Bar Belle: Bucket List crushed by a barrel of Weller

Barrel of Weller

Behold this barrel of Weller. | Photo by Sara Havens

It’s funny how a Monday morning can feel like a Friday afternoon when you’re inside Bonded Storage Building H, a metal-clad barrel warehouse nestled among Buffalo Trace Distillery’s sprawling 400 acres.

My job was to help a crew from Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen and Waylon’s Feed & Firewater pick the very best — or rather, most unique — barrel of Weller Antique 107, what the bourbon insiders simply call OWA. The bourbon is highly coveted and extremely rare to find in the wild, but you can sometimes find it on a bar shelf — and it makes an excellent, affordable pour.

A few months back, when Merle’s General Manager Wayne Sweeney asked if I wanted to accompany him and a handful of staff members on a Weller barrel pick, he was a bit taken aback when he had to pick up my jaw from the floor. A Weller barrel pick, to me, has been like chasing a unicorn — or finding a date on Tinder. It doesn’t happen often, if ever.

Warehouse H

Warehouse H was built in 1935 and is the distillery’s only metal-sided rick house. | Photo by Sara Havens

Say you came upon a unicorn while walking in Cherokee Park. What would you do first? Pet its rainbow-colored mane? Feel the tip of its horn? Look around to see if anyone else was witnessing this?

I’ve dreamed about the same scenarios with Weller bourbon.

What if I aimlessly wandered into a rick house and found four full Weller barrels just waiting to be thieved — not stolen, but thieved as in whiskey thief, a tool that gets the bourbon out of the barrel and into your glass?

Would I smell the bung hole first? Would I go straight for its sweet, warm nectar? Or would I simply stand back and behold its curves. (So maybe I do need that date.)

A brief time-out for those assuming Weller is my favorite bourbon. It is not.

I do love sipping on OWA when I can find it, but I truly don’t have a favorite — and I’m not just being politically correct. Or am I?

I can name a favorite at each distillery, but picking my No. 1 is like asking me which Spice Girl I like best. They’re all great in their own way, and my favorite tends to be the one you’re buying me later.

But back to the barrel pick.

After I had swum with dolphins in the Bahamas and drank five Hand Grenades in one sitting at the Tropical Isle in New Orleans, I had two spots open up on my Bucket List. Picking a barrel of Weller Antique took one of those spots about four or five years ago when I began writing more about bourbon and getting opportunities to accompany bars, restaurants and liquor stores on their picks.

To me, any day spent inside a rick house instead of chained to a desk is a good one, and I hardly ever turn down the opportunity when it’s presented. Besides, the more I’m around bourbon bad-asses, the more I learn how to not make an ass out of myself when writing about bourbon.

And how could I possibly present the proper facts about bourbon to you fine readers if I don’t know my way around a bung hole?

OK, now back to the barrel pick for real.

After a tour of the Buffalo Trace Distillery, essentially witnessing what happens behind the curtain of some of our favorite brands — Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, Pappy, E.H. Taylor, Weller, Elmer T. Lee, George T. Stagg, etc. — we made our way to the famed Warehouse H, where all barrel selections take place on site and where many Blanton’s barrels are stored.

Four 8-year-old barrels of Weller had been rolled out for our selection process, chosen specifically by Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley and his team for the single-barrel program. We then took turns thieving the bourbon from barrel to tasting glass, stealing enough from each barrel to produce two samples — one untouched at a hefty 118 proof, and one proofed down to 107, which is what it’ll be bottled at.

The beauty of a barrel pick is you’re tasting the juice in its purest form. There is no filtering, and in fact, the samples often contain specks of char floating about. Bourbon nerds dig that, and I could feel my heart skip a beat when I saw the char floating around like a snow globe from Gatlinburg.

Armed with a pen and a pad of paper, we each took turns sniffing, sipping and savoring the samples, scribbling down notes and trying to determine our favorite.

About 70 to 100 barrels go into a batch of Weller Antique, said our Buffalo Trace barrel select associate and bourbon scientist Susannah Huber, so getting the opportunity to taste one single barrel — let alone four — is not something I’ll forget anytime soon. It was rich, it was smooth, it had bite, it was decadent, it was delightful, it was a caramel sundae with charred nuts.

barrels inside the rick house

Warehouse H stores private barrel picks and Blanton’s. | Photo by Sara Havens

Sweeney gathered his thirsty crew and pointed out that he’d like to pick a barrel that tastes different from what comes in the bottle. Makes sense. If you’re going to pay thousands of dollars for your own pick, it probably should be more remarkable than what’s sitting inside the bottle next to it.

So with that direction in mind and with many, many sips later, we all agreed that barrel No. 2 presented some crazy caramel notes and had the smoothest, longest finish — with just a touch of heat. No. 2 had the best nose as well, and typically that’s a good indication that if it smells good, it’ll taste good. The same can’t be said about creamed corn, Yankee Candles or green Skittles.

With the big task under our belt, the day was done and it was time to step out of the rick house and back into the real world. A world where there is no char in your glass, where the scent of aging bourbon doesn’t permeate your senses, and where there is no access to Weller at barrel proof*.

I guess this means there’s another open spot on my Bucket List. Wonder what I should fill it with this time …

*The highly anticipated Weller Full Proof should be released later this summer at 114 proof.

Below are more photos of my Bucket List being crushed by a barrel of Weller: