Back Door owner John Dant tastes from three barrels.
Back Door owner John Dant tastes from three barrels. | Photos by Sara Havens.

How much do you love bourbon? Do you love it enough to drop $6,500 on your very own hand-picked single barrel of Old Forester? It equals about 170-200 750 ml bottles — or all of your holiday/birthday gifts for the next few years. You never have to buy fruit cake again!

One barrel will yield 168-198 bottles.
One barrel will yield 168-198 bottles.

Brown-Forman started the single barrel-buying program about a year and a half ago for bourbon fanatics who dreamed of having their very own barrel. Most of the customers, it turns out, buy the one-of-a-kind barrel for their restaurant, bar or liquor store. The first year, Brown-Forman figured they’d sell about 50, but after they hit 80, they realized they’d need to allocate some existing Old Forester stock to the program.

If you’re fortunate enough to have an extra $6,500 and nab a spot with Brown-Forman, the experience of selecting your own barrel is truly remarkable, especially for bourbon geeks like myself. I don’t have $6,500 lying around, but I did manage to tag along with John Dant, owner of the Back Door in the Highlands, as he and a few friends selected a bottle for the bar’s 30th anniversary in January.

The five-hour experience included a behind-the-scenes tour of the Brown-Forman Distillery in Shively, where the tasting was held, along with a presentation by Senior Brand Communications Partner Tim Holz on the history of Old Forester, a trip to the Brown-Forman-owned cooperage near the airport, and lunch back at the Brown-Forman cafeteria on Dixie Highway.

Marianne Barnes tests the proof.
Marianne Barnes tests the proof.

During the tasting, which was my favorite part, our group was led by Master Taster Marianne Barnes, who walked us through samples of the existing Old Forester brands — 86 proof, 100 proof and Birthday Bourbon — so that we’d have a base knowledge of what kind of tastes we were after. Of course our single-barrel bourbon will taste slightly different since Old Forester batches its bourbon from barrels of various ages.

We drew out bourbon from three barrels selected for us, and as Barnes did her scientific tests to determine the proof, she explained that each barrel, even if they’re right next to each other in the warehouse, has varying proofs due to evaporation, also known as the angel’s share. She said in rare cases, they will open up a barrel and find absolutely nothing inside. (Must have been one thirsty angel.)

Dant selects lucky barrel No. 3.
Dant selects lucky barrel No. 3.

Barnes determined we were working with 129-proof bourbon on sample No. 1, 131.4-proof for No. 2, and 132.4-proof for No. 3. All three barrels had been aging since March 30, 2010, as evidenced by the stamp on the front. She led us through each sample and urged us to nose it first for the aromas. We then added a capful of water to each to get it down to 90 proof, which is what the bourbon will be bottled at.

Barnes and the barrels.
Barnes and the barrels.

The water noticeably changed the flavors and opened up the bourbon, making it smoother and easy to swallow. Dant was a fan of No. 3 from the get-go, and after the water was added, it was the hands-down favorite of the panel. With strong notes of oak, maple and vanilla, the bourbon was also spicy and herbal.

I suggested it was fitting that the No. 3 sample was selected for the bar’s third decade in business, and someone else pointed out that the date of the barrel — March 30 — also went back to that magic number three (3/30).

Dant’s bottles will be ready by January, he hopes, and depending on how much bourbon was in that barrel, he’ll get 28-33 six-pack cases of 750 ml bottles. Each bottle also will come adorned with a souvenir tag around the neck with the Back Door’s name etched on it.

It’s worth noting that this is Dant’s second time selecting a barrel for the bar — the last one, which he started selling in late July, lasted only a few months. Dant charges a mere $4.25 for his single-barrel, which is a steal. Asked if he might raise the price since demand is so high, he shook his head no and said, “It’s for our anniversary … it’s my way of thanking my patrons.”

The Brown-Forman Cooperidge was part of the barrel-selecting experience.
A trip to the Brown-Forman Cooperage was part of the barrel-selecting experience.
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Sara Havens
Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville, known around town as the Bar Belle (barbelleblog.com). She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."