They say you always remember your first time. I sure do. Mexico. Herradura hacienda. Super Bowl MVP Emmitt Smith of the five-time championship Dallas Cowboys was there…
Well, truth be told, he wasn’t just there. He was the reason I was there. He, and I, and a number of others gathered at the hacienda to explore the exciting new-to-us world of select barrels. The ultimate gift for the tequila connoisseur, and the football legend who wants to show his pals a good time.
Despite our opposing team loyalties (lifelong DC football fan here), Emmitt and I found common ground when it came to finding just the perfect (for him) tequila. Experiencing alongside him the joy of tasting through a number of barrels before finding the one that perfectly suits your taste and you feel is “mine!” produced the same level of joy discovered when you descend upon that perfect suit/sweater/dress/pair of shoes at a store; you have found something to wear that perfectly defines you and you can’t wait to share it with others. Imagine experiencing this own joy at your bar! And… making money from it.
That’s what select barrel programs are. And it’s not just for tequila. Or winning ring-wearing, dance legend football players. These programs are perfect for your bar.
Much like the logo you’ve designed, the décor you’ve selected, the menu you created and the ambiance and hospitality experience you deliver a select barrel or signature barrel says a lot about your business. It signals – quietly, from the back bar – that you’re an establishment with serious taste and the ability to provide guests with an experience like no other. Literally no other. And, in some cases, for a limited time.
And what’s more compelling for building guest retention than letting a guest know their experience is totally unique? That that one blissful moment they shared at your bar will never happen anywhere else? Talk about a captive audience!
Moments like this are why Peter Nevenglosky of Rare Character Spirits created the single barrel program with his co-founder Pablo Moix. They describe the firm as an independent bottler of American whiskey inspired by traditions of Scotland where they’ve taken a page from Scotland’s Gordon & MacPhail’s book, and other bottlers with a longstanding tradition in Europe, of presenting really great single bottles curated for a group or individual.
He shares the desire to bring something to bars that for so long had been the unique purview of whisk(e)y clubs and foreign collectors, “There’s a history of interesting developments in American whiskey born out of people not wanting to buy American whiskey. So if you look at Pappy (Van Winkle) bottles in Japan, barrels done for Danny Meyer’s restaurants, there was a lot of creativity and unique labeling that has gone on, and this doesn’t even include things like whisky clubs that apply stickers with images of the Incredible Hulk, and more.”
It’s unlikely an Incredible Hulk sticker is going to entice a guest to pay a premium price for a glass of whiskey that can’t be found anywhere else, so Rare Character asked, “What if we brought that idea back, but in a thoughtful way. What if we offered a range of bourbons and ryes with package identity that brought the account’s vision to life and deliver meaningful value?”
It worked for Nate Hedlund, the Beverage Director at Sahara Las Vegas who oversees twelve bars on property. He was eager to have an offering unique to the resort that would create guest delight and inspire guest loyalty in a different way than he had before.
We all know that private barrels are not entirely new concepts at this time, it was a long time ago that Mr. Smith and I went to Mexico, but it may be a long time since you considered it. You can, like Smith did, go to a hacienda and pick out your own barrel of tequila to keep on your shelf, or head south to somewhere like Buffalo Trace for a private barrel select which looks cool when sitting on your shelf. It signals something to the guest…that it’s one of a kind and unique because it is only available there.
But… it is still a bottle of a well known spirit. It’s not truly seen as your own.
At least not until you put your own custom designed label on it. And that’s the piece that really appealed to Hedlund, especially as the resort was marking its 50th anniversary. He explains, “When you do a private barrel of a spirit it’s cool because you picked it out, but with Rare Character, we can market the property. You can make a whiskey barrel come to life with the graphics.”
He brought that barrel to life with design that boldly announced the bar’s heritage and made it a destination as he says, “We started off with a hi rye barrel and the very first Sahara sign was our logo. The next barrels we chose ended up in bottles where we glammed it up a little bit and our label moved into the 1960s and took on the look of the playing cards of that era. This year, at our 50th anniversary, we took another high rye that had been aged in madeira casks and selected an abv of 52%. There’s a reason for all of it; for example, we opened in 1952, and Madeira is made in the country closest to the shores of Africa.”
That sort of “only here” story appeals to the whiskey connoisseur looking for a memorable and unique experience. And draws them in to the Sahara as Hedlund attests, “With all these serious whisky drinkers we build a relationship with them through the property they’re at. We’ve had whiskey collectors drive in from San Diego to try our Sahara Whiskey.”
Trey Wade, the man newly tasked with leading the Private Barrel Program at Blue Run Whiskey and overseeing their corporate partnerships and culinary alignment recognizes the value in a bar putting its monogram on a bottle of his spirit and he looks forward to making the curated experience more widely available to bars beginning in the spring.
He comments on the value of having a bar of private labeled Blue Run on your bar when trying to appeal to a select customer, “To distill it down – no pun intended – a private or single barrel is a way to offer a limited time offer that’s representative of the true craft of this whiskey, but in a focused and targeted way.”
This ability to target a certain kind of customer (hopefully the kind which will come back for more, come back to see what else is next, and will send their friends in to try it) is a commitment, but one that can pay off when you commit to creating a curated experience around a single product.
Wade notes, “Everything that’s going into our barrel program is dedicated to giving the buyer a tailored experience – I get to choose: proof, blend, design aspects – this is a program where the consumer gets to touch way more of the process than I’ve ever seen. This offering is an opportunity to see what those inputs look like individually.”
He continues, “We only have a certain number of barrels allocated, so this says exclusive! You’ve shown yourself as a quality space for folks to consume spirits and you’re able to say we picked this product because it represents who we are as a bar.
Or, in Hedlund’s case, a bar, a restaurant, and the package store on property where guests who loved what they sipped at the bar can buy a bottle and take home a piece of the Sahara.
Not every bar has the ability to let guests take home with them what they loved in their glass, but they do have the opportunity through private barrel programs to choose the spirit that best represents their menu and offer bartenders a robust story to tell guests.
Worth the time and effort and storage space to get involved and find a new way to delight your guests? As Wade points out it is really, “No different than chef going to the market to pick his ingredients.”