Whisky Advocate

The downside to single cask bottlings

July 31st, 2013

John HansellScotch distillers do it. Bourbon distillers do it. For many independent bottlers, it’s their livelihood: bottling whisky one barrel at a time.

This is generally thought to be a good thing by most whisky consumers. After all, those generic “bottom shelf brands” are bottlings of many barrels mingled together, not one barrel at a time. They lack individuality, distinction. And some of the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted have been single cask bottlings.

So, what’s the problem then, you ask? Well, let me use the analogy of a choir and a soloist. If you’re a great singer and you’re in a choir, you certainly will help make the choir sound better, but you’ll be lost in the crowd and not fully appreciated. You’re better off singing solo, so everyone can hear and appreciate your talents.

But what if you’re not a great singer and you sing solo? Everyone hears you. Your faults are fully exposed. You have no place to hide, no other voices to compensate for your weaknesses. And let’s face it: very few of us are great singers.

The same goes for whisky. Sure, I’ve had some amazing single cask bottlings of whiskies, and I am so glad they were able to “sing solo.” But for every amazing bottling I’ve tried, there’s probably ten I’ve tasted that would have been better “mingled” with other barrels before being bottled, to help hide their flaws or compensate for their weaknesses.

Sure, buying from a reputable producer (or independent bottler) increases the odds that you will be satisfied with your purchase, but each cask of whisky is unique in it’s flavor profile. That’s what makes them so much fun to try, but that’s also where the risk lies. It’s a two-edged sword.

Additionally, I find that the whiskies from many distilleries taste better when the bottling consists of a mix of both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, not just one or the other. (Not always–I still love Glenmorangie aged exclusively in bourbon oak, for example.)

I was recently sent review samples of single casks from an independent bottler. One was distilled at Tobermory and aged in a sherry cask; the other was distilled at Longmorn and aged in a refill bourbon casks. The sherry dominated the Tobermory whisky, and the Longmorn, because of its extensive aging, was dry on the palate and could have used some sherry sweetness and fruitiness to balance the flavor profile. These are just two examples to explain my point, but it happens all the time.

Bottom line: buying a bottle of single cask whisky is exciting, but it’s also risky. If you can, “try before you buy” so you know what you’re getting. If you can’t try it first, stick with producers and bottlers you trust.

35 Responses to “The downside to single cask bottlings”

  1. Danny Maguire says:

    Very trueJohn. My experience is the same, fortunately most places I buy will let their customers try before they buy, and I’ve tried some lovely, expensive, whiskies that way.

  2. Joe Hyman says:

    From the sounds of it, these 2 would blend well together :-) I’d try 80-20 Longmorn-Tobermory to start…

  3. I was tasting through some barrel samples yesterday, some very fine and well known Bourbon. We had 3 Elijah Craig, 3 Bernheim and 3 Willet 7 Year Old we were going through to pick the cask we want to sell at the store, We finished up the tasting and my dump bucket (sans spit) was about full, so I nosed and tasted it, it was a perfect whiskey, the balance from the Willet showed nicely, the power of the Elijah Craig was evident and the oak and toast quality of the Wheat Whiskey, the Bernheim rounded it all together. Now If I can convince the distilleries to sell me the whiskey unbottled, I can make my own blend and Larry’s Blended Whiskey will be born. It was a very good educational tool for my junior staff to learn from.
    Larry

    • Smithford says:

      I don’t think you’d even have to call it “blended.” Larry’s Straight Bourbon would be worth at least a few bucks more per bottle. :)

    • Chad says:

      I Just had the same experience tasting through some single barrels of Four Roses at cask strength. The mix of mashbill’s and yeast strains along with different ages blended together made the best dram of the day. Wish I could afford to buy them all!

    • theBitterFig says:

      Stick to the term blended. The fact that “blend” is a four-letter word in the world of whisky irks me. The principles of blending are sound, and quite often lead to incredible whisky. If we can’t break the Blends=Cheap=Bad mentality, if we only ever hide behind euphemisms like “married” or “mingled,” we’ll be limiting the pool of whisky available. That would be a bad thing. The only way we’ll get more good and great blends is to be honest about it.

      • Danny Maguire says:

        Arthur Bell had a saying about blends, can’t remember it exactly but it’s on the lines of ” it is better to please 99 men with a good blend than 1 man with a single whisky”.If any one out there can remember, or has access to, the correct wording can you send it in?

    • The blending of whiskies is the way it will be done from now until no one drinks whiskey anymore, I like the Bourbon approach of blending various ages, woods, rickhouses ect….I think it is approached much like a Grand Cru vineyard, they select the best lot’s and blend them to offer a high quality product that is the best the can do at any given time. The giant brands of blends do much the same thing but more for uniform quantity. I do not use the words “mingle” or “marry” when talking whiskey. If you blend the whiskies just say so.

  4. Adam says:

    John,
    I wish you went into more detail about how great single cask expressions can be. While your analogy is spot on I think this category of whisky needs more of a boost. As demand rises above what distilleries can supply these individual bottlings will disappear. While I like to believe that all casks selected are done so bc they have amazing “voices” I realize some might be less than excellent. Overall though the independent bottles are looking to put out unique bottles that can never be purchased again. Besides for the great investment opportunity it is still interesting to “get lucky” by trying new things. I could be wrong but it seems like the industry will strive to put out identical whisky year to year, something only made easier through technology. Not to knock anyone but anyone who doesn’t give a blend a chance should only be drinking single casks according to the logic they use. I also like how single cask bottles give you so much information about what you are drinking. It’s very refreshing in the age of NAS bottlings coming out now.

    • John Hansell says:

      Good point about the information provided in the single cask bottles. It’s always great to see that.

      • Adam says:

        John,
        I’ve mentioned this idea to a few ppl in the industry, i’m not sure if anyone has ever tried it in the past or present… the idea is basically (ignoring logistics) to combine staves from two or more casks to form 1 new hybrid cask. imagine The Macallan’s fine oak; staves from american oak (ex-sherry, ex-bourbon) and european oak (ex sherry) and forming a new, or several new casks. now imagine aging new spirit in that cask, would it taste any different than the current product? would you be able to label it ‘Single Cask’? would any distillery ever consider doing this (if they weren’t struggling to fill current demand)?

        would love to get your feedback, and in the case that someone nicks the idea of this page some samples haha.

        • John Hansell says:

          It’s just so much easier to mingle different types of casks together, than make a specialized single cask.

        • Danny Maguire says:

          There’s another problem, European oak is more porous than American oak so the staves are thicker as a result they couldn’t be mixed in the one cask.

          • Andrew Ferguson says:

            You could put European Oak heads on American Oak casks or vice versa, similar to what Compass Box has done! That would be cool…

          • Danny Maguire says:

            And the Scotch Whisky rules allow it.

  5. B.J. Reed says:

    Hard to argue your point John. I do think that those searching out distinctive tastes gravitate to the single cask bottlings. I rarely find a bottle from SMWS that isn’t worth the purchase and sometimes, like a recent sherry cask Port Charlotte, a gem makes up for others that are not quite where you would want them to be.

    Still, a the 18 YO Highland Park or Laphroig clearly gain from the marrying of casks as do a number of other great standard whiskies. Single casks obviously have more variability but that is part of the charm.

  6. I Schmidt says:

    Marrying two or more types of staves in a single cask is a bit hit and miss. It is far better and offers better control, to marry a portion of different casks together to make a small batch release, although not a single cask admitedly.

    I love the variety of single casks from the same producer and prefer a good soloist to a choir performance any day. A great analogy by the way!

    Essentially the consumer relies on the skill, and honesty, of the producer. A smart producer will not release a dud single cask. That gives birth to the concept that blends are full of spirit not worth bottling as a single cask, being carried by the odd good cask. I find most, but not all, blends rather beige by comparison to a single cask bottling.

  7. adam says:

    oh! one main selling point that i’m actually surprised was missed. NON-CHILL FILTERED!!!!!!!!!!!! you’d be hard pressed to find a single cask bottle that is filtered.

    • John Hansell says:

      Very good point, Adam. One big advantage of single cask whiskies.

      • Andrew Ferguson says:

        I’d take it a step further, and point out that most, but not all single cask Scotch whiskies are bottled at cask strength and w/o colouring. Yes it can be a roll of the dice to blindly purchase one, and sampling is great when possible, but imagine how much better Highland Park 18 could be unfiltered at a higher proof!

    • Danny Maguire says:

      You’d loose the full cask in the filter paper.

  8. I think that also non single cask botlings can be bad. So in this sense I see no difference with single cask bottlings and vattings

    No matter what whisky you buy it’s better to taste first.

    And remember that standard bottlings have batch variations

    I do agree that there is terrible single cask bottlings out there, but we don’t all share the same taste. The bottlings I found worst, the kind of crap donkey piss you wished you never drink, I have heard other people praise…

    Steffen

    • John Hansell says:

      Yes, multiple cask bottlings can also be bad. But I think it’s more difficult for a multiple-cask bottling to be bad, because that would mean that most or all of the casks that make up the bottling are bad. For the same reason, I think it’s harder for multiple-cask bottlings to be great, because all more most of those casks would have to be great.

      I think there’s a greater risk for one cask to be bad, just as there’s a greater potential for one cask to be great, because we’re talking about just one cask.

      In statistical terms, I think that the standard deviation of multiple cask bottlings is lower than that of single cask bottlings.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      Been there, done that. I remember an Adelphi bottling I thought was awful, somebody I know thought it was wonderful.

  9. John Hansell says:

    I guess that main point I was trying to make in this post is that, while there are many positive aspects to single casks botlings (some of which have been noted in this thread), there’s also a risk involved which I think some people overlook.

  10. I see another downside to the single cask phenomena, at least for the way I go about seeking new drams. I kind of treat it like I’m on a journey in search of a new place to live. I’m looking for that one great dram to call my favorite. At some point I’m going to find that ideal dram for my pallet. That perfect place to call home, if you like, and with my luck it’s going to be a single cask expression that I’ll NEVER be able to have again. To date, my personal favorite happens to not be a single cask expression (Bunnahabhain 25) and while dear it is attainable, but odds are that eventually I’ll find another and with my luck it’ll be a one off cask and it’ll just have to live in my memories. I’d call that a down side.

    • adam says:

      That sounds like a “better to have loved and lost…” scenario (or FOMO for today’s generation). if you find a dram you like you should never worry about trying to find it once you reach the end of the bottle, you will never be able to enjoy what’s left in the bottle either. I like to think of each bottle an individual experience and always look forward to experiencing something new after. there is unlimited variety, why not venture outside your comfort zone? also w/ all the details they give you on the label it could very well be possible to find something similar.

  11. two-bit cowboy says:

    I was lucky enough to hear Simon Brooking, Laphroaig’s Master Ambassador, answer the question, “Why is a single cask bottle of Laphroaig [in this particular case a Chieftain's 14 yo] so much different than anything I’ve tasted from the distillery?”

    Simon replied that some casks don’t fit the distillery profile so they’re sold. Using your analogy, John, that soloist’s uniqueness didn’t fit into the choir’s “voice.” Whether a cask is on the plus or minus side of the distillery profile, this is a concept that makes sense.

    And, when you find a duff single cask, do you ever hold it against the distillery? I don’t.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      These are the casks that get sold to the blenders of the big budget international blends, one cask among hundreds isn’t going to be noticed.

    • Victor says:

      It would be extremely interesting to know, for each distillery, what percentage of the single casks which they sell they consider to be outside of their distillery intended profile, or ‘house style’, and what percentage of the single casks which they sell they consider to be ‘within’ their distillery intended profile.

  12. John, We met at Whisy Fest in Chicago a few years back when I lived there and dealt with Bret at Binny’s ( The headshots on my website may, or may not, refresh your memory). I’m now it LA, an actor/producer, and member of the LA Scotch Club. I have lost count of how many malts I have tasted but am pretty sure it’s in excess of 750. Many of them single casks bottlings, and yes there are risks. But, I have all risked buying a bottle of something I tasted at Whisky Fest I thought I liked, which later turned out to be a mistake. I will buy a bottle of something that looks interesting and sample it over time. I won’t judge a bottle from one tasting. If it’s not quite what I was hoping for I will try pairing it with different foods to see where it fits in. If I can’t find any good way to to drink it I will share it with my friends at the LA Scotch Club and see what they think, but that happens rarely. There was a time, however, when I thought there was no such thing as a bad Scotch. That was until I tried the green Hart Brothers Bowmore at Binny’s. Whore perfume was the only appropriate description.

  13. Vince says:

    Two-bit Cowboy, Thanks for sharing the comment from Simon Brooking regarding casks that do not fit the distillery profile. That sheds some light on why independent bottlings are so different from distillery bottlings. My recent experience with a single cask was a peated Benriach (distillery bottling) Special Edition 15 y/o finished in a Pedro Ximinez cask. I real enjoyed the whisky and my thought was that they searched out a special cask for a single cask bottling. I have tried some independent bottlings of single barrels that were good but certainly different from the distillery character.

    I live in Massachusetts and one of the stores here, Julio’s Liquors, sells several selected single barrel bourbons. In this case, it seems that only superb barrels are picked and I have really enjoyed several of these.

    So overall, my recent experience with single casks has been good.

  14. Tadas A says:

    Another downside to single barrel bottlings is that some of those are mainstream bottlings with not enough quality control. Since they are selling so many of them it could be that they do not have enough good barrels around that are great on its own without blending with other barrels. Or just doing a less thorough job selecting them since they need to select a large amount of barrels for these bottlings.
    I have bought couple single barrel bottles this year. One was Evan Williams Single Barrel 2003 (barrel #68, distilled 5/9/2003, barreled 12/20/2012) and another Four Roses Single Barrel 100 proof (warehouse RS, barrel #81-1F). Both of them I would rate at low 80 rating. They had metallic and dusty flavor to it that was not enjoyable. I would rate regular Evan Williams and regular Four Roses higher than these two single barrels.

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