The year is more than three-quarters over and, despite an actual pandemic, the American whiskey boom hasn’t slowed. Big and small, producers are releasing great whiskeys on a weekly basis. These are the 15 best I’ve had so far.
Weller Single Barrel
Weller Single Barrel is the brand’s Goldilocks expression. It’s proof is high (97) but manageable, and you get more vanilla-y wood characteristic than you do with Antique 107 or Special Reserve. It’s impossible to say how much it’ll be available for at stores, but it’ll certainly go for more than its $50 asking price for the Weller name alone. Buffalo Trace Distillery said bottles will ship to stores in June.
Knob Creek 9-Year Bourbon Whiskey
Jim Beam Distillery’s Knob Creek line was in the news recently for bringing a 9- and 12-year age statement bourbon back to its permanent lineup, a sure sign of supply creeping up on the outrageous demand of the bourbon boom. And while the 12-year is also excellent, the 9-year, 100 proof roughly $35 bourbon is immediately one of the best values on the shelf. It’s rich, peanuty and priced at a point where you can mix it, drink on the rocks or sip neat.
Maker's Mark Wood Finishing Series 2020
Less than a decade ago, Maker's was firm in its belief that its solitary classic expression was enough. Today, bourbon drinkers are glad the brand had a change a heart. The result of select wood staves maturing in the barrel with the whiskey, this whiskey was designed in a lab to be a vanilla bomb. The second of Maker's Mark's new annual limited edition release landed on shelves in September and is available for about $60.
Blue Run Kentucky Straight Bourbon
"The guy who designed Nike's Air Force Ones, a former Facebook director and a bourbon legend walk into a bar..." sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. Blue Run Spirits first expression — a 13-year-old Kentucky straight bourbon bottled at 113 proof — is no joke. Crafted by Jim Rutledge, whose 50-plus-year experience blending, distilling and managing Four Roses is nearly unrivaled, Blue Run's bourbon has all the flavor of high-proof bourbon without the usual sting. How? No clue; it tastes like vanilla cream pie, cinnamon and mint. It is exceptional whiskey, but it's also only available in Kentucky and Georgia for the time being.
Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Bourbon
Classic, 94 proof Elijah Craig Small Batch, but finished in a toasted barrel. Don't know what a toasted barrel is? Read this. I'm not exaggerating when I say the whiskey tastes like a slightly burnt marshmallow drizzled in honey. Heaven Hill collaborated with the coopers at Independent Stave Company to create a new barrel to dump fully matured Small Batch whiskey into. Available in September in limited quantities.
Sweeten's Cove Tennessee Bourbon
Sweetens Cove is a new spirits brand and its first product is a 13-year-old bourbon blended by Marianne Eaves, a former taster at Brown-Forman (the company that owns Old Forester, Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve and others). And while the company has received more press on its founding members (Andy Roddick, some of the Mannings and Jim Nantz among them), it's the whiskey that does the talking. It's heavy on vanilla, peanuts and baking spices on the nose and tastes like a peanut butter and banana sandwich in a glass.
Wolves Wally Blend
Hopes were tempered when I first heard of a whiskey brand launched by sneakerheads, but Wolves' whiskey blending and sourcing partnership with Charbay Distillery has proven fruitful three releases straight. The Wally Blend – a mix of 8-year-old whiskey distilled from stout beer and aged in French oak, 5-year-old whiskey distilled from pilsner beer and aged in new charred American oak, 9-year-old single malt whiskey aged in second-use French oak and MGP rye whiskey – tastes as different as it sounds. Spicy on the fore, malty in the middle and syrupy sweet vanilla-flavored on the backend.
Larceny Barrel Proof Bourbon
A beefier version of a favored budget wheater from Heaven Hill was always going to be good. New to 2020, the distillery says it plans to release three batches a year at $50. Drink it with an ice cube.
Russell's Reserve 2003
What entered barrels at 107 proof 16 years ago comes out below 90 proof and spicy as hell. It's smoky, it's hot and it reeks of old school Wild Turkey (you know, the bottles that sell for thousands now). Unfortunately it'll run you $250 to buy a bottle, if you even find it.
Sagamore Spirit Calvados Finish Rye
If they’re not the best, Sagamore Spirit are among the very best at barrel finishing whiskey. The brand’s cognac-finished and port-finished ryes have raked in awards, and I fully expect the calvados-finished to follow. It’s a mix of four and five year old ryes that spend almost a year in ex-calvados barrels, a brandy made from apples or pears. The result is a lively, spicy rye flavor with a mellow, sweet backbone. It’s dessert whiskey.
Wilderness Trail Straight Bourbon Whiskey
It’s not necessarily new whiskey, but it’s new to most people. The relatively young Danville, Kentucky operation is finally expanding broadly outside its homestate, and its straight bourbon is only getting better with age. This year’s bottles are six years old and serve as proof that good bourbon isn’t reserved for the macro distillers.
Bulleit Blender’s Select 001 Straight Bourbon
Long synonymous with ultra-spicy and affordable ryes, Bulleit is steering into the premium market now. Blender’s select is a new limited offering made with more than 10 whiskeys, all aged for at least 9 years. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s an excellent pour, and shows the brand can create bourbons with some finesse just as well as it does fiery rye bombs.
Woodfoord Reserve Batch Proof 2020
Last year’s was the second release of Woodford’s full strength, annually released bourbon and it earned itself a top 10 ranking in Whisky Advocate’s best of the year. This year’s, IMO at least, is better. Opening a sample flooded my kitchen with the smell of banana pudding and vanilla wafers, and the taste followed through on that promise. Because it’s available in limited quantities and priced at a stout $130 retail, it’s best-suited for Woodford completionists.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (Batch A120)
First of all, I know the image is not Batch A120. Don’t email me about it. Secondly, while I’m aware it’s redundant to say Elijah Craig’s Barrel Proof bottlings are the most underrated bourbons on the shelf, it bears repeating: this is 12-year-old bourbon dumped at full strength that can be had anywhere for about $60 to $70. It has won every award that matters, and 2020’s first batch, A120, will win more. Like Tiger Woods in the early aughts or Lebron James for the last 15 years, its greatness is so regular we’re numbed to it. Buy a bottle and remind yourself.
Blanton’s Gold Edition
Available summer 2020, Blanton’s Gold isn’t technically new whiskey, but it’s new to most. Blanton’s has a long history overseas and distributes a number of bottles to international markets exclusively. Until this year, Gold was a part of that groups, along with Straight From the Barrel, Special Reserve and others. Gold is aged slightly longer than regular Blanton’s and proofed higher as well. The result is a fattier, deeper bourbon.