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Distillers take great pride in the whiskies they make. It takes a lot of work to make sure the grain meets quality standards, that the yeast is properly cared for and the mashbill has all the flavors needed before the liquid is strained and put into barrels.
But sometimes distillers make too much or don’t make enough. Jeff Hopmayer then goes to work buying and selling that whisky. In this episode, Jeff tells us how he works his magic around the world and sources the whisky distillers need to match a specific flavor profile.
Whisky is aged in barrels that are stored in rickhouses. The facilities run from two stories to many stories tall. The height has an impact on the taste of your whisky.
Whisky gets color and flavor from the barrel’s wood. Rickhouses allow air to flow freely through the building. Since hot air rises, it is warmer at the top of the building than at the bottom. Barrels in the warmest parts of the rickhouse absorb more whisky as the liquid expands. Likewise, when the weather turns cold, the liquid retreats from the wood. This “in and out” gives the whisky its flavor and color.
Then there is evaporation. Water molecules are smaller than alcohol molecules, so they are able to escape from the wood into the air. That reduces the amount of liquid in the barrel and the whisky ages faster. The warmer barrels give up more water while those on the bottom give up less.
Whisky from the top of the rickhouse will taste different from whisky stored near the bottom. The Master Blender mixes barrels from throughout the rickhouse to provide consistency to the product. Which brings us to small batch bourbons and single barrel bourbon.
Generally, small batch is a mixture of selected barrels from the rickhouse and has a flavor different from its primary product. Four Roses, for example, has its basic brand, its small batch and its single barrel. Small batch is the mixture.
Single barrels are exactly what you’d think – the drink comes from a single barrel. What that means is that unless you’re buying another bottle from the same barrel, each bottle will taste different. If you appreciate that variety, it can be fun. If you want more consistency, stay with small batch or the standard label.
And, if you have lots of cash on hand, some distillers allow you to taste different barrels from the rickhouse, then buy the whole barrel you like best. The base price on something like that is about $10,000, including bottling. It can cost much more depending on the product.
Keep in mind a couple of things: The longer the whisky has been in the barrel, the less of it there will be and evaporation is the culprit. If it’s a really old whisky, it will cost more because of the expense of holding it so long. Plus, after about eight years, the whisky has gotten all the benefit it’s going to get from the wood. Every product is different, but if someone wants to sell you 15-year-old whisky, the price will have more to do with the reduced volume in each barrel and the storage cost than it will with taste.