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. 

Do you have a bourbon question you'd like answered? Just get in contact with me using one of the icons in the sidebar to submit one. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll try to find it from someone who does.


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Ask Arok: 1792 and Very Old Barton

Last week, Dan left a comment on the post I did comparing 1792 Port Finish to a 1792 single barrel. 

What is the difference between 1792 and Very Old barton other than packaging? Thanks! 

Initially thought he was asking about flavor. Because I find them to be quite different, I was happy to share that I found 1792 to be hotter, drier and showing more wood influence than VOB. It turns out that his question was much more interesting than that, cutting to the heart of the difference between the juice that goes into the bottle for two brands. Since both of these bourbons are produced at the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, KY one might assume that they are just the same bourbon put into different bottles.

At one point, this would have been an easy question to answer. Age. Both of these had age statements until just a few years ago. Very Old Barton was 6 years old and 1792 was 8. I assumed that this, along with barrel selection was probably still the case. But the bourbon industry has changed in the mean time. There is much less info on the label than there used to be for these two brands so I couldn't say for sure. To find out, I reached out to a contact I have at Sazerac to see if she would like to chime in. Here is what she had to say.

Age constitutes most of the difference in taste between Very Old Barton and 1792, as 1792 barrels are typically aged 3-4 years longer than Very Old Barton. We also taste, evaluate and approve all the barrels prior to use in any batch to ensure a consistent taste profile for every brand. So in other words, to ensure Very Old Barton always tastes like Very Old Barton and 1792 always tastes like 1792. 

So I was correct in my assumption that it is still age and barrel selection. But I was a bit surprised at one thing. Apparently in the last few years Very Old Barton has gotten younger at a faster pace than 1792 has. They used to be 2 years apart in age. Now they are 3-4 years different. Assuming that they wouldn't remove the 8 year age statement while making the bourbon older, we are left to deduce that Very Old Barton is now only 4-5 years old while 1792 is around 7-8. 

Toss in choosing barrels to fit the flavor profile and you get yourself a different brand that starts the same, but are pretty different when compared to one another. 

Do you have a bourbon question you'd like answered? Just get in contact with me using one of the icons in the sidebar to submit one. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll try to find it from someone who does.


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Ask Arok: Does Luxco have aging warehouses?

@mindtron asked on twitter: 

@arok this is super inside baseball, but do you know if Luxco have their own warehouses? asking as I just opened the 7yr and I wondered if it was barrels meant for EC12 that started getting too oaky when young.

The 7 year he was referencing is one of my favorite value bourbons Old Ezra 101 7 year shown above. 

Now I love geeky inside-baseball questions and, to be honest, on this one I had no idea. As with all the best questions, this is a question I had never even thought to ask before. So I reached out to my PR contact at Luxco and asked them. I also reached out to a couple other bloggers that I thought might have an answer just in case they declined to answer.

As it stands they were happy to answer this one: 

“Our bourbons are not aged by Luxco; they are aged at the source where Luxco contracts.”

This answer was later corroborated by Josh Wright of SipologyBlog and Chuck Cowdery.

So on to the second part. Of course it is impossible to get know for sure, but it’s an open secret in the bourbon community that at least some of the juice for Ezra Brooks comes from Heaven Hill. And so it stands to reason that barrels that were aging a bit too quickly to make it to 12 years for Elijah Craig, might be sold off to someone who would be happy to use them in a 7 year old bourbon.

Do you have a bourbon question you'd like answered? Just get in contact with me using one of the icons in the sidebar to submit one. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll try to find it from someone who does.

UPDATE: the day after I wrote this, we received the news that Luxco was planning a distillery in Bardstown. I'm assuming there will be aging facilities there. 


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Ask Arok: Why do some small distillers not use "Straight" to describe their bourbon?

Last week, I shared an article on Twitter by Blake at Bourbonr.com where he reviewed Wyoming Whiskey. Having just visited the distillery and reviewed the product myself I joined in a discussion on Twitter that the article had spurred. 

During that discussion, the question was raised as to why Wyoming Whiskey didn't include the "Straight" designation on their label. The recent revelation that non-straight (non-bourbon*) whiskey can contain additives and flavorings has made folks, including myself, a bit gun-shy when they see a label that doesn't include it.

I guess, there is at least one thing we can thank Templeton for, they may be flavoring their whiskey, but they did end up bringing the law to our attention.

In any case, as I didn't know the answer, I reached out to the source to find out. The following is the kind response I received via email Sam Mead, Distiller at Wyoming.

Hey Eric, 
I'm going to ask around to check, but I think during the label design we just felt that "small batch" was more important that adding the straight designation, although our bourbon meets all the requirements of the straight bourbon designation (aged 2+ years, no added coloring or flavoring, and we had an age statement until we hit 4 years, then went NAS). We didn't put Small Batch Straight Bourbon Whiskey on the label because we felt at some point we were squeezing too much information into a descriptor. 
That's my guess, I wasn't heavily involved in the label design so I'll get a better answer for you today if I'm incorrect. 
-Sam

He later confirmed that he was correct in his assumptions.

This is a minor trend I've started noticing on whiskey being put out by the "non-majors." And I'm not exactly sure why it is happening. I, and every bourbon geek I know, advise everyone who will listen to look for "Straight" on the label. I know that to the general public, it isn't as sexy as the meaningless term "small batch" but as consumers become more wise in the ways of bourbon, they will also start to look for it because unlike "Small Batch," it actually does mean something when comparing one whiskey to another. That said, maybe the average buyer of bourbon never becomes more wise and it is just us geeks who end up caring about such things.

I want to thank Sam for getting back to me so quickly and for allowing me to reprint his email. Even if I don't necessarily understand the reasoning the company used, I respect that they were willing to share it with readers.

*Bourbon can't contain any additives or flavoring even if it isn't labeled straight.


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Ask Arok: Eagle Rare Barrels

It all started with one little article shared on twitter. “Reverend Nat's Eagle Rare Bourbon Barrel Aged Revival Cider.” It’s a hard cider that they claim was aged in barrels that previously held Eagle Rare. This prompted a response on Twitter.

@arok is there such a thing as an Eagle Rare barrel? Gonna guess that isn't what was on it when it was dumped.
Andrew Elms ‏(@elmsandr)

Now, I’m going to guess that Andrew is asking this question with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek since I suspect he knows the answer to his question already. But still, it is a good question and one that someone who isn’t obsessed with bourbon might not know the answer to.

First a little background. Eagle Rare is a bourbon produced by Buffalo Trace. It is dumped out of barrels that were filled with distillate made from Buffalo Trace’s Rye Bourbon Mash Bill Number 1 (though I have been told that very occasionally a mash bill number 2 barrel will hit the flavor profile and become Eagle Rare). This same distillate is also used to fill barrels that will become Old Charter, George T Stagg, Buffalo Trace and Benchmark. Buffalo Trace has four mash recipes that are fermented and distilled to create all of their brands. There is the aforementioned Bourbon Mash #1. There is Rye Bourbon Mash #2 which is used to create the distillate that will eventually become Ancient Age, Elmer T. Lee and Blanton’s among others. There is a Wheat Bourbon Mash used to create distillate that will become the Weller line as well as the younger Van Winkles. And there is a Rye Mash that is used to create the distillate that will become the Sazerac Ryes and Thomas H. Handy Rye.

If you do a search online you will find no end to the things that claim to be aged in a certain Buffalo Trace brand’s barrel. There’s a Buffalo Trace, a George T. Stagg and a Van Winkle barrel aged Tequila. There are numerous beers aged in Stagg, Buffalo Trace and Van Winkle barrels. And there is the Eagle Rare barrel aged hard cider mentioned above. To name just a few. 

Which brings us back to the question: Is there such a thing as an Eagle Rare Barrel? The answer is: kinda.

You see, there is no barrel that was filled with the intention of it being Eagle Rare (or Stagg, or Van Winkle, etc) when it was emptied. Every barrel that is filled with something that might become Eagle Rare will be labeled Mash #1 (or on a rare occasion Mash #2). So if your perspective is driven by what went into the barrel, then no. There is no such thing. 

Of course, what went into the barrel and what came out of it were two completely different things. All sorts of factors act on that distillate to change it from Mash #1 to Buffalo Trace or Eagle Rare or (Benchmark for that matter). So if you look at it from the perspective of what came out of the barrel, then most certainly there is an Eagle Rare barrel. There is a barrel that held Eagle Rare. It just happens to be labeled Mash #1 (or on a rare occasion Mash #2).

So who is right? I tend to look at it from the "what came out" side. Blanton’s and Elmer T. Lee are both single barrel bourbons that came from the same distillate, but they taste much different. Old Charter tastes much different than Buffalo Trace or Eagle Rare even though they came from the same mash recipe. Based on that, as long as they are being honest about what came out of the barrel, I’d say Buffalo Trace is well within it’s rights to sell an empty barrel as an Eagle Rare Barrel or a Van Winkle Barrel or a George T. Stagg Barrel. Especially if people are willing to pay extra for it.

Do you have a bourbon question you'd like answered? Just get in contact with me using one of the icons in the sidebar to submit one. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll try to find it from someone who does.


BourbonGuy.com accepts no advertising. It is solely supported by the sale of the hand-made products I sell at the BourbonGuy Gifts Etsy store. If you'd like to support BourbonGuy.com, visit BourbonGuyGifts.com. Thanks!