After John Wayne, whiskey is probably America’s most recognizable export. Master distillers from Kentucky and Pennsylvania to Oregon and Tennessee are releasing the epitome of their crafts. They’ve cracked open hand-selected barrels and bottled their best. As it turns out, their best is world-class.
The chant “Buy American” can now be heard in bars around the globe. Their vivacious, satiny characters and assertive bouquets are universally appealing, yet by nature our whiskeys are understated, preferring rather to saunter through life without pretense or conceit. Even as they ascend toward stardom, they remain accessible to all palates and priced for all budgets. These are whiskeys Americans can relate to.
There is a cadre of new American whiskeys that have received critical acclaim and achieved commercial success on a global scale—and deservedly so. To that point, here’s our take on the Top 20 trendsetters for 2012.
Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 2012 — Buffalo Trace’s master distiller Harlen Wheatley has created a set of limited release, 375ml bottlings. Among the roster of never before seen whiskeys are two matured in large, 135 gallon French oak barrels—one for 19 years and the other for 23 years. Both barrels were filled with Buffalo Trace rye bourbon mash recipe #2, aged on the ground floor of Warehouse K, chill filtered and bottled at 90 proof.
Devil’s Cut — To create Devil’s Cut, empty barrels of extra-aged Jim Beam Bourbon are filled with water to pull out the trapped bourbon and flavors from the wood. The barrel-extracted whiskey is later added back to the 6-year bourbon to produce the 90 proof Devil’s Cut.
Four Rose’s Single Barrel — Made in Lawrenceburg, KY, the limited edition 2012 Four Roses Single Barrel is aged for a minimum of 12 years and bottled at barrel strength at 109.4 proof. Master Distiller Jim Rutledge hand selected the barrels for this expression and only (750ml) 4,000 bottles are being produced.
Hudson Single Malt — The ultra-premium, small batch whiskey from Tuthilltown Spirits hails from their farm distillery in Gardiner, New York. The single malt is distilled entirely from malted barley and aged less than four years in charred oak barrels of various sizes. The amber/gold whiskey is unfiltered and bottled at 92 proof.
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel — As is the case with all single barrel whiskeys, each bottling is a singular experience never to be repeated. Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey is filled one barrel at a time from those selected by the master distiller. Each label is marked with the rick and barrel number, as well as the date of bottling. The 94 proof whiskey has a deep copper color, semisweet bouquet and the rich, distinctive flavor that has made Jack Daniel’s an iconic brand.
Jailers Tennessee — Master distiller David Scheurich makes this Tennessee whiskey with a mash bill of corn, premium rye and malted barley. It is double-distilled in a continuous column still before undergoing the traditional Lincoln County process. The whiskey is chill filtered prior to being bottled at 86 proof.
Jefferson’s Reserve — Handcrafted at the McLain & Kyne Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, limited edition Jefferson’s Reserve is distilled in extremely small batches, aged for 15 years in heavily charred oak barrels and bottled at 90.2 proof.
Larceny — Recently released by Heaven Hill, Larceny is a small batch bourbon distilled using a mash bill containing winter wheat instead of rye, which produces a softer, fruitier whiskey. Master distiller Craig Beam selects 100 or fewer barrels aged 6 to 12 years in the distillery’s open rick warehouses. The whiskey is bottled at 92 proof and retails for $24.99 per 750ml.
Maker Mark 46 — After pot-distilled Maker’s Mark has been aged to maturity, it is dumped and seared French oak staves are affixed to the inside of the barrel. The staves are seared just enough such that their caramel and vanilla flavors are released and only a small amount of tannin, which adds bitterness, comes out of the wood. Afterwards the bourbon is returned to the barrels and allowed to age for another 2-3 months. It’s bottled at 94 proof.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2011 — George Garvin Brown opened his Louisville distillery in 1870. His birthday is commemorated each year with a limited release, vintage-dated bourbon. Today the descendants of Old Forester’s founder still oversee the making of the entire range, including the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. The 2011 vintage is 98 proof and aged for 12 years.
Old Potrero — Produced in limited quantity by Anchor Distilling of San Francisco, Old Potrero is a single malt straight rye whiskey, which is rarity within the category. It is double-distilled in a pot still entirely from malted rye and aged in handmade charred oak barrels. The brand is bottled at 90 proof and comes with no age statement.
Prichard’s Double Barrel — The handmade pot-distilled bourbon is made in limited quantities from a mash bill of white corn and rye. After distillation, it is matured in small, new charred oak barrels for upwards of nine years, after which it’s reduced to 90-proof with spring water and put back into a different new charred barrel for an additional three to five years. It’s an expensive process exclusive to the Prichard’s.
Sazerac Rye — Famed Buffalo Trace Distillery has two remarkable ryes in their portfolio. Super-premium Sazerac Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey is a limited production, pot-distilled whiskey barrel-aged a minimum of 18 years and bottled at an accessible 90 proof. Premium Sazerac Rye is aged for six years and also bottled at 90 proof.
Stranahans Colorado Whiskey — Handcrafted Stranahans is made from malted barley that is grown in the Northern Rockies. The fermented wash is distilled in a copper still whose design is a hybrid between a traditional copper pot still and a continuous still. The small batch whiskey is then aged between two and five years in handmade, heavily charred, white oak barrels and bottled at 94 proof.
WhistlePig 100/100 Rye — Handcrafted at WhistlePig, the country’s first single estate distillery located in Shoreham, VT, the whisky is so-called because it is a 100% straight rye and bottled at 100 proof. It is hand-bottled at the distillery and available in limited quantity. Master distiller Dave Pickerell—formerly of Maker’s Mark—is also responsible for WhistlePig TripleOne, which is aged 11 years, bottled at 111 proof.
Wild Turkey 81 Rye — Introduced in 2012, Wild Turkey 81 Rye is distilled in a 40-foot high column still with a mash bill composed principally of premium rye. The whiskeys used in its blend are aged in wood-rack warehouses for a minimum of four to five years in deeply charred (a #4 alligator char), white oak barrels from the Ozarks. Prior to bottling, it is reduced to 81 proof with spring water.