The Whiskey Shelf 2019 Whiskey Awards

Welcome to Awards Season

It’s been yet another exciting year in whiskey. Now that it’s the end of the year, various people / websites / magazines are declaring their annual “Whiskeys of the Year”. You could argue that these picks are often controversial and heavily debated. This year Whisky Advocate picked George Dickel Bottled in Bond, Jim Murray picked 1792 Full Proof, and Fred Minnick picked King of Kentucky Single Barrel. I haven’t had King of Kentucky, but I have had the Dickel and 1792. Although both are very good bourbons, I wouldn’t consider them “Whiskey of the Year” material. There are so many variables (and store picks add another level of complexity), so can you really pick one? I think even those who declare winners would say no and also say that it is far from a perfect process, but they will continue to try for tradition’s sake. I can’t criticize them for that.

 

For me, instead of doing a whole Whiskey of the Year thing (and being wrong no matter what I pick), I’m instead going give my thoughts on whiskeys that really impressed or surprised me (in a good way), with added superlatives, all based on my own personal, subjective, and arbitrary criteria.

 

As a disclaimer, there are a number of whiskeys that I did not get to try, such as this year’s BTAC (actually anything Buffalo Trace that’s very hard to find I couldn’t get) and Four Roses Limited Edition, as well as things I decided not to buy such as Wild Turkey Cornerstone Rye and Parker’s Heritage Rye. This just covers everything that I drank and likely reviewed this year.

 

Without further ado, here are my 2019 Whiskey Awards, now free of added Whiskey of the Year (plus a bonus)

2019 Whiskey Awards, now free of added Whiskey of the Year

$15 is a steal for a 7 year old 101 proof bourbon that’s actually delicious, and a little rough and rowdy too. It’s too bad that the age-stated version was discontinued mid-2019 because this is likely the single best “budget” bourbon in my book. This is older and better Evan Williams Bottled in Bond (also very good). It’s ironic because Virgin 7 Year also came from Heaven Hill, but Heaven Hill’s probably wasn’t going to keep supplying a competitor that would directly compete with Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond 7 Year at a third of the price. Don’t believe me? The glass bottle for this is exactly the same as the glass bottle for Evan Williams, so it honestly is re-labeled Evan Williams with an age statement. Buy it if you can find it. 

While we’re on the topic of Heaven Hill, wow did Evan Williams BIB shock me with its ridiculous balance of quality and price. Let me rephrase that, it has ridiculously great quality for the price. I bought it for a gathering and was very impressed. It’s dark, rich, interesting, and wallet friendly. This could be an amazing barrel pick if Heaven Hill ever decided to do one. If I hadn’t stumbled on Virgin 7 Year, I would have called this the best budget bourbon. For once I actually agree with Fred Minnick. 

MGP continues to create amazing rye whiskeys. While some are overpriced (age-stated Redemption Rye I’m looking at you), some are being sold as somewhat affordable and age-stated whiskeys such as Sagamore Spirit Barrel Select (this particular one from DC Costco). As part of my own whiskey journey, I’m learning is that that I love MGP’s high rye mash. I am all about the sweet and herbal anise and dill. Anyways, Sagamore Spirit Barrel Select is a $40 (at least at Costco), 110 proof, and 6-year-old MGP rye. That looks like a great deal, but the kicker is that this is one of the best rye whiskeys I had this year. This honestly outperformed Thomas Handy (yes I recognize that it’s a completely different mash bill so they inherently are very different).This was one of the best deals in 2019.

Bulleit 12 Year Rye, $45-50 for a 12 year old and 46% alcohol rye whiskey, was yet another steal of a rye this year. 12 years is very old for rye, and 46% isn’t too bad either. Not only is the MGP high-rye beautifully presented in every way, it’s shockingly accessible, not absurdly expensive, and somehow avoided being marked up around where I live. If Diageo had been very greedy, they probably could have charged $80+ for this, but they chose not to. Diageo, I applaud your lack of corporate greed this time around. Bulleit 12 Year is just excellent rye whiskey and one worth trying. It’s so good that my buddy tried the bottle I shared with him, bought one, finished it, and bought a second.

I don’t like a lot of Brown Forman’s “budget” offerings  such as Jack Daniel’s Old. No 7, Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniel’s Rye, and Woodford Reserve. Quick plug here, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey is actually pretty good. Overall, it’s a shame because other distilleries have great offerings at the $25-35 price point. At the high end, Brown Forman is releasing some pretty great whiskey, and oh boy did they bring their AAA game for Woodford Reserve Batch Proof. Without a doubt it’s amazing bourbon, but I greatly dislike the $130 price tag, the price of Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Stagg Jr, and Sagamore Spirit Barrel Select combined, give or take $10. Then again, I’ve paid more for other whiskeys, so I can’t critique that too much. Still, props to Brown Forman for making a bourbon that I really like.

Less Honorable Mentions

Unfortunately, not every whiskey that I drank was excellent or worthwhile. Unlike most others, I’m also going to mention a few whiskeys that really didn’t impress or just were disappointing for me. They’re not necessarily bad whiskeys, but I wanted to provide some less honorable mentions.

Oh boy I’m glad I didn’t pay for this. Glenlivet 25 is by far the most disappointing thing I drank and reviewed in 2019. It’s a $400+ bottle of Scotch that doesn’t come even close to the Kirkland 25 year Scotch that was $90 or so (when it was still available). WHY IS THIS 43% ALCOHOL? WHY WOULD YOU DROWN 25-YEAR-OLD SCOTCH IN WATER? Shame (insert Game of Thrones “Shame” meme here). Don’t waste your money on this. Go buy a bottle of George T Stagg at secondary, or 3-4 bottles of amazing cask strength Scotch from an independent bottler. If you’re trying to impress someone, impress them with 3-4 well curated bottles and stay away from Glenlivet 25. If you’re loaded and don’t care, then please proceed.

This is terrible bourbon and I don’t know why it even exists. Devil’s Cut is overoaked and one dimensional to that point that the Devil wouldn’t drink this. Jim Beam does make good bourbon, so go buy Jim Beam Distiller’s Cut, if you can still find it, or Jim Beam Bottled in Bond. Really, just buy anything else.

So many loved it, but even after going through a whole bottle, I could never get to that level. Old Forester 1920 was very good and I enjoyed drinking it, but it was held back a lot of heat that never subsided and lacked the richness and depth that I expected. I’d rather have Knob Creek Single Barrel Bourbon (or a barrel pick), which is more flavorful and rich. Old Forester 1920 was a disappointment for me. A hot take I know.

Don’t get me wrong, Elmer T Lee and Rock Hill Farms are good, but they’re absurdly overhyped bourbons that just aren’t nearly as good as you think they should or could be. The irony is that if you want a “high-rye” bourbon (quotations because 15% or so rye in the mash isn’t that high), just go buy a Four Roses OESK or OBSK Private Select without the insane markup. Some Eagle Rare barrel selects are better than Elmer T Lee (a comparison will be posted soon), and I have a feeling that EH Taylor Small Batch would fare well against Rock Hill Farms (I don’t have more RHF so I can’t do a comparison). All hope is not lost though. I did finally acquire some Blanton’s Straight From The Barrel, so I hope that this will redeem Mash #2. Until then, Mash #2 isn’t doing it for me.

In my early years of drinking whiskey, I used to drink Woodford Reserve somewhat frequently. The branding, the marketing, and the packaging are just so sophisticated. Now that I revisit it, it turns out its just ok bourbon that’s more show than substance. You can do so much better for under $30-35 (e.g., Eagle Rare, Wild Turkey 101, and Elijah Craig Small Batch to name a few). It’s just not for me anymore.

Michter’s Toasted Barrel Sour Mash was actually quite good, but the price tag, very limited availability, and criminally low proof kill it for me. Why is this 43%? This has to be a cash grab to take advantage of this very hot whiskey market. Yes Michter’s is known for their lower entry proof blah blah blah, but 43% is insulting. Michter’s is the king of underproofing their whiskey and overcharging for it. A relevant tangent: seriously, why are their 10 year single barrels proofed to under 50% and cost $110+? At least Brown Forman had the courtesy of giving us cask strength in exchange for every last penny in our wallet. If you’re itching for something double oaked, go buy Woodford Double Oaked instead. 

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