Behind the Bar

Custom Whiskey Blends and the Customers Who Love Them

A bottle of Clyde May Special Reserve whiskey.
Clyde May's custom whiskey program draws on the company's heritage and legacy by doing what Clyde May himself did — making one barrel at a time to the taste of his customer. Photo courtesy of Clyde May.

Back in the spring, Clyde May’s Whiskey launched a special program allowing their retailers to create custom whiskey blends. The company took forty barrels of its best whiskey and created three microblends, then brought them to retailers who created their own micro-microblends from those three selections.

“We decided that we wanted to really take back the heritage and legacy of what Clyde May the man did, and that was making one barrel at a time for his very best customers,” said Jay Liddell, Clyde May’s VP of marketing. “So we’re sending a nod to that tradition with a modern day spin on it.”

The retailers loved it. Some of Clyde May’s customers sold fifteen to twenty cases in just the first two weeks after getting their special blends. And for those not on the company’s customer list, the custom spirits blend trend is catching on.

FEW Spirits in Evanston, IL, does a similar project with those looking for something custom, working together with clients to blend already-made spirits into something special.

“We did a custom blend with Bloodshot Records in Chicago,” FEW owner Paul Hletko said. “The record label came up with it, we blended it out together. We gave it its own label and had a rock and roll party at the distillery to launch it. It was done for their 21st birthday, so it was a celebration of the record label being legal.”

Overall, customers love these proprietary blends. The 431 bottles FEW made for Bloodshot Records and distributed in July sold out fast, and the barrels are now with a brewery preparing a barrel-aged beer. When Clyde May’s hosted a proprietary blend launch party at The Sportsman’s Club in Chicago, bartenders and owners from other bars and restaurants were asking Liddell to make sure they’re on the custom blend list for next year.

The trend has even surpassed larger producers and made its way into the mainstream — websites Whiskey Blender and Master of Malt will both create completely unique blends, designed by an individual and shipped to the buyer’s home.

“Everybody wants to do something special,” Hletko said. “Everybody wants something nobody else has. It’s a great way to have something different than your competition, and that’s why people come back to your bar.”

But keep in mind that exclusivity can sometimes carry a hefty price tag. At FEW, every part of the process is custom: the blend, the label design, even down to custom distribution times and a possible launch party. The process can take anywhere from six to nine months and initial costs can be considerable, even though the overall value and return on investment is there. Woodford Reserve and the Mississippi River Distilling Company do their custom blends by the barrel with costs ranging anywhere from $6,000 to upwards of $10,000 — although those barrels produce about 160 bottles.

In the end, though, the cost is usually worth it, both because of sales and the satisfaction of making something truly unique.

“The retailer feels pride of ownership of having been a part of the final finish of the product,” Liddell said. “It’s really good juice and it’s exclusive. There aren’t that many brands providing this service for their best customers as far as having the confidence to let them be a part of the final product. We want to reward our best customers, and this is a way for us to do that."

Jennifer Billock is a writer and author focusing on culinary travel, culture and history. She is currently dreaming of an around-the-world trip with her Boston terrier.

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