Along with the “small-batch” releases that emerged at a similar time, the then-innovative practice of bottling bourbon pulled from a single barrel helped the category develop a premium reputation, and aided distillers in clawing back a large chunk of the spending drinkers had diverted toward vodka, gin, and Scotch.
These days, single-barrel releases are a common fixture at liquor stores, with many of the major distilleries offering at least one regular expression. It’s a sign both of the progress the bourbon industry has made in those intervening decades, and the fervor with which whiskey drinkers have taken to the style.
In fact, such is the appetite for single-barrel releases that many distilleries offer barrel-pick programs. Through these experiences, individuals, retailers, and bars and restaurants can play the role of master distiller or blender, and purchase an entire barrel that they’ve hand selected, resulting in their own, one-of-a-kind single-barrel bottling.
For the purposes of this roundup, VinePair limited inclusion to permanent lines offered by brands (rather than also considering barrel picks). Given that the very purpose of a single-barrel release is that each expression will be unique in its personality, consider that some of the descriptors won’t be true for every bottle from the listed expression. But rest assured that if it’s on this list, we’re confident of the line’s quality and consistency overall.
Here are the 11 best single-barrel bourbons for 2021.
Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon (2013 Vintage)
The bargains don’t get much bigger in bourbon than the annual Evan Williams single-barrel, vintage release. Typically aged for the better part of a decade, this expression is consistently approachable and balanced, with a pleasant mix of fruity notes, baking spices, and caramel. Bottled at 43.3 percent ABV, this bourbon has weekday sipper written all over it. Average price: $30.
Jim Beam Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Another release that goes above and beyond on the value-for-money front, this might not be the best known of Jim Beam’s lineup but it’s among the brand’s most enjoyable offerings. Attractive rye spice shines on nose and palate, while fruit, vanilla, and caramel notes add depth and richness. Bottled at 47.5 percent ABV, it holds its own in cocktails, over ice, or sipped neat. Average price: $40.
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
Made using a high-rye mash bill and bottled between 7 and 9 years old, this is a delicate yet expressive single-barrel bourbon. There’s no shortage of aromas — from orchard fruit and dried orange peel to baking spices and maple — but the nose resembles a calm conversation rather than a shouting match. The palate serves caramelized nuts and rye spice, though those flavors and the overall texture tread lightly, even with the whiskey’s 50 percent ABV content. Average price: $48.
1792 Single Barrel Bourbon
Produced at the Buffalo Trace-owned Barton 1792 Distillery, this release showcases the decadent side of bourbon. Peanut and caramelized banana aromas open the nose, followed by warm, toasted oak. The palate has great concentration of flavor and serves a cleansing tart sweetness on its lengthy finish. Average price: $49.
New Riff Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey
New Riff’s Single Barrel line is made with a high-rye mash bill (30 percent), with each expression bottled at cask strength and showcasing an age statement. Don’t be afraid of the booze blowing your socks off, though — the bottle tasted for this roundup arrived at a relatively tame 51.6 percent ABV, and the alcohol was seamlessly incorporated. The whiskey’s profile lands on the fruitier side, while the aromas and flavors arrive with distinctive character. Average price: $52.
A. Smith Bowman Distillery ‘John J. Bowman’ Pioneer Spirit Single Barrel Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Owned by the Sazerac Company, Virginia’s A. Smith Bowman triple distills its whiskeys, and its single-barrel line enters the bottle at 50 percent ABV. The flavors and aromatics depart from “traditional” Kentucky bourbon, with cherry and fresh herb aromas rising out of the glass, along with subtle notes of mature oak. The palate delivers a jolt of sweetness via ripe fruit and caramel and butterscotch flavors, though never feels cloying. A lively prickle of heat on the finish keeps each sip lively. Average price: $62.
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon
Arriving at 55 percent ABV, this single-barrel bourbon is complex and expressive, making each glass an enjoyable journey. Banana, crème brûlée, and stone fruit jam aromas kick off the experience, while the palate begins bright and fruity. Decadent caramel and further fruit notes emerge on the finish, along with the influences of oak and maturation. Given the price, availability, and sheer quality, this should be a staple on your bar cart or whiskey shelf. Average price: $63.
Baker’s 7 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon
Though it debuted as part of Booker Noe’s “Small Batch Collection” within the Jim Beam family, Baker’s relaunched in 2019 as a 7-year-old, single-barrel bourbon. A short time in glass sees the nose open up gracefully, with rye spice, dried flower petals, and dried fruit aromas leading the charge. Exciting spice then ignites the palate. And when those stormy waters finally start to settle, a sweet nutty note lingers on the finish, which seems to go on, and on, and on. Average price: $66.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel 10 Years Bottled-In-Bond
Among the most beloved expressions in Heaven Hill’s expansive portfolio, this 10-year-old, 100-proof single-barrel release is expressive and easy to enjoy. Stone fruit, pecans, and toffee make up the nose, while the palate chips in spice and toasted oak. A nice balance between alcohol and flavor concentration leads to lively, long-lasting sips. We’d still buy it at the listed average price, but if you can find it priced closer to its MSRP ($50), you’re getting an even better deal. Average price: $85.
Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Released in limited quantities every fall, Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old seems to defy the laws of physics: While there are obvious signs of oak and maturation, this bourbon maintains the elegance and freshness of bottles half its age, with no hint whatsoever of the liquid starting to feel tired. But via its lengthy period in cask, this whiskey gains extra layers of aromas and flavors, which come together as one elegant, harmonious entity. A light hint of tannins adds textural complexity but the overall profile is spritely. Average price: $344 (MSRP: $130).
Michter’s 10 Year Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Another notably limited (not to mention coveted) release, this single-barrel bourbon is bold and fruity, with complex layers of flavor that reveal something new with each sniff and sip. Dried red berry notes remain a constant throughout, while sweet and savory spices add layers and help maintain perfect balance. Given the markup it typically receives at retailers, consider this bottle for extra special gifting, such as a retirement or milestone anniversary. The liquid inside will definitely match the occasion. Average price: $346 (MSRP: $150).