Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Mind Your Batches & Barrels

Last week, I reviewed the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof which comes in two releases.  The first release was fantastic.  The second was very good.  The only way to distinguish them is their batch numbers.

Similarly, I recently gave a very positive review to this year's Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel.  The one I found on my local shelf was Barrel 3-3J, which I loved.  Later, though, I tried 3-3I and found it to have a very different character.  Whereas 3-3J was spicy and complex, 3-3I was minty and medicinal, tasting blind, I actually guessed it was an MGP bourbon.  I thought 3-3J was exceptional while 3-3I was average.

Most big American single barrel releases have multiple barrels released.  In some cases, as with Four Roses, it's easy to track because they list a barrel number right on the bottle.  In others, like Knob Creek Single Barrel or EH Taylor Single Barrel, there is no indication anywhere what barrel the whiskey came from, so you have no idea if too bottles are the same or different.

Similarly, many whiskeys are produced in batches.  You have no way to tell the difference unless the label includes a batch number or, as with the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, the whiskey is at cask strength, which means that each batch will have a different proof.  While the producers will claim that they are selecting barrels or batches with consistent flavor notes for these releases, the tastings clearly show that there is a difference, sometimes a big one.

And here's the rub: most reviewers only review one bottle of these whiskeys.  For the big guns, they get sent only one sample by the distilleries, and the little guys like me are only going to buy one bottle.  But the bottle I rate may not be the one that shows up on your shelf.  That's why it's very important to note, where possible, the batch and bottle number being reviewed.  I also do my best to try multiple batches, but it's not always possible, so do your best to mind your batches and barrels.


Josh Feldman said...

Very very very true. And yet another argument for the irrelevancy of reviewing (not that this is stopping anybody). Sometimes it's fun. I like it when batch variation has a reasonable reason (like the distillery is trying something new - like the evolution of wood finishes on Balcones Texas Single Malt). Random barrel variation is harder to get excited about - particularly when it's disappointing and you feel blind sided. Anyway - thanks for bringing this important topic up again.

Winston Edwards said...

Funny Josh, I was just going to send this blog post over to you... looks like I was a bit late!

Florin said...

I got burned more than I care to remember with what was clearly this kind of batch variation between what others reviewed and what I tasted in my own bottle. Once it was precisely with Four Roses SB LE - 2011 in my case. Other such instances: Whistle Pig, Jefferson's 10yo Rye, And of course there's the separate issue of the flavors in a brand changing over time - the obvious decline over the last 2-3 years of Glenlivet and Johnnie Walker Gold come to mind.

ilium55 said...

I have a bottle of 4 Roses OBSF that I got at the Distillery which has a very pronounced mint character. In fact that's how they sold it there with a sign that said this barrel had a unique mint flavor. So I guess its not that uncommon.

Unknown said...

Got lucky enough to find some of the 2nd batch (137 proof) this week. (Haven't had the 1st run that got such high marks).

Stuff is pretty good, I don't think I'm out of line to say it's the best bang for the buck in any market segment of bourbon. I did have one question related to distinguishing different barrels/batches.

All of the new release are 137 proof, and I know that batches can often be tracked by proof when specific barrel/batch info isn't provided. Since these bottles must come from multiple barrels, how are they all the same proof? I imagine that consistent production & storage methods keep them close, but there have to be some differences (variations in the barrels, height of storage rack affecting temp, etc). Is there a range of acceptable error in labeling laws? That is, maybe my ECBP is really 68.2% and not 68.5% ABV? I'm really just curious about how consistent whiskey producers can be, I'm not quibbling over 1/2% abv error

Thanks for any knowledge you can share

sku said...

Mark,unlike the older Elijah Craigs, this one is not a single barrel, so the barrels are blended before they are bottled. Each blend would be a different batch, but each batch would be the same so it would have the same proof.

With single barrels at barrel proof, there would be different proofs on each barrel.

Unknown said...

Thanks, that is a palm-to-the-face-why-didn't-I-think-of-that explanation, appreciated!