Speculators and detractors have written of the dreaded whiskey bubble for close to a decade now. Are we ready to accept that American bourbon, whiskey and rye aren't going anywhere? Last year, bourbon eclipsed $4 billion in sales, despite huge losses in emerging European markets, thanks to retaliatory tariffs stemming from airplane subsidies. If a trade war and a pandemic can't stymie the aftershocks of the Bourbon Boom, what can? These are the best new American whiskeys I've tried in 2021.
Stellum may as well have "for whiskey nerds" written on the label. Produced by the master blenders at Barrel Craft Spirits, the new company is launching nationally with a high proof bourbon blend and rye blend, with barrel proof single barrel selections coming soon. The bourbon — a mad scientist blend of bourbons of different ages, mashbills and distilling locations — is worth the $55 sticker price and then some.
Booker's Bourbon (Donohoe's Batch)
After a brief hiatus, Booker's is back. Still selected by Fred Noe, son of the bourbon's namesake, Booker, the barrel proof whiskey is one of Jim Beam's most-loved brands (especially by whiskey geeks). Named after the sales manager that pushed the whiskey from Booker's secret stash to a super-premium national brand, this particularly batch is just under 7 years old and bottled to a mighty 127 proof. It delivers a familiar high-octane burst of wood and vanilla flavors, but it's the finish that sets it apart. I mean this in the best way: it reminds me of burnt peanut butter toast.
Maker's Mark Wood Finishing 2021 Limited Edition (FAE-01)
Maker's Mark Limited Edition is one of the most accessible and delicious limited-run whiskeys you can buy. It's the distillery's bourbon mad science experiment shop, and while past year's bottlings have honed in on fruitiness and vanilla, this year's highlights the earthy, woody vibe of a whiskey aging warehouse.
It would be naïve to suggest bourbon is the only spirit with an engaged and enthusiastic community of drinkers, but bourbon certainly hosts the largest number of fanatics, compared to its distilled counterparts. No whiskey exemplifies this quite like Pursuit United, a whiskey made by the bourbon world's most popular podcasters — Kenny Coleman and Ryan Cecil of Bourbon Pursuit — turned whiskey blenders. The brand's debut bottle blends whiskey from Finger Lakes Distilling in upstate New York, Bardstown Bourbon Company out of Kentucky and an undisclosed Tennessee distillery into a truly wicked pour. It smells like maple syrup and tastes like burnt sugar.
Ezra Brooks 99 Proof
It's unlikely Ezra Brooks 99 — sibling to the great and underappreciated Old Ezra — will garner much attention in the whiskeysphere. It's a brand few have heard of made by a distillery no one knows (Luxco) that was just purchased by a notoriously mysterious mega-producer. More for me, I guess. Ezra 99 is a higher proof variant of the brand's standard 90 proof offering, and the flavor and body are better for it. Sitting on the very competitive lower-middle shelf, it holds up.
Lost Lantern American Vatted Malt (Edition 1)
While it officially released late in 2020, Lost Lantern's debut bottle is as delicious as it is innovative. Founded by a former Whisky Advocate writer and a liquor store manager, the brand follows in the footsteps of the independent bottlers and blenders of Scotland, which buy up barrels of aged whiskey from distilleries with extra stock and spin them into something new. This American Vatted Malt is the first blend of American single malt whiskeys from different distilleries, and it's unlike anything I've tasted. Find exactly what went into it here.
Michter's Barrel Strength Rye
Absent from the Michter's lineup for two years due to supply constraints, thank goodness Michter's Barrel Strength Rye is back. While there are more than enough full strength bourbons on any given liquor store shelf, rye hasn't received the same love. These bottlings are high-powered, but not as aggressive as you'd expect from a rye at this proof; expect a creamy, nutty whiskey with some sharp spices on the back end.
Dewar's Portuguese Smooth
In 2019, scotch whisky let down its hair (a bit). The world's most tightly defined spirit could now be the subject of the cask-finishing experiments so popular in the rest of the whiskey world. Distillers immediately seized at the opportunity to diversify their lineups, and none have done it as well as Dewar's, whose offerings are affordable, weird and — very quietly — excellent. Portuguese Smooth is 8-year-old scotch that hangs out in ruby port casks for four months before bottling. In the absolute best sense, it smells like boozy Capri Sun and tastes like pie.
Benriach The 21
The Speyside distillery that relaunched last year fills out its core lineup with some well-aged, delightful scotch whisky. It's lighter on smoke than your classic Speyside (Benriach is a rare Speyside maker that offers both peated and unpeated scotch). The downside, which you may have guessed from its 21 years of maturation, is the suggested retail price: a heavy $200. It's been a hard year; give it as a gift to yourself.
Thomas S. Moore Chardonnay Cask Finish
A new line of whiskeys from Barton 1792 distillery that focuses on what the brand calls "extended cask finishing" and includes a chardonnay-finished whiskey is not something I expected to enjoy, but here we are. The whiskey is moderately aged (5 to 7 years) then holed up in an ex-chard barrel for another 2 to 5 years. Considering most cask-finished whiskey gets, I don't know, six months or so in the secondary barrel, Thomas S. Moore whiskeys are going full send. Bottled just under 100 proof, the chardonnay-finished variant is very fruity, but not overly so. It tastes a bit like Four Roses with a strawberry dropped in it.