Interview: Choosing Store Pick Whiskeys with the NHLC’s Mark Roy
Single barrel store pick whiskeys have recently emerged as a major trend for beverage alcohol retailers. But the New Hampshire Liquor Commission was well ahead of this movement. In 2001, staff from the NHLC control organization traveled to Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee. The NHLC bought only one barrel, and worried that those bottles would not sell out in the state’s stores.
In 2018, the last time the commission visited Jack Daniel’s, they came back with 153 barrels. This was part of a picking spree at seven distilleries in four days, where the NHLC set records in terms of the number of barrels bought.
Behind the commission’s robust and nationally recognized single barrel program is Mark Roy, NHLC Spirits Marketing & Sales Specialist. He’s been picking barrels since 2012 — including a recent 86th anniversary celebration bottle for the NHLC with Barton 1792’s Thomas S. Moore, appropriately bottled at 86 proof. We recently caught up with Roy to discuss the rise of store picks and his own process for choosing whiskeys.
Beverage Dynamics: Why have single barrel store pick whiskeys taken off so much?
Mark Roy: It’s the uniqueness of it. Anybody can go and grab a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel off the shelf. But with the single barrel picks, people can grasp the different cask flavors. Before someone does this, they may think that it’s just another piece of marketing. But once you sit down and experience a couple of single barrels, side by side, the nuances of it, people understand and appreciate it.
People want something unique, something that stands out in their collection. Your friends may have XYZ bottles, but you have a single barrel, a one-off. It’s a way to one-up your friend.
It’s also taken off thanks to at-home mixology, allowing for unique cocktails.
BD: What do you look for in store pick whiskeys?
MR: I try to pick across a range of flavors and styles.
Five to six years ago, when I bought multiple single barrels from the same pick, I would have to track their sales with a single store code. Not, we can do a different code for each individual barrel. We can track which barrel is depleting quicker than the others.
When I’m only picking one or two barrels, it’s more difficult, because I cannot cover every consumer taste profile. When doing multiple barrels, I can break it down to where some barrels are entry level, some are mid-range and others are big, bold and spicy. And once in a while you get something that’s super unique for a brand, and as long as it’s not off-putting you try to grab those as well.
We try to get that full range for our customers, and provide the tasting notes as well. They glance at the tasting notes in the store. Customers want to get into the category, and we don’t want to turn them off with that first single barrel, so having a range that includes an entry-level whiskey is important. Some customers may not want cask-strength hot.
In terms of selection, you always need the staples like Jack Daniel’s, Knob Creek, etcetera. But we’re also open to working with the craft distilleries and smaller guys that are now getting up their own programs.
A lot of places are now doing bespoke finishes, like our recent wine finish with WhistlePig. You have Maker’s Mark with their different wooden staves, or Woodford Reserve’s process of personalized barrels.
We’re continually pushing the envelope by offering new and unique products.
BD: What’s your process at the distilleries?
MR: A lot of people think it’s glamorous and fun, and it is overall, but it is also a five-to-six hour process, with a lot of sampling, tasting, spitting and note taking. We obviously take it very seriously to find the right whiskeys to show how New Hampshire is the place to come for single barrels.
Some people ask, ‘Is it necessary to visit these distilleries in person?’ But if you only do kits sent to you in the mail, that pigeonholes you to what barrels you can select. You may miss out on special barrels.
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece 10 American Whiskey Trends in 2021.