With the shortage of aged Bourbon in the correct age range, many distilleries are cutting back on the number of single barrel picks they are allowing customers to make. They are still bottling their own single barrel offerings, but cutting back their allowance to liquor stores, bars and private individuals to pick their own barrels. If you were not on the list for years, it is almost impossible to get on the list to pick your own barrel. This is unfortunate because it means fewer barrels of whiskeys with unique flavor profiles on the market for consumers to try.
Single barrel whiskey is difficult to produce from the distillery’s point of view because, while each barrel may produce varying flavors, the distilleries want a consistent product. They want their customers to have confidence that every bottle will have the consistent flavor their customer likes. They mostly achieve this consistency by multi barrel batches but of course they can’t do that with a single barrel because of the variance created in the distilling and aging processes. Barometric pressure on the day of distillation may create a subtle change in flavor or location in the warehouse or one of many other factors combine to make different barrels taste slightly different. This is why the consumer may taste a slight difference in flavor from bottle to bottle in single barrel brands.
Distilleries work hard to match their flavor profile for the brand when picking the barrels but there can be some variation in the flavor despite their best efforts. The reduction of barrel picks by customers like liquor stores is a loss to consumers for this very reason. A good liquor store will want a barrel that is great whiskey that also tastes different from the brand normally bottled by the distillery. After all, if it tastes the same as what the distiller bottles, then how can they justify the extra cost associated with store barrel picks?
One example of a distillery working to showcase the different flavor profiles found in their barrels of rye whiskey and that is Kentucky Peerless Distillery in Louisville. Peerless is a new distillery and is just now getting aged whiskey in the market with their two years old rye. They will not have a Bourbon on the market for a little more than a year from now when it is aged four years. They are bottling their two years old rye as a small batch and a single barrel product, but on the single barrel they have identified three main flavor profiles in the individual barrels and are bottling them based upon those flavor profiles. Recently I had a chance to sit down with their distiller, Caleb Kilburn, and taste these different profiles.
We started by tasting their normal small batch rye. This is bottled in a tank that will hold twenty barrels. After bottling six barrels from the tank they add another six barrels to the tank in order to keep a consistent flavor profile. I found when tasting this whiskey the nose had rich aromas of caramel and vanilla, rye grass and fruit notes. The taste has lots of vanilla and baking spices with stone fruits – cherries and apricots. The finish had some oak wood giving it a slightly dry flavor. It is a very nice product. The whiskey is 107.4 proof and they use a number 3 char in their barrels made at Kelvin Cooperage. As a side note, Kelvin uses an oak chip fire to char their barrels in the same way it was done in the 19th century before the use of gas fed flames to char barrels. There is a bit more labor involved in doing it this way and I am sure that is reflected in the barrel cost, but I like the idea of using a wood fire to char the barrels.
The first flavor profile of the single barrel selections from Peerless was what Caleb describes as “Oak and Pepper”. I found the nose to be dominated by the rye grassiness I find in most rye whiskeys and spices. There was very little caramel on the nose. The taste was oak and pepper spice with a hint of fruit and vanilla. The finish was dry and spicy with oak wood and pepper. The whiskey is 109.2 proof. I would say he nailed this category in his description.
The second flavor profile is what Caleb calls the “Fruit and Floral” profile. I found the nose is dominated by cherry and apple aromas with some vanilla with a note of honeysuckle blossoms in the background. The taste is caramel apples with a little cinnamon spice and oak in the background. The finish is long and dry with the oak coming forward in the finish. The proof is 108.4. Once again I think Caleb has done a good job categorizing these barrels.
The third flavor profile is what Caleb calls the “Caramel and Vanilla” profile. I found the nose to be brown sugar, maple syrup, pecans and dates. The taste is sweet caramel and dates with some baking spices. The finish is shorter than the other two expressions and started sweet but got spicy towards the end. I think this is more complex than a simple “Caramel and Vanilla” description and I might change the description to “Candied fruit”, but the descriptor is working for Peerless so I guess there is no reason to change it. The proof is 109.6.
After the tasting Caleb and I discussed as to the cause of these variations in the barrels. It was not really location in the warehouse alone because all of these barrels came from the top of the racks in their single story warehouse. One barrel did come closer to the aisle while the other two were closer to the outer wall, but I don’t think that alone explains the differences in flavor profile. One explanation may be the fact that they are using a sweet mash process instead of a sour mash process. The changes could be in the mash itself – different weather conditions during fermentation or even different season. We both decided that we will not know until there is more data. Caleb is a young distiller and Peerless has only been operating for nearly three years. I am sure that five years from now, Caleb will have a better idea as to why these variations are happening and I look forward to sitting down again with Caleb and tasting some more whiskey and continuing this discussion.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller and Maggie Kimberl