The “Private Labels” Ruling Whiskey’s Black Market

Today’s most respectable whiskey groups are decorating their private-barrel selections with homemade stickers—and turning a huge profit.

In the spring of 2017, Steven Zeller and eight of his friends from the New York-based whiskey group he co-founded—the Beast Masters Club—flew down to Kentucky to buy single barrels of bourbon. During a stop into a nearby Liquor Barn to stock up on supplies for the weekend, somebody in the group caught sight of an illustration of a sweating pickle on a plastic bag in the check-out line. The group found it so hilarious that the Van Holten’s pickle-in-a-pouch turned into the weekend’s unofficial mascot. When they finally received bottles from their Russell’s Reserve private selection, they thought the pickle deserved a tribute.

“One of the guys in the club made a sticker where he took the hot pickle [illustration] and put him on the beach underneath a palm tree,” explains Zeller. They stuck the label on the back of every bottle of their Russell’s Reserve haul (which they dubbed “The Hot Pickle”) and posted them online. All 160 bottles sold out almost immediately.

While so-called barrel “picks” have been hot in the bourbon world for a while—that is, single barrels individually selected by bars, liquor stores and private groups like Beast Masters Club—the post-purchase addition of cartoonish stickers is a newer phenomenon. It’s a trend that has taken the community by storm over the last few years, artificially driving the prices of these bottles into the hundreds of dollars.

Take Goykh Smash!, a Four Roses bottle featuring the Incredible Hulk punching through rocks. It has become one of the most legendary sticker-clad picks and currently sells for over $500 on the secondary market. Another, Tipsy Buffalo (a Buffalo Trace bottle with a sticker depicting a blotto bison), soared as high as $300. There are countless others, from a bottle slapped with John C. Reilly’s preening Mike Honcho from “Talladega Nights” to Beetlejuice to Mr. Peanut treating a peanut butter jar like a port-a-potty on a bottle dubbed “The First Flush.”

“You have a lot of what I call ‘funny money’ online,” explains Beau Johnson, a former member of The Fifth Column (T5C) whiskey club, in reference to private buy/sell whiskey groups on Facebook. “Everyone is seeking the next cool thing. And if you can’t get something, all of the sudden, you want it even more. All because of a sticker! There’s this perceived rarity where these crazy valuations are real myopic and incestuous.”

Zeller is quick to point out that it was neither he nor the Beast Masters that started adding stickers to bottles. “I got the general idea from Doug’s Green Ink,” he notes, citing a legendary Willett Family Estate single barrel rye from 2006, noted not just for its exceptional taste, but because its selector, Doug Phillips, filled in the barrel information with, yes, green ink. As Zeller explains: “He was branding his particular barrel, something I had never seen before.”

While Zeller doesn’t know exactly with whom or when the trend began, a trail does lead back to T5C. Consisting of around 30 online collectors from across the country, T5C began buying Smooth Ambler single barrels in the fall of 2014. Back then, Smooth Ambler Old Scout labels offered a blank space at the top of them where one could stamp the logo of the barrel’s particular buyer. Early on, buyers simply had their store logo or bar name printed on the label. For their first barrel purchase, however, T5C opted to have “FS/FT” stamped on the label—an acronym for “For Sale/For Trade.” But it wasn’t until their second bottling—dubbed “Jawbreaker”—that things really took off.

“This name was a play on some guy on one of the Facebook [whiskey] groups who had gotten angry once and claimed he was going to break another member’s jaw,” explains Johnson. “That really started this whole tongue-in-cheek, inside joke thing that has begat all these special labels.”

For some collectors, the stickers aren’t just about hijinks. For the longest time, if you bought a single barrel, it might come with a tiny distillery add-on sticker that mentioned the recipe (Four Roses) or a “neckling” hang tag that noted the warehouse the barrel came from (Wild Turkey). Distilleries like Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam merely slapped on tiny decals that noted who picked that particular barrel. The earliest private stickers often provided missing information. “It’s really about the details of the barrel, which companies aren’t great about putting on their bottles,” says Zeller.

So, what do the brands think about their bottles being relabeled and sold online? The executives I reached out to at distilleries like Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace know about the stickers and, while few celebrate it, they mostly ignore them. If anything, the whiskey groups are more likely to get a cease and desist from, say, Van Holten’s for unapproved use of their pickle logo—as was the case with the Beast Masters Club, who simply censored the image on their website.

In fact, these “private label” bottles are only growing in number. You can hardly consider yourself a respectable whiskey group these days if you don’t have a few private-barrel picks on the docket and if you aren’t branding them with your group’s very own sticker. It is each group’s way of offering their personal stamp of approval—and a way of signaling to would-be online buyers what’s in the bottle.

“We’re known for going for the highest proof, the richest, darkest, spiciest taste,” notes Zeller of Beast Masters Club. “So putting our stickers on our bottles, it’s like the Blockbuster employee recommendations thing on the shelf.”

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