Saturday, March 16, 2013

Review: Blanton's Single Barrel versus Jack Daniel's Single Barrel

The Single Barrel Whiskey Trend
Lately, a lot of American whisky producers have been trumpeting their respective "single barrel" editions.  These releases are marketed as premium whiskies at premium prices, of course.

The vast majority of American whisky (whether it be bourbon, Tennessee or otherwise) is basically a blend (that takes place after aging) of many barrels (of varying ages, barrel char, grain spirits, etc)  to achieve a signature taste (in accordance with the distillery's recipe).  Hence, the general flavor consistency from year to year with the likes of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 or say one of my favorites: Jim Beam Black.

Single barrel whisky is simply a bottling based upon well, you guessed it, a single barrel.  Is it better?  I am not so sure.  It can be more expensive for the producer and so the steeper price is not a surprise.  But, again, is it worth it?  Recently, I chose two American single barrel whiskies with a view to examining this critical question.

Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey
I have reviewed this whisky in the past (click here) and found it too strong for my liking.  But, that review only pertained to that particular barrel (number 9-4870) bottled on November 24th, 2009.

Well, the particular bottling before me now was bottled June 6th, 2011 from barrel number 11-2796 and it is quite different.

By different, I want to make clear that this particular JD release tastes distinctly within the house style of Jack Daniel's, but altered in terms of emphasis.  Anyhow, let's move to the tasting note of the 2011 bottling.

Nose (undiluted)
Big vanilla, sawdust, saddle leather.

Palate (undiluted)
Clean limestone filtered spring water, very refreshing.  Huge oak timber, vanilla, burnt brown sugar, smooth Virginia tobacco, old leather.

Finish (undiluted)
Tangy citrus and oak char.  Long, lingering finish that is quite rewarding.

General Impressions
This is a very powerful whisky.  Certainly not to be trifled with at 47% ABV.  I like this more than the last bottle I had that was the subject of an earlier review.  But, the question remains, do I like it at the elevated price point?

Not really.  I can appreciate that this is fine Tennessee whisky, and it is refined, with nothing offensive, but it just does not satisfy my value for money test.  Why?  A bit too big for my liking without the complexity that should be there for the price.  Matter of fact, I often prefer it with an ice cube.  Let it melt for a minute and then sip.  I just like the chill the ice brings.  Tones it down more to my tastes (of course when you add ice, you throw away any chance of tasting complexity of flavors).  Sometimes it is more enjoyable neat, but it really depends on my mood.  I find adding water doesn't work here.  Ice is a must if you are not in the mood for this big dog neat.  At the same time, I can appreciate the bold flavors would serve as a great foundation for certain cocktails like Manhattans.

 At a recent whisky club meeting, I featured Jack Daniel's Single Barrel along with Blanton's Single Barrel Reserve.  Putting aside cost considerations, most members preferred Jack Daniel's.  Matter of fact, they thoroughly enjoyed the Jack Daniel's.  So, I was in the minority that preferred the Blanton's.

Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon Special Reserve 40% ABV (dumped on May 28th, 2012 from Barrel 349 of warehouse 'H' on Rick no. 55)
This particular release is currently not available in the continental US, but rather only in the duty free market at airports and in export markets like Canada.

This bourbon is bottled at 40% which should give you a clue that it is a lot gentler than the Jack Daniels, and other Blanton's releases for that matter.

While it is a "single barrel" release, I am not so sure it was literally poured from the barrel.  I strongly suspect that this is not bottled at barrel strength (equivalent to cask strength in single malt parlance), but rather diluted to 40% ABV.  I mean, what are the odds they factored in the angel's share, aging to optimum taste to bring it out at 40% ABV.  If they had to add water, is it fair to call it "single barrel?"  At least with regards to this Blanton's edition, it may be a mistake to equate single barrel bottling with barrel strength bottling.

If you visit the Blanton's website, you will note that this bourbon is described as an introduction to the single barrel style of bourbon.  When you read "introductory" think "gentle" and you will be in tune with what they intend.  A gentle introduction to single barrel bourbon.

Nose (undiluted)
Light, ethereal charcoal, Fall early morning air.

Palate (undiluted)
Classic light tasting bourbon with delicate, even herbaceous notes of charcoal, vanilla and Belgian waffles.

Finish (undiluted)
Clean, effervescent, lentils, herbs, baking soda, warm cinnamon flavored apple pie.

General Impressions
Blanton's is the winner for me.  It is softer, easier to understand and due to its herbaceous nature, more complex.  If you like Canadian whisky, light single malt Scotches, this one is for you.

I do like big ballsy whiskies, but I find Jack Daniel's lacks the complexity and balance that I seek in such a style of whiskey.  Again, this is not to say it is a poor or disappointing whiskey.  No, that is not the case.  It is simply different and does not accord with my tastes like the Blanton's does.

While I enjoy the taste of Blanton's over the Jack Daniel's, the former has an even higher price point that also fails the value for money test I have in my mind.  I paid $60 for the Blanton's and there are a lot finer bourbons for that price or a little more.  Just think Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year old bourbon.  Far more complex, refined, sophisticated, pleasing and all round more interesting than the above two suggestions.  Hell, Maker's Mark is better.

One final thought.  Whether a bourbon or a Tennessee whiskey is single barrel or not is not necessarily indicative of quality.  Just suggests a production manner that is supposed to be more personal where the distillery blender (or a panel of fellas at the distillery weigh in too) personally chooses barrels for release.

Single barrel whisky by its nature varies considerably from barrel to barrel.  Exploring this type of whisky requires some guts and money.  You may discover a gem or realize you over paid by 30% or so.  I really think single barrel products are for the bourbon and Tennessee whisky aficionados, rather than the dabblers and fair-weather friends of American whisky, like me, whose chief concern is a good, solid drink at a reasonable price.

Cheers!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2013. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.

28 comments:

  1. I have to agree with your review. The 'single barrel', 'barrel select', etc., I've sampled have not been good values. I get the impression these special bottlings have more to do with snob appeal more than a better product. It's not that they are bad, just not sufficiently better.

    By the way, when it comes to Tennessee whisky, I still think George Dickel No. 12 is the best tasting and value. If you review it at some point, I'll be curious to see your impressions.

    Jeff The Bear

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    1. I'll do my best to lay my hands on some George Dickel. I was in Maine a couple of weeks ago and picked up Old Grand Dad ans will review for the helluva it.

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    2. Jeff - I found the Dickel barrel select rather disappointing, primarily because it is lower proof and thus less flavorful than the standard No 12.

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  2. Hi Jason!

    Glad to see a review of both of these. I've tried a handful of different Jack Daniel's Single Barrel and it was the batch variation that made me give up on it. One was amazing while a couple were total crap and the others were decent.

    A lot of retailers will hand select their own single barrels so that might be a better way to go than picking up a random one off the shelf.

    I look forward to trying more Blanton's though. Only had it once but it was good!

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    1. These whiskies are simply over priced for what you get. Get them heavily discounted. That's the trick.

      As for Blanton's, while it is technically a single barrel, it tastes a lot like ordinary bourbons and in a blind taste test I, and I seriously doubt anyone, could pick out Blanton's as the lone single barrel bourbon among a flight of various Kentucky straight bourbons.

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    2. I live in Nashville, ~1 hour North of the JD Distillery. Luckily if you are nearby and go in with a group you can select your own sinegle barrel. You go in and sample the barrels and select the one you want. We do it as a fund raiser. I highly recommend this as you are guaranteed to get an amazing tasting bottle. It costs ~$10,000+ up front, but it makes for a great fund raiser and you get to keep the barrel (makes abut 250 bottles). We turned the barrel into a table in out break room.

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  3. Jason, thank you again for this informative post. I gave a bottle of Dark Horse to a friend for his birthday, he was very happy with his gift.

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  4. REVIEW CAOL ILA 18 MY BELOVED JASON

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  5. I can see that your Blanton's is one of the editions that are not available in the US market, the "Special Reserve" which is bottled at 40%. Blanton's flagship offering is the "Original Single Barrel", and label is brown/woodish rather than green and is bottled at 45%. This is the real Blanton's, so I suggest you try find that too. (There is a Straight from the Barrel, and Gold edition too, but they seem very very hard to come by).

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  6. Hi Jason,
    I would like to try an "high end" bourbon after many years of scotch. I seek something with a "kick" and full flavor to counterpoint the floral and honeyed Speyside malts in my collection.
    Unfortunately, the only high end bourbons available here in Italy are Jack Daniels Single Barrel, Blanton's Special Reserve, Woodford Reserve and Maker's Mark (sorry, no Jim Beam Black). They are all priced in the same range (about 25-30 Euros). Which do you is the best to try first, and offers more bang for the buck?
    Thank you very much.

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    1. I would recommend Maker's Mark. Rich, sophisticated and complex.

      The other possibility is Woodford Reserve. It actually has more "kick" than all the others, but can be a little volatile. Sometimes it is great and other times not so great. What I mean is that there can be some variation betweeen batches which are bottled.

      Start with Maker's and once you finish that, try Woodford. Blanton's Special Reserve is about the softest, lacking in kick bourbon I have tried.

      Good luck!

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    2. Thank you Jason. Maker's Mark is also, albeit by a narrow margin, the cheaper of the four, so I'll certainly give it a try.

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    3. What comes to mind as the classic, big dog, robust bourbon for you to try is Knob Creek. Very powerful, complex and a real treat, but obviously not available where you are.

      cheers!

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    4. Actually, I saw a bottle of it on the shelves of an upscale store a few days ago, but was so outrageously priced (with respect of the other four I mentioned) that I cannot honestly justify myself for such expense. Unfortunately, different import channels can result in wildly different prices from product to product, and Italy seems always to find itself on the worst side of the bargain.
      I guess I can find solace in the thought that, here were I live a few miles from Piedomont, I can literally have lunch every day with Barolo (I routinely find bottles on sale for about 8-9 $ CAN) and other great wines.

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    5. A lot of people who want to travel to Italy want to visit Tuscany, Rome and other obvious places.

      Me, I always wanted to go to Piedmont for the Barolo. $8 or $9 a bottle wow!! Pair that with some fine Italian cuisine and lunch would turn into an all afternoon affair.

      Cheers!

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  7. Jason,
    I found Makers the pick for me. I haven't seen much here in Aus in a similar style. There is one coming out here soon...Have you tried or even heard the brand 'Bernheim' Kentucky Wheat Whisky ? Any good ?

    AL from OZ

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    1. Hi Al,

      I never heard of that whisky. So, can't say much. Maker's is a very fine bourbon. Glad you enjoy it too!

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    2. What's with MM praise it is a drab bourbon compared to WT101 or any of the other whiskies in the 20-25 dollar price range, for 25 I can get Elijah Craig 12 a better pour for around the same price.

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    3. I wouldn't describe Maker's Mark as a drab bourbon. It is certain gentler than others you speak of. If you place a premium on big flavors, then yes, Wild Turkey 101, and others would be the spirits for you.

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  8. I found blantons to be such a let down I have sworn off blantons and if eh taylor or rockhill farms proves to be a let down as well I will be avoiding their single barrel selection. I prefer kentucky spirit, rowans creek overall stronger bourbons so JDSB was up my alley.

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    1. Blanton's appeals to the gentle bourbon and Tennessee whiskey fans. Think Four Roses, Basil Hayden's and the like. Judging by your comments, you would not be a fan of such a flavor camp.

      I can also appreciate the ballsy, flavor busting American whiskies, but Jack Daniel's Single Barrel is not one of them. Gimme Knob Creek or even Wild Turkey 101 when I am in the mood for such a big dawg whiskey experience.

      Thanks for commenting and welcome to the blog!

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  9. Tasting notes are hype...I like it or I don't like ! That is all I need to know. Blind tastings with no preliminary chatter can & will yield different opinions at any time.
    Try the bottom shelf & work up to a Pappy or Stagg. When you complete that task...you will understand that the best whiskey is always the one in your hand.

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  10. JTS Brown. No ice, no glass.

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  11. Which would you say is best; Willet, Four Roses small batch, or Booker's?

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    1. Tough question that can only be answered by knowing what you like. If your preference is for soft, gentle, subtlety, go with Four Roses. If you like bold and and powerful bourbons Willet Single Barrel and Bookers belong to that camp and between those two, I would opt for Booker's.

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  12. Jason, The Bog Crawlers compared examples of these two spirits last week with a third single barrel offering from a third distillery owner. I didn't much care for Jack Single Select at all; it was quite simple, a bit too bitter resin forward in the mouth, and no bargain. The Blanton's fired on a few more cylinders aromatically and taste-wise for me too, as well it should for $50. I'd pay for this happily. But the surprise was the lowly readily available Evan Williams 2005 ($25). That humble fellow was my favorite: elegant with complexity and just enough length, strength and power, without the one note screech of heavier barrel char of the first two. Nice to find your review on the first two. Carry on ! JK

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    1. I have also heard from others about Evan Williams punching far above its weight class. Will have to check it out.

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