling barrels from multiple rickhouses and locations. One bourbon came from the first floor, another from a middle floor, and another six stories up near the ceiling.

“The one from the sixth floor was 150 proof, while the whiskey from the bottom floor was 99-a 51 proof difference!” Denny says. “That 99 proof was a 16-year-old wheated bourbon, and I’m telling you, it was one of the best whiskies I’ve ever had. The 150 proof was really good, but really hot.”

Barrels chosen for our small batch whiskeys are more tightly scrutinized-first by experienced individuals looking through BIC, then by our onsite crews. An Elijah Craig or Larceny hunt will cull out 200 barrels or less to be dumped and mingled. For Henry McKenna 10-Year-Old Bottled-In-Bond, about 30 barrels are identified and segregated as single barrels, without batching, from rickhouse to bottle. With batches ranging from two to 200 barrels, the need to have their actual flavor sampled by tasting panels increases.

“It’s tougher to blend less whiskey to achieve the final flavor you want when the dump is that small,” Denny says. “Say it’s part of our Parker’s Heritage Collection, a 24-year Bottled-in-Bond, the number of barrels we choose for that is a really small amount, and every barrel is sampled.”

To choose those prized barrels so precisely, Denny steps away from BIC and calls on veterans like Mike Sonne and Artisanal Distiller Charlie Downs. With 37 years at Heaven Hill, Sonne has worked for Parker Beam, Craig Beam and now Potter. He knows what they’re looking for long before they ask.

“When it comes to tasting-OK, I’ll say it-Mike is the best,” Denny says. “Everything he does is based on history and experience. So when I have a question, I’m calling him and asking, ‘What’s been our experience with this?’ Because he’s been around our whiskeys for so long, I know Mike will know the answer.”

To learn more about the barrel selection process and the long awaited Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel, check out our Facebook Live with Master Distiller, Denny Potter


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