On March 24, San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC) judge and whiskey writer Fred Minnick announced to the world that a $35 bourbon, Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon, had won the competition’s most prestigious award: Best in Show, Whiskey.
The internet wasn’t happy about it.
It started with bourbon lovers. Every post, tweet, story and forum announcing the historic win was followed by a string of commenters asking, But why my bourbon? They were right to be concerned. Bottles that win big at competitions like SFWSC trigger a run on the banks — liquor stores flood with bottle hunters, stocks run low and prices rise.
In past years, this wouldn’t have mattered. Since 2008, every whiskey to win “Best in Show” at SFWSC has been either extremely limited or extremely expensive. (The last readily available winner was Highland Park’s 12-year-old single malt, which goes for about $50 at the right store). Henry McKenna Single Barrel is different. It’s a widely distributed bourbon that, until last month, could be found just about anywhere for under $40.
It’s also a dying breed. Thirty-five dollars at retail gets you Bottled-in-Bond, single barrel, 10-year-old juice that’s distilled and aged by one of the country’s most storied and reputable spirit makers. In a whiskey environment where age statements, distilling information and transparency are fading, it was a Goldilocks of sorts.
A few days after the initial groaning had quieted, a post published on Breaking Bourbon began with, “And then there was one…and you’ll probably never taste it.”
The author didn’t mean you’ll never track down a bottle, he meant you’ll never try the winning bottle. Henry McKenna is a single barrel expression, meaning there’s more variance bottle to bottle than a regular run of bourbon. It’s likely only a few hundred shares of the barrel that won the competition, #4976, are floating in the world right now.
According to Minnick, who’s served as a competition judge at SFWSC since 2012, this upset wasn’t pulled out of thin air. The Henry McKenna Single Barrel won Double Gold, “Best Single Barrel Bourbon” and “Best Bourbon” at the same competition last year. “To me, that shows consistency, and I’ve always thought [Henry McKenna] was one of the more consistent single barrels,” Minnick said.
You can find the final group of doubters all around the internet (though Reddit and Twitter seem to be their preferred meeting place). Their question is more fundamental: Of all the high-end, limited-edition whiskeys judged, how does a value bourbon take the crown?
“I honestly don’t get the hype, tatering, or how the fuck this juice even wins awards?” wrote /u/viperquick82 on Reddit. “Even a few years ago it was better imo than currently and still just average if that.” (By “tatering,” they meant whiskey newbs paying obscene prices for less-than-stellar bottles.)
Of course, availability and price don’t mean squat on their own. “Something like Stagg Jr. or Elijah Craig Small Batch — both readily available — could absolutely beat something rare in a blind or even open tasting,” Minnick said. “The fact is, you just don’t know in these competitions.”
In his time judging, Minnick’s had years where he didn’t medal heavy hitters like Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection. He once gave Pappy 23, which can go for upward of $6,000, a bronze. “[To] anybody who questions this process, get all your friends in a room, have somebody pour you the product, but not know the brand name, and taste,” Minnick said. “See how you rank them. You will be surprised. I am every year.”
• One Bourbon to Rule Them All?, Breaking Bourbon
• Best Whiskey: How Bourbon Dominated The 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Forbes
• SFWSC Official results, San Francisco World Spirits Competition