Single barrel bourbon is (more often than not) the good stuff from your favorite brand. It’s the expression that’s a little more refined, a little deeper, and a little more “extra” — it usually costs a few bucks extra, too. There’s also a ton of it from all the major brands on the shelves these days. And with 2023 releases heating up, it feels like a good time for a single barrel bourbon blind taste test from some of the biggest names in American whiskey.
When it comes to defining what makes a single barrel expression, it’s pretty straightforward. A single barrel of whiskey is selected for its exacting flavor profile either at cask strength, but usually proofed down, and bottled from that single barrel. Look at it this way, a single barrel expression is a unique flavor profile that suits that brand in the same way that their “small batch” or “bottled in bond” will have their own nuanced flavor profiles. But ideally, you’ll still be able to *feel* the distillery in those sips.
For this blind tasting, I’m going “double-blind” to keep an air of surprise and intrigue. I asked my wife to grab single barrel bourbons off the shelf and pour them for me. I didn’t really give her any parameters other than to keep it to the big brands/distillers and skip any barrel picks. That’s easily done, as my shelves are organized by parent companies — Beam-Suntory, Brown-Forman, Sazerac, Campari, Heaven Hill, and so forth.
But since I didn’t know these labels going in, you’ll have to scroll down to see what made it in too. I can tell you that there wasn’t really much to complain about in this group. There were some stunners but they all had their charms. That made ranking these whiskeys pretty easy. And no, the most expensive bottles didn’t win.
in fact… it was kind of the opposite. Ready to dive in? Let’s taste and rank some single barrel bourbon!
Part 1: The Tasting
Nose: Vanilla pound cake and salted caramel are countered by spicy cherry tobacco, mulled wine vibes, and dark chocolate cut with orange zest and a hint of corn husk.
Palate: The palate brings in some floral honey sweetness and more orange oils with a sticky toffee pudding feel next to more spicy cherry tobacco and a hint of coconut cream pie.
Finish: The end amps up the cherry with a little more sweetness than spice before salted dark chocolate tobacco folds into dry sweetgrass and cedar bark before a hint of fountain Cherry Coke pops on the very back end with a sense of sitting in an old wicker rocking chair.
This is a classic pour and clearly a Beam product with all that vanilla and cherry. Also, this is good stuff.
Nose: This is all about the cherry pie with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream next to a slight apple-tobacco vibe with a clear multi-vitamin chalkiness.
Palate: Red berries lead toward a cherry-choco soda pop, more vanilla cream, and a light touch of bourbon-soaked oakiness on the taste.
Finish: That woodiness leans into a musty corner of a cellar as a spicy cherry tobacco finish leaves you with a dry, almost chalky, yet sweet mouthfeel.
This is clearly a Dickel product but old enough to have some serious depth. Still, this really stands out next to the sweet and lush Kentucky product above.
Nose: Sourdough rye crusts and star anise with a fleeting hint of caraway counter cellar funk and cherry/vanilla tobacco on the nose.
Palate: The palate lets that vanilla get super lush with a sense of cinnamon bark and allspice berries next to hints of dill and fennel.
Finish: The end has an eggnog softness with a bit of Red Hot and chili-laced tobacco.
This is a funky and herbal pour that really stands out again. That said, the rye-heavy herbs and funk lead me to think that this has to be a Baker’s Single Barrel — an expression that I can’t decide if I love or not.
It’s like… it wants to be a rye but isn’t quite there.
Nose: You’re met with creamy depths of vanilla next to pound cake, spicy tobacco, sweet oak, and a clear hit of orange oil.
Palate: That vanilla really amps up as hints of rose water-forward marzipan lead towards cedar, more vanilla, and a dash of Christmas spices.
Finish: On the finish, a really deep dark chocolate smoothness arrives with a more nutty almond that’s reminiscent of an Almond Joy straight from a special candy shop.
This is a nice, standard Kentucky bourbon. It’s a little dry but well-rounded overall.
Nose: This is bold on the nose with plenty of lush vanilla next to salted caramel, a touch of barrel char, brandy-soaked cherries, and a hint of dark chocolate-covered espresso beans with a little date/prune action.
Palate: The palate pops with dark chocolate Almond Joys next to cherry root beer and old oak with a hint of potting soil that leads to a big ABV warmth with sharp peppery spice.
Finish: The end softens toward a mocha espresso with a dash of nutmeg next to dry cedar and cherry tobacco wrapped around a box of Red Hots.
This was like pour 1 but with far more ABVs. It’s Beam, high-proof, and pretty tasty.
Nose: The nose is as bold as it is classic with a spice matrix brimming with cinnamon, clove, star anise, cardamom, and nutmeg next to dry cedar kindling, black-tea-soaked dates, rum-raisin, and tart dried cranberry tobacco.
Palate: The vanilla creates a lush underbelly as old boot leather mingles with marzipan, orange blossoms, and creamy dark chocolate flaked with salt.
Finish: The end is softly warm with a sense of that marzipan covered in lightly spiced dark chocolate next to old tobacco braided with old wicker and dry cedar bark.
This is it right here. This goes deep and is delicious. Also, that clear and concise spice alongside dark fruity sweetness is very Wild Turkey.
Nose: This opens very tannic-y (and old) with a mix of pitchy firewood, old honey barrels, dried cranberry, nutmeg, old vanilla husks, cornmeal pancake batter, and a hint of chili-laced tobacco.
Palate: The taste is bold with a fire-hot spice mix of cinnamon and dried anchos that’s eventually tempered by lush vanilla and creamy dark chocolate with a hint of sweet cherry and old wicker rounding things out.
Finish: The end is woody and full of potting soil with a hint of old chewing tobacco next to orchard wood.
Holy shit, the ABVs blow this one out in the middle. I had to take a 5-minute break to reset my palate after this pour. It really leaned into the burning level of high-proof heat and not the pleasant buzzing that you really want.
Nose: There’s a peppery sense of cedar bark and burnt orange next to salted caramel and tart red berries with a moist and spicy sticky toffee pudding with some brandy butter dancing on the nose.
Palate: The palate blends vanilla tobacco with salted dark chocolate-covered marzipan while espresso cream leads to new porch wicker and black peppercorns.
Finish: The end has a pecan waffle vibe with chocolate chips, maple syrup, blackberry jam, and minced meat pies next to old tobacco and cedar with a sweet yet singed marshmallow on the very end.
This is really nice, lush, and delicious whiskey. It’s subtle yet very clearly well-built from nose to finish.
Nose: The nose opens slightly tannic with rich orange zest and vanilla cream next to woody winter spice, fresh mint, and wet cedar with a hint of gingerbread and burnt cherry.
Palate: The palate hits on soft vanilla white cake with a salted caramel drizzle and burnt orange zest vibe next to apple/pear tobacco leaves dipped in toffee and almond.
Finish: The end has a sour cherry sensation that leads to wintery woody spices, cedar bark, and old cellar beams with a lush vanilla pod and cherry stem finish.
This was solid. It was a little thin in that it was just classic bourbon. I wanted a little something more.
Nose: That orange and caramel really come through on the nose with a thin line of creamy dark chocolate and some nutmeg and cinnamon.
Palate: The palate largely adheres to that flavor profile while adding in layers of dark fruit, old leather, mild oak, and orange cookies.
Finish: The finish arrives with a sense of winter spices and dark chocolate oranges next to a twinge of cherry-kissed spicy tobacco chew and a final note of old porch wicker.
This was thin in a different sense. You felt the price point (low). That said, it delivered a fully-rounded profile once you got past the muted nature of everything.
Nose: Woody maple syrup and cinnamon sticks lead to a hint of pear candy, rich vanilla, and a leathery dark fruit with this faint whisper of floral herbs on the nose.
Palate: The palate lets the pear shine as the spices lean into woody barks and tart berries next to leathery dates and plums with a butteriness tying everything together.
Finish: A spicy tobacco chewiness leads the mid-palate toward a soft fruitiness and a hint of plum pudding at the end with a slight nuttiness and green herbal vibe.
This is fresh and fun whiskey — likely Four Roses. The herbal vibe works perfectly with the classic orchard fruit, nuttiness, and darker sweet notes.
Nose: Caramel apples from the county fair, rich vanilla pods, old leather, soft oak, and spice mingle on the nose.
Palate: The palate really delivers on that nose while layering honey tobacco, eggnog spices, rich vanilla creaminess, and a hint of cherry bark.
Finish: The end is sweet and smooth with a nice mix of dry sweetgrass bundled with cherry tobacco dipped in eggnog.
This was good stuff but hit that “classic” vibe and ended there. There’s nothing wrong with that but it wasn’t “extra” by any measure.
Part 2: The Ranking
12. Brown-Forman’s King Of Kentucky Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Single Barrel Aged 15 Years — Taste 7
Average Price: $2,814
This year’s King of Kentucky is a 15-year-old bourbon made from a mash of 79% corn, 11% rye, and 10% malted barley. The spirit — made at the Brown-Forman Distillery in West Louisville (Shively) — went into the barrel on December 18, 2009, at 125% entry-proof. After 15 long years, only about 35% of the whiskey was left in the barrel. 43 single barrels were then chosen for this release and individually bottled as-is, yielding about 3,500 bottles of King of Kentucky.
This was just too hot. The proof completely blew out the palate, which is a shame since there’s a lot going on here once you get past that heat.
11. George Dickel Tennessee Whisky Singel Barrel Aged At Least 15 Years — Taste 2
Average Price: $69
This is a very old whiskey for a great price. The whiskey is from single barrels, aged 15 years or more, and the proof varies accordingly (sometimes it’s cut with water, too). The whiskey showcases Dickel’s vast warehouses and the gems they have hidden deep in those ricks.
This was fine. The Tennessee-ness of it really stood out. Even though it was well-rounded, it still felt more like a cocktail base than a sipper, which is wild for a 15-year-old product (single barrel or not).
10. McAffee Brothers Benchmark Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 10
Average Price: $25
This expression is from the single barrels that actually hit that prime spot/flavor profile to be bottled one at a time. This is the best of the best of the barrels earmarked for Benchmark in the Buffalo Trace warehouses. Those barrels are watered down slightly before bottling at a healthy 95-proof.
This was the thinnest pour on the panel today. It felt like it cost $20 but had a nice demeanor. That said, this is a mixer and decidedly not a sipper. In fact, I think the Small Batch Benchmark might have a little more going for it.
9. Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Single Barrel 7 Years Minimum — Taste 3
Average Price: $59
Baker’s is pulled from single barrels in specific warehouses and ricks across the Beam facility in Clermont, Kentucky. The bourbon is always at least seven years old. In this case, it was aged eight years and one month before bottling as-is.
This felt like a rye-heavy bourbon that didn’t quite choose a side. I like it but I really need to be in the mood.
8. Henry McKenna Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottle-In-Bond Aged 10 Years — Taste 9
Average Price: $69
This very affordable offering from Heaven Hill is hard to beat at its price. The juice utilizes a touch of rye in the mash bill and is then aged for ten long years in a bonded rickhouse. The best barrels are chosen by hand and the whiskey is bottled with just a touch of water to bring it down to bottled-in-bond proof.
This was fine, classic, and all that jazz. I know this tastes great in a cocktail, so use it for that.
7. Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Single Barrel — Taste 4
Average Price: $56
Jimmy and Eddie Russell — Wild Turkey’s Master Distillers — hand-select these barrels from their vast warehouses for just the right bourbon flavor. The bourbon is bottled with a touch of water added.
This was better than fine. Still, it was a tad dry and feels like it’s better suited for Manhattans than neat sipping.
6. Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Single Barrel Vintage — Taste 12
Average Price: $24
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.
Again, this is better than fine. It’s good. It’s just not “wow” good. I would sip this over ice though.
5. Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 9 Years — Taste 5
Average Price: $53
This is Beam’s Knob Creek turned up to 11. The juice is from single barrels of nine-year-old Knob Creek that hit their flavor notes at barrel strength one barrel at a time. The whiskey is bottled 100% as-is from those single barrels.
This is good stuff. The proof wasn’t overpowering. It buzzed, not burned (cough, cough, King of Kentucky cough, cough). Then there was that lush Beam spicy cherry vanilla vibe underneath. It’s nice but needs a big ice cube.
4. Jim Beam Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $24
Each of these Jim Beam bottlings 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 whiskey is pulled from less than 1% of all barrels in Beam’s warehouses, making this a very special bottle at a bafflingly affordable price.
This was just good. It was clearly built whiskey with clear notes that went deep. It was also one of the easiest sipping whiskeys on the panel. You can easily sip this neat, on the rocks, or in your favorite cocktail.
3. Michter’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 10 Years Old — Taste 8
Average Price: $520
The whiskey barrels sourced for these single-barrel expressions tend to be at least 10 years old with some rumored to be closer to 15 years old (depending on the barrel’s quality, naturally). Either way, the whiskey goes through Michter’s bespoke filtration process before a touch of Kentucky’s iconic soft limestone water is added, bringing the bourbon down to a very crushable 94.4 proof.
This was just a good, classic, and deep whiskey that takes you on a journey. There’s always something new to find in this sip and that makes it very enticing. It’s great neat, kills on the rocks, and makes a mean cocktail. Those are all wins.
2. Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 11
Average Price: $37
Four Rose’s standard single barrel expression is an interesting one. This is their “number one” recipe, meaning it’s the high-rye 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.
This was probably the most fun pour on the panel. It was unique but made total sense from nose to finish. It offered something extra and felt fresh without sacrificing taste. I wanted to play around with this one in cocktails and keep tasting it neat all at the same time.
1. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 6
Average Price: $78
Bourbon legend Jimmy Russell hand selects eight to nine-year-old barrels from his Wild Turkey 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 had everything. It was unique, classic, and went deeper than everything else on the list today. It was just delicious bourbon that felt like something you wanted to spend the rest of your life sipping.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Okay, brass tacks, I’d say the top five were all great pours of bourbon. Gun to my head, Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit is the one bottle you should run out and buy right now. It’s everything you could possibly want in a great bourbon whiskey.
I’d happily drink any of these whiskeys, except maybe the King of Kentucky — that one is… a lot. But all whiskey isn’t created equal and those top five pours were just too much more to really compare with the rest. Go and find them, enjoy them, and then buy some more. Who knows? One of them might end up being your forever bourbon.