All American Heroes: American Whiskeys
Every time this category comes up for review, we seem to say that America’s whiskey makers keep surprising and enthralling with excellent new bottlings, in addition to classics that deserved to be poured time and time again.
Craft distillers continue to lead the way with innovative new whiskeys from all corners of the country. For example, consider the growing category of American-made single malts—this may be the first time enough were available to fill out an entire flight. On the east coast, New York estate distillery Hillrock recently rolled out a peated single malt that’s well worth seeking out. But jump over to the west coast, and Washington State producer Westland Distillery has introduced three singletons, including a peated version and a mouthwatering sherry-finished variation. And in the middle of the country, Swift Single Malt is a fruity whiskey made in Texas from Scottish malted barley.
Those craft producers have spurred the big guns to get crafty, too. Jim Beam, one of the largest whiskey producers in the nation, introduced its Signature Craft line that includes a number of interesting grain-forward Bourbons bottled under the Harvest Bourbon label. Selections include whiskeys made with brown rice, soft red wheat (which gives Maker’s Mark its biscuit-like flavor profile), and triticale, a wheat-rye hybrid. All will be available in limited quantities throughout 2015.
With so many worthwhile glasses to sip, it’s easy to understand why now is an ideal time to seek out American whiskey—whether you prefer Bourbon, rye, unaged “moonshine”-style whiskeys or single malts. The reviews below illustrate how many great bottlings are available right now. (This is just a small fraction. Visit our online ratings guide at www.winemag.com for more). I look forward to returning to this category again in the near future, seeing the strides that have been made.
A Midwinter Night’s Dram (USA; High West Distillery, Salt Lake City, UT); $80, 98 points. This limited-edition blend of straight rye whiskeys finished in French oak and former port barrels offers huge, rounded notes of rich toffee, dark fruit, orange peel and mulling spices. It’s almost like a wintry whiskey punch in a bottle. The language on the label winks at Shakespeare, making this a special gift for a theater lover as well as a whiskey lover.
Wild Turkey Forgiven (USA; Wild Turkey Distilling, Lawrenceburg, KY); $50, 95 points. A hybrid of six-year-old Bourbon (78%) and four-year-old rye (22%), this whiskey offers plenty of bold vanilla, with a cookie dough-like sweetness drying to a gentle spicy fade. A splash of branchwater balances the alcohol heat and coaxes out more robust pops of spice.
Hillrock Double Cask Rye Whiskey (USA; Hillrock Estate Distillery, Hudson Valley, NY); $90, 94 points. This 100% rye whiskey is named Double Cask because it’s aged in two different barrels, the last the most heavily charred. The end result is a deep, rich rye that shows off espresso, toffee, sarsaparilla and caramel. The finish reverberates with long echoes of clove, dried orange peel, nutmeg and baker’s chocolate.
Woodford Reserve Rye (USA; Brown-Forman, Louisville, KY);l $38, 93 points. The latest addition to the Woodford line has a sweet aroma, evoking allspice, root beer and caramel. The palate shows plenty of vanilla and caramel but finishes bracingly dry and spicy, with bitter chocolate, clove and a tongue-numbing touch of cayenne.
Russell’s Reserve Rye Small Batch 6 Year Old (USA; Wild Turkey Distilling, Lawrenceburg, KY); $42, 92 points. The warm and fruity scent is reminiscent of fresh apples drizzled with caramel. On the palate, spicy cinnamon leads, softening to caramel midpalate and finishing with sizzling cinnamon, clove and cayenne pepper. Adjusted with water, a saline note emerges, creating a pleasing salted caramel-like sipper.
Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey Finished in Vermouth Barrels (USA; Mountain Laurel Spirits, Bristol, PA); $50, 90 points. The only Pennsylvania-style rye actually made in Pennsylvania is finished for three months in former sweet-vermouth casks from Quady Winery. The base rye has a bananas and honey character; this builds on it nicely with layers of raisin, figs, dates and caramel, finishing attractively spiced. Small batch.
High West Whiskey Double Rye (USA; High West Distillery, Park City, UT); $40, 90 points. This blend of straight rye whiskeys has a light amber hue and a scent redolent of brown sugar and baked apple, plus a fleeting sarsaparilla note. Most of the allspice and oak flavor comes through on the long finish. At 92 proof, this rye feels relatively hot; mix into Sazeracs and other cocktails.
Elijah Craig 23-Year-Old Single Barrel (USA; Heaven Hill Distillery, Bardstown, KY); $200, 97 points. This limited-edition bottling of rare extra-aged Bourbons becomes more concentrated and rich when allowed to open up in the glass: look for coconut, vanilla, oak and a dry finish accented with cocoa and leather. Just a splash of branchwater, and this is a sipper to savor.
Angel’s Envy Finished in Port Wine Barrels (USA; Louisville Distilling Company, Louisville, KY); $46, 94 points. Luxe and velvety, this port-finished Bourbon shows bold caramel and toffee up front, morphing into notes of sherry, honey and rounded red fruit. Plush and very soft, it needs little more than an ice cube.
Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Soft Red Wheat (USA; Jim Beam Distilling, Clermont, KY); $50, 94 points. This small-batch Bourbon is made with whiskeys aged 11 years and older. Made with soft red wheat—a key ingredient in Maker’s Mark, also a Beam product—in addition to corn, this dark-amber spirit has rich, concentrated aromas of caramel and toffee. On the palate, fleeting sweetness is chased by fiery clove spice. Adding water teases out more creamy caramel and a cookie dough-like note.
Old Forester 1870 (USA; Brown-Forman, Louisville, KY); $45, 94 points. Made using barrels from three different warehouses, a throwback to a pre-1870 blending technique intended to ensure consistency, this is a surprisingly light and delicate Bourbon. The aroma evokes coconut, plus a surprising floral note. The palate also shows coconut, spice, dried apricot and vanilla. Sip or mix.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon (USA; Jim Beam Distilling, Clermont, KY); $25, 94 points. This high-rye, 100-proof Bourbon features a brown-sugar aroma and bold, mouthwatering notes of cocoa, hazelnut and toffee, finishing long. Smoother than a high-proof whiskey might be expected to be, it holds up to dilution, still showing lots of flavor even with branchwater added. Launched with new orange-and-green label in January 2015. Best Buy.
Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (USA; Jim Beam Distilling, Clermont, KY); $37, 93 points. Complex and balanced, this go-to Bourbon features vanilla aromatics with a touch of fresh apple. On the palate, it’s light at first, showing vanilla and honey, and winds into deeper, rounded notes of cocoa and hazelnut. Splash in ginger ale for a highball and sip all night long. Best Buy.
Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. Single Barrel Bourbon (USA; Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY); $60, 93 points. Relatively smooth for 100 proof, this light, silky Bourbon shows bold vanilla and toffee, plus a mouthwatering baking spice finish. It’s a good sipper with an ice cube, or mix into a top-flight old fashioned.
Michter’s US *1 Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon (USA; Michter’s Distillery, Louisville, KY); $48, 93 points. So named because after full maturation in a charred oak barrel, it’s finished in a new barrel that has been toasted (not charred). The end result is light but complex, featuring vanilla, buttery brioche and hints of rich butterscotch, settling with fleeting baking spice and sarsaparilla, and a noticeably buttery and oily feel.
Mulligan’s Bourbon (USA: Golden Beverage Group, Ballwin, MO); $24, 92 points. Despite the hokey golf logo on the bottle, this four-year-old Kentucky Bourbon was a pleasant surprise. Inspired by Mulligan’s Grill, a golf-themed bar and grill in Ellisville, MO, this is a light, balanced sipper that features bold caramel with hints of orange and grapefruit peel, almost like a head start on citrusy cocktails. Best Buy.
Parker’s Heritage Collection (2014 release) (USA; Heaven Hill Distillery, Bardstown, KY); $90, 92 points. This 13-year-old straight wheat whiskey is a limited-edition release to raise funds for ALS research, in honor of Heaven Hill Master Distiller Emeritus Parker Beam. It’s full of luxe caramel charm, with vanilla, crème brûlée and a touch of orange peel. It’s bottled at cask strength; be prepared to add plenty of water to enjoy, otherwise it’s quite fiery.
Orphan Barrel Lost Prophet (USA; Diageo, New York, NY); $120, 91 points. As per the company, this 22-year-old Bourbon was distilled in Frankfort, KY at what was then the George T. Stagg Distillery and found in the old Stitzel-Weller Warehouses in Louisville, KY. The whiskey was then bottled in Tullahoma, TN. The whiskey needs some time in the glass to open up, showing caramel, oak and a touch of campfire smoke, before drying to espresso, tea and leather on the finish. Drying feel.
Special Reserve War Eagle (USA; Sazerac Company, Louisville, KY); $18, 91 points. This small-batch Bourbon has a bright vanilla and peach nectar fragrance. At first, it’s juicy and fruity on the palate, but it finishes taut and dry, with tingly spice, vanilla and oak. Versatile and not overpowering, it seems well suited for cocktails. Best Buy.
Barrell Bourbon Batch 003 (USA; Barrell Craft Spirits, Bardstown, KY); $80, 90 points. This five-year-old cask-strength Kentucky Bourbon is bottled at 122 proof but feels smooth and light nevertheless. The scent mingles vanilla and cedar while the drying palate shows richer hazelnut, cocoa and cigar wrapper, finishing extremely long with clove and cinnamon sparks.
- 1American Rye