If there’s one factor American whiskey makers can declare above all others it is innovation.
One of the vital impactful improvements of the previous 40 years has been the introduction of single-barrel whiskey as a core product line. It is helped American distillers elevate their profile and costs, and seen them compete with Scotch and Japanese whiskey when it comes to status.
Historically, core whiskey merchandise comprise distillates pulled from a lot of barrels, attaining a selected taste profile that by no means modifications. The strategy is mixing, and the target is consistency.
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Regardless of tearing up this tried-and-tested playbook, single-barrel whiskeys have been embraced with open arms by whiskey drinkers—more and more so lately. The brand new panorama begs sure questions: Is uniqueness now extra necessary than uniformity? Or are distillers nonetheless in a position to obtain consistency of their single-barrel strains with out the protection web of mixing?
It All Began in Frankfort
The hype surrounding single barrels started with Blanton’s. Launched in 1984, Blanton’s pioneered the idea of a single-barrel whiskey as a core product line. The model was the brainchild of Elmer T. Lee, who was tasked with making a bourbon that will change the notion of American whiskey from a working man’s spirit to a high-end, high-price collectible.
On the time, Lee was the grasp distiller on the facility now generally known as Buffalo Hint. His mentor was a person named Albert Blanton. Lee recalled that, within the Forties, Blanton would handpick barrels from a selected location in Warehouse H and have them bottled individually for dignitaries and VIPs. Lee turned this custom right into a model, and Blanton’s Single Barrel was born. Buffalo Hint now affords 5 core bourbon merchandise as single-barrel expressions, together with WL Weller, EH Taylor, and Benchmark.
At Previous Forester, the technique is the precise reverse. Like Buffalo Hint, it is a huge operation. Nonetheless, within the 150 years Previous Forester whiskeys have been available on the market, the corporate has by no means supplied a single-barrel line. “Consistency is an enormous precedence,” says Melissa Rift, grasp taster on the model. “Shoppers depend on our merchandise to be what they anticipate each time they open a bottle. That is the id our model was constructed on.”
Certainly, consistency is one main key to model loyalty, however shortage has its personal attract that appeals to the brand new breed of whiskey fanatics. Fueled by collector tradition, these drinkers largely base the worth of their liquor collections on uncommon releases — identified to whiskey nerds as allotted bottles or “unicorns.” Collectors put up such bottles on social media to induce FOMO and amplify their followings. In the meantime, on a regular basis releases with two-figure worth tags do not generate likes, nor do they command exorbitant costs on the secondary market. That actuality makes single-barrel releases attractive as a result of, like allotted bottles, exclusivity is one helluva drug.
Reality or Fiction: Single Barrels Style Totally different
The undoubted attraction of exclusivity extends effectively past the whiskey business. However within the case of bourbon and rye — or any grain-based, aged distillate, for that matter — there exists one other, much less tangible issue to contemplate. Whereas there’s a finite, comparatively small quantity of whiskey ready to be pulled from every cask, do whiskey barrels range that drastically, or do shoppers simply imagine so as a result of single-barrel strains have been marketed that approach?
“The magic of single barrels is that from a distance all of them appear the identical,” says Andy Thomas, barrel packages supervisor for Beam Suntory. “However, they’re really like thumbprints. When you rise up shut, you notice no two are precisely alike.”
In contrast to many American lawmakers, distillers imagine in science, and in relation to single barrels, the proof is within the course of. Even when distillers management for variations, each barrel of whiskey takes on a lifetime of its personal as soon as it is laid to relaxation. Anybody who claims in any other case most likely failed ninth-grade chemistry.
“Barrels have an unbelievable capability to go rogue,” says Keith Barnes, grasp distiller at Bainbridge Natural, an award-winning unbiased distiller in Seattle. “As an example you fill 30 barrels with whiskey that have been all distilled on the identical time, on the identical proof. Then you definately use barrels from the identical cooper, in the identical load, and allow them to sit in the identical place. Whenever you style them six years later, 28 will probably be inside the home model, however the final two will go apesh*t and style drastically totally different.”
This doesn’t suggest a single-barrel line cannot have a constant taste profile, nevertheless. Uniformity is achievable, if that is what a model’s aiming for, but it surely’s a numbers sport, and barrel rely is crucial issue. Buffalo Hint simply celebrated the filling of its 8 millionth barrel. Wild Turkey has one rickhouse for each letter of the alphabet, and each holds upwards of 20,000 barrels. When a distillery’s sitting on tens of millions of gallons of whiskey, it is rather a lot simpler to make sure a single-barrel model maintains a constant taste profile.
Groups of workers at main distilleries blind style new barrels in opposition to a management whiskey to realize this objective. If they cannot pick the management, the brand new barrels get used within the single-barrel line. In the meantime, inferior outliers discover a house in blended merchandise, whereas particular barrels make their approach into the corporate’s barrel choose program.
Unbiased distillers typically discover themselves on the reverse finish of the spectrum. Even when they need their single-barrel line to take care of a home model, they typically do not have the inventory to drag it off. Most have not been in enterprise for greater than 10 years so their best choice is to place their most scrumptious outliers into their single-barrel model. Some might style floral and fruity whereas others are dominated by baking spices. The road might not have a constant taste profile, however the perform is to as a substitute showcase the standard of their craftsmanship in hopes that it attracts new followers. Nobody does this higher than Willett, whose purple high single barrels have a chokehold on the secondary market.
Brandon Collins is the distiller at Unmet Queen, a New York-based RTD cocktail firm that is making ready to launch later this yr. Beforehand, he is labored at Buffalo Hint and New York’s Taconic Distillery, so he is seen each side of the barrel head. “Whenever you work for a significant distiller, you are lucky to have an extra of barrels to select from,” he says. “Nonetheless, as a distillery group, it’s a must to function at a particularly excessive talent degree to make a single-barrel product that customers love yr in and yr out.”
“Whenever you’re at a start-up model,” Collins continues, “[and] even while you’re assured you probably did every thing proper, you simply must be affected person and hope the whiskey reveals you as a lot love popping out of the barrel as you confirmed it while you put it in.”
The Rise of Single-Barrel Applications and Retailer Picks
American whiskey has been on a tear since 2015. Income is up almost 49 % to $4.3 billion, in response to the Distilled Spirits Council, with premium merchandise accounting for the overwhelming majority of that development. In an effort to capitalize on this development, distilleries have partnered with retailers to convey ever extra unique (however financially accessible) merchandise to market. Barrel packages, the place retailers choose their very own barrels, generally known as retailer picks, have subsequently exploded.
Whereas it may be a logistical nightmare in relation to scheduling, bottling, and distribution, the shop choose course of encourages distillery visits, which boosts tourism and model advertising. Retailers additionally profit as a result of they find yourself with an unique bottling they will supply at a premium worth. And shoppers win as a result of they get their arms on distinctive bottles that feed their fandom.
Even Previous Forester, which does not supply a single-barrel core product, has a bustling single-barrel program. Over the previous three years, they’ve labored tirelessly to replace and amplify it to attraction to retailers and shoppers alike. “I really like having a single-barrel product that is solely out there by choice,” says Rift. “It permits us to bend the principles whereas nonetheless sustaining a broader model id.”
Oddly, whereas single-barrel core merchandise principally draw their recognition from their consistency, retailer picks are in vogue as a result of they do not conform to a home model. Because of their uniqueness, they typically overshadow their core product counterparts, despite the fact that they’re theoretically one and the identical. Retailer picks have turn into so coveted, they’ve primarily turn into a core product line of their very own. (Blanton’s retailer picks, for instance, often fetch two to a few occasions the worth of the model’s commonplace single-barrel releases.)
The Final Drop
Final yr alone, the highest 10 American whiskey manufacturers bought greater than 36 million circumstances worldwide. On Drizly, whiskey is now the biggest liquor class, and single-barrel gross sales, dominated by bourbon, jumped up 12 % in 2021. “Single barrels are as robust as ever, and present no indicators of slowing down,” says Beam Suntory’s Andy Thomas.
All proof — whether or not anecdotal or data-based — confirms one thing that will not shock anybody who’s had an eye fixed on the American whiskey class lately: Shoppers stay on fixed lookout for brand new and distinctive whiskeys to drink, and single-barrel core merchandise are filling that void.
Elmer T. Lee, a rustic boy who infamously loved his bourbon with a splash of soda, by no means may’ve imagined he was laying the inspiration for American whiskey to be elevated to a world-class spirit. But that has unequivocally been the case—consistency be damned.