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Binny’s Sees Single Barrel Whiskies Gaining Traction

November 26, 2018

Illinois retail chain Binny’s Beverage Depot, which has 40 stores across the greater Chicago area, has long been at the forefront of the whiskey boom, with spirits buyer Brett Pontoni spearheading the expansion and diversification of the chain’s product offerings. Over his 15 years as spirits buyer, Pontoni has championed single barrel whiskies and other limited-release products, overseeing Binny’s 5,000 spirits SKUs, which range in price from $10 to $100,000 a 750-ml. An average Binny’s location spans around 25,000 square feet, with its largest store, at 50,000 square feet, located in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Between barrel samplings and newly arrived products, Pontoni tastes an average of 50 different whiskies a week—and as many as 100 whiskies a week during peak periods. Under his stewardship, the Binny’s single barrel program has expanded steadily, and now sources hundreds of barrels a year. “When we first started doing single barrels in the late 1990s, most people thought we were out of our minds,” Pontoni explains. “Nowadays, people are begging to get barrels.” One of the chain’s longest-running single barrel relationships is with Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery. Binny’s first collaborated with the distillery on a barrel in 2002, and their partnership continues to evolve, with exclusive Bourbon batches and barrel releases arriving several times a year.

Binny’s is looking to expand its program with more single barrels from mainstream whisk(e)y producers. “We’ve been pressing a couple of larger suppliers to do barrels that we love and we think our customers would love,” Pontoni says. “They’re not yet comfortable allowing a single barrel format, but you’ll never get something that you don’t ask for.”

In recent years, the Binny’s single barrel program has gone beyond whiskies. Pontoni has partnered with Jérôme Tessendier of France’s Maison Park to source two barrels of single vineyard Cognac. Likewise, as part of a new “boomerang” program, Pontoni is working with Buffalo Trace to send ex-Bourbon barrels to Corazon, Mexico, where they’ve been filled with Tequila that Binny’s plans to bottle as an Añejo. The retailer is also creating a Reposado Tequila aged in the Buffalo Trace distillery’s Eagle Rare barrels.

Binny’s ability to offer obscure or hard-to-find spirits has created value for more curious consumers both in brown spirits and other categories, notes Pontoni, who adds that rising areas like mezcal, American brandy, and artisanal gin are garnering interest lately. In addition to mezcal, which has received its share of headlines recently, other lesser-known Mexican spirits like raicilla, bacanora, charanda, and sotol are gaining adherents, he says. Binny’s already stocks eight sotol labels, and plans to dedicate additional shelf space to raicilla looking ahead.—Christina Jelski

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