In recent years, there’s been a surge in “barrel picking” – personally choosing a barrel of whiskey from an individual distillery. Most of these private barrels come from the big operations in Kentucky with Jim Beam and Four Roses being some of the most common suppliers. There are, however, a handful of smaller scale distilleries that offer the option. Because their own whiskey is usually in short supply or, more often, still too young, picks from craft distilleries often consist of choosing from among that distillery’s sourced whiskey stocks, usually from Indiana or Tennessee.
Washington, D.C.’s Joseph A. Magnus & Co. Distillery began offering barrel picks not long after it opened in 2015. Magnus was a 19th century Ohio distillery that, like most, didn’t survive Prohibition. The founder’s great grandson resurrected the family recipe and assembled an all-star cast of industry experts to create some exceptional sourced whiskey blends in tribute to the original bourbon. They range from the standard offering Straight Bourbon, finished in sherry and cognac barrels, to the highly sought-after Cigar Blend which throws older bourbons into the mix and finishes in Armagnac casks.
Our friends at the Bourbon Pursuit podcast went on a tear in 2018 picking barrels for their Patreon supporters, and they invited me recently to tag along with a group of other bourbon obsessives to pick a barrel from Magnus. Big distilleries now essentially have an assembly line for these productions where groups arrive at the Visitor Center, take the tour, get shuttled to a designated selection room or rickhouse, meet someone official (usually not the Master Distiller), and proceed to sample and select their barrel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing experience, but it’s not a free bourbon party in a rickhouse until the sun comes up. These people have jobs to do, and plenty of other customers are waiting in line for their barrels.
My Magnus picking experience was not exactly on the scale of most, but it adhered to the standard script pretty well. I arrived at the distillery, which takes up the second floor of a warehouse in one of D.C.’s more up-and-coming neighborhoods and met the rest of the picking crew. This being D.C., almost everyone had some kind of government background. I’m a recovering government employee, myself. After introductions, the distillery’s events manager, Ali, gave us the history of the distillery and its efforts to recreate the original Magnus pre-prohibition whiskeys.
Next, we entered the distillery itself. And just as quickly we were in the barrel room. To be producing a healthy whiskey portfolio, Magnus is a very small operation, with most of their own stuff still a work-in-progress other than two gins and a vodka (reviews are forthcoming on both gins). The barrel room is modest, even for a craft operation, with stacks of barrels, three or four high and mostly from MGP, patiently waiting to be turned into Straight Bourbon or Murray Hill Club or, for the very best, Cigar Blend or Reserve.
Space was limited in the barrel room, so instead of laying the barrels out and thiefing from them – the kind of romance you get at most of the bigger distilleries – a power drill was used to drill each barrel. Just like that, bourbon fountain! This is standard practice when distilleries aren’t putting on a show, but to be honest, I found it more entertaining than using a thief. After five barrels were opened like this from various corners of the room and everyone had their samples in front of them, we all proceeded to the truly fun part of any barrel pick: the drinking. The barrels in the Magnus pick had spent 12 long years aging. All were the same mashbill, yet no two tasted alike. From color, to nose, and most definitely taste, each was a unique exploration.
The useful, but sometimes infuriating, part of barrel picking with a group is comparing tasting notes. Being as we were all strangers up until an hour or so before then, the initial back and forth was cordial, if not even a little restrained. But with every additional sample of cask-strength bourbon, opinions flowed a little more easily. It didn’t take long to narrow it down to two, one classic and one more off-profile that was endearing because of its uniqueness but maybe not an everyday go-to. We had the option of custom cask-finishing, which Magnus does exceptionally well, but we chose instead to keep our barrel au natural. We shipped both of those samples off to Kenny and Ryan at the Bourbon Pursuit podcast for their final selection. They were paying for the barrel, after all.
After the pick, we all spent some time in the Murray Hill Club, Magnus’s on-site cocktail lounge and tasting room. Our last order of business was to name the barrel, which can sometimes be harder than picking it. Luckily, our shared professional joy/misery made for an easy consensus, and so we dubbed our selection “Department of Bourbon.”
The chosen barrel ended up being our more unique option with only 124 bottles in it, clocking in at a surprisingly low 94.2 proof at cask strength. It had a rich nose full of classic bourbon notes – sweet caramel, toffee, cinnamon, and dusty oak – but the palate pulled something of a 180 showing more garden veggies and herbs with creamed corn, dill, and fresh spearmint along with burly oak notes that came across as sandalwood, sawdust, and clove. The finish found some balance between the two, turning sweeter with a lingering bit of butterscotch. It drank like a bourbon far older than its 12 years and was nothing if not unique. At the end of the day, though, that’s one of the big reasons why bourbon enthusiasts seek out these private barrels.
Thanks to Magnus and the guys at Bourbon Pursuit for letting Drinkhacker tag along. Until next time!