The art of producing fine bourbon has long involved the skill of fine blending. As they age, barrels occupy various levels of large warehouses. Temperature and humidity fluctuates from floor to ceiling, ensuring that each vessel of whiskey matures in its own unique fashion, like a delicate snowflake. That sounds enchanting and all, but bourbon makers — and drinkers — clamor for consistency. When you reach for that bottle of Beam, you’re counting on it tasting precisely as it did the time before. So to maintain uniform flavor, whiskey producers rely on merging their stock from every corner of the warehouse into a vat before it ever hits the bottle.
For years, commercially released Kentucky bourbon always involved a blended product. That began to change in 1984, when Elmer T. Lee audaciously released Blanton’s, the first bourbon brand to proudly market itself as a “single barrel.” Appealing to connoisseurs and collectors of brown spirits, single-barrel bourbons exhibit one-of-a-kind characteristics. After gaining a broad appeal, in the years that followed, whiskey-centric bars across the land started teaming up with some of the big-time Kentucky distilleries to secure their own single-barrels.
Enticed by this mysticism, Joel Lee Kulp — owner and general manager of Grand Ferry Tavern (229 Kent Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-782-8500) in Williamsburg — teamed up with Wild Turkey to bring Brooklyn a series of barrel-aged bourbons that can never be replicated. “Having always been a giant fan of Wild Turkey — I hold Rare Breed as one of my favorite go-to bourbons of all time — the opportunity to work closely with [master distillers] Jimmy and Eddie Russell was extremely exciting,” Kulp explains to the Voice. “We were invited to be involved in their single-barrel program and we were right there on board. In August of 2014, myself and two of my team drove to Kentucky to meet with the Russells and taste through some select barrels.”
These exclusive tastings are afforded to bars lucky enough to secure single-barrel programs. It’s typically an intimate affair; bar manager and master distiller sit around a handful of barrels in a warehouse, dipping pipettes directly into the casks and deciding what works best. For someone with a palate as advanced as Kulp’s, there didn’t have to be extended deliberation. “In November of 2014 we took possession of our first barrel of Single Barrel Russell’s Reserve Bourbon, Barrel #69, a 9.5-year bourbon with a big, round mouthfeel and sweet toffee notes on the palate, bottled at 110-proof,” he recalls.
After choosing the juice, the distiller bottles the entire barrel and ships it out. Priced at $15 a pour, Kulp’s barrel-strength selection attracted an immediate fan base. Kulp had to scramble to keep up with demand. “With supplies of Barrel #69 quickly dwindling, we only very recently took possession of our second barrel, #2308, a slightly younger bottling with big spicy notes highlighting the rye content, making for an unparalleled manhattan.”
Kulp is visibly animated rapping about whiskey with his clientele as they sip through a flight of his one-of-a-kind stock. “We are able to offer our guests a truly special experience that they won’t find anywhere else,” he gushes. Although Grand Ferry Tavern is hardly the only game in town when it comes to curated single-barrels, when you order one here, you’re placing your faith in Kulp, a man with superior bourbon sensibilities. His barrels will make you a believer.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 15, 2015