By Richard Thomas
A classic of phraseology works pretty well when applied to bourbon: while not all the best bourbons are single barrels, all single barrels are among the best. This is especially true if your price point is $150 or less. Pappy Van Winkle, George T. Stagg and Michter’s Celebration aren’t single barrels, but nor are those reasonably priced for anyone who isn’t a bona fide one-percenter.
The concept of the single barrel bourbon dates to 1984, when the Master Distiller at what is now Buffalo Trace, Elmer T. Lee, introduced a single barrel bourbon designed to compete with Scotch single malts that were gaining traction at the time. He named this iconic bourbon after the man who hired him, Albert Blanton, and put it out on the market shortly before his own retirement. Lee’s last major project turned out to be instrumental in helping revive consumer interest in bourbon, along with Maker’s Mark, Elijah Craig and the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection.
For most bourbon enthusiasts, single barrel is where it’s at, and it’s correspondingly become a pretty wide field. Most of the big distilleries now have more than one single barrel product and many craft distillers find releasing single barrels easy, since so many of their production runs are down to just a few barrels in the first place. Just several years ago, you could have done a top ten list of single barrel bourbons and included most of them; now you need a top ten list (in alphabetical order) to help weed out the so-so examples.
Blanton’s is the original, and the standard version is still among the best (to say nothing of green and gold label or private barrel bottlings). “My favorite single barrel is Blantons,” says comedian Drew Whitney. “Someone got it for my wife for her birthday and I stole a solid 80% of her present. It’s as smooth as Conway Twitty’s voice, and the finish is perfect; right as you forget it’s bourbon, it hits your throat and burns so good.”
I think I have a problem,” he added. “My mouth is watering.”
Elmer T. Lee
Named for the man who invented the category, this bourbon has a cult reputation among enthusiasts for taking the standard found in the regular version of Blanton’s up a notch. As a result, it has become something of a chimera. Although not as hard to get or as expensive on the open market as, say, W.L. Weller 12 Year Old, this is one of those Buffalo Trace expressions that just isn’t found sitting on an open liquor store shelf waiting for a buyer. If you see it for anything like it’s MSRP, grab it.
Elijah Craig 18 Year Old
Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig has a set of three periodically released, very aged single barrel bourbons, and the 18 Year Old is probably the best of these in all-around terms. That might seem counter-intuitive given that it’s the youngest of the trio, but two reasons give it that status vis-a-vis its older cousins: first, heightened woodiness turns many people off, and that is a bigger problem for the older whiskeys; and second, most will have an easier time finding and buying the 18 Year Old. Put succinctly, Elijah Craig 18 Year Old is hands down more approachable than the 21 Year Old and 23 Year Old.
Four Roses Single Barrel
“My favorite single barrel bourbon is Four Roses Single Barrel,” says blues rocker Katie Buchanan. “I’m currently sipping on 28-1E from the ME warehouse. It’s White Cherry Slushy on the nose, with a long, spicy finish to balance out the fruit. The line itself is both utterly reliable yet endlessly layered, and it’s priced just well enough to be a weekly sipper.”
She isn’t alone. The most popular single barrel bourbon with our readers, team and outside experts was Four Roses. The tricky part about that is which Four Roses Single Barrel do you mean? The distillery prides itself on its two mash bill, five yeast system that yields ten distinctive new makes. For a line of single barrel bourbons that means ten different versions, that leaving aside the variances inherent in individual barrels of whiskey made from a single recipe!
For my part, there are Four Roses recipes I love and some I think are ho-hum, and that carries over into their single barrel bourbons. That is probably part of why it is such a widely loved product: by covering a wide range of tastes, it really does offer a little something for everyone.
Garrison Brothers Single Barrel
Arguably the best, and certainly the boldest, of the craft single barrel bourbons around is the offering from Garrison Brothers. This micro-distillery has a well-earned reputation for focusing on making bourbon, and only bourbon, in the time-tested way, but hitching the fierce Texas climate to those traditional methods.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled In Bond 10 Year Old
“While there are plenty from which to choose, the Henry McKenna 10 Year Old is the coveted tree very near to the middle of the Single Barrel Bourbon garden,” says blogger and Lutheran pastor Christopher Thoma. “With a nose of cinnamon, cherries, and wood char, a palate that sees the addition of peppered citrus and oak, and a finishing nip of peppermint, the Henry McKenna is an inexpensive, but complex treat. Heaven Hill certainly has concocted a dram worthy of being served to the divine residents of the knoll the distillery’s name implies.”
Jack Daniel’s Barrel Proof Single Barrel
In know what you are thinking: “What is Jack Daniel’s doing on this bourbon list?” Ever since the Tennessee Whiskey Law of 2013 was passed, The Whiskey Reviewer has regarded Tennessee Whiskey as the most important sub-category within bourbon. This particular iteration on JD is high proof, but emminently smooth, and thereby carries the JD flavor profile to a potent conclusion. If you haven’t tried it, you should, because it could very well change how you look at what they do down there in Lynchburg.
Knob Creek Single Barrel
This single barrel, high octane (120 proof) version of Knob Creek became an instant fan favorite when it was introduced several years ago. It’s status as a single barrel winner has only grown, because since then the Knob Creek Small Batch went from being a 9 year old to a no age statement (NAS) whiskey. This single barrel, however, has remained a 9 year old. Fans of the classic Knob Creek should therefore lean heavily on this expression.
Michter’s Single Barrel 10 Year Old
This is a highly sought after, limited edition bourbon that officially retails at $150, but fetches twice that on the open market. Part of that has to do with Michter’s secret and little spoken-of filtration methods, but most of it is down to the simple fact that the company hired some excellent and knowledgeable talent, starting with former Master Distiller Willie “Dr. No” Pratt. Their people were able to acquire some excellent stock, leading to some excellent single barrels, which in turn means this 10 year old single barrel bourbon punches far above its weight on paper.
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel
When asked about her favorite single barrel, actress Patricia Selznick chose “the non-chilled filter Single Barrel of Russell’s Reserve, which holds up nicely over rocks. This high-corn bourbon mash has that special candy corn note we relate Wild Turkey with, but also gives a surprising nutty and cinnamon finish to spin a bourbon fan around and take notice.”
A signature note of the Wild Turkey style has been to make strong bourbon while retaining balance. At 110 proof, the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel is pretty potent (albeit not as powerful as Knob Creek Single Barrel), but the barrel selection here yields a whiskey that is very flavorful, but without becoming so big and ballsy that it loses some of its complexity.