By Gerald Dlubala
We’ve all heard the phrase about loving it when a plan comes together. When it’s a plan that three friends come up and run with, we love it all the more. And that’s just what happened to Jim Hand, Scott Pirello and Beorn Brueckner, founding members of Hand Barrel Bourbon Company.
“It kind of started when I got recruited by Scott Pirello, a college friend, to play on a men’s softball team,” said Hand. “Scott was working on a project to make cool bottles for packaging. I thought it might be cool to make a whiskey bottle that resembles a real barrel and fill it with quality whiskey to sell. The initial idea was honestly as simple as that.”
Hand and Pirello were both fans of brown spirits and always considered the whiskey industry an exciting arena. They also believed that their bottle idea might just be good enough to attain what would become their first goal of surviving their first year in business. Well, they’ve not only reached that goal, which occurred the last week of October 2023, but they’ve done very well in their first year with an idea that admittedly seemed backward.
“Our approach was different, going from packaging first to the product inside,” said Hand. “But getting into the spirits market without some huge backing is tough. We brought in a third partner, Beorn Brueckner, who attended high school with Scott. Beorn was the GM of a bar in Boston during the pandemic and was now looking for something else. His industry experience fits in perfectly with what we needed, and he currently runs many operations within the company. Scott is our CEO and numbers guy. Additionally, Scott has an entrepreneurial background and experience starting and selling businesses. Without him, there would be no Hand Barrel Bourbon. He had the know-how to start this thing up and run with it. I come from a software sales background and now handle the sales and marketing aspects of the business. So, that’s the whole company, three friends and equal partners.”
Using Unique Packaging to Tell a Story
Hand tells Beverage Master Magazine that it came down to three friends getting together with an idea for a different and unique packaging idea and decided to put premium bourbon into it to sell to the public. Hand says that they knew they would run the risk of consumers thinking their bottle may just be a gimmick to sell their product. But the Hand Barrel Bourbon bottles are instead a motif, providing packaging that tells a story of what is inside the bottle.
“We sell our single barrel, small batch in the white barrel bottle, signifying the unique minerals and deposits found in the Kentucky water,” said Hand. “Our double-oaked comes in a black, charred finish bottle, signifying the barrels and type of exposure the spirit encounters along its journey. These are specific ingredients and attributes to Kentucky bourbon whiskey, and we want to recognize, respect and make note of those attributes through our packaging.”
Partnering with the Right Contract Distiller is Key
After settling on the bottles, packaging, and message they wanted to send, the group had to find a contract distiller. Hand says they didn’t have the time or capital to start up and wait five or six years, so the search was on to find the best partner for them and their situation.
“We happened into Bardstown Bourbon Company in Bardstown, Kentucky,” said Hand. “We tried their products, looked at their facilities and met the people behind the brand. From that day forward, they became the perfect partner and our contract distillery. It really was a slam dunk for us, and we are now completely vertically integrated with them. They are a state-of-the-art distiller with the best column in the industry. It is our mash bill that we use, a 64-24-12 sweet mash recipe. It’s not the traditional higher corn content (70 to 78 percent) of many bourbons. We wanted to try something a little different. There aren’t as many high-rye mash bills out in the market. We come in at 105 proof, which we believe is the sweet spot for bourbon and the perfect place to land. And because our bottles are preprinted, we don’t deviate from that number. Our barrels age at Bardstown’s facilities, and we use their blending team and bottling line. Our responsibility is to provide the mashbill, the marketing and the cool bottles to package our product.”
Hand says its goal is to provide a bourbon experience that positively appeals to all the senses, including touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste.
“We want our bourbon to be a total experience,” said Hand. “It’s an excellent-tasting, authentic Kentucky bourbon whiskey wrapped in a unique bottle that consumers will proudly display in their home or on their bar.”
One of those unique bottles was a special-release camouflage bottle.
“All three of us have connections or ties to the military somehow,” said Hand. “The camouflage bottle was our first special release and offered us the opportunity to give back 10 percent of sales to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SWOF) to benefit families of our fallen Special Operators. We feel that anytime we can give back to one of our military organizations, it’s absolutely worth it. It was a huge success, and we’re looking into other partnership releases. We’re considering things like NCAA or professional sports teams as well as personalized bottles for special occasions”.
Hand says their bottles would make perfect gifts for weddings, groomsmen’s and bridesmaids’ gifts or to celebrate and commemorate special occasions for clubs, groups and organizations. He also mentioned single-barrel picks to make the occasion even more distinctive.
“The bottle is one thing we can change to meet our customer’s special occasion needs,” said Hand. “That’s our edge in the marketplace. You can really only stretch one mash bill about three different ways, ending in a small batch, single barrel and double-oaked, similar to what we did. But we can also change the bottle to create something unique, distinctive and special for our customers.”
Pinpoint Focus and Smart Decisions Will Shape the Future
“We’ve been in business and on shelves for over a year now,” said Hand. “We started in just two states, Massachusetts and Kentucky. We had a minimal release our first year, maybe 6,000 bottles, and sold out within the first two to three months. That was a testament to the acceptance of our idea and gave us the confidence to try to gain market share. We’ve since added 19 more states to our distribution areas and are looking toward expansion and continued growth. We’ve had talks with Canada, South Korea and Japan, who all have interest in our bottles.”
“You know, we have a potentially wide footprint with customized bottles,” said Hand. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also very daunting because we can go in many different directions. Since our path can go in so many different and diverse ways, we, especially as a small business, must focus on the best opportunities for us. If we have so much as a flop of 2,000 to 3,000 bottles, it would be very detrimental to us. We have to be careful about our choices and focus on what we need to do to build our business and gain customer commitment. We have to focus on who can commit to the best volumes early to get that extra volume and padding for us as a business. We’d love to eventually be able to do as little as six to 12 bottle orders for weddings or parties with names and dates, offering that custom gift for the guy or girl who has everything.”
Joining the Welcoming Community of Distilled Spirits
“The biggest surprise I’ve had along this journey is the general welcomeness of the bourbon industry. I mean, it really has been noticeable,” Hand said. “I was sitting with other bourbon reps trying to launch a market, and we were all sharing drinks, ideas and information. Unlike some other businesses, there weren’t any highly secretive behaviors or unwillingness to share our experiences. It helps everyone to grow with a better chance of success. This industry uniquely welcomes newcomers; everyone I’ve come into contact with has been willing to help and give quality advice. This industry is such a big piece of the overall spirits pie that we can all succeed. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, which is a truly refreshing and beneficial approach. Spirits consumers traditionally welcome variety. We love to build our bar cart with a variety of diverse brands. It’s just fun to build your display to share with friends, whether for a hobbyist or a serious collector. It’s a pretty straightforward sales approach.”
Displaying Products Together Boosts Sales
Hand tells Beverage Master Magazine that he learned a ton about the industry, which was expected. What sticks out for Hand and the other founders of Hand Barrel Bourbon is that along their path, they’ve noticed a distinct advantage to having all their products together on a shelf displayed as a suite or grouping. Because of their unique bottles and the meanings behind those bottles, when the products all stand together in unison on a shelf display, they combine to show and tell a story that ultimately leads to an increase in sales. Hand Barrel Bourbon’s sales are better when their products stand together, even if that means giving up less width on the shelf in return.
“When it comes down to it, we are just three friends who raised a little bit of money and came up with an idea that we thought was pretty cool, and we want to make an impact on the market with quality products that we are proud to offer, and that consumers are equally proud to own.”
Find more information on Hand Barrel Bourbon at www.handbarrel.com.