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Tasting the Newest Bourbon, A Whiskey Lovers Dream Come True with Hand Barrel Bourbon, exclusive conversation with Jim Hand – Whiskey Review

Tasting the Newest Bourbon, A Whiskey Lovers Dream Come True with Hand Barrel Bourbon, exclusive conversation with Jim Hand.

How many bourbon drinkers have dreamed of launching their own brand?

Well, the team behind Hand Barrel Bourbon did that.  Not just that, now they’re winning awards, getting respect in the industry and quickly gaining retail shelf space.

Not only is their bottle very cool-looking.  But the juice inside is pretty incredible.  You’re gonna wanna try it.

Jim Hand, Hand Barrel Whiskey

Today Jim Hand from Hand Barrel Bourbon visits us via zoom for a conversation about team work, a deep dive on bourbon, mixology and the future of whiskey.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  For the full conversation, visit our YouTube channel.

Yeah, thanks for having me. We’re really excited to be having this conversation.

 

I know you have recent awards. I know you have some really unique designs, but let’s start at the beginning a little bit and just go back to the Hand Barrel team itself is a unique team of personalities.

 

So what year did you guys start and how did you all come together?

 

So Scott and I, right out of college. I was selling software and I actually got an unsolicited LinkedIn message.

I didn’t know him from Adam, and it just said, ‘Hey, I have this highly competitive team. I’m looking for good players. Are you interested?’ And you get messages and you’re not supposed to meet people from the internet. But I had a good feeling about him. He knew a guy who had played at Northeastern a few years before me. And so sort of the connection. So we met up and had a couple beers and he had some other guys from the team there. And so I got to meet some of them. He did a phenomenal job assembling such a great group of athletes, but also great business people, corporate lawyers, real estate, software sales, other entrepreneurs. It was like a networking group as much as a softball team.

We got to be buddies through softball. I actually ended up bringing a couple of my teammates along. We wound up winning the championship.

Scott’s an entrepreneur. He’s never worked a real corporate job. He’s always worked for himself. He’s a hustler. He’s a creative guy. He’s a very smart guy. He was showing me this glass technology. That’s really where the idea came from.

I said, ‘Why don’t you make a bottle and put whiskey in it and make it look like a whiskey barrel?’

He was like, ‘Well, why don’t we do that? ‘ And I said, ‘Why don’t we?’

That’s really how it got started. In my mind, it’s so intuitive. And then we’re brainstorming. We’re looking up stuff and, and figuring it out. Scott has a tech background. I have a tech background. We don’t know anything about spirits. Scott mentioned Bjorn. They knew one another from high school. They did some work together back then when he was kind of starting his first business, Bjorn helped him out a little bit. Bjorn was the manager of the highest volume bar in Boston, Bell In Hand. That’s the perfect guy. Covid was happening. He wasn’t really slinging drinks right now, so he had some availability. That’s really how we came up with the idea. How we came up with the team and got started.

 

From a timeline point of view, from that moment to bottle on the shelf, how long did it take?

 

I’d say just over two years.

We raised money in the first quarter of 2021. We took that money and invested it all into product. We already had the bottle, which is how we were able to raise the money. It was a version of the brown single barrel bottle today. With Scott’s Rolodex and his background and being a successful, entrepreneur raising money, it was much easier than I thought it was gonna be for our first round.

So we have this awesome package and everybody we talked to that knows anything said, ‘Well, the package is gonna sell the first one. What’s inside of it will sell all the rest.’ And it was the best piece of advice we got. It was something we had an inkling on, but it was really true.

hand barrel bourbon

So we went to Kentucky, the place that founded Bourbon. We went around to 10 different distilleries, checking out the facilities, their bottling, their Rickhouses, and then most importantly the distillate. Understanding what kind of a flavor profile we’re going after, what’s selling right now, what’s growing market share right now from a mash bill. We settled on a distillery that we were very comfortable with. A mash bill that we thought was really good. A sweet mash, 64% corn, 24% rye, 12% malted barley. And what this does with the sweet mash and the high rye content allows for more mature tasting notes to come out early. A lot of people are interested today in wheated bourbon. Buffalo Trace does a lot of wheated bourbon, Maker’s Mark does a does wheated bourbon.

It’s a sweeter, heavier tasting whiskey bourbon, but it takes a lot longer for it to come to that maturity and to come to those flavor characteristics that everybody loves. Rye, on the other hand, is a much faster aging grain in comparison to wheat.

So we took that into consideration to think, well, we have money now. We wanna launch reasonably soon, so this seems like it would be the right mash bill to go with, so we could get the best characteristics in the least amount of time and get onto the shelves.

So we came up with the idea in late 2020. We raised money in early 2021, and then we got on shelves in November of 2022.

 

 

You’ve done something that a whole lot of people fantasize about doing and have never actually done. How much did you raise?

Is there a tip or a lesson in that process that you learned from this experience of raising the money and creating the company?

For our initial raise, it was in the neighborhood of a million dollars.

And for tips and tricks’s finding great partners and mentors. Anybody can have a good idea. You sit back and you’re having a couple drinks and I’m sure that everybody’s had that moment where they’ve come up with a great idea and then the next day everybody wakes up, goes back to the job and never really acts on it. So finding people that can give you the confidence to actually go for it is massive. Scott’s in a league of his own in that unwavering confidence in his vision. It’s something that he’s really helped me learn myself.

I’ve always wanted to start a business, but I didn’t know where to start. And so learning this process through Scott has been immensely helpful. For me personally, maybe Hand Barrel isn’t the last chapter or the last business that I have in the bag. But now I have the confidence, I have some of the know-how to launch something. If you’re not taught it, it can take a lot of time and trial and error to actually come to fruition. And people have a hard time with failure. So the way you can kind of hedge that bet is finding really good people who know what they’re doing to help you out.

 

You mentioned raising the money wasn’t as hard as you thought it would be. Was it more straight-forward or more of an adventure?

 

We’re going through a [second] raise right now and this is what I expected, it has been a bit of a grind — chasing people around, making calls, making connections.

But for the original raise, Scott has, through his past success, a Rolodex of investors. I think the fact that we had this really cool bottle and this very thought out vision for a business gave people confidence to invest in our business at an infant stage. We didn’t have whiskey. We just had a cool bottle and a convincing story.

 

Let’s talk more about this cool bottle.

It was as simple as the idea. It looks like a bottle.

hand barrel bourbon

We have our white bottle that’s our small batch, which is a blend of about 50 different barrels to create that flavor profile.

We have our single barrel, which is the brown one. It’s one barrel that they take out of the rick house and they bottle everything in it. Usually produce about 210 to 230 bottles per barrel.

Then our black expression, which is our double oak, which is aged to maturity in its original oakwood cask, and then barreled again in an additional oakwood cask to gather more of those woody characteristics and a flavor profile that people really enjoy.

 

 

Before you started the process, what was your level of knowledge with bourbon?

 

Candidly, when I came up with the idea I actually preferred scotch. I liked the sweeter, lighter characteristics of it.

I knew next to nothing about bourbon. I knew Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey and something called Woodford. But I really didn’t have a depth of knowledge in it, so I went to Netflix. I watched a bourbon documentary on there. I got deep into YouTube and then started attending a few shows, some whiskey festivals. This is before we went to Kentucky. This is before we did anything, [This was for a basis of knowledge] just so I would even know what questions to ask, because people think that bourbon has to be from Kentucky, and the truth is it doesn’t.

All you need is it has to be made in America. It needs to be at least 51% corn in the mash bill, which is the minimum. Most have about 70% plus. You need to have two years in a new charred oakwood barrel. You can’t use used barrels for your initial aging of your bourbon. That’s really it. They’re usually mixed with wheats or rye or malted barley in the mash bill. But it could be corn, wheat, malted barley, however you wanna mix all those up.
But it’s those, that’s all bourbon is.

So just with that basis of knowledge, I think puts you ahead of a lot of the consumers. And I’m still learning things about bourbon that I don’t know. We partner with Bardstown Bourbon Company and every time I’m on the phone with those guys, I learn something new about the rick house, about where different barrels need to be in the rick house to gather different characteristics and how they age differently depending on what floor and position that they’re at in the rick house. Those are just things that are so 3,000 level class bourbon things that you don’t really know unless you devote a lot of time and energy to learning them.

 

Hand barrel has been getting so much success now that you’re winning awards. So why don’t you tell us about the recent competition you were in, the event itself, what it means to you, and then what awards you received.

We were just down at the WSWA Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. It’s the largest gathering of wholesalers. We were able to get a silver medal for our small batch and a gold medal for one of our single barrels.

We had people from the judging committee actually stop by our booth, congratulate us and tell us how impressed they were. They’re asking questions, [like] how old is this [referring to the bottle]? [I Explained] our first bottling was a two and a half year old spirit and people typically don’t believe us. I had one guy tell me he thought it was a six year old bourbon.

It’s a testament that it is really is quality juice that we’re putting out there, and it’s just gonna be getting better as we grow to our maturity. We’d like to be putting out minimuma four year old product. As we’re a growing business, we have to kind of bottle what we have and put it out there. But it seems like every tasting we go to, people are impressed that it’s not a four year old bourbon and I think that says a lot about the quality that we’ve been able to obtain.

Speaking of deep dive, I’m gonna say some terms I found on your website. I’d like your layman definition.

Unique mash bill. Can you tell me what that means in layman terms?

 

When we talk about the 64-24-12 mash bill it’s what I was saying with how bourbons are at least 51%. Many bourbons are above that 70% to 80% corn, ours is as low as 64%. It’s a sweet mash bill as opposed to a sour mash bill, which more [brands] do sour mash. Ours is a sweet mash. Most [other brands] do above 70% corn, ours is below. So that makes [ours] a bit unique in the recipe for the distillate.

Okay, one more. #4 Alligator charred barrels.

I love that one. So with the oakwood barrels, this isn’t just like polished oakwood. These are dirty, milled, staves that are shoved together in a warehouse. They burn the insides of the barrel with a torch in order to get better characteristics from the wood. They torch the inside just until it catches fire and then they put it out. And that’s what the whiskey comes in contact with, is the charred oak wood inside the barrel.

If you ever have the opportunity, at Home Depot they sell cut-in-half Jack Daniels barrels for planters. Take a look, you’ll notice how it’s burned on the inside so that the spirit has a easier time entering the wood.

Think about it as layers. That burnt layer is softer than the wood. So the more burnt. And four is pretty charred. I think some go a little bit further, some do a little bit less, but it’s kind of that sweet spot where there’s that soft spot where it can penetrate pretty well. As the wood swells and shrinks with the humidity and the heat and the cold it allows more characteristics to be pulled from that barrel, the sugars and the spice from the wood.

So to make that super simple, the more charred, the more flavor profile?

The more charred, within reason, the more woody characteristics you can get from the barrel.

 

People are gonna be using your bourbons in cocktails. What are some of your favorite cocktails that you would make with your bourbon?

I learned this from Bjorn and his experience in the bar scene. When you’re doing bourbon cocktails, a lot them mask the flavor of the bourbon.

When you’re making a cocktail, you want a higher proof bourbon because you’re gonna be diluting it and you’re gonna be adding things to it. So the higher proof, the better it stands up in a cocktail and you can still actually taste the whiskey. The lower proof stuff gets watered down and you lose a lot of the whiskey taste.

That’s why everything we have is bottled at 105 proof. We try to get it as close to the cast strength as possible. This is on purpose because when you have a bottle that looks like a cask, we want it to mirror exactly what’s in the cask itself. That’s why we do straight Kentucky Bourbon, non chill filtered.

To explain what that means, there’s a chill filtration process where they cool it down and filter out the mucus membrane that comes off the whiskey after you distill it.
We don’t do that because we like the viscosity and naturalness of the whiskey. Again, we wanted to mirror exactly what comes out of the barrel.

Having a high proof and spicy bourbon like ours with the high rye content, the spice stands up well in a Manhattan. That’s my favorite bourbon cocktail and also an old fashioned.
Those are two good cocktails that require a good quality, high proof flavorful bourbon. And one that Bjorn pioneered for us is the espresso martini with bourbon.

He had this thought that the espresso martini is complex because of the coffee, but what if we add something else to it to make it more complex. Instead of using vodka, he subbed in Hand Barrel bourbon. With the sweet mash and the spiciness, using the small batch [expression], you get a lot of butterscotch caramel notes. So it’s almost like putting creamer in your coffee Hand Barrel bourbon with the espresso martini. It creates a really tasty cocktail. When we go to restaurants and we’re pitching for them to carry our product, it’s one that we recommend that they take a look at and in many they have adopted it.

 

What is the future? What’s next for Hand Barrel Bourbon?

So right now we’re actually only sold on shelves in two states. Kentucky and Massachusetts; and online. We’ve signed paperwork to get into 12 more states. We have a bottling run next week we’re filling 25,000 bottles to support those markets.

We’re just trying to be anywhere and everywhere. We want to be an available bourbon to any consumers looking for something unique and interesting and a giftable item so that they can have it as a centerpiece on their home bar cart and have a conversation starter. Another thing that’s on the roadmap for us is custom bottles. We have the ability to change the look of the bottle. So we can customize the design: maybe for a sports team or a charity to create a cause marketing effect or relate to fandom.

 

Where can we find more? Where can we find you on social media? Where can we find you online? And more importantly is where can we buy you?

 

On Instagram it’s @HandBarrelbourbon. Online, www.handbarrel.com.

Are there any states that are challenges or there any states that you personally are really looking forward to for some reason?

So there are states that are a challenge, like Pennsylvania is a control state. So the state has a lot more influence over the alcohol. There’s about 17 control states, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Oregon Wyoming, and there’s a handful of others. Ones that we’re excited about are Texas and Florida.

We decided to go into California and we found an awesome partner on the West coast to get us in there. We’re saving the other two highly populous states until we expand again in 2024. We’re gonna look to double our output.

 

Is there anything else that you wanna bring up that we haven’t gotten to share?

It’s a zero plastic package. It’s a UV protectant for the whiskey. UV light will degrade brown spirits over time. It’s just science. Beer knows it, they have the green bottles or the dark brown bottles to protect the beer inside because of the sunlight.

Thank you for your time and congratulations on the awards and I’m looking forward to tasting you and tasting your bourbon in some states around the country. So, cheers, congratulations and thanks for stopping by.

It’s great talking to you.

 

Joe Winger
Joe Wehinger (nicknamed Joe Winger) has written for over 20 years about the business of lifestyle and entertainment. Joe is an entertainment producer, media entrepreneur, public speaker, and C-level consultant who owns businesses in entertainment, lifestyle, tourism and publishing. He is an award-winning filmmaker, published author, member of the Directors Guild of America, International Food Travel Wine Authors Association, WSET Level 2 Wine student, WSET Level 2 Cocktail student, member of the LA Wine Writers. Email to: [email protected]
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