Monday, February 7, 2011

We Like Single Barrel Bourbons. Here's Why.

I've been telling you about Beam Global's Knob Creek Single Barrel since last July, when it was still a rumor. We had a taste of it with Fred Noe in September. Now it's finally in stores.

In addition to being single barrel, this new Knob Creek expression is 120° proof, which is 60 percent alcohol, whereas regular Knob is 50 percent. That's already high as most straight spirits products are sold at 40 percent.

But that's not our subject today. It's that other thing, 'single barrel.'

You probably know that single barrel is higher quality than something that's not single barrel, but do you know why?

The major American whiskey distilleries each fill between 500 and 1,500 barrels a day. Those barrels go into aging warehouses where they will sit for the next several years. As they fill so shall they dump and the major American whiskey distilleries each empty between 500 and 1,500 barrels a day too.

Modern distilleries produce a very consistent product off the still. All of the whiskey going into the barrels is the same but immediately it starts to change and become different. No two barrels of whiskey age exactly the same way.

There are several reasons for this. First, no two trees are exactly the same. The barrel is very much a natural product and White Oak is the wood of choice because of the favorable way it interacts with the aging spirit. Although most American-made whiskey is aged in Ozark Oak, some use wood from other parts of the country.

Second, no two warehouse locations age exactly the same way. Aging conditions vary according to the location and orientation of the warehouse and the location of the barrel within the warehouse. A barrel near an outside wall, near the top and on the south side will be exposed to a lot more heat, for example, than one in the center on a low floor.

The differences between any two barrels can be great but more often they are small and subtle. Still, producers typically want a consistent product so they mix the contents of hundreds of barrels together in a big tank. This erases those subtle differences. The whiskey being prepared for bottling is then compared to previous batches and if it isn't exactly the same, it is corrected through the addition of whiskey selected for certain characteristics. This is how most whiskey is prepared for bottling.

There is nothing wrong with any of it. People want consistency. They want the bottle of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 they buy today to taste exactly like the bottle they bought last week or last year.

But back to the whiskey still in the barrel and those subtle differences. Does the existence of those differences mean some barrels taste better than others?

Yes, it does.

Old timers called them "honey barrels." They are exemplars of their type, perfectly balanced. They're rare, but not that rare. Theoretically, a single barrel product isn't necessarily a honey barrel. If single barrels were selected at random you would get the whole range of variation, from worst to best, but they aren't.

With non-single barrel whiskeys, small flaws are erased through dilution and the whole batch can be adjusted to better match the brand profile. With single barrels, once a barrel is selected there is nothing else you can do with it. There is no place to hide. Because of this, there is very little point in doing a single barrel product if you are not going to seek out the very best barrels of a particular vintage -- more than 9 years old in the case of Knob Creek.

With a single barrel whiskey, you get to taste exactly what the distillery's tasters tasted when they selected that barrel, but unlike them you never have to taste a bad one. Although Beam would never put it this way, they essentially cherry-pick the best of the best for single barrel and put the rest into the regular expression.

Another way to look at it is that this is whiskey in its natural state. That is especially true of Knob Creek Single Barrel because of the high proof, which is very close to barrel proof so very little water is added. This is as close to tapping a barrel as you can get.

Although there are many other single barrel bourbons about, Beam is the first to do one on the same platform as the original expression. All this makes Knob Creek Single Barrel a welcome addition.


sam k said...

Would not Bookers be even closer to true barrel expression, having no water added to the bottled product? And yes, regardless, Beam does an excellent job at this discipline.

I have heard over the years however, that there might be "single barrel" bourbons that are aged individually for a specified time, then dumped into a batch and mingled, to then be returned to a "single barrel" for finishing before being bottled as a "single barrel" bourbon.

Do you have any knowledge of this practice, which may or may not distort the definition?

Just curious.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Booker's is what it is. It comes out of the barrel at 63 to 64 percent and is bottled that way. Knob SB comes out at 63 to 64 percent and is reduced to 60. But Booker's isn't single barrel so it's homogenized. The honey barrels are mixed in with everything else. With Knob SB the honey barrels are singled out and what was in the barrel is exactly what's in your glass, plus a little water.

That second thing? No, nobody does that. You could but the finish step would have to be identified and it wouldn't be single barrel.

Chip Dykstra said...

In the world of rum (which I admit is quite different from the world of Bourbon), the definition of 'Single Barrel' does seem a little more blurred. Cruzan Single Barrel Rums are produced from a blend of vintage rums which have been aged up to 12 years. Once blended the vintage rums are then finished in a new oak barrel for about one year. Barrels are bottled individually with each bottle of rum coming from a single barrel.

Havana Club (the Pernod brand) does something vary similar with their "Barrel Proof". In the case of Havana Club the term "Single Barrel" is not used but the consumer is not often aware of the difference in terminology. (In the case of Cruzan it certainly is sold as 'Cruzan Single Barrel'.)

Do you know whether there has been adopted any formal definition for the term "Single Barrel" in the Bourbon industry? If there has not then these practices from the rum industry may cross over to whisky as Cruzan is controlled by Beam (Fortune Brands) and as stated Havana Club is controlled by Pernod Richard.

BTW: I really have enjoyed reading your Blog lately. I am a bit of a novice when it comes to any Whisky except my beloved Canadians and I have found your blog to be a most satisfying place to visit.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Thanks, Chip. There is no definition of 'single barrel' in the government's Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, although U.S. whiskey producers have used the term in a consistent way since its introduction, and it is directly analogous to the way the Scots use the term 'single cask.' Since bourbon must be aged in new charred barrels, any process that involves dumping and rebarreling has to be disclosed as a finish. The rum explanation is interesting, however, as if may explain the origin of Sam's query. Despite the corporate connections, I don't see much chance of something like this diluting the meaning of single barrel bourbon.

Anonymous said...

If they take away the Honey Barrels does that mean the original expression will be less as good as it is currently or did they fill additional barrels to make up for this fact?

Chuck Cowdery said...

That's a natural question to ask. In theory, the answer is yes; in practice, no.

Barrels aren’t dumped on their birthday. They’re dumped when they’re ready. Barrels chosen for the regular expression are chosen because they are within the parameters of the brand profile. If you pull a few barrels out of that batch because they are deemed to be exceptionally good, the remaining barrels are all still within the parameters of the brand profile. You’re also talking about a fairly small subset. They aren’t taking all of the honey barrels out, just a few. So there are no losers here.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Plus, 'honey barrel' is a subjective assessment. You may like the regular expression better and there is nothing wrong with that.

Chip Dykstra said...

Hi Chuck:

This article has kind of stuck with me for a while and I wasn't sure why until earlier today. I realized that I disagreed with the premise that Single barrel whiskeys are by their nature superior to whiskeys blended from many barrels.

Sounds strange to disagree with something so obvious right? But my feeling is that the act of blending various barrels together should always be able to arrive at a whisky which is superior to the best barrel in the batch.

My argument runs similar to the argument for using a basket of stocks in the stock market to reduce volatility. A bundle of stocks well chosen in their composition is always less volatile that the individual stocks in the portfolio. In the same manner a bundle of whisky barrels properly chosen and blended in the right proportions should always produce a superior whisky to that of any single barrel, even better than the honey barrels. The sheer volume of barrels to choose from should ensure that on optimal blend can be achieved with proper care and diligence on the part of the blender.

My argument falls apart when severe restrictions are placed upon the blender. But my feeling is that truly superior blends ought to be achievable within a reasonable framework.

Chuck Cowdery said...

"Restriction" is precisely the point. When preparing a batch of whiskey for bottling your goal is to match that product's standard, not to make the absolute best drink you can. With single barrel, especially in the case of a single barrel line extension of an existing product (like the Knob), the goal is to find and bottle the most singularly outstanding barrels.