Proof in picking
Private barrel pick are a bourbon enthusiast's dream; photos by Michael Hanlon
My first bourbon epiphany came courtesy of my uncle David, who would bring barrel strength, rare selections up from Pittsburgh summers and Thanksgiving holidays. In fact, just a few weeks ago a bottle of Bookers 25th anniversary edition (approximately 127 proof) showed up—a delicious, limited release from Jim Beam Distillery selling for upwards of $3,000 on the secondary markets. My palate has evolved since college, when filling flasks with Old Crow whiskey for ski trips was standard operating procedure (and totally fine and fitting for the purpose).
A little bourbon background: for a whiskey to be classified as an American bourbon its “mash bill”—the mixture of grains from which the product is distilled—must contain at least fifty-one percent corn and be aged in new charred white oak barrels. The rest of the mash usually consists of rye, wheat, or malted barley (other stipulations regarding proof, aging, etc. also apply). For American rye, the mash must be made up of at least fifty-one percent rye grain yielding a less sweet profile than bourbon.
Bourbon’s rise in popularity can certainly in part be attributed to the pandemic (along with a national bump in overall alcohol consumption). However, lately there has been a genuine shift in curiosity and education about bourbon. Nobody understands this more than Tommy Brunett, whose local distillery and Iron Smoke brand has garnered national acclaim from industry insiders and celebrities alike. “The bourbon landscape changed so quickly over the last five years,” Brunett says. “We are the perfect storm for many consumers and collectors because of our small batch process and attention to detail like hand signing labels and limited releases.” Which is why their bottles wind up on shelves all over the world.
“We do everything with intent, from what kind of char is on the barrels to knowing where all the grains come from,” he adds. “Collectors are forensic about bourbon.” Brunett has also observed the popularity of both men and woman ordering more brown spirits including bourbon cocktails as well as neat, a more civilized version of a shot for sipping. “It’s wonderful to see so many people appreciating and celebrating a true American heritage and cultural product.”
One of the hotter trends in whiskey of late is termed private barrel picks. This process affords enthusiasts a mechanism to score select, hard-to-find bourbon and whiskey at a reasonable price. It has also contributed to the increased buzz and relevancy that’s been realized in recent years. Barrel picking groups aren’t just a whiskey-of-the-month club. This program provides access to high-quality, rare bourbon and whiskey with an aspect of personalization and uniqueness to it.
Irondequoit resident Andy Fedor has been a member of one of the nation’s largest pick groups,The Rochester, NY Elite Barrel Pickers (Roc Elite), since its inception in 2018. “I first joined as more of a craft beer guy actually, with a moderate curiosity for bourbon and a desire to experience, learn, and taste more,” Fedor recalls. “And boy did I get more than I bargained for,” he says.
“It’s been an educational experience, a bonding opportunity, and the building of a new hobby,” he explains. He has amassed more than 250 bourbon selections as well as custom tasting barware, lifelong friends, and, oh yeah, a gorgeous six-seat LED-lit bar in his basement, which he built himself to show off his collection and entertain. “For me, it’s a fantastic way to get the best bourbon at reasonable prices, with access I wouldn’t otherwise have,” Fedor says.
Jeff March is the founder of Roc Elite, which now has 600 members, and offered them a number of exclusive releases (picks) this year. “The last four years have been a whirlwind,” says March, who is a single-barrel specialist who has worked in retail liquor sales as well. “I travel around the world, often with other members of the group, to select what I believe to be top private barrel picks for our group.” The benefits to members include access to limited, hard-to-attain spirts as well as having someone else, in this case an ultra-knowledgeable picker with an unmatched palate, do the leg work for them. They can then choose which releases they are interested in, allowing members a choice of brand, price point, and even type of spirit as the picks may also include wines, hard ciders, tequilas, and more. Members can often purchase multiple bottles from a given select pick. But snatching up a pick isn’t guaranteed, as members need to keep up on communication from the group and be ready to commit to a release in an instant. “The Rochester region has a bunch of people that are thirsty for good bourbon,” says March. “Our group is made up of a great cross section of demographics and income levels.” March also sees more women fueling bourbon’s continued renaissance: “Let’s face it, women have better palates than men.”
Fedor feels pretty blessed to be part of the Roc Elite group and is also one of its top purchasers, which affords him some perks. “I have a minimum expectation, like all members, to stay active in buying and probably spend thousands on bourbon and rye and buy about 200 bottles per year,” he estimated. “It’s helped me immensely in growing my collection,” he added. Camaraderie is an element of membership, too. Every few months March organizes a tasting at a different venue, where members gather to taste and share opinions and knowledge about a common interest.
Most of the purists like Fedor and March sip bourbon whiskey and rye neat or maybe with a drop of water added to open up the dram. But they do enjoy cocktails, too. Both mention the classic old fashioned or a Manhattan as favorites, but concur that one should only use quality vermouth, select bitters, and proper garnishes when concocting drinks. For instance, a true, classic old fashioned should never have muddled fruit and sugar at the bottom but rather just a twist of orange (or lemon) with no pith. It was refreshing to hear the passion, detail and high IQ level when listening to these connoisseurs over sips of several Willett rare releases (117 to 134 proof). There’s no question that bourbon is as big as ever, and we certainly have some local devotees who are all in. Vince DiGiorgio, owner of One Custom Clothier, has a secret bar in his store for a thank-you to customers and after-hours socializing.“I try to give someone an experience that they can’t find elsewhere,” DiGiorgio says. “I find that enjoying a fine brown liquor is about a connection between two people; that it isn’t necessarily about suits but rather mutual interests and conversation,” he adds. And Paulie Coonelly, the owner of Scotty’s Automotive in Brighton, displays a collection of whiskey and bourbon in his office exclusively consisting of gifts from happy customers (including a delicious bottle of 93 proof Old Forester 1910 from yours truly).
Andy Fedor admits that his bourbon infatuation is “a lot like other hobbies or obsessions, I suppose. Tattoos, fishing, golfing … you just can’t get enough and can’t wait for the next one.”