It’s not a new concept. “The Scottish have been doing it for centuries,” says Scott Crestodina of Independent Spirits liquor store in Chicago. And back in the 1960s and ’70s, the Van Winkle family made some private barrel selections of bourbon for individual customers at the old Stitzel-Weller distillery in Shively, Kentucky, “that would make your head spin,” says Matt Colvin, a beer and spirits buyer at CoolVines in Jersey City, New Jersey.
But private selections are no longer so specialized—they’re showing up in big and small liquor stores around the country in greater numbers each year. Colvin explains that the trend “has boomed with the rest of the whiskey market” and that some distilleries have seen such huge increases that they’ve had to limit the private barrels they sell.
Crestodina is similarly proud of his selections for Independent Spirits. “We have gained a small following for the barrels we’ve selected,” he says, adding that the efforts are the effort is a nice way to feed the store’s social media accounts. Loyal customers also tout the barrels on social media, promoting the liquor store in the process. Crestodina also says that the staff is more enthusiastic about batches they help choose. It’s the liquor store equivalent of staff selections at an independent bookstore. “Excitement sells,” he says. “I get a little sad every time one runs out.”
For Colvin, the private bottlings are worthwhile, in part, because they enable him to provide a unique experience for his clientele—one that he personally curates. “It offers customers insight into what we are trying to do here,” he says. “They have come to know and trust my palate. I have customers who ask if I have new barrels in stock, and if I do, they will take several bottles without tasting [the spirit].”