Any bar or restaurant can have a lengthy whiskey list by buying every bottle a distributor sells; it just takes the financial resources to lay out the cash.
Increasingly, whiskey-obsessed bars and restaurants are going the next step by selecting individual barrels that become theirs to sell exclusively. While that draws customers, it also has downsides, including the initial cost, the volume of liquor that comes in a barrel (as many as 250 750-mL bottles), and the limits individual distilleries place on the number of single barrels they’re willing to sell.
Given those challenges, it should come as no surprise that two of the city’s most bourbon-loving restaurant groups — Underbelly Hospitality (Underbelly, Hay Merchant, One Fifth) and Agricole Hospitality (Coltivare, Eight Row Flint, Revival Market) — have joined forces to form the Houston Bourbon Consortium: a new organization that will purchase single barrel selections for both companies’ properties.
Underbelly partner Kevin Floyd tells CultureMap that he approached Agricole co-owner Morgan Weber about the idea after he realized they were competing for barrels from the same distilleries. After all, if only a couple of single barrels of a certain spirit have been allocated for Texas, they probably wouldn’t both come to Houston. Together with Floyd’s business partner, chef Chris Shepherd, the HBC was born.
“We’ve been friends for 10 years. We started talking about it,” Floyd says. “Do you really need an entire barrel for your bars? Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense if we bought together and split it up? That way we could get more product and have less of an obligation to sell it.”
The first selection makes its debut this week at both restaurant groups' businesses. They selected a barrel of Maker’s Mark Private Select that uses 10 staves with different levels of char to recreate the flavor of a 1965 bottle of Old Fitzgerald that’s part of Weber’s personal collection. Old Fitz is a product of the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery that also created Pappy Van Winkle.
“Morgan brought up that the Van Winkle family helped Bill Samuels start Maker’s Mark,” Floyd says. “He gave Bill the recipes, the yeast, and the still design. Makers is probably the closest to the old Stitzel Weller flavor that still exists.”
Floyd hadn’t had the opportunity to taste the final product, but he’s optimistic they’ve come as close to recreating the flavor as possible. That’s good news for fans of “old dusties,” the bourbon enthusiast nickname for prized bottles of antique spirits, who otherwise might not get to experience the differences between the taste of it and newer products.
Patrons of the group’s various establishments could probably drink the entire barrel, but the HBC has decided to make a few cases available for retail purchase at Houston Wine Merchant and Nasa Liquor. The first allotment sold out quickly, but more bottles will be available on Friday, January 12, for about $65.
Next up will be a barrel of Knob Creek Rye. In February, the group is going to the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries to select between four and eight barrels that will make up the remaining releases for 2018.
“I think we’ll maybe do some 1792, some Weller Antique,” Floyd says. “With the Weller stuff, we’ll pick (non-chill filtered). There’s a possibility for a Blanton’s barrel. Then the Russell’s will be Russell’s Reserve. Trying to talk them into letting us do some rye.”
In the future, the group might even acquire non-bourbon whiskeys. Floyd recalls being approached about purchasing a bourbon barrel-aged whiskey from Kavalan, the acclaimed Taiwanese distillery, but he balked at the $50,000 price. Spreading that out across as many as nine concepts, including all the new establishments both companies have in the pipeline, would make the acquisition more viable. Still, the group has its name for a reason.
“It’s going to mainly be bourbon, because that’s what we can get our hands on. Expect to see ryes. Expect to see more as we show producers we can move it,” Floyd says. “We started as ‘hey this sounds like a good idea.’ It’s actually going to grow into a cool thing that’s going to really help us out.”