The Barrel Selections at Eight Row Flint, Part 1
By Morgan Weber
For several years now, I’ve had the privilege of developing some fantastic relationships with spirit distilleries all over the country and world. When we decided to open Eight Row Flint, it was glaringly obvious that it would be easy to curate a whiskey selection the way everybody does—by more or less, walking into a liquor store, taking one of everything on the shelf, and slightly keeping up with the special releases throughout the year…
…but that seemed like a lame approach, especially given my obsessive compulsive tendencies.
It wasn’t until Prohibition that American whiskey was commonly sold in bottles. Before that, when a saloon or bar bought whiskey, they purchased a certain number of barrels. Bottles were expensive, and it was common practice for a patron to bring their own bottles to be filled by the barkeep from his barrels of whiskey. When bottling became affordable and mechanized, the idea that a single barrel of whiskey could stand on its own eventually died out completely. Almost all of the bourbon brands with which we are familiar, are blends of different barrels of bourbon that all meet a similar flavor profile, in order to insure consistencies release after release.
In 1984, Buffalo Trace’s Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee began selecting superior barrels of whiskey and bottling it one barrel at a time. Under Elmer T’s watchful eye, Blanton’s, the first single barrel of bourbon since Prohibition, was born.
To understand why single barrels are different and thusly important to our program at Eight Row Flint, one must consider a little bit about barrel science.
Full-sized, 53-gallon bourbon barrels are made up of approximately 31-33 staves, assembled like a puzzle so as to be water tight. At a cooperage like Independent Stave Company in Lebanon Kentucky (ISC makes a vast majority of barrels in America), each barrel could theoretically represent 31-33 different trees, all of varying ages, and thusly, varying densities, varying sugar levels in the wood—the uncontrollables can go on and on.
As a barrel full of new whiskey goes through natural cycles of heating and cooling throughout the seasons, given the inherent differences of each barrel, it makes sense that whiskey that entered two barrels and subsequently spent their whole lives aging next to each other in a rickhouse, can turn out to be completely different when they are dumped and bottled. This is the variation that makes single barrels interesting and this is why we put so much energy into our proprietary single barrel selections at Eight Row Flint.
Our goal with our barrel program is for you to be able to enjoy some different single expressions from brands with which you might already be familiar. Remember that Weller Antique barrel we had last year? It was amazing. I got to choose that barrel with Preston Van Winkle—an incredible experience in it’s own right. Buffalo Trace allowed it to not go through the chill filtering process that most bourbon goes through, and it was almost a full two years older than the average age of the barrels that make up the normal release of Weller Antique—something truly special. I still miss that barrel.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking you through some of my favorite barrel picks from the last few years, and talk about how we taste, why we choose what we choose, and get into what I look for when I commit to a full barrel of whiskey.