In search of 'honey barrels' — the special single casks hidden in whiskey rickhouses

In search of 'honey barrels' — the special single casks hidden in whiskey rickhouses

Maggie shares her thoughts on the thrill of the hunting for exceptional single barrels

Thoughts from... | 28 Mar 2022 | Issue 181 | By Maggie Kimberl

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Long ago, and for at least several decades, all bourbon was single-barrel bourbon. Once someone had the idea of putting bourbon into barrels instead of earthenware jugs, as was common in the frontier days, the whiskey would then be sold to taverns or grocery stores in those barrels because bottles were expensive. Sometimes, grocers would bottle bourbon in their own packaging, to make it easier for people to pick up, but, for the most part, when a person on the frontier ran out of whiskey they would take a jog down to the tavern or store and pay to refill their own receptacle.

Once machine-blown glass made bottles more economical, George Garvin Brown got the idea that selling his whiskey only in sealed bottles would indicate better quality and consistency to the purchaser. The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 sealed the deal, and from then on bourbon would always come in bottles. The practice of selling single barrels was all but forgotten, except for when distillery owners would bottle up especially fine barrels to use for gifting friends, family, staff, and business associates.

Elmer T. Lee recalled Colonel Blanton’s fondness for choosing ‘honey barrels’ (as these especially good barrels are often called) to gift to friends and developed the first single-barrel bourbon for consumers – named Blanton’s – in 1984. However, it wasn’t until the bourbon boom was in full swing that enthusiasts caught on to the possibilities that single-barrel whiskeys could offer.

Single barrel whiskeys are the building blocks of brands. Warehouse managers know where to look for barrels and what to look for in those barrels – their artistry in maintaining consistency in brands cannot be overlooked. Shelf standards require certain consistency, and consistency is achieved by blending or batching together multiple barrels with different characteristics to create balance. But if one cask’s character stands out from the crowd? That’s the honey barrel.

I’ve been on dozens of barrel picks over the past 10 years, and I have yet to come across a bad whiskey. The best part is that every experience is different, and no two barrels are the same. There is a lot at work inside a barrel, and the end product is considerably more than the sum of its parts. Mash bills are important, and the quality control of the process is crucial, but entering the exact same, pristine distillate into two seemingly identical barrels can yield different results.

At coffee one time with Four Roses’ division sales manager Dan Gardner, he sketched out the variations in Four Roses’ single-story Cox’s Creek warehouses for me. Even on one floor, there are marked differences based on whether a barrel is on the side that gets the morning sun, closer to the inside, lower to the ground or higher, and so on. Imagine the differences in some of the six-storey (or more) warehouses that can hold over 30,000 barrels.

The colour of the siding on a rickhouse can affect how hot it gets throughout the year. Black warehouses are common because of whiskey fungus, but white warehouses are a choice that maintains a lower temperature. Outside of Kentucky, maturation of whiskey is a nearly new science, with factors such as altitude, barometric pressure, humidity, and more affecting the final product.

While most distilleries tend to fill all their product at the same barrel-entry proof and use consistent char levels and toasts, the barrel itself can still be a wildcard. There’s research indicating that different parts of the oak tree can yield different flavours, and that’s certainly true when talking about a faster-grown, more porous part of the tree versus a slower-growth, more dense part of the tree. The exact location of a tree also impacts this.

Hunting for that special barrel can be quite thrilling. Imagine finding a honey barrel that highlights your favourite characteristic of your favourite brand. As American whiskey’s popularity soars, look for even greater options for single-barrel picks. American single malt as a category is ripe for this phenomenon to gain traction, and rye whiskey is also an increasingly popular choice for those with bold palates. May all your barrels be honey barrels and cheers to the thrill of the hunt!
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