Mike O’Connell Sr., second-generation co-owner of four liquor stores in Boston’s western suburbs, is a self-described “old-school retail guy.”
So he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when his two employee sons, Mike Jr., 34, and Nicholas, 25, approached him in 2013 about buying a barrel of rye whiskey from Vermont’s Whistle Pig Distillery.
“The same three bottles of Old Overholt gathered dust on our shelves for 40 years,” said O’Connell Sr., who has helmed the business with his brother-in-law, Jack Recco, since 1990. “And they wanted me to pay upfront for 240!”
The elder O’Connell was dramatizing. He knew that the American whiskey market has been hot for years, but he had a point to illuminate. This is a family business, driven by an old-world work ethic passed down from founder John Recco, his 89-year-old father-in-law.
Mike Jr. and Nicholas were nonetheless gung-ho, and they were already thinking bigger than one barrel of rye. With their cousin David Recco, 34, and friend Taylor Condon, 31, both also involved in the business, they’d hatched the idea of an offshoot company creating unique products using private barrel selection and barrel finishing. They called it Cask Force.
“Things have never been as competitive as they are now,” said Mike Jr., a culinary-school grad who cooked for Michael Schlow before joining the family business in 2008 to manage both Upper Falls Liquors in Newton and private wine sales. “You can get premium alcohol anywhere, so Cask Force was about getting people in our door by offering something one of a kind.”
The elders endorsed the idea, and Cask Force launched in 2014. The focus initially was on private selection, which refers to distilleries allowing other entities to select and buy entire barrels, then sell them with the original label and their own “private selection” mark. Although statistics don’t exist for the practice, it is growing more common among distillers and food and drink businesses, according to industry expert Fred Minnick.
Cask Force released that first Whistle Pig 10-year rye whiskey, then moved on to a second Whistle Pig cask-strength rye, a Hillrock Estate “Double Cask” rye, and a “Single Village, Single Vintage, Single Cask” cognac with the legendary Hine distillery in France. All are one-of-a-kinds. Customers have bought all but a handful of the bottles.
“It’s been virtually impossible to get the most exclusive whiskeys since 2010, so [private selecting] has become the next greatest thing,” said Minnick, who recently published the book “Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey.” “If you find someone who is doing it right, you should keep going back.”
The barrel-finishing projects, which involve marrying spent barrels with other products to create new expressions of booze, are what really animate Mike Jr., Nicholas, and their partners.
Cask Force has already worked with New England’s White Birch Brewing, Peak Organic Brewery, The Shed Brewery, and Bantam Cider on barrel-finished beers and ciders. They’ve also used spent rye, bourbon, and single-malt vessels to finish Vermont maple syrup. (Bissell Brothers Brewing of Portland, Maine, in turn makes use of this syrup in a newly released barrel-aged maple porter called Angels With Filthy Souls.) During one tasting, Mike Jr. highlighted the single-malt syrup by brushing it on a sizzling roasted marrow bone and topping the whole thing with chopped rosemary and pecans. The result was showstopping, offering such a perfect balance of rich, savory, sweet, and herbaceous that all we could do was stare off into the distance while eating it.
Of all the projects thus far, nothing gives the Cask Force team more confidence in their gambit than this literal and figurative mouthful: the Single Barrel Hillrock Rye Whiskey finished in a Gosling’s Family Reserve Old Rum Cask. It briefly saw the light of day before selling out in July 2015.
Through a connection with Malcolm Gosling, scion of the storied family distillery in Bermuda, Nicholas was able to get the rare barrel. He delivered it, still wet with sediment on the inside, to upstate New York’s Hillrock Estate Distillery, where master distiller Dave Pickerell, who also holds the title at Whistle Pig and formerly held it at Maker’s Mark, filled it with a blend of two single-barrel ryes the O’Connells had selected. After 71 days, they took their first taste.
“It had this spectacular Caribbean molasses flavor layered with cloves and five spice, but the finish was all dry, spicy Hudson Valley rye,” said Nicholas, who manages Post Road Liquors in Wayland and runs his own business, The Cocktailist, catering high-end private pouring events. “It was everything Cask Force is trying to do in one sip.”
Pickerell, who throws out praise sparingly after decades in the business, said, “It was so good that it immediately cemented Hillrock’s relationship with Cask Force.”
Despite the early signs of success, the O’Connell brothers aren’t content to sit and savor the early sell-out runs. They have new products in the queue, new partnerships in the making, and a growing portfolio of Cask Force events planned. That’s on top of their day jobs as store managers, in case that old-world work ethic seemed lost in the bottom of the barrel.
“The boys know that whenever their grandfather visits, he’s going to rub his shoe on the floor looking for grit and check to see if the bathroom is clean,” said Mike O’Connell Sr. “But he’s so proud of them, even if he doesn’t totally understand Cask Force. I say to him, ‘John, how much rye did you move in your lifetime?’ The boys are putting our label on barrels of it and selling it out!”
Cask Force products ($20-$150) are available at Auburndale Wine & Spirit, 2102 Commonwealth Ave., Newton, 617-244-2772; Needham Wine & Spirits, 1257 Highland Ave., Needham, 781-449-1171; Post Road Liquors, 44 Boston Post Road, Wayland, 508-358-4300; and Upper Falls Liquors, 150 Needham St., Newton, 617-969-9200; or go to www.thepostscript.com for more information.