Today's single barrel Bourbons are a little different. Many distilleries offer single barrel products as a part of their regular lineup, but this has only happened fairly recently in Bourbon history. Blanton's is recognised by most as being the first widely-available commercial single barrel Bourbon, launched by then master distiller Elmer T Lee in 1984. The entire category has only been around for three decades and it has only become popular in the last ten years.
The idea for bottling a single barrel of Bourbon under a special label and marketing it as such came about after Elmer T Lee would bottle select barrels to give as gifts. "Elmer T Lee did not invent the idea of single barrel Bourbon," says Bourbon Historian Michael R Veach, "but he was the one who made it a selling point for a brand. Brown-Forman and National Distillers both had single barrel products with Old Forester and Old Overholt, but they did not make the single barrel aspect a selling point in selling the products. Blanton's was the first brand to emphasise its single barrel nature."
There are a lot of factors that influence what comes out of the barrel. What goes into the barrel - the mash, the yeast, and the water - has the biggest influence. As many in the industry say, garbage in, garbage out. But everything that goes on while the Bourbon is in the barrel, including the barrel entry proof and the barrel itself, can influence the end product. As the Bourbon sits in the barrel it expands into the wood when the temperature is hotter and contracts from the wood when the temperature is cooler.
The char level and whether the barrel is toasted first, will affect both the flavour and the colour of the Bourbon. Higher char levels give the Bourbon more colour more quickly, but it also decimates the wood sugars, leading to less of a caramel flavour in the end product.
Where the barrel is situated in the warehouse and even what kind of warehouse it is stored in will influence the end product as well. Barrels stored near the top of a tall warehouse will get hotter in the summer, squeezing more whiskey into the barrel. Stone warehouses stay cooler, so the ageing process can be gentler.
What are consumers looking for in a single barrel?
Becoming a whiskey connoisseur is a journey. Once you have tried all the shelf products you tend to start looking for something different, maybe something you can't get quite so easily. This is where private selection single barrel products come in. Similar to Bourbon itself, single barrel products are generally unique to America. Very few Scotches and Irish whiskies offer single barrel selections. Generally speaking retailers and restaurants are the ones making private barrel selections, though sometimes organisations can pool their resources to buy a barrel.
Choosing a private single barrel gives retailers the opportunity to choose for the characteristics they think their customers are clamouring for. All those factors that affect the ageing of a barrel can produce some dramatically different characteristics in the end product. Before the age of single barrels, those characteristics would be blended away. Now they can be highlighted and celebrated.
A celebration of excellence
Whisky Magazine has been recognising icons of the whisky world since 2004. The Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame now features an alumnae body of 30 worldwide industry leaders.
The field of inductees each year represents the best in whisky for that year, so in order to bring that experience to the consumer, Whisky Magazine has partnered with liquor retailers across the United States to bring you celebratory private barrel selections from featured distilleries. This programme began last year with a selection of each of Four Roses' ten different recipes, which were spread across the US from coast to coast. This popular release sold out in days, and there were a few enthusiasts who were able to collect all ten.
Evan Williams was the first single barrel selected this year, in conjunction with Liquor Barn in Louisville, Kentucky. This coveted release was made to honour Heaven Hill's Icons of Whisky Global distiller of the year award for 2016. The second was a series of Woodford Reserve selections made to honour Chris Morris' induction into the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame.
Representatives from ten retail locations across the US came together at Woodford Reserve in August to choose 11 different bottlings. The process at Woodford Reserve is a little different from other distilleries, each of which has their own unique approach. At Woodford Reserve you start with four different barrels and combine whiskies A&B, A&C, A&D etc until you have six distinctly different batches which are unable to be replicated.
Each retailer selected for characteristics they felt would most appeal to their typical customer base. "Randall and I always look for the whiskey selection that represents its heritage, but also is an example of the best it can be," says Ryan Maloney of Julio's Liquors in Westborough, MA. "The selection we made shows all that Chris's team is accomplishing without being one dimensional. Plus it's just a cracking Bourbon!"
His partner, Randall, continues, "Our process is very 'Zen'. We let the whiskey selection pick us."
This series of 11 different Woodford Reserve private bottlings will be available at select US retailers in November 2016. Each will proudly display an 'Icons of Whisky' medallion. They will also be available for sampling in the VIP Experience at Whisky Live events throughout the United States.
Where to Buy
Whisky Magazine special releases and selections are available from the following outlets:
Park Avenue Liquor Shop
Astor Wines & Spirits
Bayway World of Liquor
Binny's Beverage Depot
Schneider's of Capitol Hill
Liquor Barn. Louisville
KY (2 selections)
Westport Whisky & Wine
Hi-Time Wine Cellars
Costa Mesa, CA
Wine & Liquor Depot
Van Nuys, CA