Grind Time: Wild for whiskey

Jan. 28, 2014 | 0 Comments

Some of the "Private Barrel Selection" bottles of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve selected by Hawaii-based bar owners and retailers were sampled during a dinner at O'Toole's Irish Pub on Jan. 7, (Star-Advertiser photo by Jamm Aquino)

Some of the “Private Barrel Selection” bottles of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve selected by Hawaii-based bar owners and retailers were sampled during a dinner at O’Toole’s Irish Pub on Jan. 7, (Star-Advertiser photo by Jamm Aquino)

BY JASON GENEGABUS / jason@staradvertiser.com

As whiskey grows in popularity around the United States, fans of the brown drink are always looking for the next unique bottle offering from distilleries both domestic and international.

Spend some time in the liquor department at your neighborhood supermarket, and you’ll find Kentucky bourbon on the shelf next to whisky from places like Scotland, Ireland and Canada. Visit a specialty liquor store, and the same bottles will be there alongside a few more brands that may be unrecognizable to those who don’t drink the stuff.

Still, living in Hawaii means we don’t necessarily get access to limited edition and other specialty bottlings reserved for larger cities with customers willing to spend hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars per bottle. Some bottles are produced with no plans to ever sell them in the United States. (Luckily, there are Continental U.S. and European retailers willing to ship to Hawaii.)

What if you don’t feel like spending $100 or more on a bottle of hooch, or balk at the insane shipping charges that come into play when ordering online? A more affordable option is getting into single barrel offerings from various American distilleries. Big brands like Blanton’s, Elijah Craig, Jack Daniel’s, Willet and Four Roses all offer whiskey produced from a single barrel instead of blending a larger number of barrels together to create a more consistent flavor profile.

Pint & Jigger owner Dave Newman noses a bottle of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. (Star-Advertiser photo by Jamm Aquino)

Pint & Jigger owner Dave Newman noses a bottle of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. (Star-Advertiser photo by Jamm Aquino)

By forgoing the blending process, buying a bottle of single barrel bourbon is more of an adventure than picking up a “regular” bottle of mainstream whiskey. Distilleries store hundreds of barrels at a time in warehouses, and the location of each individual barrel affects the flavor of the finished product. So even if you purchase two bottles of the same brand, there may be slight differences in taste between the two. Still, single barrel bourbon isn’t really that rare when you consider its mass-market availability.

So how can you purchase something truly one-of-a-kind without having to break the bank? Some distilleries offer what’s known a “private barrel selection program” that allows select bars, restaurants and retailers access to the process used to pick single barrel offerings. Once a barrel is chosen, it gets bottled and personalized with the name of the business that purchased it.

Here in Hawaii, few establishments take advantage of these programs, often due to the expense involved in buying an entire barrel at a time ($6,000 for approximately 200-250 bottles, depending on each barrel’s evaporation rate) as well as sending a representative to the distillery to actually pick out a barrel for bottling. With the arrival of Beam Inc. state manager Bryan Hansen in 2012, however, we may start to see more of these bottles on store shelves and in cocktails at bars around the state.

Last year, Hansen took a small group of Hawaii-based bar owners and retailers to the Knob Creek Distillery in Clermont, Ken. to participate in their barrel selection program. Among those in attendance were Justin Park of Manifest in Chinatown; Dave Newman and Hideo Simon of Pint & Jigger in Moilili; Fujioka’s Wine Times store director Jason Fukeda; Jason Vendrell from Monkeypod Kitchen; and James Owens from the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

“To go there and see the distillery, smell the environment and just be there makes all the difference,” said Hansen, who hosted a reunion dinner for the group at O’Toole’s Irish Pub earlier this month. “The chance to go there and taste 15 barrels is pretty cool, too.”

Bottles of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve from barrels selected by Fujioka's Wine Times, right, and Pint & Jigger. Knob Creek's "Private Barrel Selection Program" allows retailers to travel to the distillery and select their own barrel for bottling. (Star-Advertiser photo by Jason Genegabus)

Bottles of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve from barrels selected by Fujioka’s Wine Times, right, and Pint & Jigger. Knob Creek’s “Private Barrel Selection Program” allows retailers to travel to the distillery and select their own barrel for bottling. (Star-Advertiser photo by Jason Genegabus)

While at the distillery, the group participated in a standard tour offered to all visitors. Thanks to Hansen’s contacts, however, they were also able to get a behind-the-scenes look at Knob Creek’s operations, as well as spend a bit of time with Jim Beam master distiller Fred Booker Noe III (Beam Inc. owns Knob Creek).

“We took the standard tour, but we also got to hang out at Fred Noe’s house,” Hansen explained. “When we were there, the entire global executive leadership team from Beam Incorporated was there. But instead of going to the leadership meeting on time, he was 45 minutes late so he could come hang out with us!”

Despite the VIP access, many of those who went on the trip said selecting their respective barrels was still the highlight of their visit. The group was escorted to one of Knob Creek’s older storage warehouses, where more than a dozen barrels were pulled for them to taste.

According to the Knob Creek website, the distillery’s Single Barrel Reserve is a small batch, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey aged for nine years and bottled at 120 proof (60% ABV). The final product is Knob Creek’s “darkest and deepest amber” in color, with “deep and complex flavors of vanilla, nuts and oak.”

Jason Vendrell, left, beverage director for Monkeypod Kitchen, and Justin Whiting, bartender at Manifest, taste Monkeypod Kitchen's bottling of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. (Star-Advertiser photo by Jamm Aquino)

Jason Vendrell, left, beverage director for Monkeypod Kitchen, and Justin Whiting, bartender at Manifest, taste Monkeypod Kitchen’s bottling of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. (Star-Advertiser photo by Jamm Aquino)

Part of the fun at this month’s reunion dinner was the opportunity to try a number of the bottles selected during the trip. We got to sample Knob Creek from barrels selected by Fujioka’s, Pint & Jigger, Monkeypod Kitchen and downtown high-end shoe retailer Leather Soul, who partnered with Manifest to acquire a barrel of their own for use as gifts to loyal customers.

All were tasty, easy-drinking bourbons, but once lined up side by side, each barrel’s individual characteristics began to emerge.

The Leather Soul and Pint & Jigger barrels, for example, were the sweetest of the bunch, while the Fujioka’s barrel featured a little more smoke and spice. The Monkeypod Kitchen barrel fell somewhere in between — not too sweet, not too spicy, but just right.

Manifest co-owner Justin Park helped pick three of the barrels, selecting one on behalf of Leather Soul and assisting Fukeda on his choice while the two were in Kentucky (they ended up choosing the same barrel even before comparing tasting notes!).

“For me, it’s all about over the counter, handshake relationships,” said Park. “Going to Knob Creek put faces to the words on the bottle, I guess you could say. We got to see the history, the people who make it, how they make it and where they make it. It gives you a new respect for the product.”

“It’s a way to do something different,” said Simon of Pint & Jigger. “Bourbons are great, and it’s fun to have our name on the bottle.”

While the Leather Soul barrel isn’t available to the general public, a few bottles have shown up behind the bar at Manifest. Monkeypod Kitchen offers the whiskey at both its Oahu and Maui restaurants, as does Pint & Jigger at its location on South King; visitors to the Hilton Hawaiian Village will need to make reservations at Bali by the Sea for an opportunity to try their barrel.

Bryan Hansen, Hawaii state manager for Beam Inc., left, smiles as Leather Soul owner Tom Park opens a bottle of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve bottled for his business. (Star-Advertiser photo by Jamm Aquino)

Bryan Hansen, Hawaii state manager for Beam Inc., left, smiles as Leather Soul owner Tom Park opens a bottle of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve bottled for his business. (Star-Advertiser photo by Jamm Aquino)

For those who want to buy a bottle to drink at home, the only option is Fujioka’s at Market City Shopping Center. At about $50 per bottle, the whiskey is moderately priced — while not the cheapest bottle on the shelf, it’s a very affordable option compared to others priced at $75 to $100, or more.
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“Grind Time” is always looking for the latest places to get your grub on. Email Jason Genegabus with restaurant, bar or any other food/drink-related item at jason@staradvertiser.com and follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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