Take a look at the bourbon shelf at your favorite bar or liquor store, and most of what you see is made by blending. It’s 100% bourbon, but bottled out of a batch that was drawn from dozens, hundreds or perhaps even over a thousand different barrels of whiskey.
Whiskey companies blend in this way because individual barrels can come out of maturation with substantial differences in taste and even appearance, depending on variables such as which warehouse they were stored in, what floor they were kept on, or even part of a floor of that warehouse they were kept on, differences in the wood stock used in the barrels, or even variances in the temperature or humidity in a given year. Blending a large batch of barrels helps a distillery achieve a consistent product.
Yet the same factors that make blending necessary create some outstanding barrels as well, which is why the words “single barrel” came to be synonymous with “quality.” The concept is a simple one: what is in the bottle of a single barrel bourbon came entirely from just one barrel of whiskey, specially chosen because of its exemplary qualities.
Because they come from above-par casks, single barrel whiskeys are doubly interesting because they won’t necessarily be consistent. Different batches of single barrel whiskey from the same brand will show subtle, or even substantial differences because the bottles were pulled from different barrels.
There are plenty of single barrel bourbons on the market today, but here are seven examples that you should become better acquainted with, year after year, batch after batch.
Back in 1984, the Master Distiller of what was then called the George T. Stagg Distillery, now Buffalo Trace, introduced Blanton’s and the single barrel concept with an eye on reviving bourbon’s dismal sales and competing with Scottish single malts. Lee chose the best barrels from the middle floors of the distillery’s Warehouse H (Blanton’s continues to come from this stock today), and named it for Colonel Albert Blanton, whose stewardship saw the distillery through the trying years of Prohibition and World War Two. Blanton’s was one of the seminal whiskeys that helped make bourbon what it is today, and it remains one of the best single barrels around.
Ironically, Elmer T. Lee’s namesake bourbon is now a semi-scarce commodity, whereas his original creation, Blanton’s, is not. Enthusiasts started snapping up this bourbon following the passing of Elmer Lee himself in 2013, and in a self-perpetuating shortage, because it became scarce they haven’t stopped hunting it into further scarcity. Coming from an almost identical source (same maker, mash bill and even warehouse) as Blanton’s, the main difference is that the official price is some $10 cheaper, if you can find it.
A key feature of the Four Roses Distillery is that they make bourbon using two different mash bills and five different yeast strains, creating 10 possible combinations. Each one of those 10 has its own distinctive flavor coming off the still as new make. In other Four Roses expressions, two or more of these 10 are blended together. What the single barrel version enables you to do is pick just one of the 10 and try it on its own, allowing you to zero in on your favorite aspect of the Four Roses character.
This craft distillery’s attention to detail has earned it a reputation as arguably the best bourbon-maker in Texas and one of the leaders in the craft bourbon movement. They have tailored their maturation to make use of the fierce Texas climate, with its harsh summers and frigid winters, by using higher, wine quality new oak barrels to age their whiskey.
For a long time, Henry McKenna 10-Year-Old was one of the best kept secrets in bourbon. Coming from the same source material as the popular, now defunct Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old Small Batch, this bourbon was comparably priced, slightly younger, but both a single barrel and a bottled in bond. Now that Elijah Craig has dropped its age statement, Henry McKenna 10 has become the obvious alternative.
Just as Henry McKenna 10-Year-Old has become the replacement for Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old, so too has Knob Creek Single Barrel become the substitute for the old, nine-year-old version of Knob Creek Small Batch. The latter lost its age statement last year, but the single barrel version remains a nine-year-old whiskey. So, what you have here is a single barrel version of the old Knob Creek, only offered at 20 proof stronger, and all that comes for just several dollars more.
Wild Turkey’s single barrel entry is thought to be the second such whiskey to hit the market, and even so, it came roughly a decade after Blanton’s. The long gap between single barrels shows how forward thinking Blanton’s was, and how long it took for the idea of a single barrel whiskey to truly catch on. Bottled at 101 proof, Kentucky Spirit is basically the slightly older, more sophisticated sibling of the flagship Wild Turkey 101.