The Whiskey Shelf 2019 Whiskey Awards
And we're back for another year of awards and reflection
We did it, we got through this unprecedented 2020. Even with everything happening around us, 2020 was yet another amazing year for whiskey, with tons of new releases, as well as many favorites not being discontinued. I feel fortunate to have drank so much incredible whiskey this year, yet wholly recognize that I only had a tiny fraction of what’s out there. Like last year, instead of doing a Whiskey of the Year thing that’s inevitably wrong, I’m instead going to reflect on what I enjoyed and what I didn’t enjoy so much.
Keep in mind that this is all based on my own personal, subjective, and arbitrary criteria. This list also only covers what I have drank and/or reviewed this year since my wallet and liver can only afford so much whiskey. As a result, I won’t have thoughts on many of this year’s limited releases, especially those released in November or December, since I either don’t have them or haven’t opened them yet to review.
Without further ado, here’s my reflection on Whiskey in 2020.
2020 Whiskey Awards
Up till 2019, I had little experience with finished bourbon at all, but 2020 brought me Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend Batch 13 and Bardstown Bourbon Company Chateau de Laubade Finish, 2 of the best whiskeys I’ve ever had that also happen to be Armagnac finished. Now, I’m captivated and have 2 backup bottles of the Laubade Finish and 3 bottles of Cigar Blend from various batches because they are actually that amazing.
While these two bourbons come from different companies, they both share a similar underlying MGP bourbon base (12 years for the Laubade finish and 12-18 years give or take for Cigar Blend). That magical combination of bourbon and finish enhances the older bourbon with amped-up dark sweetness, fruitiness, and richness that make the scents and flavors reach out and lure me in. I didn’t know that I had a particular profile preference, but turns out I strongly prefer dark, fruity, and rich bourbon. After exploring other finishes, Armagnac finishes have become my clear favorite.
Armagnac finishes are not infallible though, as I had a few other Armagnac-finished whiskeys this year that didn’t reach the same peak. This is mainly because those base whiskeys were just ok to good. The main takeaway here is that a finished whiskey is only as good as its base, as finishing is meant to elevate and enhance, not “fix” anything. Joseph Magnus and Bardstown Bourbon Company gave a masterclass in the art of finishing, well done.
I’m looking forward to what 2021 has in store. I have more reviews of finished whiskeys in the pipeline (spoiler alert – whiskeys from High West, Redwood Empire, Joseph Magnus, and more). I wish I could review them sooner, but I never have enough time to get to them all in a timely manner.
This Widow Jane 12 Year Single Barrel Bourbon is magical. It’s only the 3rd bourbon I’ve ever rated “Top Shelf+”, and the only unfinished bourbon to receive that rating so far. When I had the “holy shit” moment smelling and drinking this for the first time, I knew immediately it was “Top Shelf+”. Every time after has been just as amazing.
This Widow Jane 12 Year Single Barrel, sourced from MGP in Indiana, is a ridiculously fruity and layered bourbon, cramming well developed sherry-finished traits into an unfinished bourbon, not to mention rich and refined oak and tobacco notes that blow my mind. It’s hard to say how other barrels compare since they’re all single barrels, but Total Wine and Widow Jane absolutely nailed this one. Too bad I didn’t see it coming, because I was foolish enough to wait a year before opening it and now can’t buy more. This is the type of bourbon where I’d buy 6 backup bottles.
First off, One Eight Distilling’s 2 Year Old Cask Strength Rye isn’t actually sold on its own. I stumbled onto this gem after purchasing Untitled No. 18 and receiving a tasting kit that included the 2 year rye and 14 year old MGP bourbon that were blended to create the actual Untitled release. At first, I thought that the 2 year rye was going to ruin the 14 year old bourbon, but turns out that the over-oaked 14 year old bourbon was the problem.
Even at just 2 years old, although aged in smaller 25 gallon barrels so they age differently, the rye packs so much sweet, herbal, and vegetal character with noticeable blood orange notes that add welcome depth. It’s not perfect, but worth applauding nonetheless. One Eight Distilling is doing great work and I can’t wait to review more of their whiskeys.
I also reviewed and enjoyed New Riff Single Barrel Bourbon, Wilderness Trail Single Barrel Cask Strength Bourbon, Kooper Family Rye & Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Ogden’s Own Rye, and Sagamore Spirit Rye. The future is bright for these companies and for American whiskey.
Old Fitzgerald 15 Year Bottled in Bond bourbon is an amazingly dark, rich, and sweet bourbon full of caramel nougat, maple syrup, vanilla, citrus, and pure joy. Even at 15 year old, the oak has a lovely dark and rich presence that’s not overoaked, adding a ton of character and personality. I haven’t had the other Old Fitzgerald releases, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the 15 year is the pinnacle of their bottled in bond line. Good thing I have a backup. Heaven Hill hit a home run.
I hadn’t had a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel bourbon in a few years, and my reintroduction was wonderful. Where do I start…it’s such a sweet, fruity, and vibrant bourbon that’s well supported by the oak and spice from the ~10 years of oak aging. At $60, this was also one of the best values of the year, and my favorite Wild Turkey bourbon of 2020, with the caveat that I haven’t opened my Master’s Keep 17 Year Bottled in Bond yet.
I can’t wait to have more of these single barrels in the years to come.
#1: Jack Daniel's Sinatra Select
It’s clear from all the posts I see online about people asking about and/or buying Sinatra Select that Jack Daniel’s has done a great job with the packaging and marketing. The problem is that the whiskey contained in the bottle is decent at best – the epitome of a smooth and inoffensive whiskey at the expense of any real character. It’s utterly forgettable, unless you count being permanently scarred from the mediocre experience of a $120-150 bottle. Luckily, I got a 375mL bottle on clearance as part of a set, so I actually experienced minimal financial pain.
Please, save yourself the trouble and just don’t buy this.
#2: EH Taylor Amaranth Grain of the Gods Bourbon
Every Buffalo Trace limited release is going to be polarizing and lathered in hype. Like most, I had high hopes for EH Taylor Amaranth Grain of the Gods, but the experience fell short or even reasonable expectations. The amaranth grain may add a slight minty accent without the licorice or anise that would otherwise come from rye, but it ultimately drinks like a $60-70 bourbon at best (aka MSRP).
I applaud Buffalo Trace for the continued experimentation that was generally successful, but it was woefully underwhelming and a little dull. Here’s a hot take for you – EH Taylor Small Batch is the superior bourbon.
#3: Barrell 13 Year Single Barrel Rye L949
I had very high hopes for this Barrell 13 year Single Barrel Rye L949 (sourced from Canadian), especially because I really like Canadian rye such as WhistlePig 10 Year Single Barrel and Lot 40 Cask Strength. Well-aged rye plus Barrell’s expertise in barrel selection and blending should be a recipe for success. Unfortunately, Barrell completely missed the mark, selecting a barrel absolutely dominated by the alcohol that made me consider a Bottom Shelf rating; it’s a hot mess that did not improve with any amount of time.
Don’t get me wrong, 69.2% ABV is objectively very high, but 65% ABV Stagg Jr and 66-68% ABV Elijah Craig Barrel Proofs control it so much better, offering tons of flavor with the perception of less heat. I don’t know if my experiences make me an outlier, but with the Barrell Whiskey Armagnac Finish also being a major miss, is it possible that Barrell’s magic only covers bourbon and the occasional rye? I think it’s possible…and that’s another hot take for you.