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Your Name Here: Customization in the Spirits Realm

Watchonista’s intrepid spirits contributor takes a leap of faith and uses the inter-net to order a custom-blended brown spirit with his own bespoke label. Was it a sipper’s fantasy? Yes, but in more ways than one.

By David Zivan

In some corners of the drinking world, the thing you cannot get your hands on – the white-hot element on the periodic table – is sometimes called unobtanium. You can throw money at it, beg and plead; still, it simply can’t be had.

And while this problem of longing for that “which cannot be found” is also present in the watch world, it’s an issue that may sting wine and spirits collectors worse than horologists because once a rarity has been put into use – that is, consumed – it’s gone. Meanwhile, a watch once worn by Paul Newman may be nigh impossible to find, but it still exists somewhere.

For the drinking set (and watch fans, too), it’s cheering to be reminded of one powerful way to scratch the itch for the rare – create it yourself!

Buying Bespoke

Spirit customization takes a little DIY initiative, but it’s on the rise. Technology (especially in ease of ordering) has made the process easier and more cost-efficient. And the value of commissioning something that pleases you – and only you – mightily has value beyond its cost.

Just as individuals and subscription watch collector clubs have commissioned limited edition pieces (i.e., instant rarities!), there have always been ways to customize wine and spirits labels for special events and such. But you have generally been at the mercy of the makers.

And, overall, that’s still true; if you can’t get to Napa or Louisville to taste your source material, there’s going to be some guesswork involved when you commission a private barrel or two. Still, it is (ahem) a barrel of fun to explore this realm, once explorable only by the pros.

Commercial Appeal

“At any given time, we have maybe a dozen different special single barrels from producers all over the world,” says Torrence O’Haire, corporate beverage director for the Gage Hospitality Group in Chicago, who prides its beverage program on some custom-distilled stock. “It’s a lot of extra work; it requires a pretty significant amount of investment. If we’re going to commission or select a barrel, we effectively have to buy the entire thing outright, which can be $30,000 if it’s something really fancy.”

But what about an individual who wants to work with a distiller to set aside something customized and personal?

Do It Yourself

Kentucky-based bourbon maker Buffalo Trace has a lively web presence promoting its custom spirits program. Another leader in this realm is Designer Dram, who, in particular, is full of bold promise.

“We have spent copious hours searching the U.S. to find only the best barrels of whiskey that are not only delicious and complex on their own, but marry together harmoniously to create the perfect, unique, bespoke whiskey,” reads Designer Dram’s website. “We have taken this…process to heart by giving you the tools to create 21,252 possible whiskey flavor profiles, and that’s just the start.”

That’s just a lot to take at a single sip; thankfully, Designer Dram’s digital interface is fun. It offers Pure Bourbon, Rye Bourbon, Wheated Spirits, Barley Rye, and Pure Rye options, each with pull-down menus where you designate the desired percentage of each for your custom bottles, all before delving into the label’s design.

However, for my virgin experiment in custom spirits, I went with relative new-comer blenders Oak and Eden.

My Own Private Sauce

It was remarkably easy not only to spec a bottle that lined up with my proclivities (bourbon, not rye, and leaning in the wheated direction) but also to knock out a custom label featuring my name in all caps (this was just an experiment, after all).

And while the company says it follows “traditional distillation and aging to the letter,” a phrase I do not fully understand, it also says that its whiskey is aged “for at least three years in American Oak barrels,” which makes decent sense to me. You see, bourbon has to spend two years in a barrel to be called “straight bour-bon.” Though, if it’s under four years, disclosure is required. Also, no artificial col-oring is allowed.

I’m betting that, over time, these folks will have inventory to do longer-aged custom blends – but it all felt clear and aboveboard. “This custom market has always been about finishing,” says the Texas-based company’s co-founder, Brad Neathery. “We’re not in the aging game; we’re not in the distilling game. We know what we’re good at.”

One aspect I liked best was the company’s understated but steady follow-up. In fact, quite soon after ordering, I got an email whose entire message was, literally, “Your bottle is being built.” Then came, “Your bottle has been shipped! It will be delivered within the next 5 to 7 business days. You will receive a separate email with all tracking and shipment details.”

What more can one ask for? The bottle arrived properly cushioned, sliding out of its box like your favorite birthday present.

The only bummer – and I’d missed this, not having read the fine print – was that once the thing arrives, you’re instructed not to crack it open. “We recommend waiting 4 weeks to open your bottle after arrival,” they told me.

The Moment of Truth

Not my strong suit, the waiting. But I did. I left it on top of my liquor shelf, and nearly every day, I marveled at the sight of a bottle with my name on it. A rather unusual bottle at that because Oak and Eden uses a “patented process of in-bottle finishing, where a 5-inch spiral-cut piece of oak is placed into every bottle of whiskey produced versus finishing in a second barrel.”

Tilted there, at the bottom of the bottle, it looked like a very long drill bit made of wood. It feels a little like cheating, getting wood notes into the juice like that, but I am as guilty as anyone of wanting near-immediate gratification.

My first ounce of the $79 114-proof juice, poured neat, was actually delightful. I thought my mind played tricks on me. Surely, this was not as good, not as on-target, for what I really like as it seemed. It did drink young, by which I mean that, on repeated visits, the whiskey seemed a little rough at the edges. But it was un-questionably well-made juice, something I’d have been happy to discover at a tavern or a friend’s place.

I’d like to tell you that I kept the bottle around for a while, investigating whether even longer contact with the spire in the bottle would evolve the taste. But I didn’t achieve that noble aim. In truth, I kept reaching for the bottle as my nightcap, and too soon, it was gone.

I’ve ordered another, and that too will be mine, all mine.

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