America's First Growth Whiskeys

America's First Growth Whiskeys

What the first growths are to Bordeaux red wines, what rhum agricoles are to rum, and, more appropriately, what single malts are to Scotch whisky, single-barrel whiskeys are to American whiskey. The peerless single-barrel whiskeys that are produced in the states of Kentucky and Tennessee are both rare and unique because of their singularity.

What’s more, word is getting out. America’s elite single-barrel whiskeys are among the fastest-growing luxury items in all of distilled spirits at the present time. The year 2005 was a banner one for American whiskey; gross revenues increased by 11.8 percent over 2004’s sales. Even more significant is astonishing 14.2 percent growth of super-premium Bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys. These figures confirm that savvy consumers are gravitating towards better quality whiskeys, such as the single-barrel variety, that boast the "Made in the USA" emblem.

So what, precisely, are single-barrel whiskeys and, moreover, what makes them different from less expensive whiskeys? Single-barrel Kentucky straight Bourbons and Tennessee sour mash whiskeys are unblended, highly distinctive and come from only one aging barrel. They register at least 40 percent alcohol by volume, though many are even higher. Some are bottled uncut at "cask strength," meaning they are bottled directly from the barrel at the natural, unadulterated alcohol rate at the time of bottling.

Single-Barrel Too Good For Cocktails? No Way!

While whiskey purists might go postal at the thought of employing a $40 a bottle whiskey as an ingredient in a mixed drink, many seasoned mixologists suggest otherwise, holding to the belief that better ingredients invariably produce better cocktails. Here are two fabulous cocktails, one brand new, the other a classic, that incorporate single-barrel American whiskey into the mix.

2 ounces single-barrel Bourbon
1 ounce PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur
½ ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
Dash of Angostura Bitters

Place all ingredients into shaker half-filled with ice cubes. Stir vigorously, and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

Whiskey Sour
From Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology (Clarkson Potter, 2003)

2 ounces single-barrel straight Bourbon or straight rye
1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ ounce simple syrup
1 maraschino cherry, for garnish
½ orange wheel, for garnish

Pour whiskey, juice and simple syrup into shaker half-filled with ice cubes and shake vigorously. Strain into chilled sour glass and garnish with cherry and orange wheel.

—F. Paul Pacult

All single-barrel American whiskeys are, by their very nature, limited editions. Their scarcity is due to the fact that an average 50- to 55-gallon American oak barrel of straight whiskey, or whiskey that is comprised of at least 51 percent of one type of grain, typically yields between 200 to 250 750-milliliter bottles. The volume of whiskey in every barrel is dependent upon the rate of evaporation during the aging period. Straight Bourbon and straight Tennessee whiskey, by legal definition, must be kept in new, charred oak barrels for a minimum of 24 months. Do the math. Two hundred and fifty 750-milliliter bottles yield fewer than twenty-one 12-bottle cases, a minuscule amount when you take into account the vastness of the U.S. marketplace and the volume output of the native whiskey industry.

The third aspect that makes single-barrel whiskeys so exceptional is that they are personally selected by each distillery’s top distiller. Every senior distiller at the major distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee has at his disposal thousands of barrels that contain maturing whiskey at various stages of development. In order to arrive at a final selection for a single-barrel edition, the master distillers and their assistants sample whiskeys from scores, sometimes hundreds, of prime barrels from their best rickhouses (warehouses). Once the distillers decide on a short list, only a portion of that roster is bottled for that season or that year. The distillers tightly control the number of barrels used in order to preserve the hands-on, top-quality, minimal human interference concept of single barrel Bourbon.

Up until the mid-’80s, consumers of American whiskeys had only been offered the high-volume, standard bottlings of Kentucky straight Bourbons like Jim Beam White Label, Heaven Hill, Old Crow and Old Grand Dad, straight ryes such as Wild Turkey and Old Overholt, and Tennessee whiskeys led by Jack Daniel’s No. 7 and George Dickel No. 8. The contemporary single-barrel movement began in earnest in 1984, when the Ancient Age Distillery (renamed Buffalo Trace Distillery in the late 1990s) released Blanton’s Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon. This was in direct response to the rapid rise in popularity of Scotland’s single in the 1980s.

Within a decade, in response to the growing demand and media interest in America’s "best of the best" whiskeys, more distillers began offering single-barrel whiskeys. From Kentucky, Heaven Hill Distilleries trotted out Evan Williams Vintage, Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old and Henry McKenna 10-Year-Old single-barrel Bourbons; the Charles Medley Distillery released Wathan’s Single-Barrel; the Wild Turkey Distillery introduced Kentucky Spirit Single-Barrel; and Buffalo Trace Distillery added Hancock’s Reserve, Rock Hill Farms, Elmer T. Lee and Eagle Rare 10-Year-Old single-barrel Bourbons. In Tennessee, the Jack Daniel Distillery presented Jack Daniel’s Single-Barrel Tennessee Whiskey to an anxiously awaiting public. Within a 10-year span, the superpremium American whiskey category was born and quickly evolved into a major whiskey segment.

"Single-barrel whiskeys preserve the tradition [of selling the whiskey from a single barrel] for those who favor this type of whiskey. People who don’t know the history of whiskey might even think that single-barrel whiskey is a new thing, an innovation," says Jimmy Russell, master distiller emeritus of Wild Turkey of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

Genuine individuals
For serious whiskey mavens, single-barrel whiskeys are intriguing because they are capricious, yet complex, libations. Their quirky personalities exist because they originate from a lone barrel rather than from multiple barrels. As such, every single-barrel whiskey is idiosyncratic in character and an authentic one-of-a-kind distillate. Defying scientific quantification, master distillers claim that each barrel of whiskey possesses a unique personality.

Such individuality brings with it a cost for some whiskey drinkers. Many regular consumers of American whiskey like their brand to taste the same bottle after bottle. Product consistency, particularly in the standard brands, encourages brand loyalty.

But uncompromising individuality is the powerful magnetic force behind single-barrel whiskey for the skyrocketing number of spirits lovers. The allure is so strong for some consumers that they collect different releases of the same whiskey. A prime example of that kind of enthusiastic exercise is the Evan Williams Vintage series of single-barrel Bourbons that has a new release almost every year.

How master distillers go about locating these whiskey treasures in their cavernous rickhouses filled nine rows high with oak barrels is a good question. "When we need to dump barrels for, say, Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage, we start by looking for this particular aged barrel in very specific locations in the rickhouses," says Parker Beam, master distiller at Heaven Hills Distillieries in Bardstown, Kentucky. "[I begin with] high floor storage where we know the temperature extremes, the airflow, and the barrel’s location yield better product. These are the locations where the honey barrels invariably occur." By "honey barrels," Beam means the barrels that contain the rickhouse’s foremost whiskeys.

And how do the oak barrels influence the flavor of the maturing whiskey? "It is just right when the barrel extracts and flavors balance the young taste of new distillate. Once the balancing takes place, then the barrels add overtones and complexities that enhance the flavors," says Harlan Wheatley, master distiller at Buffalo Tracer Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Adds Wild Turkey’s maestro Jimmy Russell, "It’s different for every barrel, which is part of the effort. You have to watch them, and work each one its own way to get the best result."

The single-barrel whiskeys of Kentucky and Tennessee rank with the finest whiskeys worldwide. As a superpremium category, they exemplify the extraordinary creativity found in America’s 225-year-old whiskey distilling industry. They are the best of America.

15 Recommended Single Barrel American Whiskeys

Classic(96-100)/Highest Recommendation
Evan Williams Vintage 1995 Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 43.3% abv; $25.
Michter’s 10-Year-Old Single-Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey, 46.4% abv; $80.
Wild Turkey "Kentucky Spirit" Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 50.5% abv; $55.

Superb(90-95)/Highly Recommended
Black Maple Hill 14-Year-Old Single-Barrel/Cask #147 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 47.5% abv; $60.
Black Maple Hill 16-Year-Old Single-Barrel/Cask #127 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 47.5% abv; $78.
Eagle Rare 10-Year-Old Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 45% abv; $25.
Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 45% abv; $36.
Hancock’s President’s Reserve Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 44.45% abv; $50.
Michter’s 10-Year-Old Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 47.2% abv; $60.
Rock Hill Farms Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 50% abv; $50.

Very Good(85-89)/Recommended
Blanton’s Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 46.5% abv; $50.
Elmer T. Lee Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 45% abv; $25.
Evan Williams Vintage 1996 Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 43.3% abv; $25.
Henry McKenna 10-Year-Old Bottled-in-Bond Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 50% abv; $28.
Jack Daniel’s Single-Barrel Tennessee Whiskey, 47% abv; $40. —F. Paul Pacult

Published on September 1, 2006

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