Once you dip your toe into the wide world of whiskey, you get inundated with lots of specific terms, descriptions, experiences, etc., like small batch, unfiltered, barrel strength, white dog, bung hole, rick house. While we won’t dive into the bourbon dictionary in this piece, we will help answer a question many have been asking:
What does single barrel select mean?
Of course it doesn’t take a winner of “Jeopardy” to figure out we’re talking about selecting a single barrel, but let’s look at how it relates to the bourbon and whiskey industry, the process, and how you might be able to go on your own single barrel select experience with Mint Julep.
But first, let’s cover the basics. Single barrel selects, also known as barrel picks, are private experiences where a person and/or small group get to visit a distillery and choose their very own single barrel by sampling from several barrels the master distiller has selected for the group. Usually these highly sought-after experiences are led by the master distiller (or brand ambassador) who will share his or her tasting notes and thoughts about each. Ultimately, though, it’s up to the group to choose which barrel they prefer, and it is then taken to be bottled and shipped out to the group — a process that can take weeks or even months in some cases.
In the past, these coveted single barrel select experiences have been reserved for owners of restaurants, liquor stores or bars, but some distilleries are beginning to offer them to the public by partnering with an expert tour company like Mint Julep Experiences.
The Process of Selecting a Barrel
Let’s say you’ve booked this one-of-a-kind barrel select experiences through Mint Julep, so now what can you expect? First of all, you’ve booked this through a luxury tour company, so of course you’re going to ride to the distillery in style and comfort. Plus, Mint Julep tour guides are some of the best in the business, so any questions or concerns you might have before will all be answered by an expert in the field.
Once you get to the distillery, there is usually a complimentary barrel house tour that comes with the experience, which helps you get more acquainted with the distillery’s products, history, traditions and methods. Most likely you’ll learn all about the different mash bills, char levels, yeast strains and even barrel storage style the distillery uses — all of which come into play when you’re sampling whiskey straight from the barrel.
And speaking of … most single barrel selects will take place inside an actual rick house, the place where barrels are stored for aging. The master distiller will typically have about three barrels already chosen for the group, and sometimes the samples will already be pulled from the barrels, while other times that task falls on you. A whiskey thief is a long copper instrument used to pull bourbon out of a barrel — much like a straw in a drink — and it’s fun dipping the thief into the barrel through the bung hole to fill your glasses with pure, uncut, unfiltered whiskey. But whether you get to thief your own samples or not — they will eventually all be set out in front of you for your viewing, nosing and tasting pleasure.
Before you taste or even smell the whiskey samples, it’s best to examine the color and texture of the whiskey. Is it light and airy? Is it dark and viscous? Is it thin or thick? How does it look when you swirl it around in the glass? All of this matters when you’re out to select the best.
For me, I like a thick, viscous bourbon that has a beautiful shade of dark amber. Typically, the darker the bourbon is, the older it is, as it has been mingling with the barrel and picking up not only color but lots and lots of flavor.
One quick note: Since you’re sampling whiskey straight from the barrel before any filtering has been done, there will likely be flecks of barrel char floating in the glass. These cannot hurt you, and in fact, bourbon nerds like me love to see them whirling through the whiskey like a holiday snow globe.
Next up is detecting the aroma, which can give you a good indication of its flavors, mash bill and, yes, even age. You’ll want to keep your mouth slightly open when you inhale, and try doing it one nostril at a time. Believe it or not, you actually have a dominant nostril, just like you have a dominant hand. Swirl it around in the glass and smell it again. Do you smell grains, like corn or rye, or is it more oak/wood-forward?
There is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions, but figuring out what you like best will help determine what kind of whiskey you prefer the most. Maybe you like a spicy rye whiskey with black pepper notes, or maybe you’re more of a wheated bourbon lover because of those soft, sweet notes that pop with baking spices and baked fruits.
Write down what you’re smelling and discuss it with the group. Chances are all the samples that are pulled for the group will be similar in mash bill, age and barrel char level, but the fun part of the day will be seeing how different each sample is to each other — also known as the magic of whiskey aging. Even two barrels sitting side by side in the rick house with the exact same distillate inside will yield different flavors.
Finally, it’s time to taste that wonderful raw whiskey that you pulled directly out of the barrel. Bring the glass to your lips and take a small sip. This is considered a throwaway sip, because your taste buds will be in shock from the high-proof spirit. It’s OK and natural — and they’ll bounce back in time for you to take that second sip, which is where you’ll first detect all the intricate notes and flavors bursting from the whiskey.
Take some time to notice where on your tongue it hits you the most. Do you taste everything up front, and then it disappears? Or does it linger in the back? After you swallow, do you taste other flavors that weren’t there initially? This is called the finish, and it is often described in terms of long, short, lingering, burning, and smooth.
Feel free to sip several more times but save some in your glass so you can come back to it after trying the other two samples. Write down what flavors you detect.
Common flavors in bourbon or whiskey are: caramel, vanilla, toasted marshmallow, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, black pepper, baked fruit, citrus, baking spices, various nuts and breads, leather, and marzipan
Narrowing the Choices
If you have three samples in front of you, it will most likely be easy to eliminate the one you like the least. And then it’s just a matter of deciding — as a group — which is ultimately the best one. This can be tricky if the group doesn’t all agree on the same sample, but it’s also what makes it fun.
Ask yourself what you like best about your favorite sample. Is it the mouthfeel and the rich flavors? Is it the color and aroma? Is it the tingly finish, also known as the Kentucky Hug? It’s a good idea to take a break and drink some water, and then come back to the samples. Some people even add a few drops of water to each sample to see how the whiskey opens up.
Choosing The One
Again, there is no right or wrong barrel of whiskey to choose. Obviously, the master distiller picked out three he or she deemed exceptional, so chances are all three will be great whiskeys you’ll be proud to own or gift. If there is consensus in the group, then the barrel is chosen and your work here is done.
But often, most groups narrow it to two choices, and the master distiller will then pour fresh blind samples of both for the final vote. You won’t know which sample is which, and you will simply vote on the one you like the best. Some group members might be so stubborn and believe that their choice is the best, but when sampled blind, they might actually vote for the other one.
This is what makes the single barrel select process fun and eye-opening. And as you can see, you might want to put some consideration into who you bring along on the barrel pick.
Want to Select Your Own Barrel?
If you’re interested in your own single barrel select, Mint Julep offers Single Barrel Picks in Kentucky and Single Barrel Selects in Nashville. On this custom tour, you’ll be touring the barrel house, sampling four barrels you select, nosing, tasting and blind tasting until you find the winning barrel. Upon your group’s barrel selection, you can be apart of the hand labeling of your bottles, making them extra special. One perk of booking a single barrel select through Mint Julep is the fact you can take the bottles home with you that day if you want to! *There is a shipping option if you prefer as well.
Work with a Mint Julep Experience Coordinator to begin planning your one-of-a-kind elevated experience.
About The Author
Sara Havens has been a bourbon enthusiast and educator long before the boom began. As a Louisville-based writer, her work has appeared in various national and regional publications, including Bourbon+ Magazine, The Bourbon Review, Alcohol Professor and Food & Dining Magazine. In 2020, Havens was one of 10 finalists in the World’s Top Whiskey Taster competition held by the Bardstown Bourbon Co., beating out more than 400 contenders to represent the Kentucky region. She maintains her own website, barbellelou.com, covering the bourbon industry and local nightlife scene, and in her down time, you can find her leading tours along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® for Mint Julep Experiences.