Ask Arok: Single Barrel is not the same as Barrel Proof

I got a comment on my last post (Rebel Yell Single Barrel) from MadHatter: 

Which begs the question: If this is a single barrel and unless the barrel contents were exactly 50 abv, why did they water it down to 50 abv?

I like this question. Not just because I know the answer, but because it is always good for me to remember that the audience for this site is not just experienced connoisseurs of bourbon. There are a bunch of people reading this who are just starting out on their bourbon journey. And to them, I say: "Welcome! The bar is in the corner, pour yourself a drink of something nice."

So let's break down MadHatter's question. The way I see it there are two parts:

  1. Is this really a single barrel bourbon and was the barrel proof exactly 100° proof?
  2. Why would they dilute it to 50% ABV if it didn't come out of the barrel that way?

So let's address the first part. I can tell you all with reasonable confidence that the Rebel Yell Single Barrel is actually a single barrel product. Not only because it says it on the label, but because last year I had bourbon from two different barrels side-by-side and though similar, they were noticeably different from one another. Also, I can assure you that the contents of the barrels used for Rebel Yell Single Barrel were almost certainly not all exactly 100° proof, because that would take a string of good luck that is pretty inconceivable. But just for the sake of completeness, I reached out to the company for comment. The following is from Head Distiller John Rempe by way of my contact at their PR agency:

"Yes, Rebel Yell Single Barrel is a legitimate single barrel bourbon. ... [We] dump each barrel independently and cut it to 100 proof, it is not a barrel proof product."

There now that the conspiracy theorists are satisfied (I kid, I kid... conspiracy theorists are never satisfied) we can move on to the second part of the question. But before we do, let's just lay out an underlying fact: single barrel bourbon and barrel proof bourbon are not the same thing, they are separate descriptors. Though there is no legal definition of either, they are generally held to mean the following: 

  • Single Barrel Bourbon: The product of a solitary barrel of bourbon, that has been dumped independently from other barrels, and then bottled as its own product.
  • Barrel-Proof Bourbon:  Bourbon that has not been diluted with water before bottling. 

Yes, some single barrel products are released at barrel strength. Jack Daniel's has one and most of the Four Roses Single Barrel private picks are barrel-proof. But most single barrel bourbons are not released at barrel-strength. Just think of Blanton's at 93 proof, Jim Beam Single Barrel at 95 proof, Evan Williams Single Barrel at 86 proof, Four Roses Single Barrel at 100 proof, Old Forester single barrel at 90 proof...I could go on and on, but I won't. Let's just keep it simple and say that a single barrel bourbon does not have to be barreled at barrel proof.

But as to why Luxco (and every other major producer of Kentucky Bourbon) dilutes their single barrel products? For the same reasons as they dilute all their other products. They either think it tastes best at that proof or they can make more money at that proof. More than likely it is some combination of the two. It tastes good at 90 or 100 proof and they can get more bottles out of a barrel that way. There may even be some tax incentives to bottle it at non-barrel strength. I can assure you, whiskey dilution makes a huge difference in the taste of the final product and companies that are trying to put out a premium product do not undertake it lightly. 

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