Los Angeles Times: One barrel, one bourbon
One barrel, one bourbon
Single-barrel brands are elevating the status of the original American whiskey.
Still great for post-feast sipping, they are now being used in cocktails and
make great gifts for the holidays.
By Regina Schrambling
Special to The Times
December 17, 2003
For the longest time, Bourbon and I had a May-December relationship: We got
together for the Kentucky Derby in springtime and for eggnog at the holidays.
Since the allure in either season was only high proof and aggressive flavor, any
Bourbon would do. What was good enough for old grand-dad was good enough for me.
But in the last few years, the original American whiskey has literally come of
age. The potent old mainstays with backwoodsy names along the lines of Wild
Turkey and Rebel Yell can still be found, but these days they are being
increasingly crowded by new variations designed to elevate Bourbon to
connoisseur status, with lineage-evoking labels like Elijah Craig and Kentucky
In this age of microdistilling, these are what are known as single-barrel
Bourbons. They're serious whiskeys that are even more handcrafted than those in
the last big trend, small-batch Bourbons. Many even boast a vintage on the
These "newer" — but actually older — Bourbons are far too good to cut with
eggnog. They demand the same attention as a fine Cognac, and they'll command the
same respect. The best of them has a mouth-filling headiness, a smooth and sweet
caramel base overlaid with almost pepperiness, not to mention a decided oakiness
from the barrels they age in. Like all great spirits, they engage all senses,
particularly smell and sight.
They're meant for sipping at the end of a festive meal. But as barroom
connoisseurship devolves into one-upmanship, they are beginning to turn up in
cocktails as well. If high-end vodkas can get lost in the Cosmos, why not show
off $40-a-bottle single-barrel Bourbon in a Manhattan?
Most important right now, with the calendar counting down, single-barrel
Bourbons make a jazzy gift, too. If the flavor weren't so sensational, the
bottles alone would make them stand out. Not one has a screw top, for starters.
Most are as heavy as crystal and flaunt their Bluegrass origins (a little metal
horse and jockey on a stopper, for instance).
Just how radically Bourbon has evolved came clear to me when I opened an old
Kentucky favorite, along with the new Elijah Craig single-barrel Bourbon. Both
Heaven Hill and the 18-year-old Elijah Craig are produced by the same company
based in Bardstown (Stephen Foster's old "home") whose distillery I toured way
back in 1977. But they could not be more different.
Heaven Hill is, to put it bluntly, one step above paint thinner: watery but
pungent, with more fire in your throat than caramel on your tongue. Elijah Craig
— named for the preacher who produced the very first Bourbon, in 1789 — is
buttery but edgy, with burnt-sugar undertones and an aroma that is anything but
nose-singeing. I would serve it in place of Cognac any time. Elijah Craig is the
best of the single-barrel Bourbons I've tasted. Not surprisingly, the distiller
contends it's also the most aged of any on the market, at 18 years in charred
oak (or, as the marketers put it, "72 seasons").
For anyone whose gold standard of Bourbon is top-selling Maker's Mark,
single-barrel Bourbons may be a bit of an acquired taste. They're much more
powerful on the palate. Maker's, produced the same way since 1953, remains the
quintessential smooth Bourbon, neither overly sweet nor extremely challenging.
There's nothing more accommodating for mixing with anything from festive mint
syrup to plain old Coke. Like the best of the mainstream Bourbons, Maker's Mark
is blended from an array of barrels of whiskey; point of origin is less
important than final flavor.
The small-batch Bourbons that stole Maker's thunder in the 1990s are more
refined, made from the contents of a few sedulously selected barrels, blended
for smoothest flavor. These are brands like Knob Creek and Baker's and Basil
Hayden, all boutique bottlings from Jim Beam. By contrast, single-barrel
Bourbons are just what they sound like: Only the liquor aged in one charred
white oak barrel is in the bottle. All of it is the same age, the same taste,
with the same nuances from the same wood. The flavor, to my palate, is much more
upfront than from even a seriously good blend.
What sets all Bourbon apart from other alcohol is signaled by its original name:
corn whiskey. Under a federal law passed in 1964, 51% of the mash it's fermented
from must be corn. The rest is wheat, barley or rye. (Contrary to myth, the law
does not stipulate that Bourbon can only be Bourbon if it is produced in
Kentucky — Virginia and Tennessee also make it.)
As anyone who understands what makes soft drinks so sweet should know, corn is
one seriously sugary beginning for a spirit. And an overtly sweet sensation may
be what characterizes Bourbon above everything else. Unlike Cognac, which the
best Bourbons emulate, the flavor is more akin to dulce de leche. You can almost
Distillers in the whiskey's namesake Bourbon County have always sworn that the
local water, filtered through limestone and high in minerals, adds another
undercurrent of flavor. That may be hard to prove, but it's undeniable that the
charred oak barrels the industry has used since the 1860s give color as well as
intensity to the taste (although added caramel undoubtedly contributes more). By
law, Bourbon must be aged at least four years. But more and more producers are
doubling and tripling that.
Most single-barrel Bourbons run about $32 to $45 for a 750-milliliter bottle,
compared with $12 or $13 for a brand like Heaven Hill and about $20 for a
small-batch brand like Knob Creek. (Some small-batch Bourbons can cost more than
In these unsettled and unsettling times, Bourbon marketers are making much of
the fact that theirs is the one spirit that qualifies as "freedom booze,"
invented and made in America. The whole world of Bourbon may be emblematic of
America in another way: Sales are most robust at the high end of the market, in
the super-premium segment (as grandiose as that adjective sounds, it really
connotes only a price tag of more than $20).
Using them in a cocktail might seem extravagant, but if money's no object, it's
hard to deny a single-barrel Bourbon will transform any drink, even eggnog. With
classic cocktails like the Manhattan and the old-fashioned making a comeback,
better Bourbons should as well. As with any spirit, the better the base, the
finer the finish.
-- continued --
If I have any Elijah Craig or Blanton's left next spring, though, I'll have it locked away and just let the Maker's Mark fight it out with the mint in the juleps. * Smooth sippers Here are four single-barrel Bourbons that are superb when sipped straight but will also dramatically upgrade any cocktail. All come in bottles impressive enough for giving too. They're all available at Wine and Liquor Depot in Van Nuys, (818) 996-1414; selected brands can also be found at wine shops such as Wine Exchange in Orange, (714) 974-1454, and Wine House in West L.A., (310) 479-3731. Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old: Extremely smooth, with undertones of burnt sugar; mellow but intense aroma. About $32. Blanton's: Slightly more mellow than Elijah Craig, with caramel flavor and an almost perfumey aroma. About $42. Kentucky Spirit (made by Wild Turkey): Not overly sweet; flavor is needly on the tongue but smooths out as you swallow. About $37. Michter's: Less caramelly, with sharp and almost smoky flavor from beginning to end. About $44. — Regina Schrambling Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times
I bought some Knob Creek early this month. I liked it as a sipping whisky. Very syrong, but very flavorful. I'll try some of the others mentioned.
Blanton's and Michter's are both excellent in my book.
Evan Williams Single Barrel has become my favorite, puching out Maker's Mark and Virginia Gentelman.
I gotta support my brands, Jack Daniels Single Barrel!
A special report, eh? I wonder how many cases of aforementioned fine burbons the writer is getting for Christmas.
Frankly Makers still trumps them, its warm like an old friend and just a fine bourbon. Caramel on the tongue, vanilla on the pallette with a smokey essence on the way down... just perfect. However I will admit that Basil Haydens recently jumped into #2 for me, I like its creamy honey tones and mild flavor. Knob Creek is probably #3, nutty with fruit tones and goes down with a tangyness which is awfully pleasent. Tried Bookers and Bakers, didnt much care for em. Frankly I think anyone who tries to make a whiskey out of rye should be shot, to sharp and acidic to be appreciatted. Even when done well it doesnt sit right.
THANK YOU!!!!!!! From the Great State of Kentucky,home of cigs,fast women,Vettes and beautiful horses!
I am a scotch guy, but I gotta say Blantons is impressive stuff. I also like the Knob creek. Looks like a bottle of Elijah Craig gets bought tommorow along with that Oban! Thanks for the recommendations.
I just tried the Elijah Craig 12-year old for the first time last week. Very good, and only $18.95/750ml. Now I will have to find some of the 18-year old....
I'll stick to the "bird that bites". Wild Turkey 101. Bob
Speaking of I'm having a glass of Bookers right now. It's made by Jim Beam. Pertty tasty. It's a toss up between Bookers and Jack Single Barrel. [IMG]http://im1.shutterfly.com/procserv/47b3cc39b3127cce8403221e96f50000001610[/IMG]
My favorite is Woodford Reserve. IMHO it cannot be beat in its price range. Mike (I'll have one tonight)
I have loved Maker's Mark for years, but gave in to Knob Creek over Thanksgiving. Upon returning to Ashland, I found the local CVS pharmacy had it on sale for $19 a bottle. I went through one bottle with the in-laws and brought three more home with me. That stuff is great burbon! As smooth as it is, I can't believe it is 100 proof. (until the next mornin') Going back to Ashland for Christmas. Hope CVS still has it on sale!
All of the above are great. I would also throw in AH Hirsch.
For just plain "drinkin' whiskey" I like Evan Williams green lable(80 proof), the price is right and it's got a good taste. My favorite bourbon has got to be Rebel Yell, it has a very good taste, lots of carmel and a just enough of a smokey flavor. I tried Makers Mark and while it was ok it didn't have enough flavor for my taste. Also, I don't much care for anything stronger then 86 proof, Makers was 90 proof, just a tad strong. For my money if I could drink anything I'd be good ol' Rebel Yell.