To get a barrel of bourbon with your name on it in Raleigh, you’ll need two things: $350 and a year’s worth of patience.
That’s how long it takes to move to the top of the wait list for the small, personal barrels of house-aged bourbon at The Oak. But once you’ve got your own supply, you can buy the house a round of some of the best brown liquor in town for just $1 a pour.
Taken straight, The Oak’s house-aged bourbon is a smooth, complex sipper tinged with sugar and fire. Mixed in an Old Fashioned, with notes of sweet and bitter, it verges on transcendent.
The personal barrel program comes from the mind of Hali Haught, bar program and event director at locally owned JMR Kitchens. The group, owned by brothers Ryan and Justin Riek, opened The Oak in 2014 in the spiffy shopping center on Lake Boone Trail across from Rex Hospital. House-aged bourbon has been part of the restaurant’s concept from the start.
Haught figured Raleigh was ripe for a bourbon boom. U.S. and international sales of bourbon are up in recent years, and the proliferation of high-end varieties has boosted the liquor’s popularity with those who pay top dollar to tipple.
The Oak’s house bourbon is not a barrel cocktail, Haught makes clear. What they do is start with a young bourbon that has been aged for two to four years, then age it further in their own custom-made barrels. She’s not telling what spirit forms the foundation.
“The bourbon is a secret,” Haught says, adding a clue: “It is on the sweeter side.”
The barrels are made for The Oak in Texas, finished with a char level between two and three. Haught adds some extras to each batch – vanilla, maybe orange.
“It just depends on what I’m feeling,” she says.
The big batches of house-aged bourbon spend five to six months in the wood.
One day a regular asked if he could buy his own barrel of the stuff, and The Oak made his dream come true. The $350 price (plus tax) buys two 2-liter barrels full. That’s a total of 4 liters, minus the angel’s share — that small percentage that evaporates during aging. Most barrel customers renew their order once or twice per month, sparing little for celestial beings.
The personal barrels line shallow shelves around the bar, which manages to be at once cozy and sleek with its mix of a smooth concrete counter, gleaming wood floors, natural light and exposed duct work. Like the other JMR restaurants – two locations of Taste and the recently closed More. Kitchen & Bar – The Oak feels like an upscale neighborhood watering hole with a thoroughly modern menu. The neighbors come from the lush enclaves off nearby Ridge Road and Edwards Mill Road.
Businessmen in suits find their way, too, bringing clients whose eyes widen at the sound of “personal barrel of bourbon.” Servers deliver the barrels to the dining tables for the full effect.
Bartenders also are happy to simply mix the house bourbon — or any of the other brown liquors in the well-appointed bar — into drinks for those whose finances are better suited to the purchase of one or two drinks at a time.
As popular as the bar has proved, the JMR founders weren’t excited about the idea of bourbon bar when Haught floated the idea.
“If it was up to me and my brother, we fought it,” Ryan Riek said.
But Haught persisted.
“It’s very rare if you’re a front-of-house manager that you get the opportunity to come in and build the concept,” she says. “I was coming from the Chicago market, bourbon was hot … Other than the Crunkleton (in Chapel Hill), no one was specializing in brown spirits here … He still was not convinced. He said it was too much of niche.”
After they sold out of the house bourbon four weeks in a row, Riek relented.
These days, Riek is a convert. The Oak sells 15 to 20 liters of its house bourbon per week, not including the personalized barrels. Regulars should take note that The Oak will be closing for a week or so this summer for renovations. They’re making room for more of those little barrels.
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