Our Stance On Small Barrels
Up until now, everything we’ve released was matured in barrels that were at least 53 gallons, some of them even larger. That’s true for both our first four single casks and all twelve barrels that went into our American Vatted Malt.
That’s changing with our next single malt release. Our Spring 2021 Single Cask Collection includes three mesquite-smoked single malt whiskies from Tucson, Arizona-based Whiskey Del Bac. We’re incredibly excited about all of them: each one is a unique take on a rapidly emerging style of American whiskey, and they deeply reflect where they come from: the Sonoran Desert, one of the very hottest regions in the United States. All three whiskies were aged, not in 53-gallon barrels, but in 15-gallon barrels.
Whiskey lovers have a huge variety of opinions on small barrels, so we figured it was worth stating where we stand. But first some history.
By convention, 53-gallon barrels have been the standard barrel size in Kentucky since roughly the second World War. Because most Scotch whisky is aged in ex-Bourbon barrels, 53-gallon barrels became the de facto standard in Scotland too (although there’s a lot more variety of cask types over there than in Kentucky).
Smaller barrels are a relatively young trend, correlated with the rise of new distilleries all across the country in the last decade or two. Young distilleries have gravitated toward smaller barrels for a variety of reasons. Whiskey in a small barrel has greater contact with the surface area of the barrel itself. This leads to faster extraction of flavor (and color) from the barrel. In practice, distilleries tend to age whiskey in small barrels for just a few years and sell it at a younger age than they could in a traditional 53-gallon barrel. Some distilleries say that whiskey in small barrels “ages faster,” which isn’t true. It just ages differently.
Like most choices in the whiskey world, small barrels can be either a good or a bad thing. It depends on the choices that a distillery makes, and whether the use of small barrels makes sense considering those choices.
How Lost Lantern Approaches Small Barrel Whiskey
One of our most important rules at Lost Lantern is to leave our assumptions at the door and evaluate whiskey based on how it tastes, not how we expect it to taste. This sounds incredibly obvious, but it’s harder than it sounds.
When we visited Ironroot Republic in Texas, we wanted bourbon. We weren’t looking for corn whiskey. The Likarish brothers made us try their corn whiskey anyway, and we fell in love with it. That’s the origin of Lost Lantern 2020 Single Cask #4, the Ironroot Republic Corn Whiskey. It was probably one of the most expensive corn whiskies ever released, one of the older Texas whiskies released so far, and a truly unique and unusual cask. And it sold out on our launch day.
For that cask, we had to set aside our assumptions about corn whiskey and judge the whiskey as it was. It didn’t fit into what we had originally expected for our launch lineup (we never would have guessed we would launch with a corn whiskey!).
We tasted hundreds and hundreds of casks from dozens of distilleries in our eight months traveling the country. The Ironroot Republic corn whiskey was one of our very favorites. We had no idea if we could sell it. But we had to go for it, and trust that other whiskey lovers would see the same thing we did.
It’s the same story with the Whiskey Del Bac casks. From my time at Whisky Advocate and from visits to over a hundred distilleries, I’ve tasted hundreds of whiskies aged in smaller barrels. I can usually tell. Smaller barrels change the degree of oak extraction and its integration with a whiskey’s underlying grain flavors. Short aging times don’t give the whiskey much time to integrate; longer aging time can lead to too much oak extraction. It’s a tough balance.
Back To Those Whiskey Del Bac Barrels
Whiskey Del Bac has achieved that balance. I had tried their whiskies long before my first visit to the distillery, and I would never have guessed they were in small barrels. By the time we went there, we knew what to expect. It didn’t matter what kind of cask it was in: the whiskey speaks for itself.
These three Whiskey Del Bac casks are almost certainly some of the youngest whiskies we’ll ever release. Two of them were aged in used barrels (that previously held highly smokey, experimental Whiskey Del Bac single malt) and are two years old. Cask #7, which was aged in new oak, is only a year old!
You’d never see a whiskey being bottled that young in Kentucky (or at least you shouldn’t…). But Arizona is not Kentucky, nor is it Scotland. Arizona is scorching hot; it was in the 80s when we visited, and that was in February. The average daily high is above 100 degrees from May through September. And, because Tucson is in a desert, there are wild temperature swings between day and night; it’s routine for it to be 110 degrees in the daytime and 60 at night. These large daily temperature swings change how whiskey interacts with wood. That’s why just a year or two in a small cask is enough for these whiskies. All our whiskies are natural color, and Cask #7 is the darkest whiskey we’ve released so far. It absorbed a lot of flavor from the barrel, but it remains in balance.
I won’t say that these 1 and 2 year old whiskies taste like a whiskey that aged for 5 years in Kentucky or 10 years in Scotland. I don’t think that’s a meaningful comparison. They didn’t age faster because they were in small barrels, and they didn’t age faster because they were in Arizona. They aged differently. They aged in exactly the way that makes sense for mesquite-smoked whiskies stored in the scorching Arizona climate.
One of the great things about the rise of American whiskey all over the country is that distilleries are challenging old rules and exploring new methods. They’re finding what works best for their own climate and the styles of whiskey they make. That’s exactly what Whiskey Del Bac did, and that’s why we wanted to put these whiskies in our Single Cask Collection. They represent a unique new style of whiskey, a distinctly Southwestern take on the long tradition of smoked single malt, aged in a climate where whiskey has very rarely been aged before. Whiskey Del Bac is pushing the boundaries. For them, small barrels and short aging times make perfect sense. Try them and we think you’ll agree.
There is one very real downside of small barrels, though. They’re small! They don’t have much whiskey in them! Each Whiskey Del Bac cask yielded just over 60 bottles at cask strength. So if you’re at all interested in seeing why we’re so excited about mesquite-smoked single malt, don’t miss your chance. They launch on April 12.