By Davis Coen
Bourbon lovers unite: High Cotton Wine and Spirits Warehouse will continue their growingly popular barrel programs, otherwise known as whiskey “barrel picks” or barrel selections, through the 2022 holiday season.
A whiskey barrel pick is when a retailer or restaurant/bar has developed a relationship with a favorite distillery and is able to personally go and select an entire barrel of whiskey that will then be bottled for them. In turn, the barrel will solely be available in that location.
Barrel picks tend to be available from bigger distilleries with inventories large enough to offer such programs to retailers, although other distilleries would likely offer these picks if they had higher production, in order just to sell more whiskey.
“No two barrels will ever taste identical,” said High Cotton owner Aaron Herrington, explaining the process of how his team goes about purchasing a single barrel select from a distillery.
“A lot of times with barrel selects, you’re getting not only a unique selection of bourbon, but you’re also getting a quality selection,” he said, of the programs going on for about five years now, since the store opened at its location on 2216 West Jackson Ave. in Oxford.
High Cotton is only among two other stores in the State of Mississippi that offer programs on such a large scale. At any given time, there are over 30 different barrels available to choose from, not just limited to whiskey but also including tequila, rum and other spirits.
Harrington and team members will travel to distilleries and personally hand-select barrels, a process which consists sometimes of tasting through five-to-ten from one distillery before selecting one they feel tastes best.
“Even among barrel selects we have different standards at different distilleries,” he said. “Sometimes we are looking for straight-up ‘the best’ barrel, and others, we are looking for the flavor profile that we think will best appeal to our customers. Other times, we’re looking for the most unique selection among the barrels.”
He regards these barrel picks as a way to develop a personal connection with customers, in the sense that consumers will have trust instilled in Harrington and his team’s ability to seek out a certain level of quality in the spirits they’ve selected for their store – and rely on their consistency and maintain confidence in their drinking palates.
Currently High Cotton has barrel selects from major distilleries, such as Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, Knob Creek, Wilderness Trail, WhistlePig, all Kentucky-based. Although one of the more unique barrel picks the store has dropped recently is a 6-year, 116.42-proof whiskey from Nashville Barrel Company, which was just made available to the Mississippi market.
Among about 20 barrels that Harrington expects soon are two of Ezra Brooks Cask Strength Single Barrel Select, about which his team describes one having “Initial notes of buttery vanilla transitioning quickly into a creamy cinnamon bomb,” and the other, “Up front notes of oak and black pepper, fading into a lingering finish of caramel nuttiness.”
Harrington said it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint when these anticipated barrels will arrive, although he hopes that most will be available during the holidays. “My guess is as good as anybody’s,” he said, although added that their next Four Roses and Weller 107 barrels are most certainly in route.
With regards to the growing success of High Cotton’s barrel program since opening, Harrington said they began with only two barrel selects – did about eight the following year – and are now doing roughly 40 picks. “Every year we will continue to select new barrels from different distilleries, so the selection being offered is constantly changing,” he said. And as far as the lifespan of a barrel at the store, he said some of the more highly anticipated ones are liable to sell out the same day they arrive, as others may linger for a year, hinging partly on popularity or brand familiarity.
“There’s a lot that goes into how long a particular barrel will be available,” said Harrington. “For instance, I have two different Maker’s Mark barrels in the store right now, one of which is low in stock and likely to sell out soon, but I’m going there next week to pick another barrel which should arrive in the spring. So, we are regularly and constantly picking new barrels that will phase into the barrel program, whereas some other barrels may phase out just because they are sold out.”
Harrington intends to continue developing High Cotton’s barrel program, and credits the largest factor to simply being availability, because the distilleries only have so much of a product to offer. “Certain distilleries have essentially what equates to a waiting list, but not quite,” he said. “You can’t just say, ‘I want one.’ There are a lot of factors that determine who gets barrels. Some decided by the distilleries, others by the companies that represent the product in Mississippi.”
All of High Cotton’s barrel selects are available for daily tasting, although they’re limited in the amount that they’re allowed to pour, just based on ABC regulations. But customers can sample them, as well as a variety of other products on hand at any given time.
“At the end of the day, it’s about just trying to focus on giving our consumers a quality product that we’re willing to vouch for, and most barrel selection programs are considered one of the premiere offerings from distilleries,” said Harrington.
“It’s barrels hand-selected by us for our customers, so it’s a product that we want to put in the hands of our consumers that we really have confidence in.”