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In 1984, a humble and spry distiller by the name of Elmer T. Lee launched the first modern bourbon brand marketed as a “single barrel” — Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon. Many bourbon historians credit this release as the spark that ignited a once-dormant industry and put bourbon back on the map.
Of course, it would take another 20+ years to gain the full momentum of where the industry is today, but it took that initial leap of faith into premium expressions to really get the ball — er, barrel? — rolling. Now, you can’t walk down the bourbon/whiskey aisle in your favorite liquor store and not see a single-barrel release.
So what makes single-barrel bourbons so special? To answer that, we’ll need to take a trip into the rick house, also known as a barrel-aging warehouse. And hopefully our expedition will be led by a master distiller who is wielding a whiskey thief (an instrument used to extract bourbon from a barrel through its bunghole).
Rick houses can be as tall as nine stories or as short as a single story. And while there are many factors that will determine the taste of the bourbon that comes out of any given barrel, a significant influencer is the location of the barrel in the rick house. Barrels near the top tend to age quicker due to evaporation (since it’s much hotter up there, especially in summer months). While the barrels toward the ground floor of a rick house tend to age/evaporate at a slower pace.
Also, while bourbon can mostly be articulated through the lens of science, there’s a bit of mother nature magic that waves a wand over the resting barrels. Even if you fill two new barrels with the same distillate and put them in a rick house side by side, on the same level, on the same day, the bourbon will come out tasting slightly — and sometimes not so slightly — different.
This is why a master distiller’s job is so important and arduous, especially if his or her main product is a batch or blend of all these barrels. Keeping it consistent isn’t as easy as you think.
There’s been a demand in recent years for one-of-a-kind “store picks” or “bar/restaurant picks,” where the proprietor of a liquor store or bar visits a distillery and hand-selects a single barrel to be bottled for her customers.
These special bottles usually come with a sticker that might include the day it was selected or an original nickname for the bourbon (i.e. Janey’s Jam, Liquor Barn Pick #2 or even the clever Chuck Norris’ Tears).
These single-barrel offerings are often in high demand, especially as customers get attuned to a store’s preferred tastes. Some stores choose bourbon based on what their customers will like, while others pick a flavor profile (think: spicy, sweet or mild) and stick to the script on each and every barrel pick. If you don’t know if your local liquor store has private selections, just ask.
Stores in the Louisville area that often have some of the shelf include Westport Whiskey & Wine, Liquor Barn, Total Wine, Kroger and more.
If you’re new to single-barrel bourbon, here’s a few you can start with that are relatively easy to find at your local bar or liquor store. We suggest trying them side by side with the original so you can detect the differences between a single barrel and a batched, blended or even another single-barrel expression. The proofs on all of these will vary, especially if it’s a store-selected bottle.
• Four Roses Single Barrel
• Old Forester Single Barrel (available in 90 proof, 100 proof and barrel strength)
• Knob Creek Single Barrel
• Henry McKenna 10-Year Bottled-In-Bond Single Barrel (might be hard to find now at stores)
• Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel
• New Riff Single Barrel
• Elijah Craig Single Barrel
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl