Spirited Stock: The Mystique of the Bespoke Barrel

spirited stock bar & restaurant

Having a top-tier collection of spirits draws discerning customers. However, having a custom-crafted spirit made exclusively for your bar starts conversations. Just ask Diane Corcoran of Chicago-based hospitality institution Lettuce Entertain You, who brings her personal passion for bourbon and craft whiskey to special offerings at Tre Dita and Miru restaurants at the St. Regis Chicago.

“Everybody wants what they can't have, and whiskey drinkers actively seek new things, especially if they are exclusive,” she says. “Whenever I go into a hotel restaurant or bar, if they have a single barrel spirit, that's absolutely what I'm drinking because I want to see how a distillery's personality and the restaurant's personality come together. That’s the basis on which I pick these barrels for my restaurants.”

“Bourbon has seen a huge renaissance after almost becoming non-existent,” says Jack Olshan, Director of Hospitality at Troy, Ohio-based Midmark Corporation, who also acknowledges that although the custom barreled spirit/cocktail trend has been around, it's now gaining momentum. “There’s a marketing genius that comes from [the advent of craft spirits] through new recipes and techniques. Today, people are anxious to try and purchase bottles of the new breed of bourbons and craft spirits. Hotel beverage managers are motivated to [get in on] private barrel programs with whiskeys and other spirits they can put their own spins on to get customers excited about the establishment.”

Underscoring Olshan’s point, a beautifully displayed brown spirit or a barrel-aged cocktail sparks attention and engagement between bartenders, managers, and customers. Current examples hitting venues in California include Pacifica Hotels’ Private Label and Barrel Program and the Hilton Anaheim’s collaboration with Utah’s High West Distillery. Hilton’s exclusive, served at the MIX Restaurant and Lounge, features High West expressions sourced from five distinct cooperages, including a straight bourbon expression finished off in the Barbados Rum Barrels for ten months to attain notes of peach, brown sugar and caramelized candied ginger. Pacifica Hotels’ program, developed by VP of Food & Beverage Mac Gregory, encompasses exclusives in collaboration with partners such as Herradura, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Whistle Pig, Old Forester, Rare Character, Cruzan, and Woodford to name a few.

Independent and artisanal distilleries are also on a proverbial roll in teaming with venues. Tennessee Hotel Partners teamed up with Leiper’s Fork Distillery for an exclusive offering at the 1799 Kitchen & Cocktails restaurant at The Harpeth, a Curio Collection by Hilton™ property in Franklin.

“Leiper’s Fork Distillery and The Harpeth Hotel made a natural fit for this collaboration [as] our two brands are aligned in many ways in telling the story of the close-knit Franklin community with a robust history,” said Lee Kennedy, owner of Leiper’s Fork Distillery.

According to Justin Foster, general manager of The Harpeth, the hotel team went through a month of blind tastings to curate a blend that embodies The Harpeth, its fabled whiskey collection, and the spirit of the greater community.

“The consumer has changed so much over the years, and the pandemic only sped that up,” says Chris Adams, CEO and founder of the Ellis Adams Group, a Los Angeles consulting operations firm that works closely with both large hotel groups like Marriott International and independent properties such as The Delphi Hotel Los Angeles. “They're looking for unique experiences...something that they can Instagram about. When you offer an exclusive barrel pick, it allows you to create a niche to draw in local and out-of-town customers to try a flavor profile you know they can't get anywhere else. Although the term is overused, the art of storytelling gives the bar team something to talk about with the guests.”

Daniel King, head bartender at Evelyn’s at Hutton Hotel in Nashville, makes a similar connection in describing its Heaven’s Door Single Barrel whiskey expression and Nashville’s ongoing appeal to locals and visitors alike as a “no-brainer.” He’s observed that in the past decade, single-barrel collaborations have added a partnership dynamic between hotels and distilleries as the whiskey brand a hotel partners with can really speak to the personality of the restaurant.

“Our out-of-town guests get to have a taste of our culture, and our locals get to drink in something that they can be proud of,” says King. “Partnering with a distillery helps elevate offerings in a meaningful way that adds identity to a drink. In our case, it also makes sense to partner with a whiskey brand tied to someone so foundational to music as Bob Dylan.” (Note: Heaven's Door was co-created by Bob Dylan.)

Christopher Lake, Food & Beverage Manager at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, meanwhile, details the way the Hilton San Diego Bayfront’s partnership with Buffalo Trace and Sazerac has driven traffic to the bar among both visitors and local guests. While moderate prices for the barrel and spirits sweeten the deal,  they are also key holders of the “unicorn four” in bourbon, which means the bar has access to highly-allocated bourbons. “We went through 60 liters of Buffalo Trace in a month,” he says. “We’re selling their product, and have their names printed in menus. It’s a good partnership for them.”

As every distillery has its own bespoke barrel program, Lettuce Entertain You’s Corcoran says that among those she works with, she and some of her team members will sample some expressions a distillery feels are exceptional and then pick out what they feel represents the St. Regis Chicago’s space the best. In some cases, she has a hand in blending and putting some different finishes on her expressions of choice.

“I just received our Maker's Mark Private Select barrels and tasted many differing finishes of the whiskey,” she says. “We then blended those together to get a special product that was going to fit in Miru, our Japanese restaurant, and Tre Dita, our Tuscan steakhouse, to create a recipe for a barrel that works at both. Also, as there are several craft distilleries in and around Chicago, the bar program allows me to showcase the best expressions and flavor profiles—something local, national, and international guests appreciate. This carries over to the cocktail lists for Miru and Bar Tre Dita.”

bespoke whiskey
Lettuce Entertain You's Tre Dita Tuscan steakhouse concept worked with Maker's Mark to create a unique whiskey. (Photo: Allison Gallese)

Rolling Towards Change

Lake recalls that craft beers and microbreweries dominated the beverage scene in San Diego a decade ago. However, bourbon began to become more popular in San Diego over the past five years, and he likens the phenomenon to “collecting art” in terms of customers seeking out new things and sourcing bottles for their home collections. This, in turn, has bolstered cocktail programs that feature barrel-aged creations.

“The bartending team at a high-end hotel lobby bar can get hit hard and fast with guests, so having a barrel-aged cocktail provides a quality, high-end product that can be executed at a high-volume level," says Lake. “Speed of service is key, and from the guest’s perspective, you’re creating a curated cocktail in-house. The effort and details surrounding the cocktail chosen, the barrel chosen, and the ingredients makes up an intriguing story for the customer.”

During her nine years in the field, Melissa Roldan, Bar Lead/Supervisor at The RoofTop at Exchange Place, in Jersey City, N.J., observed that during the 2010s, the market for brown spirits was confined to a predominantly older crowd and liquids were enjoyed neat or over ice. As the decade progressed, she found there was an explosion of requests for whiskey and brown spirits cocktails among a wider age group. There was also the realization among the bar team and customers that barrel-aged spirits were versatile and seasonless, with old fashioneds, Manhattans, and boulevardiers throughout the winter and whiskey sours, Kentucky mules, and mint juleps during the warmer months.

“The benefits of offering barrel-aged cocktails are gratifying for us as they help enhance the customers’ ability to grow in spirit knowledge,” she says. “We have a classic New York Sour cocktail on our ‘Whiskey Exchange’ menu that gives customers a chance to try a variety of whiskeys, as we are always alternating the selection of whiskey in the drink with differing big brand names and local distilleries. This gives tourist and locals an opportunity to try a variety of whiskies in an East Coast classic cocktail spirit against the backdrop of breath-taking Manhattan scenery.”

To keep up with the barrel-aged spirit’s evolution, Roldan notes that her team keeps track of customer requests for spirits from local distilleries, trending big brand releases, and adventurous infusions.

Adams, meanwhile, notes that for an independent hotel like The Delphi, his team works strategically and in a streamlined fashion to figure out the right brand or partner that will make the most sense for a highly specific target demographic.

In contrast, Gary Gruver, Marriott International’s Director of Beverage, works with Adams to focus on forming partnerships with companies like Sazerac (Buffalo Trace), Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Bacardi (Angel’s Envy), and others simultaneously to result in barrels that appeal to a broad base of visitors. In either case, the goal of teaming up a hotel restaurant/bar with a distiller to create a single-barrel whiskey is to show customers the hotel cares about the product being put in front of customers, regardless of a property’s size.

“The whole world of hospitality is founded on caring for our guests, so a guest can imagine how much a master distiller cares about the liquid that he/she has aged for years before putting it in that bottle,” says Gruver. “The guest will also consider how precious the experience of putting a glass of it to lips should be. I think Chris and I easily find common ground there.”

Although bringing in and rolling out the (exclusive) barrel involves a major investment for the labor and research involved in bringing something one-of-a-kind to life, Gruver says that special projects at different properties such as the JW Marriott in Orlando, even at $13,000 or $14,000 per barrel, holds huge revenue potential when done correctly. One successful collaboration can lead to others as the partnership between the hotel and distillery can lead to other unique expressions that will keep customers from near and far coming in and cheerfully paying for the experience.

“Hotels are the ones that can capitalize on this even when smaller properties may not be able to invest as much,” says Adams. “While we’re spending a lot of money on the front end, we know that it will produce great revenue for both sides. However, at a property like The Delphi, with five different food outlets targeting the same trend-setting demographic, this provides the advantage that guests can come into different restaurants five nights in a row and still feel they are going to someplace different even within the same hotel. Each signature Manhattan or old fashioned, or even a tequila barrel or cocktail, will be a completely different experience with its own story attached to it. Having a barrel exclusive to a restaurant or hotel communicates we have chosen something special for our customers.

Pacifica Hotels’ barrel program spans to properties in California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. According to Mac Gregory, VP of Food & Beverage at Pacifica Hotels, there are 16 private barrels in circulation achieved by his working directly with a master distiller to do a blend or pick a certain batch. Pacifica’s exclusives span different spirits categories—Don Q. Rum, Laphroaig Scotch, Herradura Tequila, Rare Character Bourbon, Knob Creek, Whistle Pig, and Garrison Brothers Bourbon, among others.

bespoke whiskey barrel csutom whiskey blend
Pacifica Hotels’ barrel program includes 16 private barrels in circulation. (Photo: Pacifica Hotels)

“The statement we are making is that we can provide an experience that can't be replicated anywhere else,” says Gregory. “We own all of it, and we bottled all of it. While it’s a pretty profound statement to say this, the fact that each one of our barrels tells a different story keeps customers from near and far coming in to different properties. For example, for King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Resort, I went out with my corporate director of food and beverage and executive chef to pick sugar cane crust to collaborate on with Kona-based Kuleana Rum Works. We visit Kentucky distilleries during the summer to source unique barrels. However, it’s important to stress that we need to sell through our barrels and move product to keep those distilleries and brands supporting our program. We need to make sure they are represented on our cocktail and bar menus.”

According to Olshan, it can be very profitable to bring in other local restaurants into a barrel program, especially if word gets out about an exceptional barrel or an expression combining liquid from several barrels. Even if different hotel restaurants establish their own specific identity based on their curated spirits selection, there are advantages to having different beverage managers or decision-makers get together to create an interesting barrel several restaurants can sell.

“We're fortunate enough to have several stand-out barrels from different distilleries, some of which that are very hard to come by,” explains Olshan, who points to barrel projects featuring Weller Antique 107, Old Hamer, and other small producers willing to take a risk in investing time and money to create special barrels that can end up being mutually beneficial to hotel and distillery. That collaboration, in turn, also leads to the creation of vintage-inspired, barrel-aged batched cocktails and thoroughly original creations that push the boundaries of how barrels can be used. He says this tactic allows the hotel to take advantage of every possible opportunity to capture a flavor profile customers love, even if not all of them are bourbon drinkers.

“We have a private barrel of Watershed (whiskey) from Columbus, and we will take that spirit and create a batch cocktail like an old fashioned, boulevardier, or whiskey sour,” he details. “From there, we can create a 2023 Vintage Old Fashioned, and then do one in 2024 and another in 2025. This enables us to offer guests a flight from a particular distillery, allowing them to compare the different nuances of what’s in each glass. We’re also working with a distillery that takes their leftover barrels and sends them to a tequila distillery that puts a tequila in the barrel that we selected. We have also taken some barrels to a local winery to create a bourbon barrel-aged cabernet. We took another one of our barrels and we filled it with honey to create bourbon barrel-aged honey that we use in the restaurant. We then took that honey out, took it back to that same winery, and put Riesling in it to create a bourbon barrel-aged honey Riesling that will begin selling soon.”

“The whiskey game right now is incredibly interesting because it's constantly changing,” says Corcoran on the big picture. “It’s not only great for business, but also keeps me curious to see where this goes in the next couple years as I predict our whiskey market is going to change drastically in the next two to three years. I love having conversations about stuff like this as much as the hotel’s customers, and I want to keep it going.”

bespoke whiskey
Hilton San Diego Bayfront has partenered with Buffalo Trace and Sazerac on barrels and barrel-aged cocktails. (Photo: Hilton San Diego Bayfront)


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