We want to pick something incredibly unique for the group, or as unique as we can possibly get,” said Andrew Watson, founder of the British Bourbon Society, on a recent trip to Kentucky to select private barrels for the group. “We don’t want anything to taste exactly like the regular single barrels you can get. What we look for is something people will know is from that brand but is also possibly from a brand they haven’t tried before, something unique that they won’t be able to find anywhere else.”
Watson, along with Chris Neville, who runs the BBS in the northern part of the United Kingdom, as well as award winning retailer Master of Malt head spirits buyer Guy Hodcroft, made the rounds of several Kentucky distilleries earlier this year, picking barrels from Kentucky Peerless, Woodford Reserve, and Wilderness Trail in the hope of making more single barrel Bourbons available to British connoisseurs.
The first barrel the group picked was from FEW in Illinois, and it was met with such enthusiasm from members they decided to try to do six private barrels a year with different American whiskey brands.
“It started as ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’ and we were talking to people in the States on social media and they were getting these single barrels, and there were no American whiskey single barrels really to speak of at the time,” says Watson. “So we said, let’s see if we can do this, and we were kind of at the right place at the right time with the group and we’ve gone from six members to over 2000 in less than three years.”
The first barrel pick the trio did this trip was at Woodford Reserve, a distillery that Watson says is the one ‘where it all began’ for him, where they were able to pick the first single barrel of Woodford Reserve Double Oaked in Europe.
“Woodford Reserve is a ‘picture postcard’ distillery,” says Watson, “the kind you’d draw from memory despite never setting foot in one. Stone walls, a river running through it and those familiar copper stills larger than you can imagine, all set within a backdrop of Kentucky countryside.”
The second barrel pick from the trip came from Wilderness Trail, a distillery Watson says they learned about from Fred Minnick. BBS was the first to be able to pick a barrel of the distillery’s wheated Bourbon.
“Our intrigue got the better of us and we reached out, to be met with open arms by two of the nicest chaps you could ever hope to meet,” Watson says. “What stuck in our minds was prior to our arrival, how other distillers we spoke to, spoke of them and how talented they are.
"They are scientists, there’s no doubt about it and have made a living from outsourcing their expertise to the industry to a point where it funded their own distillery operation and now are leveraging that same expertise to fill their own barrels with the result of years of research. We’ve tasted the result, and it’s damn good!”
Whisky Magazine caught up with the trio at Kentucky Peerless as they were selecting a barrel of rye whiskey, somewhat controversial for a group with Bourbon right in the name.
“We picked a few ryes and people said ‘you’re the Bourbon society, why are you picking ryes?’,” said Neville, “but something like this could be a good bridge to those people who say they’re not necessarily rye drinkers.”
“We spent two days with Kentucky Peerless in Louisville,” says Watson. “This was a brand we were introduced to more than a year ago by Mike Veach on a visit to London. He brought it with him to one of our ‘bring your own bottle’ events and at two years old, we were smitten with their rye.
"Fast forward one year and we held a blind tasting of 10 rye whiskies from around the world. Kentucky Peerless came out on top and it was clear we needed more of this in our lives and were delighted that Kentucky Peerless were happy to oblige.”
“We were given a tour that surpassed all expectations, their facility is beautiful and in keeping with traditional Louisville décor of red brick walls,” Watson continues. “Whilst being shown around by Corky Taylor, we couldn’t help but feel that this was not a job to Corky, [and he] was now doing something that he loved. Peerless are also blessed with talent from top to bottom and Caleb Kilburn is their prized asset. As humble as he is genius with his ability to pull flavour from every point in the distillation process. Their three year rye is testament to their labours, and I’m now convinced that low entry proof and sweet mash is the way forward despite the cost and resource expenditure. The decision was unanimous and we opted for a rye that had a creamy mouthfeel with notes of French toast, marzipan and custard. We named our barrel ‘the Modjeska’ on advice from Maggie Kimberl who reliably informed us it was a local confectionery that tasted just like it and gave another element of Louisville to our members back home.”
So how did this group, which started as a meet-up between six Twitter friends just three years ago, grow to include thousands of members clamouring for greater access to Bourbon and other American whiskeys?
“The rapid growth of the British Bourbon Society can be attributed in part to the rise in American whiskey drinkers this side of the pond and with that the new brands that want to capitalise,” says Watson, “but we have also put in a lot of time and effort to realise what we had originally deemed a pipe-dream. None of those involved in running things are part of the industry, though I’m sure we are now regarded as just that. We have built the foundations for a community that has gone on to form lasting friendships through the medium of whiskey. That was the genesis of The BBS and that’s what keeps us motivated. This to us is what Bourbon is all about.”