Spirit Reviews

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Beyond Small Batch: Single Barrel Whiskeys

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It's all very well and good to splurge for an exclusive bottle of whiskey if money is no object, but a bottle of six-figure Scotch is a bit beyond my means. Luckily, there's a much more cost-effective method of securing super rare juice—the single barrel whiskey. It's an increasingly visible (and exciting) trend in bottling from not only small batch distillers and newcomers looking to differentiate themselves, but also major established players with affordable top shelf options. Let's take a look at what exactly "single barrel" means, and why it makes sense to get your hot hands on a bottle, pronto.

What Do You Mean, Most Whiskeys Are Blends?

When I think of whiskey, I frequently conjure the romantic image of a warehouse full of barrels silently sleeping, awaiting the day they'll awaken in a crystal tumbler in my (fictional) leather armchair by the fire. However, those rows of casks don't usually don't make it straight into my glass.

As our very own Michael Dietsch explained back in February, your typical bottle of whiskey, whether it's Scotch, bourbon, Irish, or what have you, is actually a blend of many different casks (and sometimes even a hit of grain whiskies to add a little fire to the mix).

Blending whiskey is an art form unto itself, the often overlooked craft that distilleries use to round out inconsistencies which arise in barrels of whiskey over time. Even though they strive to put the same product into the same type of cask and age them under the same conditions, no two casks ever turn out identically. Some will be sweeter, some more alcoholic, some have more wood flavors, etc. By blending many different casks together, they can consistently achieve a characteristic aroma and flavor, or house style, so that consumers know what to expect when they reach for a bottle of Jim Beam or Laphroaig.

Blending is, in a sense, an act of whiskey entropy. Edges are rounded, familiar flavors reinforced, and conformity attained. But every so often, distillers save individual barrels that are singular, destined for greater things. These barrels that escape the culling for the main blend are sometimes released unadulterated, straight from the cask (from time to time water is added to bring the proof down to optimal levels). That standout, my friends, is a single barrel.

Single Barrel: What's the Big Deal?

Single barrel expressions are like snowflakes; no two are identical. Depending on the size of the barrel and the duration of aging, there may only be 220 or fewer bottles in the world that will taste like yours. But it's rarely a crap shoot when it comes to picking one off the shelf. Due to their limited nature and generally small scale of release, only the best casks of whiskey make it to market as single-barrel offerings, so you can pretty much be assured that whatever barrel you're drinking from, the juice is special.

There are a number of large releases of single barrel bourbons on the market such as Blanton's, Eagle Rare, Elijah Craig 18 Single Barrel, Four Roses Single Barrel, and many others. They're almost always an awesome sweet spot between price and quality for a luxurious whiskey experience.

And if you want to get even more exclusive, there are now house-selected casks of single barrel whiskey popping up at specialty liquor stores and restaurants across the country. These are barrels that have been individually picked by the spirit specialists at the store or restaurant, and bought up in their entirety for that location. That means these offerings are whiskeys you really can't get anywhere else.

The differences between single barrel expressions and regular blended expressions can be pretty huge. We recently attended an event at Astor Center featuring a variety of single barrel whiskeys on offer at the Astor store, and they were all improvements upon the stand expression available. The Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve was spicier, more robust. The Willet 9 Year Single Barrel had an enhanced raisiny depth. And the Evan Williams Single Barrel added an impressive amount of vanilla to the nose. At price points only slightly above the standard releases, they're all worth the splurge for a new perspective on an old favorite.

So the next time you see a single barrel whiskey, I urge you to take the plunge, and enjoy your own exclusive indulgence. Tell us: do you have a favorite single barrel whiskey that's stolen your heart? Got your eye on any bottles you're yearning to try?

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