Over a (Single) Barrel

Staff Writer
A look at the single-barrel bourbon phenomenon

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

The average bourbon brand has much in common with a McDonald’s cheeseburger: From California to North Carolina, the spirits taste identical no matter where you travel.

This is not a comment on quality. See, bourbons such as Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark spend years slumbering in charred oak barrels, where the distilled contents develop snowflake-unique nuances. When bottling time comes, hundreds of barrels of bourbon are blended, ensuring consistency and smoothing out idiosyncrasies.

But lately, distilleries have stopped blending. They’ve begun releasing bourbons decanted from a single barrel, permitting batch-by-batch variations in tint, scent, and taste. These are bourbons as inimitable as a fingerprint. Once the bottle is empty, you’ll never savor that same flavor again.

Single-barrel bourbon’s inception can be traced to Kentucky’s Leestown Distillery (now part of Buffalo Trace). In 1984, master distiller Elmer T. Lee convinced company bigwigs to let him release bourbons culled from choice barrels. That experiment, dubbed Blanton’s, trailblazed a path for today’s single-barrel delights. In addition to Blanton’s, liquor shelves now sag with prime offerings such as the rich and assertive, 10-year-old Eagle Rare; the smooth, dangerously drinkable Evan Williams Single Barrel; and Four Roses, which lets liquor stores personally select barrels for bottling.

Yet the trend recently hit critical mass with February’s release of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, which was aged for nine years and packs a heady 120-proof wallop. “We pay close attention to the barrels we select… as we want to ensure that we’re bottling an extraordinary bourbon with a complex balance of aroma and taste,” explained distiller Fred Noe of the Knob Creek release, which boasts loads of luscious vanilla, leather and caramel.

You might just say that it’s a singular spirit.


What single-barrel bourbons float your boat? Spill it in the comments.