If there’s one thing American whiskey makers can claim above all others it’s innovation.
One of the most impactful innovations of the past 40 years has been the introduction of single-barrel whiskey as a core product line. It’s helped American distillers raise their profile and prices, and seen them compete with Scotch and Japanese whisky in terms of prestige.
Traditionally, core whiskey products comprise distillates pulled from a large number of barrels, achieving a specific flavor profile that never changes. The method is blending, and the objective is consistency.
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Despite tearing up this tried-and-tested playbook, single-barrel whiskeys have been embraced with open arms by whiskey drinkers — increasingly so in recent years. The new landscape begs certain questions: Is uniqueness now more important than uniformity? Or are distillers still able to achieve consistency in their single-barrel lines without the safety net of blending?
It All Started in Frankfort
The hype surrounding single barrels began with Blanton’s. Introduced in 1984, Blanton’s pioneered the concept of a single-barrel whiskey as a core product line. The brand was the brainchild of Elmer T. Lee, who was tasked with creating a bourbon that would change the perception of American whiskey from a working man’s spirit to a high-end, high-price collectible.
At the time, Lee was the master distiller at the facility now known as Buffalo Trace. His mentor was a man named Albert Blanton. Lee recalled that, in the 1940s, Blanton would handpick barrels from a specific location in Warehouse H and have them bottled individually for dignitaries and VIPs. Lee turned this tradition into a brand, and Blanton’s Single Barrel was born. Buffalo Trace now offers five core bourbon products as single-barrel expressions, including W.L. Weller, E.H. Taylor, and Benchmark.
At Old Forester, the strategy is the exact opposite. Like Buffalo Trace, it’s a massive operation. However, in the 150 years Old Forester whiskeys have been on the market, the company has never offered a single-barrel line. “Consistency is a big priority,” says Melissa Rift, master taster at the brand. “Consumers rely on our products to be what they expect every time they open a bottle. That’s the identity our brand was built on.”
Indeed, consistency is one major key to brand loyalty, but scarcity has its own allure that appeals to the new breed of whiskey enthusiasts. Fueled by collector culture, these drinkers largely base the value of their liquor collections on rare releases — known to whiskey nerds as allocated bottles or “unicorns.” Collectors post such bottles on social media to induce FOMO and amplify their followings. Meanwhile, everyday releases with two-figure price tags don’t generate likes, nor do they command exorbitant prices on the secondary market. That reality makes single-barrel releases enticing because, like allocated bottles, exclusivity is one helluva drug.
Fact or Fiction: Single Barrels Taste Different
The undoubted appeal of exclusivity extends well beyond the whiskey industry. But in the case of bourbon and rye — or any grain-based, aged distillate, for that matter — there exists another, less tangible factor to consider. While there is a finite, relatively small volume of whiskey waiting to be pulled from each cask, do whiskey barrels vary that drastically, or do consumers just believe so because single-barrel lines have been marketed that way?
“The magic of single barrels is that from a distance they all seem the same,” says Andy Thomas, barrel programs manager for Beam Suntory. “But, they’re actually like thumbprints. Once you get up close, you realize no two are exactly alike.”
Unlike many American lawmakers, distillers believe in science, and when it comes to single barrels, the proof is in the process. Even when distillers control for differences, every barrel of whiskey takes on a life of its own once it’s laid to rest. Anyone who claims otherwise probably failed ninth-grade chemistry.
“Barrels have an unbelievable ability to go rogue,” says Keith Barnes, master distiller at Bainbridge Organic, an award-winning independent distiller in Seattle. “Let’s say you fill 30 barrels with whiskey that were all distilled at the same time, at the same proof. Then you use barrels from the same cooper, in the same load, and let them sit in the same place. When you taste them six years later, 28 will be within the house style, but the last two will go apesh*t and taste drastically different.”
This doesn’t mean a single-barrel line can’t have a consistent flavor profile, however. Uniformity is achievable, if that’s what a brand’s aiming for, but it’s a numbers game, and barrel count is the most important factor. Buffalo Trace just celebrated the filling of its 8 millionth barrel. Wild Turkey has one rickhouse for every letter of the alphabet, and each one holds upwards of 20,000 barrels. When a distillery’s sitting on millions of gallons of whiskey, it’s a lot easier to ensure a single-barrel brand maintains a consistent flavor profile.
Teams of employees at major distilleries blind taste new barrels against a control whiskey to achieve this goal. If they can’t pick out the control, the new barrels get used in the single-barrel line. Meanwhile, inferior outliers find a home in blended products, while special barrels make their way into the company’s barrel pick program.
Independent distillers often find themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum. Even if they want their single-barrel line to maintain a house style, they generally don’t have the stock to pull it off. Most haven’t been in business for more than 10 years so their best option is to put their most delicious outliers into their single-barrel brand. Some may taste floral and fruity while others are dominated by baking spices. The line may not have a consistent flavor profile, but the function is to instead showcase the quality of their craftsmanship in hopes that it attracts new fans. No one does this better than Willett, whose purple top single barrels have a chokehold on the secondary market.
Brandon Collins is the distiller at Unmet Queen, a New York-based RTD cocktail company that’s preparing to launch later this year. Previously, he worked at Buffalo Trace and New York’s Taconic Distillery, so he’s seen both sides of the barrel head. “When you work for a major distiller, you’re fortunate to have an excess of barrels to choose from,” he says. “However, as a distillery team, you have to operate at an extremely high skill level to make a single-barrel product that consumers love year in and year out.”
“When you’re at a start-up brand,” Collins continues, “[and] even when you’re confident you did everything right, you just have to be patient and hope the whiskey shows you as much love coming out of the barrel as you showed it when you put it in.”
The Rise of Single-Barrel Programs and Store Picks
American whiskey has been on a tear since 2015. Revenue is up nearly 49 percent to $4.3 billion, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, with premium products accounting for the vast majority of that growth. In an effort to capitalize on this trend, distilleries have partnered with retailers to bring ever more exclusive (but financially accessible) products to market. Barrel programs, where retailers select their own barrels, known as store picks, have subsequently exploded.
While it can be a logistical nightmare when it comes to scheduling, bottling, and distribution, the store pick process encourages distillery visits, which boosts tourism and brand marketing. Retailers also benefit because they end up with an exclusive bottling they can offer at a premium price. And consumers win because they get their hands on unique bottles that feed their fandom.
Even Old Forester, which doesn’t offer a single-barrel core product, has a bustling single-barrel program. Over the past three years, they’ve worked tirelessly to update and amplify it to appeal to retailers and consumers alike. “I love having a single-barrel product that’s only available by selection,” says Rift. “It allows us to bend the rules while still maintaining a broader brand identity.”
Oddly, while single-barrel core products mostly draw their popularity from their consistency, store picks are in vogue because they don’t conform to a house style. Due to their uniqueness, they often overshadow their core product counterparts, even though they’re theoretically one and the same. Store picks have become so coveted, they’ve essentially become a core product line of their own. (Blanton’s store picks, for example, regularly fetch two to three times the price of the brand’s standard single-barrel releases.)
The Last Drop
Last year alone, the top 10 American whiskey brands sold more than 36 million cases worldwide. On Drizly, whiskey is now the largest liquor category, and single-barrel sales, dominated by bourbon, jumped up 12 percent in 2021. “Single barrels are as strong as ever, and show no signs of slowing down,” says Beam Suntory’s Andy Thomas.
All evidence — whether anecdotal or data-based — confirms something that won’t surprise anyone who’s had an eye on the American whiskey category in recent years: Consumers remain on constant lookout for new and unique whiskeys to drink, and single-barrel core products are filling that void.
Elmer T. Lee, a country boy who infamously enjoyed his bourbon with a splash of soda, never could’ve imagined he was laying the foundation for American whiskey to be elevated to a world-class spirit. Yet that has unequivocally been the case — consistency be damned.