When I sat down to list and recognize some of the best spirits of 2019 last year, I acknowledged at the time that it was likely the first year of my adult life where I consumed more alcohol in the form of spirits than in the form of craft beer. This was likely the result of both a disillusionment with modern craft beer styles and a slow and steady embrace of new styles of spirits for me, from malt whisky and aged rum to mezcal and amaro—and the infinite cocktail combinations that accompany them. Mixology has become my favored alcohol language, which is exactly why I created a new Paste series called Cocktail Queries that has been running all through 2020, answering common questions related to cocktails and spirits.
If my spirits focus was “likely” central in 2019, though, there was no doubt of that fact in 2020. The pandemic in particular made for a setting in which it was more difficult than ever to visit the breweries, beer bars and cocktail hubs that are my typical hangouts, and I compensated by diving even further into spirits and cocktails. I explored the boundaries of emerging styles of spirits, wrote a ridiculous number of whiskey features, lists and reviews, and generally expanded my expertise in the spirit world at an exponential rate. I dove deep on issues such as out-of-control bourbon price gouging, and wrote essays on macabre corners of alcohol history.
And along the way, I naturally drank some damn good spirits—having reached the end of 2020, it’s time to recognize them. Like last year, I’ve broken this down into three sections: best whiskeys, best additional spirits and bonus awards. So without further ado, let’s get into it.
To be considered in this section, whiskeys had to be either newly released in 2020, or hit the U.S. market in 2020. Sadly, you won’t see much in the way of representation from several of the most hyped distilleries in the world of American whiskey—unfortunately, we can only write about what we have a chance to sample, and it’s never been harder to find certain ultra-hyped limited releases.
Likewise, these picks have a tendency to trend toward limited releases and whiskeys with higher price tags, but be aware that we’ve given a few special value awards at the end of this piece. And of course, you can always consult our blind tasting of bottom shelf bourbon brands, if you’re looking for the best bang for your buck.
Please note, these are not ranked—I’ve simply listed them in alphabetical order.
The master blenders at Barrell Craft Spirits are best known for working with bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, but we’ve also explored Barrell’s rum blending program in the last year as well. Although their numbered bourbon releases have a very high baseline of quality, though, my favorite 2020 Barrell release was actually rye whiskey—a style where the company has produced only three batches to date. This one in particular is really unique, incorporating 4 to 14-year-old rye whiskeys from all over the globe: Indiana, Tennessee, Canada and even Poland. Like other Barrell Bourbon batches, it was bottled at cask strength, weighing in at a robust 116.7 proof, making it a pretty solid value at MSRP. It features beautifully integrated alcohol presence on the nose in particular, allowing the drinker to easily access notes of fresh rye grain, pumpernickel bread and caramel-coated green apples. Faint cinnamon plays in the background, with subtle citrus. It’s not the most bombastic nose, especially with the alcohol being so mild. Certainly, if you handed this to me blind I would never think it was cask strength just from smelling it.
As I noted when first tasting Barrell Rye Batch 003:
On the palate, this rye is more explosive than on the nose, and is a very pure expression of the rye grain itself. Slightly bready and mildly earthy, it segues into those same caramel green apples and cocoa powder, along with mixed peppercorns and fennel seed. The alcohol is again dialed far back from where one might expect in terms of the 116.7 proof—it’s definitely there in the chest, but I would believe you if you told me it was 100 rather than almost 117. There’s a very nice note on the back end, with late-arriving alcohol flavors that lend this rye a sudden burst of red fruit like raspberry, helping to make it more distinctive. This rye strikes me as less full of the “baking spice” notes than some others, instead transmitting more of an intensity of classic rye grain spiciness. Suffice to say, with an ABV that is so well integrated, this is a dangerously easy drinking whiskey for this proof.
The persistent question involving Bulleit is always “now where was this distilled, again?”, but at least in the case of the brand’s first Blenders’ Select release in 2020, we know exactly who blended it. Bulleit has of course been patiently aging its own spirit for several years now, but as it hasn’t yet reached maturity, it seems safe to say by process of elimination that this is still bourbon from Four Roses, despite some confusing descriptions. Specifically, this is a blend of “three of the 10 distillates that are often part of the original Bulleit Bourbon blend,” aged a minimum of 9 years. That makes the obvious point of comparison the core expression of Bulleit 10 Year Old, a solid value in and of itself, but this special release from blender Eboni Major surpasses that stock 10-Year-Old pretty noticeably. At $50, this was actually one of the best deals of 2020 in bourbon, especially for something in the “limited release” sphere. As we wrote at the time:
On the nose, Blender’s Select No. 001 is redolent in vanilla bean, rich brown sugar, toasty oak and red fruit, with notes of juicy strawberry and black cherry. There’s a fudgy, chocolatey note being teased out as well, and it smells quite rich and fruit-forward overall—I would bet that this heavily features the lower-rye “E” mash bill (20% rye) from Four Roses, which is typically more rich and fruit-forward than the 35% rye “B” mash bill. As a fan of that “E,” I can say that this smells very sweet and inviting, with minimal ethanol presence despite the 100 proof. On the palate, this bourbon is likewise luscious, soft and inviting, with full fruit flavors and no shortage of richness. Cocoa, cherry and brown sugar are major players, although there’s also an undercurrent of delicate mint, rye spice, hot cinnamon and allspice. A late-developing oaky dryness likewise keeps the sweetness from running away with this whiskey, and a vinous note reinforces the prominence of the fruit flavors. With a sweet, roasty finish, this bourbon will play well among those who like their bourbon on the fruitier and richer side. Frankly, it’s delicious—one of the best whiskeys I’ve ever had to bear the Bulleit label, without a doubt.
There are so many small distilleries out there sourcing bourbon, rye and other whiskeys from MGP of Indiana (who obviously make a quality product) that it’s become practically a necessity that the younger, smaller distilleries come up with some kind of proprietary method to make their product stand out—they can’t just bottle some young MGP rye and call it a day, and hope to compete with widely available brands like Bulleit, Templeton or Redemption.
Buzzard’s Roost, a small brand out of Louisville, Kentucky, is doing one of the best takes I’ve seen on transforming an MGP product. In this, their flagship rye whiskey, they’re taking younger (around 3 years) MGP rye and sticking it into proprietary toasted barrels designed for the bottler by Independent Stave Company—the same company that designs proprietary new oak staves for Maker’s Mark. So they’re effectively giving this rye whiskey a “double oaked” treatment, but keeping it on the lightest end of barrel charring. In execution, this works very nicely—it results in a very different sort of MGP rye, and even manages to hide the relative youth of the spirit. As we wrote when tasting it:
On the palate, this is quite a pleasant surprise—one of the more luxurious MGP ryes I’ve tasted in recent memory. It’s quite sweet—surprisingly so, really, because many MGP ryes can be pretty dry—and slightly savory, with a profile that swings between caramelized sugars and confectionery notes and more savory ones. On one side I get candied nuts and cocoa, with something that is like a combination of marzipan and butter toffee, likely contributed by the toasted barrels of this rye’s second maturation. On the other hand, I also get more of a resinous-into-tobacco quality which is nice, combined with herbal impressions and black pepper.
Also quite notable: The heat on this is very gentle for the 105 proof, and the flavors are so composed and rounded out (no sharp edges) that you’re likely to forget entirely that this is only a three-year-old spirit. I can’t imagine that most whiskey writers would peg this as such a young spirit, if their first sample was in a blind tasting setting. Its reach is definitely exceeding its specs in this capacity, and for this particular brand I can only conclude that the proof point works very well.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is surely a brand you know and love by this point—at 12 years old and with proof points often pushing past 130, these are all flavor bombs of the highest order, while retaining an accessible proof point that year in and out makes this brand one of the best values in whiskey. Although Heaven Hill puts out plenty of limited releases that break the bank—several of which are also on this list—ECBP is always there to provide that bang for your buck. We tasted all three of this year’s batches (A120, B520, C920) and were ultimately drawn to the slightly more approachable (127.2 proof) and decadent B520. Judging from some of the buzz around the whiskeysphere this year, it certainly feels like B520 is being regarded as one of the best ECBP batches of the last few years, and we’d absolutely agree with that. As I wrote when revisiting it recently:
On the nose, B520 features some darker fruit impressions—real dark, like blackberry or currant—along with more nutty notes, lots of caramel, vanilla and fudge. This is a more pronounced nuttiness than either of the other two batches, with hints of sweetened peanut butter and butter pecan on the palate, along with ribbons of vanilla, chocolate and old oak. This one reads as fairly decadent, full of sweetness, toffee and more vanilla bean than either of the other batches, and I think that of the three it possesses the best blend of different types of elements—it doesn’t throw itself into one element such as spice (A120) or fruitiness (C920) as strongly as the others. It’s very rich, but also diverse. Also, in comparison to A120, I feel no need to dilute this one—the 127.2 proof drinks nicely all on its own. To my own personal taste, that makes B520 my favorite of the three ECBP batches for 2020.
Four Roses annual LE Small Batch is often one of my favorite bourbon releases of the year, and 2020 was no exception. As with all Four Roses products, this one is made by carefully blending the brand’s 10 bourbon recipes—specifically, this one contains four older variants of some of the most common, “classic” 4R recipes, including 12-year-old OBSV, 12-year-old OESV, 16-year-old OESK and 19-year-old OBSK. The unusually high percentage (45%) of 16 and 19-year-old bourbon in particular make the 2020 LE Small Batch particularly mature, even for this series, as most 4R bourbon is deemed “too oaky” long before it reaches 19 years old. However, master distiller Brent Elliott noted that these particular 19-year-old barrels, which make up 20% of the final blend, were unusually gentle and elegant for their age. The resulting blend is non-chill-filtered and weighs in at 111.4 proof. It’s another beautiful release, as we wrote when first tasting it:
On the nose, I’m getting a combo of caramel and butterscotch, buffeted by waves of oak and spice. This seems a bit more oak and spice-driven than I recall from the 2019 LE Small Batch, which gives it a bit more prickly nose. Teasing out more impressions, more fruit begins to emerge, with orange and apricot meeting butterscotch, pecan and vanilla—like butter pecan ice cream. The bourbon is softer on the palate than the nose might suggest, with strong fruit impressions of orange and peaches with cream and vanilla bean, into rye. The spice is strong as well, however, with big pops of ginger, burnt cinnamon and allspice. The oak, likewise, is considerable and is definitely a star player, although it contributes more of a flavor dimension than it does a tannic one. Overall, this presentation is moderately sweet, with a warming heat in the chest but not too much on the palate, with a long, fairly mellow finish that touches on old oak and rye spice/pepper.
There’s a lot of boutique bottlers out there selling well-aged bottles of MGP bourbon for extremely high prices, well north of $200 or $300, and you have to imagine that the folks in Indiana eventually wondered why they weren’t just selling this stuff directly to the consumer to take advantage of the appreciation that exists for their aged product. Thus, the company launched the George Remus line of bourbons a year or so back, but it’s been the Repeal Reserve series that has really captured the attention of whiskey geeks, and specifically this fourth release, Repeal Reserve IV. This is a 12-year-old, 100 proof, high-rye MGP bourbon, and everything about it feels like a classic throwback, in the best way possible. It’s everything that people like about well-aged MGP bourbon, at a much more accessible price tag than most comparably aged MGP juice on the market. As we wrote when tasting it:
Big caramel and substantial oak give way to waves and waves of citrus and vanilla, with toffee and roasted nuts. Candied oranges are big on the palate—this is a very citrusy bourbon, with clementine/mandarin orange sweetness and additional notes of candied ginger and considerable rye spice and mint on the finish. It’s a classic high-rye cocktail bourbon if I’ve ever seen one.
This is just about as “limited” as limited releases ever get, being a literal single barrel of 13-year-old Heaven Hill bourbon that the distillery is releasing at its Bourbon Heritage Center. Due to the tiny size of said release, I wasn’t sure I was going to write anything about it at all … and then I tasted it. And once I saw how great this one was, it made the choice rather academic. In all honesty, you’re going to have a really hard time seeking this one out, but you can read it as an endorsement of well-aged Heaven Hill single barrel bourbons in general. As I wrote when tasting this recently:
I’m getting cocoa, warm caramel sauce and nut-covered toffee. Salted pecans move into plenty of oak and roastiness, along with light nutmeg and clove spice. It gives an impression of balance—moderately sweet, moderately rich, fairly oaky. Over time, a delicate red fruitiness like strawberry begins to be teased out. Notably, the ethanol seems quite light on the nose for the 107 proof; this has clearly mellowed nicely. On the palate, I’m first getting big waves of spicy oak, with hints of mixed peppercorns and ginger candy. There’s substantial oak flavor to this profile, but no unpleasantly bitter or harsh tannic impressions to go along with it. Instead, I’m getting more salted caramel and moderate sweetness, along with growing herbaceousness and leather that is amplified on subsequent sips. By the time I’m a bit further in the glass, the dried herbs and tobacco have become major players, but they’re nicely balanced by a sweeter earthiness and brown sugar. Alcohol heat is moderate, and more present than on the nose—it certainly lets you know it’s there, but unsurprisingly in a more gentle way than on most Elijah Craig Barrel Proofs. In comparison with say, my favorite ECBP of 2020, the B520 batch, this 13-year-old single barrel strikes me as less decadent, fruity and sweet, and a bit closer to the classic Heaven Hill house style. It’s just extremely well balanced between all of its competing elements—a classic single barrel that is indicative of the distillery’s whole ethos.
The low, low price tag of Old Tub as a 100 proof, unfiltered product earned it a whole lot of media attention and praise from whiskey writers and fans in 2020, to the point that I almost expect there to be some kind of backlash against it … but honestly, for $20 it’s exactly as good as you’ve heard. Certainly, it’s an upgrade even from Beam’s other 100 proof bourbons in the same price bracket, possessing a texture and depth of flavor that goes beyond the likes of Old Grand Dad or Jim Beam Bonded. It makes for an obvious cocktail bourbon, having the strength of character necessary to shine through in classic bourbon cocktails or mixed drinks—that, and it drinks just fine on its own as a weeknight dram. This is very versatile, very high-value stuff. As we wrote previously:
On the nose, this pale gold bourbon is grain and corn-forward, with a profile that is familiar to younger Beam bourbons but also somewhat deeper than most of them can claim to be. It has a fair amount of the classic, honey-roasted peanut aromatics typical of Beam, but they’re less all-encompassing than I’ve typically found on bottles like White Label or Old Crow in the past, which allows more dusty rye, light vanilla and brown sugar to emerge. On the palate, I’m getting cornbread, brown sugar, cinnamon candy, butterscotch and hints of sweetened peanut butter. “Nutty Bars” was one of my first thoughts, as the slight cocoa note combines with peanuts to evoke that childhood wafer confection. The ethanol, meanwhile, is integrated pretty nicely, and this is plenty easy to drink, seeming a bit under its 00 proof while still possessing a pleasantly full mouthfeel. “Pleasant” really is the word—if you like the Beam bourbon profile, you’ll like this. We’re not always fans of younger Beam whiskeys in particular, but this one does enough to earn a $20 investment and then some.
King of Kentucky might be the crown jewel of Brown-Forman’s entire lineup, which is saying a lot considering how many different amazing whiskeys they produce. Certainly, the 2020 batch here is one of the most decadent and amazingly delicious things I’ve sampled in recent memory, possessing one of the best pure noses in particular I’ve ever come across. If I could produce a bourbon cologne, it would smell very much like this.
Overall, King of Kentucky is meant to highlight “the impact that long-term heat cycled maturation has on barrel yield and flavor presentation,” according to Brown-Forman. These barrels yielded a pretty small batch of less than 2,000 bottles, with an eye-popping $250 price tag. Tasting them, though, you can’t deny that it’s something very special. As we wrote previously:
On the nose, this one leaps out of my tasting glass with rich, fruity notes first and foremost. It’s very dark fruity, with cherry and cocoa notes that combine to evoke cherry cordial candies, along with graham cracker, fudge and dulce de leche, segueing into antique oak and leather. This smells quite sweet, and although the ethanol is certainly present, I’m surprised how centered on fruit and sweetness this nose is for 130 proof. Frankly, this is an awesome nose, and something I want to just keep inhaling all day. It is positively mouthwatering. On the palate, this King of Kentucky doesn’t disappoint, although I’m not sure anything can match the heavenly nose on this sample. This is very sweet on the front of the palate, with a big initial rush of brown sugar, into maple, into dulce de leche, with plenty more of that juicy cherry and cola-like spice. I get the fudge again, and certainly no shortage of vanilla, but where the front of the palate is very sweet, the heat comes roaring back on the back end, into a very long, spicy finish in which the rye and mint notes play a bigger role. The star of the show, though, are those stunning sweet flavors of dark fruit and caramelized sugars on the front end. Oak, believe it or not, doesn’t really play a huge role in this flavor profile as far as my taste buds are concerned—it’s there, and it plays into a finish that is drier than the initial front of the palate, but it’s not really what I find myself considering about this flavor profile afterward. The alcohol heat, meanwhile, eventually settles into the chest where it continues to smolder for ages.
This year saw several new, extra-aged releases in Jim Beam’s Knob Creek lineup, a series that has always been easy to recommend for its excellent value—especially after the flagship 9-year regained its age statement once again in 2020 after losing it for a few years. Of the new releases, it was the 15-year-old expression that garnered the most attention from whiskey geeks because it was a limited release, but the one that really commanded our attention in the long run was the permanent addition of Knob Creek 12 Year Old.
Put simply, this is an excellent supporting player for the Knob Creek lineup—a companion brand to the popular single barrel picks, which weigh in at 120 proof but typically retain the 9-year age statement. Knob Creek 12 Year, on the other hand, has the standard 100 proof strength of the flagship bourbon, but a few more years of aging, at a reasonable MSRP of $60. Of course, this wouldn’t really matter if those additional years didn’t make much of a difference to the bourbon’s profile, but they prove to be a very meaningful upgrade, giving the 12 Year a new dimension of oakiness in particular. In fact, we ultimately found this brand to be more of a sweet spot for the Knob Creek profile than the 15 Year, which has a much higher $100 MSRP. As we wrote when first tasting the 12 Year:
On the nose, Knob Creek 12 Year is redolent in maple and deeply caramelized sugars, along with vanilla and lots of old, spicy oak. There’s very little ethanol presence on the nose for the proof, which allows for deep inhalation, followed by rich flavors of brown sugar cinnamon and sweet spices. It drinks very, very easily, but also offers up some nuances, with more of a leathery/tobacco/slightly tannic quality than the 9 year, balanced on the other end by decadent baking spices, prickly rye spice and a persistent return to deeply charred flavors. The word, in general, is “dark,” as this bourbon brings some very dark red fruitiness, heavily toasted spices and roastiness into play. If that sounds like perhaps it might be cloying, it’s really not—residual sweetness is moderate, but it seems more “rich” than overtly sweet. It has less of the traditional corny sweetness than the 9 Year, and has extracted more bitter balance in its place. All in all, it’s the more elegant whiskey. Although I am a big fan of the Knob Creek Single Barrels that are often available as store picks, this 12 Year expression offers a lovely, deeper wood presence than most of them, at a very drinkable proof. The two expressions should support each other nicely in the future, offering flavorful Knob Creek bourbon experiences at either 100 or 120 proof.
Maker’s Mark defines its single wheated bourbon mashbill by how they tinker with the aging process, achieved through the use of proprietary toasted and roasted oak staves in brands such as Maker’s 46. Their annual limited release bourbon, now in its second year, is dubbed the “Wood Finishing Series” and sees the distillery utilizing new custom staves to amplify classic aspects of the Maker’s Mark flavor profile. Specifically, the two new staves for 2020’s release, dubbed SE4 and PR5, are meant to accentuate “caramel and vanilla” notes in the final bourbon, which is presented at 110.8 proof. The result is a fairly intense, flavor-packed spin on the reliable Maker’s formula, which makes an excellent alternative to some of the hotly sought-after wheated bourbons in the market today. As we wrote when first sampling it:
On the nose, you immediately get that big waft of gooey caramel/vanilla bean that the distillery was surely going for, although there’s also substantial ethanol and roasty oak, segueing into a combination of torched cinnamon sticks and something pastry or confectionery like—warm sticky buns. I also get some caramel apple fruitiness, cocoa and hints of star anise and French oak spiciness. All in all, a pretty darn enticing nose, although it also suggests a bracing alcoholic presence even stronger than what you might expect for 110 proof. On the palate, this Maker’s Mark heads in some interesting and not entirely expected directions. There’s tons of initial caramel and vanilla that is not quite as expressive as on the nose, but it then makes way for loads and loads of spice. Hot cinnamon shows up in spades, giving this a “spicy apple pie filling” vibe, transitioning into spicy oak that contributes more of a drying effect, but nothing too aggressive. It then heads into a panoply of baking spice notes and substantial heat. Make no mistake, the 110 proof of this one kicks assertively, which I imagine some fans may appreciate and others may find stronger than desired. That sort of becomes a theme of this limited edition release—it is packed with bold, bombastic flavors rather than subtle ones. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a fact of its flavor profile—delicacy is not the draw here. Although the distillery focuses on “caramel and vanilla,” it should also be noted that oak is definitely an important player in this flavor profile, moreso than in most Maker’s Mark releases, with more of a “spicy oak” than “tannic oak” dimension.
Old Carter is the brainchild of blenders Mark and Sherri Carter, who previously partnered in the creation of the now sought-after brand Kentucky Owl. That brand has since moved on to blender Dixon Dedman when the Carters departed following Kentucky Owl’s acquisition by Stoli Group in 2017, and Old Carter was formed with a similar ethos—sourcing high-quality, well-aged whiskey to be presented at cask strength. Since 2018, that has taken the form of a number of releases of bourbon, rye and “American whiskey.” All are released at barrel strength, although that strength varies greatly depending on the barrels themselves, from release to release.
This particular bourbon is Batch 5, released in April of this year. This is reportedly a “high-corn” mashbill from MGP, and is a pretty small batch of 1,648 bottles, although Old Carter has put out quite a few other batches this year as well. It has no official age statement but is apparently 7-9 years old, with a cask strength of 115.1 proof. That puts it squarely in the “cask strength MGP” territory that has become ultra sought-after and competed for by various boutique bottlers in the last few years, but from tasting the results it’s clear that the Carter’s skill in blending remains formidable. As we wrote when tasting it:
On the nose, this strikes me as a well-balanced bourbon, weighing notes of warm brown sugar and gingerbread against cinnamon, faint licorice and oak that is slightly resinous in tone. Cocoa begins to emerge over time, as does a “buttered popcorn” that can probably be attributed to the higher percentage of corn in the mash bill. Ethanol is quite gentle on the nose for the proof, which bodes well for the palate. On the palate, this is a lovely, sweet blend that the Carters have put together. Brown sugar, cinnamon and ginger candy are the first things I register, but there’s also considerable toffee and a nuttiness that is reminiscent of candied pecans. Having lived in the south, it definitely has me thinking pecan pralines. Unexpectedly, the flavor profile then morphs toward spice on the back end, reminding me very much of “cola”-type spiciness, with some muted rye as well. It definitely registers on the more sweet and decadent side, but is also quite spicy, while alcoholic heat is impressively muted, seeming to bypass attacking the palate and instead immediately settling into the chest with the good old “Kentucky hug.” All in all, I can certainly see why the Carters have already found no shortage of devotees for their brand. Old Carter Bourbon Batch #5 is both nicely balanced and quite rich, with flavors that are both comfortingly familiar and just exotic enough to be interesting.
Brown-Forman’s Old Forester brand celebrated a big milestone in 2020, turning 150 years old. We’ve already acknowledged that B-F put out some pretty spectacular bourbon this year, particularly in the form of 2020’s King of Kentucky, but this one was almost on the same level, with a lower MSRP and significantly larger batch size. Specifically, this was a group of 150 barrels chosen by Old Forester Master Distiller Chris Morris and then blended by Master Taster Jackie Zykan, who broke them into three batches that were each meant to highlight one aspect of the Old Forester flavor profile. Having tasted all three, I can report that they are all quite distinct from one another, with batch #1 being a rich, dark fruit bomb, batch #2 being a brighter and more balanced middle ground, and batch #3 being the most eclectic and herbaceous of the group. All are presented at batch proof and without filtration, making them flavor powerhouses, although we were ultimately drawn to the juicy cherry and comparative brightness of batch #2, which Zykan describes as “sweet and spry.” As we wrote when first tasting it:
On the nose, Batch 2 has the interesting property of reflecting some of the same notes as Batch 1, but in a different way. I’m getting red fruitiness again here, but it’s a much brighter cherry/raspberry note than the more syrupy dark fruit preserves of Batch 1. It’s also complemented by a bit of the banana for which Brown-Forman bourbon is famous, but none of these three batches strike me as having the banana note as prominently as 2020’s batch of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. In fact, I get a brighter citrus note here as well, along with spicy oak, although the ethanol here does sting a bit as well. On the palate, “spry” was a good choice of words by Zykan—this just feels lighter and more mobile than the comparatively staid quality of Batch 1, if you’re asking me. Both banana and cherry fruitiness are considerably more bright this time around, contrasting nicely with a darker maltiness that then gives way to spice of all kinds. There’s pepper, there’s rye spice and something like root beer, but the label that keeps coming to mind for me is “cherry cola.” Zykan is likewise correct that this one has a bit more accessible sweetness, which gives it a well-rounded approach. Of the three, it’s the most assertive in terms of the baking spices, with a “festive” vibe that makes it a favorite for me.
The amount of scotch whisky and Irish whiskey I sample in any given year has continued to rise, although much of 2020 was spent with me sampling classic brands I hadn’t had a chance to taste in the past, such as a very memorable tasting of the core lineup of The Dalmore. Most of these whiskies weren’t newer brands, but Teeling’s Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey is a fairly recent exception, and one I took a particular interest in as I explored the world of Irish-style “single pot still whiskey.” This is a still fairly misunderstood style in the U.S. despite the long presence of the iconic Redbreast in this market, and it’s a style that typically needs a bit of explanation. Suffice to say, these are Irish malt whiskeys in which a portion of the mash is unmalted barley, which often contributes a spicier character not unlike rye. They are, as the name would imply, distilled solely in pot stills, which also yield a fruitier, richer spirit. It’s a style with great historical reverence in Ireland, which has bounced back from the brink of disappearing to become a celebrated facet of modern Irish whiskey culture.
Teeling, meanwhile, is a younger distillery that opened its doors in Dublin in 2015, becoming the first whiskey distillery to operate there since 1976. Since then, they’ve been selling single malt, single grain and small batch releases, largely sourced from other distilleries, but the company’s first home-distilled release was fittingly this single pot still Irish whiskey, and the results were quite impressive. This is a non-age-stated spirit, matured in a combination of three different cask types—used bourbon, American virgin oak (freshly charred), and sherry casks. The aim would seemingly be to infuse the product with enough complexity to overcome its low age statement, and they pull it off nicely. As we wrote when first tasting it:
On the nose, I get honeycomb and florals, with a buttery shortbread character that also feels toasty/”baked”—a characteristic I’ve picked up in the past in other younger, sherried malt whiskies. However, there’s also something deeper and funkier to the aromatic profile here; a little bit earthy, as well as a streak of plummy stone fruit. On the palate, Teeling Single Pot Still is warm and spicy, all biscuits and dark honey and with plenty of spice being pulled from that new wood—I get gingerbread and allspice in particular. There are hints of stone fruit, but this strikes me as a whiskey more driven by sweetness, grainy biscuit (that unmalted barley?) and spice impressions than fruit, with a finish that tingles on the tongue and develops additional spice notes. Heat is moderate, about where it should be. All in all, I found myself quite enjoying the way this whiskey doesn’t throw itself too zealously into one corner or another. The sherry in particular is definitely on the subtle side compared to some of the sherry bombs of this whiskey category, being used as an ethereal flourish atop a whiskey driven by honeyed tones and spice.
Wild Turkey’s annual Master’s Keep release is always a mystery and a treat to discover—you never know if you’re going to get something really unusual, like 2018’s sherry cask-finished Master’s Keep Revival, or whether the brand might throw a different type of curveball like 2019’s Master’s Keep Cornerstone Rye. For 2020, WT decided to dabble in an area they’ve surprisingly almost never touched before, in the form of bottled-in-bond bourbon. This is a very mature, 17-year-old bottled-in-bond bourbon, only the second in the company’s history after 2007’s well-regarded, 15-year-old Wild Turkey American Spirit. Making things even more interesting is the fact that these barrels were drawn from WT’s Camp Nelson rickhouses, which have a reputation for producing some of the brand’s most unique and unusual bourbons—this all translates into immediate hype from Wild Turkey’s faithful superfans.
The resulting bourbon? It totally threw me for a loop when I first tasted it, and it maintains a truly unique quality of seeming to change and morph in character almost every time I revisit it. Even from sip to sip, totally different aspects of this bourbon tend to be highlighted. It is a complexity king, and it’s become one of my favorite whiskeys for contemplation. The more I revisit it, the more fascinated by it I become. As we noted when first sampling:
On the nose, without having let this bourbon rest, my immediate impressions were of dense char, oak and smoke—this is quite smoky for bourbon, and I was immediately afraid the result might be something over-oaked and unpleasantly tannic. Letting it rest, however, it’s clear that this bourbon takes a little while to open up. With time, other notes start emerging from the oak profile—roasted almonds, honey, rich caramel and graham cracker, along with just a touch of peanut butter. Cherry compote is the big fruit note, which segues into molasses cookie and something funkier and earthier—old leather. The palate proves to be even more tricky to get a hold on, but one thing it’s not lacking is assertiveness. There are Turkey geeks out there, I’m sure, who would be displeased that this was released at “only” 100 proof due to its bottled-in-bond designation, but this is one of the most densely flavored 100 proof bourbons I’ve ever come across. Tasting blind, I’m quite certain that almost anyone would peg the proof around 10-15 higher at least. The initial sip hits hard, with mesquite bbq smokiness and cherry cola fruitiness, into clove, pepper and rye spice. The oak is a force to be reckoned with, but it has an odd way of being far more present on some sips than on others. That becomes a running theme with this bourbon—each time I take a sip, my impression of it is considerably different. Sometimes it seems a touch bitter, with an oaky funkiness that threatens to overwhelm it. But then I come back again, only to find creamy orange vanilla notes, paired with mocha and big crunchy toffee. One thing that is consistent is a certain earthiness that continues to grow in strength, with a pipe tobacco quality that is on the more savory side. You can certainly see why they chose to keep this at 100 proof, because it is very bold indeed.
As always, this isn’t just a whiskey game. 2020 was another year for exploring the wider world of spirits, and this time around I found myself especially likely to be diving headfirst into tequila and aged rum. It’s probably safe to say that in particular, I consumed more Caribbean rum and rhum agricole in 2020 than ever before, which coincided with a rising fascination in tiki cocktails. To that end, here are the best new, non-whiskey spirits I sampled in 2020.
Jamaica’s iconic Appleton Estate distillery decided to refresh its core lineup from top to bottom in 2020, condensing some of their brands and making their distinctions more easily understood at a glance. It was a sensible move, as the lineup had become a bit confusing in recent years, with the average consumer likely to be confused if releases like “Signature” or “Reserve” were meant to be the more premium product. Now, the lineup flows in a more logical way, and with a new cornerstone at its center: Appleton Estate 8 Year Old Reserve Rum.
This is a truly new product, in the sense that it’s a new blend from legendary master blender Joy Spence, replacing the previous mid-tier Appleton Reserve Blend. As with all rum blends, the 8-year age statement means that the rums involved are at least 8 years old, and may include significant portions of older rum as well. This one is presented at a slightly elevated 43% ABV (86 proof), and is positioned to work as an easy sipper and cocktail mainstay that represents an upgrade in assertiveness and complexity from the flagship Applestone Estate Signature Blend. This it does with aplomb—when tasting the entire new lineup, the 8 Year Old Reserve quickly became our new favorite of the group, even in comparison to the reliable 12 Year Old Rare Casks. As we wrote then:
On the nose, the 8 Year Old Reserve is markedly more expressive and mature than the Signature, with notes of grilled pineapple, banana and ginger. There’s a more savory and slightly more wild dimension to this dram, with a greater oak presence and considerably more spice—the slight bump in proof makes itself felt in an appreciable way, lending heft to these flavors. This one also strikes me as particularly fruity, with lots of pineapple, citrus and passionfruit notes, closing with a bit of supporting oak tannin. Ultimately, the 8 Year Old Reserve actually proved to be my favorite of this lineup, and I think it’s the star of the newly revamped line—especially if it’s available to you near the MSRP. It’s perhaps the most balanced synthesis of all the Appleton notes, bringing plenty of fruitiness and spice to play, amplified by the bump in proof and balanced by subtle oakiness. Whereas the 12 Year Rare Cask ultimately leans more toward influence from the barrel, the 8 Year Old Reserve strikes me as a very skillful balancing act.
The whiskey world has been patiently waiting for the first official bourbon and rye releases from Castle & Key, the distillery operating on the revamped site of the Old Taylor Distillery first built in 1887. Those releases are finally drawing close, but in the meantime, Castle & Key probably deserves more recognition for the quality gin they’ve been putting out for the last few years. Notably, it isn’t one static brand, either—rather, Castle & Key’s London Dry Gin brand changes seasonally, with a rotating cast of botanicals that take the basic gin template in intriguing new directions. I was suitably impressed with the Autumn 2020 Gin, which combines a robust 98 proof with botanicals such as cedar leaf, spicebush, caraway and orris root to create an autumnal flavor profile. This is a powerful but stealthy gin, when all it said and done—as we wrote when tasting:
On the nose, this definitely registers as closer to classic London Dry Gin than the citrus-forward New Western Gin style that has increasingly become synonymous with craft gin in the U.S. I immediately get resinous juniper and lots of floral/herbaceous notes, along with delicate citrus and complex spice that is hard to put a finger on—cardamom and licorice for sure. It smells like it has a bit more of a warm spice profile than your really classical London Dry Gin might, but there’s no mistaking the juniper. One thing I’m not getting is anything that registers as “smoke” or overt campfire-ness, making me wonder whether Castle & Key’s comparison with scotch or mezcal might be greatly overstated. On the palate, though, things begin to make a bit more sense as far as the “smoky” description is concerned. This is warm and spicy on the palate, with some lovely notes of cardamom and licorice that play nicely with moderate juniper resin and subdued red berry notes. There’s also a more nebulous spicy quality that I might attribute to the “spicebush” mentioned among the botanicals that is decidedly woodsy in flavor, and very fall appropriate indeed. On the back end, finally there is a wisp of something more charred and roasty, which gives the lightest possible kiss of char. It should be noted that the proof point works beautifully, and the ethanol is very restrained in comparison with some other similarly high-proof gins I’ve sampled recently.
I’m always a little leery of spirits marketing that tries to cash in on what feels like buzzwords in order to generate interest, so my initial assessment of El Sativo Tequila marketing itself as being the first tequila with “terpenes” was distinctly unimpressed. When I saw that this new blanco tequila brand had won two double gold awards in 2020, however—including Tequila of the Year at the San Francisco Spirits World Competition—it seemed certain that there was more under the hood than a gimmick to entice the cannabis crowd. And indeed there is, as I didn’t sample another tequila in 2020 that was more purely enjoyable than this one.
El Sativo is distilled in the lowlands of Amatitán, Jalisco, by Tequilas Las Americas. It is a single estate, organic tequila made from agave on the distillery’s own estate, “harvested solely in our fields and never sourced,” which is how the company assures its organic certification. That agave is slowly steamed in small batch stone ovens, fermented with natural yeast, and blended with reverse osmosis water filtered through volcanic rock. The resulting tequila is bottled at the standard 40% ABV (80 proof), with an MSRP of $40-45. As far as I know, the brand only has a blanco tequila, and no aged (reposado or anejo) varieties as of yet. And frankly, it’s delicious. As we wrote when sampling it:
On the nose, El Sativo Tequila is exceedingly bright and fresh, with lots of juicy pink grapefruit and lightly resinous notes, along with some salt, minerality and sweet agave. It smells lightly sweet and extremely inviting, quite citrusy and a bit angular—you couldn’t call anything about this “dull.” Ethanol on the nose is very muted, even for the low proof point. It smells, in fact, like you could just take it at a gulp. On the palate, this proves to be a pretty accurate assessment—El Sativo is full of flavor, but is ridiculously easy to drink. Lightly sweet and citrus forward once again, with additional stone fruit notes, it combines slightly sweet herbaceousness and fresh agave with dried herbs and ever-so-slight roastiness and saltiness. Peppery spice rounds things out, but once again the ethanol presence is exceedingly well integrated into the flavor profile, making the tequila dangerously quaffable. The flavor profile isn’t necessarily the most complex, but it’s extremely poised, gentle and accessible, while nailing many classic tequila notes. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like at an even higher proof point.
At this point, rum geeks are plenty wise to Holmes Cay, a small and independent bottler of no-nonsense, cask-strength rum sourced from around the world. The company’s batches to date have been small, but they’ve all been incredible showcases for rum terroir in various regions, from Barbados and Guyana to Fiji and now Belize. These are all well-aged, cask strength expressions that are meant to capture the spirit of any given rum-producing nation.
The latest is Belize 2005, which cites itself as “the first 100% tropically aged, cask-strength rum from Belize to be offered for sale in the U.S.” This hails from the country’s largest and best-known rum producer, Travellers Liquors, and is a column-distilled rum that was aged in the tropical Belize climate for at least 15 years, entirely in ex-bourbon casks. It weighs in at a cask strength of 61% ABV (122 proof), and although the $109 MSRP is higher than most people are used to paying for rum, it’s actually substantially lower than previous Holmes Cay releases from the likes of Barbados and Guyana. It’s a decadent, desserty dram that we’ve grown to appreciate even more as we return to it. As we wrote previously:
On the nose, this is rich, savory and funky all at once. I’m getting cocoa and dark fruit, like stewed prunes and a melange of tropical fruit at once. There’s also a more sherry-like nuttiness, and some funky vegetal notes that I can’t quite parse or define. I’m left being unsure of exactly what this is going to taste like. On the palate, Belize 2005 explodes with sweetness and spice—this is a different sort of thing than I was expecting from the nose. Huge molasses and brown sugar character is on the treacly side, met by prune/plum and baking spice that touches every note of the spice rack. Tropical fruitiness rushes in and suggests pineapple upside down cake, while also being redolent in vanilla bean. Alcohol heat is appropriate for the 122 proof, nicely tempered by all those years in the barrel. The long spice finish returns to the wood, again drawing out plentiful baking spices.
Mount Gay’s yearly Master Blender Collection is an opportunity for the brand to dabble in novel creations, whether they’re very traditional, such as the pot still purity of Mount Gay Pot Still Rum in 2019, or more avant garde in the form of The Peat Smoke Expression a year earlier. In 2020, the distillery brought port barrels into the mix for the first time ever, releasing its triumphant Port Cask Expression, which does indeed feel like a very special release.
Created by Master Blender Trudiann Branker, this is a blend of column and post-distilled rums, each of which underwent different types of exposure to port barrels. The column-distilled rum was aged for 5 years in tawny port casks, whereas the copper pot-distilled rums were aged for 14 years in American whiskey barrels before being finished for a year in tawny port casks. Branker stresses the difference between the two methods, saying that the long maturation in American oak before finishing in port casks is necessary to create a product that still reads as “rum with a port finish,” rather than “port liquid with a rum finish.” The resulting spirit is bottled at a barrel proof of 55% ABV (110 proof), with a limited release price tag of $175. It’s an absolutely beautiful dram, as we wrote when first tasting it:
On the nose, The Port Cask Expression reads as a decadent delight, with mouthwatering impressions of chocolate, plum, digestive biscuits (very “brown sugar biscuit”), allspice, clove and restrained ethanol. It’s ever-so-slightly vinous, as one might expect after the port cask aging, and the alcohol is very much in line with where it should be, considering the 110 proof. It smells very rich, festive and cocoa-driven, which can often be the case with port-finished rums and whiskies. On the palate, this is absolutely unctuous, with an incredibly thick mouthfeel that is smooth as butter. Molasses and dark chocolate lead off, into fruit-driven notes of plum and dark berries, segueing into a panoply of baking spices that include candied ginger and allspice. Sweetness is on the higher side, as you’d likely expect, but held together with a proof point that is perfectly integrated for 55% ABV. The finish goes on and on, evolving with more dried fruit and baking spices—you’re still tasting each sip, five minutes later. Suffice to say, The Port Cask Expression is both delicious and decadent, a real treat that is still drier than most of the sugar-laden premium rums you’d label as “after dinner” sippers.
In conversations with other spirits writers, I’ve run across something that has become an odd little theme: Many of them don’t seem to be fond of barrel-aged gins. Perhaps they find that adding some oak-driven notes to gin takes away from the ideological purity of the botanical-driven spirit, driving it in the direction of whiskey when that isn’t really “necessary.” Perhaps they don’t think a more whiskey-like flavor profile plays nicely with classic gin botanicals. It’s hard to say, but when all is said and done I find myself wanting to come to this style’s defense. Barrel-aged gin is a small little niche, but I think it fulfills an interesting role in the mixology world. In particular, its ability to soften the rough edges of a juniper-driven spirit makes it play well in many classic gin cocktails, subtly altering the dimensions of a classic martini, negroni or Martinez. More people should give barrel-aged gin a try in these drinks.
And if you’re looking for one of those barrel-aged gins to experiment with, might we suggest Rabbit Hole Distillery’s Bespoke Gin? This Louisville, KY-based distiller is primarily known for bourbon and rye, but this one continues to catch our eye. This is sourced U.K. gin, imported to the U.S. before being aged in Kentucky in barrels that previously held Rabbit Hole’s rye whiskey. The spirit is then bottled at a somewhat elevated strength of 44.5% (89 proof), with a hay-like yellow sheen suggesting the time it spent in the barrel. That aging provides subtle evolution of the gin flavor—as we wrote previously:
On the nose, this is an interesting mix of competing notes vying for supremacy. I get hints of toffee and pine, along with prominent notes of orange citrus and vanilla. There’s a contrasting nature to this profile that is curious but not unpleasant, with a slightly musty, grainy note that slowly becomes identifiable as rye bread-like in nature. On the palate, I get sweet citrus, florals and spice in equal measure. There’s definitely a big orange citrus note, which combines with moderate residual sweetness and vanilla to get it a slight “orange creamsicle” note, but it’s also nowhere near as sweet as many New Western gins I’ve sampled. The sweetness is tempered by substantial juniper, which comes through both in fruity berry notes and moderate bitterness, balancing itself pretty nicely. Peppery spice is prominent as well, although it’s hard to put a finger on if it’s more a product of the rye barrels, or the botanicals involved in the base gin itself. Regardless, this seems like a category that remains a bit on the “love it or hate it” side, but I feel like barrel-aged gins like this one have a lot of potential.
And finally, here are a few extra pieces of recognition I’d like to hand out to various brands I tasted this year, regardless of whether they came out in 2020 or not—but most of them still did. In particular, this is a space to recognize some of the best values in the market this year.
Yes, this is technically “Tennessee whiskey” rather than bourbon, but it would also qualify as the latter if Dickel chose to label it that way, and it is more than worthy of recognition. This brand was created by Dickel in 2019 and immediately received a lot of attention with its first release, a 13-year-old bottled-in-bond whiskey that sold for a mere $36. This is nothing new when it comes to Dickel, long a source of extreme values in the whiskey market and a source of many well-aged whiskeys that are being sold at far higher prices by independent bottlers. This year’s second iteration of Dickel BiB is actually a little bit younger, and the price has increased ever so slightly … but I also think it’s a significantly better whiskey than the first batch. In fact, in terms of bang for your buck, this stuff is pretty incredible—at 11 years old, and with these kinds of flavors, it’s something that another brand could get away with charging exorbitant prices for. Thankfully for us, Dickel remains as underrated as ever, which means there’s a ton of value here. As we wrote when first sampling it:
The nose strikes me as significantly more rich than the previous batch (although this is going by memory), with a more pronounced caramel/buttery toffee character, with stewed dark fruits and allspice. The palate, meanwhile, brings some of the nuttiness back into play, but this time it’s more of a roasted pecan character, which plays very well with cinnamon sugar, cocoa, ginger candy, molasses cookie and hints of maple. This is a very tasty whisky indeed, and at $40 it’s a freakin’ steal in this market. Dickel has always been a go-to for value in the whiskey world, and I can’t help but think that there are a lot of classic Kentucky distilleries that would try to charge twice as much (or even more!) for this exact same liquid.
One of the best trends in the whiskey world in the last few years has been a rise in the number of high-quality, moderately priced, affordable rye whiskey brands on store shelves. Brands such as Old Forester Rye have helped to bring new life to this niche of the market, establishing more of a rye whiskey midshelf between the likes of Old Overholt and premium/luxury ryes.
Heaven Hill made an excellent foray into this same field in 2020 with their introduction of Elijah Craig Straight Rye, a perfectly calculated and affordable product that handles equally well for neat drinking or cocktails. This rye uses the typical, “barely legal” Kentucky rye mashbill, but carries a few more years of age than the rougher and rowdier (but always dependable) Rittenhouse bottled-in-bond, also from Heaven Hill. Rather than the punchier, younger, spicier profile of Rittenhouse, Elijah Craig Rye is trading a little bit of proof and assertiveness for more maturity, despite the fact that it’s still non-age-stated. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the age on Elijah Craig Rye was more or less the same as the distillery’s 6-year-old Pikesville Rye, which carries a $50-60 MSRP at 110 proof. Given that, Elijah Craig Rye (at 94 proof) looks like a heck of a value for $30. As we wrote when first sampling it:
In terms of flavor, Elijah Craig Rye forges a crowd-pleasing balance between bourbon and rye influences, being considerably sweeter and richer than some of the very rye-forward whiskeys that have come to the forefront of this genre in recent years. On the palate, I immediately noted the smooth and slightly oily mouthfeel, which coats the palate first in a corny sweetness, the slightest hint of peanut butter, and into rich caramel and vanilla, before seguing hard into the rye spice, which leads to a long-lasting mint note on the finish. There are some fruit elements as well, with a slight apricot-like stone fruit and a more prominent “apple pie” spiciness, like caramelized Granny Smiths with cinnamon sugar, and a bit of barrel char. There’s a good amount of caramelization overall—sweeter, certainly, than some of the MGP ryes I’ve sampled more recently, but almost as spicy at the same time. It is, in short, very well balanced between elements one tends to associate with both bourbon and rye whiskey.
Junipero has been around for ages: For more than 20 years, this has been one of the original craft gins, although it might be fair to say that it’s become a little lost in the modern shuffle in recent years. The thing about Junipero is that it’s very big and very bold, and it doesn’t apologize for that. This isn’t an experiment in candy sweet, fruit-forward New Western Gin, but rather more like an Americanized version of London dry gin—which is to say, we took it and kicked the intensity up a notch, as American craft brewers did to most classic European beer styles. Its botanicals are right down the middle: Juniper, coriander, cubeb, grains of paradise, lemon peel, orange peel, orris root, cassia bark, cardamom, bitter orange peel, aniseed, and angelica root. What makes it stand out is its verve, and its strength—at 49.3% (98.6 proof) this makes for very punchy cocktails. As I wrote when revisiting the brand and its new bottle design, Junipero just doesn’t do anything half-assed:
On the nose, Junipero is fresh and perfumey, with moderate booziness that you’d no doubt be expecting for the commanding proof. It’s quite resinous, with sticky pine segueing into florals, violets and almost blueberry-like fruitiness. There’s a faint orange citrus as well, but the nose is certainly more defined by juniper than anything—this is not the citrus juice bomb gins that have come into vogue in more recent years. On the palate, this is likewise quite piney and resinous, although not as bone dry as I was expecting it might be. The alcoholic strength alone does assure a certain level of residual sweetness, which plays nicely with flavors that segue into sweet orange, florals and warm spices, of which cardamom seems the most present to me. Once again, I find myself thinking of beer, and specifically of West Coast IPA—Junipero is like the West Coast IPA of gins, having that intensely resinous character and a bit of corresponding bitterness that balances out whatever sweet citrus is present. The heat, meanwhile, is considerable, but you knew it would be, right? This is the gin you turn to when you want to make sure the gin flavor is incapable of getting lost in your mixed drink or cocktail. All in all, this is a classic of the genre, and distinctly American in its take-no-prisoners approach. It’s not calculated for subtlety, necessarily—it’s more like “brash in the right way.”
The Arran distillery—its products were previously labled as “The Arran Malt” until they were redesigned in 2019—is a unique little company located on the Isle of Arran, in Scotland’s Firth of Clyde. They’re the only official distillery on the island, which was known for its wealth of illegal distillates for centuries, but geographically they fall in a unique place. The Isle of Arran falls into the small bay between the Campbeltown peninsula (itself a classic scotch whisky region ) and the Lowlands scotch whisky region, but belongs to neither. Instead, it’s grouped into the nebulous concept of “The Islands,” which is sometimes considered its own region and sometimes lumped into The Highlands, despite the fact that Arran is nowhere near the Highlands. Likewise, the profile of Arran’s single malts is different from most other Island distilleries, which tend to lean more in the direction of the heavily peated, smoky scotches of the Islay region. Arran’s malts, on the other hand, are sweet and honeyed by comparison. They are decidedly their own thing, which I suppose makes sense—the distillery has only been in operation since 1994, which makes it still practically an infant in the scotch whisky scene.
Earlier this year, I was taken back by the beautifully approachable flagship malt, Arran 10 Year. Modestly priced and readily accessible, this proved to be one of the most purely enjoyable drams I’ve had all year, and I recommend it strongly to drinkers looking to explore non-smoky scotch for the first time. As we wrote at the time:
On the nose, Arran 10 Year immediately displays lovely and vivacious notes of citrus and vanilla, backed by warm biscuits. It smells distinctly sweet and fruity, with a very citrus-forward profile, complemented by hints of what are perhaps melon or fresh grass. Smoke and peat are nowhere to be found. It smells casual and inviting. On the palate, Arran 10 Year is approachable but plenty flavorful, with big, sweet notes of vanilla and juicy orange—the whisky personification of a creamsicle. This is one of the most distinctly citrus-forward drams I’ve had in a while, and I can’t help but find it perfectly charming. It’s quite sweet in terms of residual sugar, but not hard to drink, with much more depth than many of the basic 80 or 86 proofers—you really get the sense that the 92 proof helps lift this one above some of its more direct competition. As the palate develops, I get some additional notes—cocoa on the back end, and a warm maltiness not unlike digestive biscuits with hints of cinnamon and nuttiness. Peat, once again, is not to be found here, but there is a modicum of heat to remind you that this is whisky, rather than dessert. All in all, the word for Arran 10 Year is “inviting.” This scotch is just extremely easy to like, and easy to enjoy, and I can’t help but think that it would be awesome for introducing many drinkers to single malt whiskies. It’s not super complex, but it is perfectly calculating and captivating, like an expertly crafted 3-minute pop song.
The relationship between whiskey distillation and craft brewing is not explored quite as often as it might be, and beyond the obvious potential for literally distilling beer into whiskey, one of the most interesting avenues I’ve seen for exploration here is creating whiskeys made from beer-like mashes of malted barley.
When it comes to whiskey, bourbon in particular, whiskey people have a tendency to define the “barley” component of a whiskey as only a single type of plain malted barley. In reality, any beer homebrewer knows that there are dozens or hundreds of unique malts used in beer production, differentiated by species and different levels/methods of roast. Experimenting more with these malted barley varieties allows whiskey distillers to unlock new flavors from an ingredient that is too often glossed over when discussing a topic like bourbon mash bills.
The folks at Kentucky’s New Riff Distilling know all about this, as head distiller Brian Sprance came up in the craft beer world as a brewer before making the sideways transition into whiskey. That experience was clearly in his mind when he designed the brand’s recent New Riff Winter Whiskey release, which incorporates portions of pale ale malt, steel cut raw oats and heavily roasted chocolate malt into its mashbill, in an effort to create a bourbon that evokes the profile of a chocolate oatmeal stout. The results remain on the subtle side—it doesn’t taste gimmick-laden, by any definition—but it’s a style of beer-inspired distillation that I’d like to see more distilleries exploring in the future. As we wrote when tasting Winter Whiskey:
On the nose, I’m initially surprised to find that this bourbon isn’t extremely roast forward, at least in a way distinct from most bourbons. Whereas some of the similar whiskeys I’ve had in the past possessed an unmistakable profile of coffee or chocolate that made me question “wait, what am I drinking?”, this one is much more identifiable as bourbon. I get caramel corn and vanilla bean, cornbread and something slightly more musty, along with a touch of more floral notes—likely a result of a greater percentage of malted barley in the mash bill. Over time, however, I did start picking up some darker elements—in particular, there’s something that emerges that I’d liken to smoked maple syrup. Ultimately, though, the “roasted barley” elements show up as more of a player on the palate than on the nose. Tasting this sample, it becomes more clear that it is something unique, and not simply a bottle of bourbon. There’s a combination of dark nuttiness here and barrel char that is appealing, with distinct hints of sweet smoke—I would liken it to a combination of the profiles you’d expect in Columbian (nutty) and French roast (smoky-sweet) coffees. This isn’t to say the whiskey is sweet, as its residual sweetness and richness are both on the mild-to-moderate side. One aspect I do quite like is how the oats eventually play into this profile, contributing a hard-to-place spiciness (hints of anise) and a flavor on the back end reminiscent of an oatmeal cookie, sans the raisins. Lingering roast and hints of dark chocolate tie everything together, along with a bit of roasty astringency that makes for a dry finish. At 100 proof, it settles into the chest with an appreciable warmth, as one would no doubt expect “winter whiskey” to do.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.