Single barrel bourbon whiskeys are special buys. Their appeal is in how distinct and unique they are, even from other expressions made by the same brand. Which makes it incredibly hard to judge single barrels against one another. Generally speaking, two bottles from two different barrels from the same distiller can vary — sometimes quite widely. So you can imagine how tough it is to get a handle on a certain brand’s output.
All of which made this the hardest blind ranking I’ve ever done. All eight bottles showed something different that helped them stand out, which meant I really dug a lot of these. But I found myself liking them for massively different reasons — which made them damn near impossible to rank. In the end, the distance between sixth and fifth places or even second and first places was razor-thin.
I also had a ringer thrown in. Technically, I’m drinking seven single barrel bourbons and one Tennessee whiskey single barrel. The reasoning behind this is twofold. First, all Tennessee whiskey is bourbon (but not all bourbon is Tennessee whiskey). Tennessee bourbon that goes through the Lincoln County Process — filtering through sugar maple charcoal — becomes Tennessee whiskey. The second reason is that I wanted to see if I could blindly pick out the Tennessee whiskey from the pack of refined single barrel bourbons. As in: would the extra filtration be noticeable when competing against expressions this refined?
Let’s see how I did!
Part 1: The Taste
Right from the top, I can see from the dark hue of this bourbon that it’s one) crafty and two) likely Texan. It’s dark and stormy in the glass, with a nose that leads off with rich butterscotch that’s almost a toffee. There’s a mild pine board dryness that leads towards very creamy vanilla and eggnog spice depth. The sip gets creamier when you go back to the nose and take a second sip and a sweet (almost honeyed) tobacco chew takes over.
This opens with a buttered cornbread that leads into a lot of fruit. There’s a cherry cream soda vibe (hello, Jim Beam) that runs through the whole sip, while notes of mildly spicy apple pie dripping with sweet caramel sauce come to play.
A touch of peach comes in on the second round of nosing and sipping and a soft, almost moist, leather enters the fold.
Okay, this is deeply interesting. Mild marzipan nuttiness leads towards a rush of barky Christmas spices. The sip turns towards blackberries, cinnamon bark, and old leather-bound library books. The mustiness never overwhelms as the very silky body of this sip creates a big, warming tobacco buzz on the end that really lingers.
There’s a rush of toffee with a spicy tobacco counterpoint that leads towards a maply candy vibe. That maple candy holds as a rich and creamy vanilla ice cream — think thick and malted — counterpoints an old cedar bark feel next to a spicy tobacco chewiness on the end, all of which leads back to that maple.
This is lighter but not thinner. There’s a mix of almost old cherries next to dry leather and a sticky firewood sap. There’s a light and sweet kettle caramel corn touch with a hint of vanilla and spicy toffee-covered apples. But it’s really the fruit that shines the most in this dram: Cherry, banana, maybe even peach and pear.
This has to be the Jack Daniel’s. That fruitiness stands out so brightly.
This is so different than the last sip that it’s jarring — in a good way. There’s a big note of holiday spices with a rich and creamy vanilla backbone next to soft leather and a touch of old cellar beams. There’s a whisper of vanilla pound cake next to wet apple tobacco. The taste then veers towards savory herbs with a nod towards rosemary stems and … maybe tarragon and … I want to say dill?
Those aren’t digs! I like those qualities.
This is very light in every way. The taste is quintessential caramel/vanilla/apple with hints of eggnog spices and a mild oakiness. There’s a honey tobacco vibe that drives the sweetness and chewiness of the sip with a slight minerality, cherry note, and wet leather essence.
This starts off with a maple/cinnamon vibe that leads towards pear tobacco in an old leather pouch with matchsticks nearby. There’s a nuttiness to the body of this sip that feels like walnuts in vanilla ice cream with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg.
After the second and third nose and sips, an orange oil brightness comes into play alongside all that spicy tobacco chew.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage (Barrel No. 912) — Taste 7
Average Price: $32
This is Heaven Hill’s hand-selected single barrel Evan Williams expression. The juice is from a single barrel, labeled with its distillation year, proofed just above 43 proof, and bottled as is.
This was a great sip but from the first nose, I knew this was more a mixing bourbon than a sipping one. The sip only confirmed that. This is definitely going to be my cocktail base for a while and it’ll be great!
7. Jim Beam Single Barrel (Barrel No. JB0009) — Taste 2
Average Price: $38
This is an interesting whiskey. Each bottling is pulled from single barrels that hit just the right spot of taste, texture, and drinkability according to the master distillers at Beam. That means this juice is pulled from less than one percent of all barrels in Beam’s warehouses, making this a very special bottle at a bafflingly affordable price.
I was pretty sure this was Jim Beam thanks to that cornbread/cherry vibe. And hey, I was right. For the price and feel of this one, it’s more a great cocktail base than a sipper for me. Hence its low ranking.
That being said, this is a great entry-point single barrel for anyone looking to get into the game.
6. Four Roses Single Barrel (Barrel No. 66-2G) — Taste 8
Average Price: $50
Four Rose’s standard single barrel expression is an interesting one. This is their “number one” recipe, meaning it’s a high-rye (35 percent) mash bill that’s fermented with a yeast that highlights “delicate fruit.” The juice is then bottled at 100 proof, meaning you’re getting a good sense of that single barrel in every bottle.
I really struggled with where to put this one. It felt like a pure classic bourbon in every way. Still, nothing really reached out and grabbed me. Now, that could be because I tasted this last, and palate fatigue was setting in.
What can I say? This was really, really good … classic bourbon.
5. Garrison Brothers Single Barrel (Barrel No. 5151) — Taste 1
Average Price: $110
This single barrel expression from Hye, Texas’ Garrison Brothers is all about highlighting the craft distillery’s grain-to-glass process. The juice is made from a mash of 74 percent local white corn, 15 percent estate-grown soft red winter wheat, and eleven percent Canadian malted barley. That spirit is then rested for three to five years, or until it’s just right to be proofed and bottled.
I’m not a huge fan of butterscotch. This started with that note but it quickly faded towards more nuanced caramel and toffee and that’s what drew me in. It was hard not to love this bourbon. It was super easy to drink for how dark and strong it is.
Again though, I think I’d like this more in a cocktail than on its own thanks to that very clear high-alcohol vibe. And that’s why it’s a little lower on my list today.
4. Baker’s 7 Year Minimum Single Barrel (Barrel No. 000502651) — Taste 6
Average Price: $60
This is a newish release from Beam’s high-end line. It’s also the first single barrel release from Baker’s, which intends to phase out its small-batch expressions in favor of this bottle. The juice comes from hand-selected barrels from specific spots in the Beam warehouses, with whiskey that’s at least seven years old. In this case, we’re talking an eight-year-and-seven-month-old barrel.
This switched from first to third to sixth to second before it ended up here. That savory herbal note really helps this dram shine. It’s interesting, engaging, and really helps this sip feel like something special.
That all being said, there still wasn’t that “wow” factor at play. It was more a vibe of “well, this is really good and cool tasting. So… what’s next?”
3. Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select (Barrel No. 20-01177) — Taste 5
Average Price: $62
This Jack bottle was first introduced in 1997. The barrel is hand-selected from the upper floors of Jack’s vast rickhouses. The whisky is bottled at a slightly higher proof to allow the nuance of the juice to shine.
First, I have to pat myself on the back a little for being able to call out the bottle of JD. Second, this is really f*cking delicious and easy to drink. All that fruit adds an extra dimension to the vanilla/tobacco/spice matrix of the rest of these.
The only reason this isn’t a little higher on the list is that it’s a little bit thin. Not watery or listless, but it’s missing the extra depth that keeps your full attention.
2. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel (Barrel No. 1105) — Taste 3
Average Price: $60
Jimmy Russell hand selects eight to nine-year-old barrels from his warehouses for their individual taste and quality. Those barrels are then cut down ever-so-slightly to 101 proof and bottled with their barrel number and warehouse location.
This was a real, “Ah-ha!” moment. There’s a beautiful silken quality to this sip that draws you in and holds you tight. It feels iconic. It tastes classic. You feel that age and craft in each nose and sip. It builds. It crescendos. And it sticks with you like a sweet memory of a summer day years ago.
This was the first sip on the list where I thought, “Oh, I can just drink this from now on.”
1. Michter’s Single Barrel Bourbon 10 Yrs. Old (Barrel No. 20D223) — Taste 4
Average Price: $200
This expression from Michter’s is a ten-year-old single barrel drop that hits the highest marks when talking about what bourbon is and can be. The juice is now contract-distilled according to Master Distiller Pam Heilmann and Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson’s precise instructions and watchful eyes (though, they’re distilling their own juice now in Kentucky).
Apply all that gushing I just did for Wild Turkey to this. This is just bourbon in every sense of the word. It’s also amazingly accessible to drink, with rounded edges and silken texture.
Where this sip stood out was the deep feeling of understanding this dram brings. After that first and second nose and sip, you get this sense of ease and familiarity. It’s kind of like this thought runs through your mind, “Oh, I get it now. This is what everyone is talking about when they talk about how much they love bourbon. This is how this spirit tastes.” But it’s also elevated.
It’s like how your imagination improves things. This is the imagination-improved memory of a first bourbon sip. It sort of transcends and illuminates at the same time while being just so goddamn drinkable without ice or water or anything.
All that you need to enjoy this bourbon is your palate, thoughts, and a place in this world to sit and enjoy it all.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
I’m not going to lie. It felt like I’d taken the biggest chaw of Kodiak, dipped for about an hour, and was left buzzing for another hour after sipping these eight single barrel whiskeys. The spicy, woody buzzing from those bourbons lingered.
That being said, it’s pretty clear that not all single barrels are created equal. Price aside, there’s a reason some of the most lauded and beloved bottles are so lauded and beloved. That Michter’s just couldn’t be denied. The Wild Turkey was one of those sips that you can carry with you for the rest of your life. But man they were good. Hell, the Garrison Brothers is probably the one I’m thinking about the most after the tasting, and that was only top five.
I have to say that the Baker’s Single Barrel remains the most interesting sip of the day. But, “interesting” doesn’t mean the “best.” That’s true for me anyway. Maybe it won’t be for you. Try these yourself and find your own transcendent dram of single barrel bourbon that speaks to you.
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