If you shop for bourbon online or in a liquor shop, you will notice that a class of bourbon comes with a very high markup. It is often labeled “single barrel” with a few digits penned onto a printed label. You might not want to ask the salesperson what’s special about the bottle.
So, what is single barrel bourbon? Single Barrel Bourbon is premium bourbon made by aging grain and other contents in one barrel. There is no blending of different bourbons or spirits in the production of single-barrel bourbon. The result is consistent, strong, and has a characteristic flavor.
In this article, you will discover the difference between single barrel, single source, blended, and single cask bourbons. You will also learn about bourbon blending practices and reasons and whether the expensive single barrel is worth it (the answer might surprise you).
By the end of this post, you’ll know which bourbon you should get and why.
What Does Single Barrel Mean?
Single Barrel in brewing means that the whiskey or bourbon comes from the contents of a single barrel. Usually, single barrel whiskey is appreciated for its uniform taste and consistent color. Ideally, a single cask is the sole holding and aging device in a single barrel whiskey.
However, recently, a few distilleries were found using a blend of different contents in their “single cask” products. They got around selling blends as single barrel by adding multiple vattings to a single cask and aging the blend for a while.
According to most whiskey enthusiasts, this technical tracing to a single cask doesn’t make a bottle a genuine single barrel product. Single barrel products are aged from the beginning to the end in the same container. The bottles usually bear the barrel number and the starting and completion date of the barrel storage.
Is Single Barrel Bourbon Better?
A single barrel bourbon competes with a single-source bourbon (the equivalent of a single malt whiskey) and blended bourbon. Among these three, the single barrel bourbon is undisputedly the superior bourbon.
Single-source bourbon – Bourbon has 51% to 70% corn alongside flavor grains like rye, malted barley, and wheat. So the recipe of bourbon keeps it from being a single malt or single grain in a specific sense.
However, just like single malt whiskey comes from a single distillery, single-source bourbon also comes from a single distillery. It might not rely on a single grain, but it can have the same quality as a single malt whiskey because it is a single-distillery product.
Single-distillery products are consistent in their quality and brewing methods. In blends, lower quality vattings can be snuck into a bottle, provided that stronger flavored vattings can overpower the mediocre contents.
When you get bourbon that’s distilled at the same facility, then you don’t have to worry about low-quality contents being snuck into your bottle. Either it will be good bourbon through and through or a bad one. But whatever it is, is a product of a single distillery.
Blended bourbon is considered inferior to single-distillery bourbon and single barrel bourbon, though it might taste smoother in some cases. Coming from a one-grain batch doesn’t automatically guarantee smoothness or palatable flavor. Sometimes, multiple vattings are included in a bottle of bourbon to improve its taste profile.
So it is possible for blended bourbon to taste better than single-source bourbon, but taste is highly subjective. Bourbon purists swear by the superiority of single barrel bourbon over all types of bourbon blends.
Single Barrel Bourbon
Bourbon that comes from a single distillery is considered superior to bourbon that’s blended for taste, consistency, or cost reasons. But within single-distillery bourbons, the one that is considered the best is the single-barrel bourbon. It is bourbon made from the contents of a single barrel.
So not only is every aspect of the bourbon aged at the same facility, but it is also aged in the exact same conditions down to the barrel. This ensures brewing consistency, which gives the bourbon a uniform effect.
With single barrel bourbon having the widest acceptance and perceived superiority, it would be surprising for many consumers that most bourbon brands are moving away from single barrel products and adopting different blends.
Why Do Brands Blend Bourbon?
Brands blend bourbon for cost, consistency, and flavor factors. The motivation behind the blend actually affects the final product. Budget blends lead to passable bourbon, which leads to the negative reputation of blended bourbon. Consistency-driven blends make up the mid-range bourbon products, and taste-related blends are beginning to occupy the top shelves.
Still, single barrel bourbons are timeless and have been consistently popular among those with whom the acquired taste sits well. People who started consuming bourbon after 2007 have a preference for high-end blends and might not actually like single barrel varieties. This might seem strange to old-school consumers who assume that blend equals degradation.
Bourbon Blends: Types, Qualities, And Contents
Distillers have different motivations for blending bourbon, so bourbon blends can vary in quality and taste. To differentiate between subpar blends and high-quality blended bourbon, you should first know the different categories of vatted bourbon.
Blending For Budget
This is the type of bourbon blending that gets talked about the most. It is also the kind of blend that gives blended bourbons a bad reputation. To put it crudely, it has the sausage-from-the-scraps kind of feel because it comes from various sources, and the final distillery acts as a bottler who prioritizes bottle volume over the actual taste profile.
Any time you spend less than $20 on bourbon, you’re at a very high risk of picking up a budget blend. It might work as a get-drunk beverage, but so does beer. And you can get better alcoholic beverages for the same price if the end goal is to get drunk.
Budget blends take some getting used to, but given that mass-market brands have a recurring customer base, it is pretty evident that one can develop a liking for them. If you like how cheap bourbon tastes, you shouldn’t flip your preferences to match those of high-end bourbon consumers.
You should just avoid serving a budget blend on social occasions. It can reflect poorly on you and can open your taste up to criticism.
Blending For Consistency
Not all blended bourbon is tacky. The largest chunk of the blended bourbon inventory in the market is blended for consistency. It is the effect of bottling facilities and producers transitioning towards distilling their own bourbon. Mixing the bourbon sourced from another distillery with in-house-distilled bourbon is a way to maintain the taste and the smoothness of the previous batches with newer batches.
The best way to ensure consistency, though, is to use a single barrel for your bourbon. But aside from being too expensive, single barrel bourbon is also not as flavorful as some high-end bourbon blends. This brings us to the final reason for blending bourbon.
Blending For Taste
Blending bourbon for taste is something almost every bourbon brand charging over $30 per bottle does. Many distilleries and producers have positioned their bourbons as special because of their “recipe.”
There is very little room for a “recipe” in a single barrel bourbon. The distillers had a two-pronged problem with regard to bourbon becoming a commodity. If everyone stuck to single barrels as the golden standard, all high-end bourbons would eventually become identical in taste. But if any sort of blending is involved, there could be questions regarding the quality of the bourbon.
As a result of this dilemma, top-shelf distillers have started mentioning the aging of different ingredients and even ratios of different contents to establish that they blend their bourbon for depth of flavor and not to dilute good bourbon with poor bourbon.
Bourbon Blending: Who Is Doing It And Why?
Bourbon brands are competing to establish the superiority of their respective recipes, and you can actually see how that is shaping the market. Here are some examples of distilleries and producers who blend their bourbon without compromising on quality.
- Barrel Craft Spirits – A pioneer in embracing blended bourbon, Barrel Craft Spirits does not distill its own bourbon. It blends spirits sourced from different distillers and breweries to produce unique-tasting end-products. Its Private Label Bourbon batch D78R has 60% 5-year bourbon with a 25% 7-year bourbon. The rest of the recipe includes 10% bourbon that is aged a decade and 5% that is aged 17 years.
- Bardstown Bourbon Company – As a young distillery. Bardstown cannot self-distill 100% of its product range but it has developed collections including a discovery series that offers craft-barrel-like blends from other distilleries and a collaborative series that features its own spirits mixed with those sources from other distilleries.
- Milam & Greene – This produces sources a portion of its bourbon from Bardstown and is growing its own distilled beverage base and reducing the amount that is blended from other sources. While it seems like a consistency-driven blending strategy, Milam & Greene maintains that the main motivation behind the blend is to enhance the bourbon’s flavor.
- Four Roses – Four roses of a handful of distilleries that produce single-source blended bourbon. Four Roses distills all of its bourbon in-house and, therefore, has no logistic reason to produce blended bourbons. However, it creates blends from its own bourbon batches for taste reasons alone. Four Roses has 10 recipes that it uses to differentiate itself from other distilleries.
What Is Single Barrel Whiskey?
Single Barrel Whiskey is aged in a single barrel, unlike blended whiskey which can have contents aging in different barrels. Single Barrel Whiskey is more expensive to produce and is therefore considered a premium beverage.
Usually, a single barrel whiskey bottle has the barrel number and the aging duration of the contents listed on the bottle. Recently, single cask and single barrel whiskey have been separated into two categories though the terms were interchangeable in the past.
The need to establish the categories as separate types of whiskey arose when multiple distilleries were found labeling their products as single barrel despite having contents from multiple vattings. Their rationale was that the contents from different barrels were ultimately added to a single cask for the final stage of aging.
After the scandal threatened to upend the credibility of all whiskey manufacturers, the “single barrel” and “single cask” terms were separated, with the latter reserved for in-house blends that are aged in a single cask after blending.
Single barrel whiskey remains the purest, least-altered whiskey, but it also has limitations when it comes to texture and flavor. Single cask whiskey can come pre-blended for depth of flavor and smoothness. As long as the whiskey is a single malt, though, it doesn’t matter much if it is a single barrel or not to a majority of bourbon consumers. This is reflected in the market share of single barrel whiskey.
Less than 10% of the total whiskey output is single barrel while 85% of the distilleries produce single malt whiskey.
What Is Single Malt Whiskey?
Single malt whiskey is a whiskey that has been distilled in a single facility. Even if the whiskey is blended from different barrels, it can be categorized as “single malt” as long as all the barrels have been filled and aged at a single facility.
Single malt is considered a tier above blends sourced from different distilleries. It has better quality control and is harder to replicate elsewhere. Facilities that do not use contents from other distilleries can protect their recipes, offering products with unique flavors.
It is a common misconception that single malt whiskey comes from a single malt crop. That would be single barrel whiskey. Single-source bourbon and single malt whiskey are whiskeys brewed from contents aged at the same facility.
After blending their respective products, distilleries might let them age further in one barrel. These are referred to as “single cask” drinks. As mentioned earlier, the single cask separation is to differentiate blends that are aged in a single barrel from pure whiskey aged in single barrels.
Key Takeaways: Unlocking the Secret of Single Barrel Bourbon
Even though single barrel bourbon is considered superior to every other type of bourbon, it isn’t always the tastiest. Usually, blends crafted at the source facility (single source or single cask) balance taste with quality.
In-house aging ensures high-quality while customized recipes and blending bring flavor depth to the bourbon.