Whisky Advocate

Single barrel bottling variation: big or small?

October 27th, 2009

The are a lot of single barrel bottlings on the market, from the small independent bottlers to the big multinational congomerates. Evan Williams Single Barrel, Jack Daniels Single Barrel, Balvenie 15 year old Single Barrel: these are just a few of the more familiar ones.

So, my question is this: How much do single barrel bottlings differ from one barrel to the next?

No two barrels are the same, and that’s the charm of single barrel bottlings. But what are the chances that the next bottle you buy from that brand will taste drastically different than the last one?

Is it your experience that the variation from one single barrel bottling to another is relatively small, or have you noticed big differences? Be specific if you can.

12 Responses to “Single barrel bottling variation: big or small?”

  1. Rick Duff says:

    It depends.. something like Evan Williams is pretty consistent. Heaven Hills takes the barrels for their single barrel products out of the same area of the rick houses. Not to say they don’t vary.. but not nearly as much as a single barrel of Scotch. With Bourbon you’re getting same mash bill, same barrels. With Scotch you’ve got type of barrel (what it originally held), how many times the barrel has been used, etc.. so a lot greater variation.

  2. håvard Eide says:

    I’ve tasted quite a few Arran single casks, and the difference have been quite big sometimes, I still remember #2131 bourbon cask from Arran as one of the better I’ve had.

  3. Louis says:

    The handful of Four Roses Single Cask bottles that I have tried were close enough, with differences not signigficant. And darned good, at that, with the <= $40 price tag as an additional bonus.

  4. patrick says:

    I was told the famous story of the Isle of Jura 3 YO cask #92 and the impressive difference in maturation and volume (in the cask) with its sibling, indicating that variation between 2 casks stored side by side can be huge.
    Personally, I found also very significant differences between the Clynelish 1995 cask 12782 (Adelphi) and cask 12787 (Hart brothers)from sherry casks. The first one was soapy and rubbery and the second one much smoother, without any rubbery or sulphury offnotes

    But on the other, the variation between the 355X serie of 1976 BenRiach is rather moderate.

    A caveat with such comparison: if 2 casks have very close cask numbers, we suppose that the storage conditions are very similar. In warehouse, the temparture differences can be huge between the bottom and the top of a racked dunnage and who knows if cask XX1 was on the bottom of the warehouse and cask XX2 on the top?

  5. Eric Falardeau says:

    I’ve tasted several Jack Daniel’s Single Cask and I must admit that the change are subtles. In fact, the main change I’ve noticed is in the sweet caramel like taste that is more or less present depending on the barrel. I don’t know how they choose their barrels at Jack Daniel, but that is what I noticed. Overall, they are pretty consistent.

    I agree with Rick Duff : differences are stronger in Scotch Whisky. There is more factors in play.

  6. sam k says:

    I’ve heard that some distilleries will vat a number of barrels together, then return them to barrels for an additional spell of aging before being bottled as “single barrel” whiskeys. This practice could negate a lot of the potential variability between individual barrels once bottled.

    John, is this indeed the case? I’m not suggesting that all or even most companies do this, but this might account for some “single barrel” similarities.

  7. John Hansell says:

    Sam, that’s a great question and I honestly don’t know the answer to it. It’s a good one to ask the companies when I am touring their distilleries.

  8. Red_Arremer says:

    I agree with everyone else here that differences from bottle to bottle, in regular single barrel brands, are probably due to oak interaction.

    Just look at the age variations in the Balvenie Single Barrel bottlings– anywhere from 15 to close to 19 years! What else could such variations indicate but an attempt to regulate oak impact. A lot of regularly offered single barrel brands don’t have age statements, but I’ll bet if they did their ages would vary about as much as Balvenie and for the same reason: control of oak interaction.

    Also, speaking of Balvenie 15– it’s really the only single barrel scotch that’s comprable in its single-barrelness to single barrel bourbon. Generally, single barrel scotch comes from independent bottlers and is sold on it’s variations. Exotic barrels are often picked intentionally. Independent bottlers want to offer something special. And distilleries don’t mind get rid of odd ball barrels. So it’s a product design issue.

  9. David Stirk says:

    On the whole, there isn’t a great deal of difference from one cask to the next so long as the variables are the same (i.e. very similar oak casks to begin with; ex-bourbon, ex-sherry etc). I would say that for 70-80% of the whisky made and matured in batches there isn’t a GREAT deal of difference; however, the subtle changes can make all the difference. One can have certain notes more pronounced – especially in sherry casks (as someone mentioned earlier), so one cask can be a rich, raisin-laden ex-sherry cask and its sister cask can have hints of rubber along with the rich raisins etc. The differences are much less noticeable in ex-bourbon barrels/hogsheads but it can mean the difference between a buttery, vanilla-sweet cask and one with just a hint of those notes.

    What is really great, as an independent bottler, is when you get the big differences – when the oak casks at time of filling were markedly different. This can lead to one cask being green, or brown, or black or nearly crystal clear. Sadly this often means you might have one or two crackers and several duffers.

  10. murphy says:

    I recently participated in a single barrel selection at the Partry Source in Bellvue, KY. We tried samples from four barrels of Buffalo Trace. All were barrelled on the same day and all were aged right next to each other for almost nine years.

    It was amazing to notice the differences in taste from barrel to barrel — some subtle, other pretty distinct. (And these were presumably selected by BT to all be well within the Buffalo Trace taste profile.)

  11. Euan says:

    I happen to enjoy single variation and among my favorites for fascinating HTHs are the Elmer T. Lee single barrels and the Signatory Laphroaig Cask strength barrel 34xx series. The ETLs are both uniformly excellent and vary discernibly in taste profile, standouts include the single barrels bottled for Binnys, which tend to be sweet and complex, the Flatiron Select bottling available in New York several years ago, which had distinct blueberry pie notes on the nose and palate, and Hi-Times barrel 13, which was available until last year. The Signatory 34xx series were all bourbon casks with the same fill date and all bottled over a several year period, many being bottled within a month of another. The US surprisingly got the best cask, #3408, while other single casks were distributed in Europe and UK (La Maison du Whisky had a good selection of the European releases). Each cask has its own personality from the cask influence, some are sweeter and exhibit greater citrus notes while others feature a drier peat dominated profile. Presumably these casks aged side by side.

    Several days ago, I spoke with Jimmy Russell from Wild Turkey about their single casks and he noted that it was their policy to select single casks that fit a profile. With all due respect to Mr Russell, who I admire, I think that people buying single cask whiskies are looking for the range of flavor profiles rather than a standard profile. The Old Forester Birthday Bourbons are not single casks, but are indeed selected to show the flavor range of the distillery.

  12. funknik says:

    I think that most of the time, the differences are subtle enough that someone who tastes whiskey scientifically to pick up on, but consistent enough that casual drinking will not expose them. The Buffalo Trace high rye mashbill is used in multiple single barrel offerings (Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms, Blanton’s, etc.) and even those share a lot of similar characteristics with each other while still maintaining their separate identities.

    Four Roses Single Barrel selections seem impossibly consistent and Elijah Craig 18 from has a very distinct identity. I have a feeling that age & proof have a lot to do with this. In the EC18, the oak is the predominant flavor, so even though their were underlying variations in the different bottles I tasted, the overall flavor was pretty consistent. As far as proof, I would guess that dilution would accentuate the differences as the addition of water to whiskey is commonly suggested to “bring out the flavors” — so I would think the higher the proof, the more uniform the flavor.

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