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Why Are Whiskey Dads Obsessed with Single Barrel Bourbon?

Think that bottle of bourbon is a thoughtful Father’s Day gift? Not after reading this.

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The guide to the whiskeys you should buy your old man for Father’s Day is a men’s lifestyle media trope. I wrote the one for this very site. And while the whiskeys on that list are quality enough gifts and there’s no doubt a whiskey-loving dad will gleefully take a bottle of whiskey they didn’t pay for, it remains a ho-hum, surface-level gift. Running late, you may very well have gone to the liquor store around the corner from your dad’s home and grabbed Laphroaig 10 off the display shelf at the front of the store (in a highly giftable tube, to boot!) and passed it off to him that night. Job done.

For fathers who are both collectors and bourbon enthusiasts, though, the calculus is different, involving what is perhaps the most challenging whiskey hunt of all: date-specific bottles.

Whiskey fiends willing subject themselves to what is a needle-in-a-haystack search do so to find bottles of whiskey with a date worth remembering scrawled on the label, often the birth of a child or a wedding anniversary. By and large, the hunt for these bottles begins and ends with single barrel bourbons, which are the most likely to carry barrelling dates (when the unaged whiskey was added to the barrel for maturation), dump dates (when the barrels were emptied of whiskey) or bottle dates (when the whiskey was bottled) on the labels. A quick Google search of any of those terms yields dozens of posts in popular bourbon forums like /r/bourbon and Straight Bourbon discussing the task at hand.

But hunting for these bottles isn’t like hunting for other ultra-rare whiskeys like Pappy, which has more to do with your willingness (and ability) to spend money than it does truly hunting for it (if you’re willing to dabble in whiskey’s grey markets, you could have Pappy in your hands in a matter of hours). Bottles with a singular date on them — even just a year and a month — are magnitudes more difficult to track down.

“We don’t have a way to track where specific dates end up in stores. Once it goes to the distributor, we have no way to know which stores they still specific bottles to,” Amy Preske, Sazerac Company’s public relations manager said. Preske, who handles PR for Buffalo Trace Distillery brands as well, added the brand does get “quite a bit” of these requests.

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Heaven Hill Distillery’s Henry McKenna enjoyed a relatively quiet existence as a readily available, 10-year-old single barrel bourbon before its surprise-win at 2019’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition, which has driven the price from $35 to $100 or more in most markets.

Blanton’s, one of those brands under the Buffalo Trace Distillery umbrella, is the most popular bottle among the date-specific bottle crowd. The bottle’s label lists the barrel number it was made from, what rick it matured on and the date it was dumped on. Its peculiar shape, collector cult bonafides (even the bottle stoppers are collectible) and claim as the world’s first single barrel bourbon doesn’t hurt, either. It’s so sought-after by these collectors it addresses the subject in its FAQ page. If the distillery can’t track them, who can?

Blanton’s fans are luckier than most in this regard. There are Facebook groups dedicated to the hunt for Blanton’s and websites built to track bottles with specific dates on them. But what about the others? Heaven Hill’s Henry McKenna Single Barrel has a “Barreled On” date handwritten on each bottle. Wild Turkey’s Kentucky Spirit and select bottles of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel both come with dates, as does Evan Williams budget-minded Single Barrel Vintage and plenty more.

“I think most people run to /r/Bourbon, Straight Bourbon, or possibly large Facebook or Discord groups like BourbonR or Bourbon Pursuit. But that’s only a guess.” David Jennings, author of American Spirit and dedicated Wild Turkey blogger at RareBird 101 wrote in an email.

Co-Founder of New Riff Distilling Jay Erisman says it’s not a task a distillery can lend a hand with.

“The problem would be, OK, so you want a bottling from such and so date — where are you? Is that bottling even in your market? Generally that is far too granular of a detail for us to track. When we ship out pallets of single barrel to a distributor, who knows where it winds up,” Erisman said.

According to Erisman, who operated a major Kentucky liquor store before getting into distilling, date-hunters are the evolved version of the year-hunters, or buyers looking for bottles that are 21 years old for their kid’s 21st birthday, or 15 years old to commemorate 15 years at a job. Like all hobbies, things only become more confusing with age.

Maybe that bottle of Laphroaig 10 wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

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