Single Barrel Meaning
What does Single Barrel mean on a whiskey or bourbon label? And what about “Store Pick” and “Private Barrel”, are they also variations of the single barrel phrase? The simple answer is that all three phrases are poured from only one barrel. But being satisfied with that answer is like asking if bourbon is whiskey and being satisfied with being told yes. The better question is, “Why make a single barrel whiskey?”
All whiskey is aged in barrels, and each barrel will yield approximately 220 bottles of whiskey. But the purpose of the barrel is not just to be a convenient storage vessel…there are cheaper containers for storage. The purpose of the barrel is to impart flavor, color, aroma, and character to the whiskey.
The vast majority of whiskey & bourbon is blended from a large number of barrels, even if it is the same recipe and batch. This is because each barrel will yield a whiskey with variations in flavor. Blending them together results in a more consistent end product and allows distillers to create their brand name whiskeys with similar flavor profiles year after year.
It’s important to understand that each whiskey barrel is its own microenvironment, and the same whiskey put into different barrels will yield different flavor profiles. Barrels are handmade, the wood comes from different trees, different ages of trees, different forests in different regions. Even if from the same tree the wood may be from near the center or near the outer edge of the tree, or from higher up the tree. All these factors influence the potential impact of the oak upon the flavor of the whiskey.
The char level of the barrel also has a dramatic impact on color and flavor. Even if charred for the exact same time, the characteristics of the wood mentioned above will impact the degree of the char.
Then the barrels are stored in different areas of the of the rickhouse. Some areas are high, some are low, some areas warmer, some cooler, or with different levels of humidity. Over the years in the barrel, some will have a small amount of water evaporation while others may have significant water evaporation.
All of these conditions impact the aging process and the flavors imparted to the whiskey. Single barrel releases by brands like Knob Creek and Blanton’s began to become popular around 2010, and since then whiskey enthusiasts have demanded more of these unique spirits. Rather than wanting the consistent, everyday flavors of a mass produced product (which are also quite good), whiskey and bourbon lovers seek after these uniquely different whiskeys. Distillers may release multiple single barrel bottles in a year, and each one will be labeled with a barrel number and often with a rick number and/or bottle date.
“Single barrel is small batch to the extreme. It is a batch of one barrel. What this means is that our tasters have gone into the warehouse for a product like Knob Creek Single Barrel, and they’re going to taste many different barrels and pick out a couple that they think are truly exceptional, that really highlight something fantastic about that product. They bottle it one barrel at a time, and therefore each bottle is going to be a little bit different — whereas small batch would taste the same each and every time.” – Hunter Davis, Tour Guide at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse
Who Chooses the Single Barrel Whiskey?
In a distillery, the Master Distiller, or a team of qualified tasters, will evaluate the barrels they think have the best whiskey for a single barrel designation. They will taste the different barrels and then determine which ones have the most unique and interesting flavor profiles.
Store picks or private barrel are usually barrel picks made by people who go to a distillery and choose a barrel to sell as a “store pick” or “private barrel” in their liquor store, restaurant, or bar. Sometimes they will also have the opportunity to add specific flavor components to age in the barrel, such as additional oak staves or charred staves.