Back when I sat down to list and recognize some of the best spirits of 2019, 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 Paste series called Cocktail Queries that has been running all through 2020-2022, answering common questions related to cocktails and spirits.
If my spirits focus was “likely” central by 2019, though, there’s been no doubt of that fact in the years since. The pandemic in particular made for a setting in which it was more difficult than ever to visit the breweries, distilleries 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 at package stores, tried to preach the gospel of experimenting with new spirits, documented shortages in the liquor industry, 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 2022, 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.
The 15 Best New Whiskeys of 2022
To be considered in this section, whiskeys had to be either newly released in 2022, or hit the U.S. market in 2022. 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. They include everything from bourbon and rye to new scotch whisky releases.
2022 Whiskey Honorable Mentions: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof C922, Booker’s Kentucky Tea, Bardstown Bourbon Co. Discovery Series #7, WhistlePig Boss Hog IX: Siren’s Song, 15 Stars Fine Aged Bourbon 7 & 15 Year Whiskey, Ben Holladay Bottled in Bond Bourbon, Puncher’s Chance The D12TANCE, Uncle Nearest Master Blend Edition No. 5, Fortuna Bourbon, High West Midwinter Night’s Dram Act 10, Knob Creek 18 Year, Sweetens Cove Kennessee, Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse (Camp Nelson C), Jefferson’s Aged at Sea Rye (Voyage 26)
Bardstown Bourbon Co. Ferrand
Ferrand is an entry in Bardstown Bourbon Co.’s ever-expanding Collaborative Series, released at the end of last year, but not tasted by me until early in 2022. It thus missed inclusion in my 2021 list, but I wanted to be certain to recognize it here. This is a blend of 7 and 11-year-old Kentucky bourbons, finished in Maison Ferrand Cognac barrels for eight months prior to release, and bottled at 110 proof. This is actually a shorter finishing period than some of the other Collaborative Series releases, but despite that, this bottle features one of the year’s best interplays between a base spirit blend and the finishing barrel chosen to amplify it. In fact, this ended up being one of my favorite “finished” bourbons in general in 2022, as it finds a harmonious and delicate interplay between spirit and barrel that is too often lost in the world of “limited release” whiskey as it exists today. As we wrote when first tasting it:
On the nose, this sample wafts from my Glencairn glass with waves of warm, sweet, caramelized sugar notes, ranging from the light toast of fresh sugar cookies or shortbread, to the slightly bitter edge of confectioner’s toffee. The nuttiness of moderate to well-aged Beam or Heaven Hill bourbon is certainly present as well, merging with cocoa and nutmeg to suggest seasonally appropriate hot chocolate. A flourish of baking spice notes and hints of dark fruit preserves round out the back end. On the palate, this is quite sweet leading off, with lots of dark sugars, vanilla and toasted spices. There’s more than a whisper of the presumably French oak from the cognac casks, which contributes a kiss of its spicy oak notes. Sweetened nut butter and brandied cherry are held in place by moderate oak intensity and just enough ethanol heat. All in all, this is a very rich dram, one that might actually be a tad sweet for some drinkers, but I’m quite enjoying the delicate interplay of barrels on display in this release. Never is this hitting you over the head with the finishing barrel, but I do love the subtle, oaky and fruity evolution that I assume it has contributed.
Barrell Bourbon New Year 2023
Barrell Craft Spirits’ whole ethos is very much about the art of blending, but in their limited release whiskeys they really take that philosophy to unprecedented places. Whereas a normal, numbered batch of Barrell Bourbon typically blends whiskey from a few prominent states such as Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, something like this New Year’s blend gets way more ambitious, including whiskey from Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Wyoming, New York, Texas and Maryland. Likewise, it contains a huge range of age statements, with 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10-year-old straight bourbon whiskeys making up the blend. The results are as complex and ephemeral as one would hope, vaguely familiar but new all at once. As we wrote when tasting it:
On the nose, this one is leading off with classic bourbon impressions of toasted oak and peanut brittle/some praline, along with caramel and cinnamon. There’s a red fruitiness there as well, kind of a stewed fruit reduction that is a little jammy in nature. The nose grows richer and more redolent of caramelized sugars as it sits in the glass—over time, it seems considerably sweeter than it was when this dram was first poured. Ethanol presence is right about where it should be for the 113 proof. On the palate, I’m getting cherry and brown sugar leading off, along with revisiting notes of brown sugar, toasted oak and cinnamon. There’s a hazelnut note that is nice, and some cornbread, along with more of that jammy red fruit. Over time, though, the standout increasingly becomes the warm oaky spices, suggesting nutmeg and cardamom. Decently sweet up front, this takes on a moderately tannic dimension in short order and finishes fairly dry, making for a pretty elegant and balanced sipper. All in all, this bourbon feels equal parts familiar and slightly exotic, and the balance between sweetness and tannic dryness is a highlight.
Booker’s Lumberyard Batch
This was overall a pretty excellent year for Booker’s batches, and one that saw some welcome evolution for the series as its age statements subtly advanced into the mid 7-year range. That’s not a huge difference overall, but it had an effect of helping to reframe the “value” proposition that has dogged Booker’s in more recent years, ever since its MSRP jumped to $90. Today, with its age statements subtly creeping upward, and the rest of the industry raising prices en masse, Booker’s suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad deal after all—not when there are a lot of craft whiskey companies trying to charge $100 or more for non-age-stated bottles that may or may not be cask strength.
Lumberyard Batch, meanwhile, is an exceptionally rich and decadent batch of Booker’s. Retasting it recently only confirmed that this is the standout batch of the series in 2022, with a pure assertiveness of flavor (a burly 124.8 proof point) that could stand against most anything else on the market. As we wrote at the time:
On the nose, the Lumberyard Batch is sweet and a little bit fruity, suggestive of apricot tea with lots of honey. I’m also getting the requisite caramel and vanilla, along with toasted graham cracker and a bit of licorice. Notably, the ethanol on the nose is really quite subdued for the burly 124.8 proof point. On the palate, this turns out to be quite a sweet and unctuous batch of Booker’s indeed. Notes of honey, caramel, vanilla, dried apricot and pear contribute to the syrupy sweet profile, which is picked up by sturdy heat (still very easy to drink neat), pepper, peanut shells, and sweet nut toffee. There are suggestions there of darker dried fruit as well, but the thing that may stand out most in this batch is just how full and viscous its texture is. This is a very decadent batch of Booker’s in general, and that’s not a bad thing. Lovers of big, rich Booker’s batches will probably have no complaints about shelling out $90 when it comes to the Lumberyard Batch.
Cascade Moon 13 Year Old Rye Whiskey
This is another bottle that I actually tasted at the very end of 2021, after publishing last year’s “best of” list, but it lodged itself so thoroughly in my mind throughout the months since that I needed to recognize it here. It’s an unusual entry in Dickel’s ultra premium and whimsical Cascade Moon series, a rye whiskey initially distilled by MGP from the expected, classic “95/5” recipe, but in an odd twist the barrels were then transferred to Tennessee to age. This difference in location and climate ultimately made a big impact in the 13 years that followed, yielding one of the best and most nuanced rye whiskeys I’ve tasted anywhere in the last few years. Proof hounds likely would want higher than the 50% ABV (100 proof) this one ended up at, especially with the sky-high MSRP, but it’s a masterpiece regardless of the final strength. As we wrote at the time:
On the nose, there’s no mistaking that this is a rye whiskey, rather than even a high rye bourbon, as the grain shines through persistently from the very high-rye mashbill, even after 13 years in newly charred oak. I’m getting loads of rye bread, caraway and faint grassiness, which transition into richer hints of sweet caramel and nutty cocoa nibs, along with smoked peppercorns and charred cinnamon. Elements more indicative of age then creep into the picture, with leather and dried herbs, supported by faint earthiness. It’s a wonderfully nuanced nose, without much overt ethanol presence. On the palate, things turn a bit sweeter, with pronounced impressions of caramel sauce, toffees, smoked peppercorn/paprika and vanilla cream. There’s a solid trailing roastiness in which the oak makes itself felt, which contributes just a touch of roasty astringency/espresso bitterness to counter the sweetness upfront. The delicacy of the caramel flavors is really beautiful, all in all, but again it never loses track of the persistent rye grain, pepper and moments of herbaceous complexity.
The Dalmore 14 Year Single Malt Scotch Whisky
I didn’t end up sampling quite as much scotch whisky this year as I have recently, although the launch of this new year-round U.S. offering from The Dalmore was certainly a highlight. The sherried malt icons have quite an array of core brands with similar age statements and MSRPs, although the 14 Year sets itself apart specifically with the use of “rare Pedro Ximénez casks from the House of Gonzalez Byass,” rather than other sherry styles such as oloroso that are used in a wider array of Dalmore brands. In other words, this brand positions itself as the first of Dalmore’s Principal Collection to exclusively be matured in PX sherry casks, which makes those vinous flavors its calling card. Notably, it’s also offered at a bit higher strength than the core Dalmore 12 or Dalmore 15 expressions, being 43.8% ABV (87.4 proof) rather than the base 40% (80 proof). It certainly feels like an admission that the U.S. market craves a higher strength. And it works well for this expression, as we wrote when tasting it:
What this one really needs is a few minutes to open up in the glass, which reveals increasingly strong waves of caramel, syrupy dark fruit compote—blackberry and currant—and raisin. It’s slightly toasty in character, with a suggestion of honeycomb and a little cocoa. After a few minutes, the sherry really opens up in a big way, with increasingly punchy and vinous fruit notes and roasted nuts. Sweet, fruity and inviting. On the palate, this is again decidedly on the sweet and fruity side, with bright red and black fruit and a little orange citrus, but it’s balanced out by equally assertive roastiness and sharp coffee, along with mocha. There’s a licorice-like spice as well, while the fruitiness suggests confections the first time around, baked pie or cobbler. Over time, this also grows more overtly sherry-like, with more dried fruit and oxidized wine notes. The coffee, meanwhile, gives it just a bit of roasty astringency, which helps balance the considerable sweetness.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon (B522)
Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig Barrel Proof series remains perhaps the most widely accessible and high-value entry that drinkers can regularly expect to find in the world of cask strength bourbon—the $70 price tag only seems more reasonable for a 12-year-old, cask-strength bourbon now, given how prices have soared in the world of whiskey over the last year. With that said, some whiskey geeks have voiced concerns about ECBP in the last few years, pointing to the seeming decline in the average strength of its batches—from batches that were frequently found in the 130 and even 140 proof range, to last year’s especially low B521, which was merely 118.2 proof. Personally, though, I have often found that my favorite expressions of ECBP can be found in the 120-something range, so I don’t particularly find myself yearning for the 140-proofers to return. As for this year, B522 was pretty easily my favorite of the series, a decadent delight with many of my favorite ECBP elements:
On the nose, this one is quite rich and effusive, with big impression of caramel, honey roasted peanuts, glazed donuts, citrus, vanilla frosting/Werthers originals, clove spice and seasoned oak. This smells big, bold and full of character, though possible on the more desserty and decadent side. To me, it’s a more explosive nose than I noted on the A122 from earlier this year. I’ve seen that release described online as a “candy bomb,” but in all honesty I found it a pretty standard, down-the-middle offering for Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. B522, on the other hand, is definitely leaping out of the glass at me more. On the palate, this is viscous and sweet up front, with heavy spice at the same time. Huge caramel and toffee impressions are met by simultaneous big oak, vanilla and a panoply of baking spice notes. Simultaneously, I’m getting chocolate orange candies, with darker fruit impressions beginning to emerge over time, along with glazed, roasted nuts. Classic Heaven Hill notes, there. There’s some oaky dryness and tannin on the back half of the sip, but I think this easily still falls in favor of sweetness overall, a very rich and decadent expression of ECBP. In particular, the caramel and toffee impressions here are very big, and people who love those notes in bourbon would do well to seek this one out. Certainly, this is one of the boldest ECBP palates I’ve tasted for a “mere” 120 proof—it hits as hard as some of the 130-plus expressions, which is not a bad thing.
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch
Perennially one of the whiskey releases that I’m most looking forward to, I really can’t remember a batch of Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch that I didn’t really, really like (if not love) when first tasting it. The company simply seems to have one of the highest batting averages in the industry when it comes to stand-out batches of this bourbon blend, and credit is of course due to Master Distiller Brent Elliott for continuing to turn out thrilling bottles of this stuff on a yearly basis. The man knows what he’s doing.
The 2022 batch of Four Roses LE Small Batch was crafted from four of the company’s 10 bourbon recipes, with component parts including 14-year-old OESV, 14-year-old OESF, 15-year-old OESK and 20-year-old OBSV. That’s a particularly old blend for this series, with more influence from older and oakier bourbons, and the inclusion of an “F” yeast strain is also notable—it is typically described as possessing overtly herbal tones, with OESF specifically described as “herbs and mint.” As we wrote when tasting:
On the nose, this bourbon features a deft interplay between richness, oak, spice and subtle fruit. I’m getting toffee and nutty cocoa, along with clove/allspice, old oak and slight smoke. At the same time, there’s something distinctly evocative of fresh, sweet cream butter, with just a touch of apricot stone fruit as well. The nose suggests a moderate sweetness, but plenty of spice. On the palate, the first thing one really takes note of here is the silky soft texture. It has a really wonderful mouthfeel, extremely smooth and a little creamy, which amplifies the buttery note of the nose. Oak and spice are two of the biggest players of the flavor profile, with waves of old, seasoned oak (not bitter in the least, and with little tannin) contributing big spice notes of cinnamon sugar and allspice. These are supported by richer impressions of molasses and some dark cherry fruitiness, but the overall profile really isn’t on the overtly sweet side at all. Nor is the oak really of the drying variety; the final bourbon isn’t being “dried out” by the oak, it’s just not as sweet on a baseline level as some of the other, more recent years of the Limited Edition. Instead, it’s a more delicate profile, featuring vanilla bean and spicier green notes coming out over time, products of the F yeast strain. That rye spice and mint has been preserved from the original Four Roses flavor profile, and it plays nicely with all the old oak and spice, with just enough sweetness to get it where it’s going.
Frey Ranch Single Barrel Rye Whiskey
Frey Ranch was one of this year’s more pleasant and surprising discoveries for me, indicative of the way that more and more American “microdistilleries” have steadily come into their own in the last half decade, to the point where they now have moderately aged spirits that can challenge some of the biggest names in the industry. For Frey Ranch, that means some really spectacular rye whiskeys in particular, whether you’re talking about the 100 proof, bottled-in-bond straight rye, or this absolutely monstrous single barrel release from the fall, which tilted the scales at 137 proof. All are made with a 100% rye grist of winter rye grown on Frey Ranch’s own Nevada estate, and the results here are pretty spectacular. This was one of the most purely flavorful and expressive drams I tasted all year, without a doubt. As I wrote when tasting it:
The nose here is intense, with the fruitiness stepped way up. I’m getting a lot of big dried fruit impressions, raisin and prune, and vinous character as well—plum wine, or California zinfandel. This impression is no doubt fueled on some level by the level of alcohol, but it blends nicely on the nose into the fruit profile that already exists. On the palate, meanwhile, this one presents with huge peppery and chile heat, along with musty oak and toastiness. The fruit is again intense, as is the char, evoking a vinous, dark fruity coffee roast. Rye spice is all encompassing, though it eventually gives way to leather and fruit cake. Heat is significant, as one would no doubt expect, but it’s really not quite as much of a bruiser in terms of ethanol as I expected it might be. Even without water, this isn’t too terribly difficult to drink neat, though I imagine a splash of water might be preferred by a good portion of drinkers. All in all, an absolute flavor bomb without a doubt. One of the boldest and most assertive rye whiskeys I’ve tasted in the last several years, and a very memorably tasty one as well. It’s clear that Frey Ranch has come into their own, and their house rye profile puts them among the most skilled craft rye producers on the market today.
Hardin’s Creek Jacob’s Well
I definitely enjoyed the Booker’s Lumberyard Batch mentioned above, but if there can be only one champion in terms of the best bourbon to bear the Beam insignia in 2022, that plaudit absolutely goes to Hardin’s Creek Jacob’s Well. This is a fantastically flavorful, masterfully aged 15-year-old gem of a whiskey, and it made a hell of a way to debut the Hardin’s Creek series. Granted, the 2-year-old Colonel James B. Beam Bourbon had its charms, illustrating the amount of flavor that can be wrangled into a young whiskey, but it’s no surprise to see Jacob’s Well being the bourbon that really captivated drinkers. This release really has everything that makes certain extra-aged Beam bourbons so satisfying, and the 108 proof point delivers just the right level of assertiveness. One of the year’s richest bourbons without a doubt, but also one of the most elegant. As we wrote when tasting:
On the nose, this extra-aged expression is delightfully rich, giving off big impressions of toasted marshmallow, strawberry jam, old oak and Tootsie roll, along with the earthier elements one often finds in well-aged Beam bourbon. On the palate, I’m getting molasses and slightly bitter caramel, along with black cherry, plum and spice cake. There’s tons of oak, as one would expect, but it’s masterfully integrated into this flavor profile—tons of old, earthy and spicy wood, but never too much astringency or tannin. Sweetness and oaky dryness balance each other pretty much perfectly, leveling off into final notes of sweet almond, dried fruit and vanilla. All in all, I really love the delicate balance of the oak here—I love how much the wood is represented, without catching any of the potentially negative aspects of that level of oakiness. This really feels like the work of masters, and it’s easily the star of these inaugural Hardin’s Creek releases. Here’s hoping that the future bottles in this series can meet the mark that Jacob’s Well is setting.
Heaven Hill Heritage Collection 17 Year Barrel Proof Bourbon
And speaking of extra-aged heavy hitters, we have this launch of a new series from Heaven Hill, which debuted in splashy fashion with a 17-year-old, barrel proof selection. This is the first bottle of the Heritage Collection, intended to be an annual spring release, showcasing some of the distillery’s best and most exemplary small batches. In comparison with the more experimental Parker’s Heritage series, which releases every fall, the Heritage Collection seems like a more traditional counterpart. It’s unclear whether every release in the series will bear this kind of advanced age statement, but we’d suspect that one will eventually see the rye and wheated bourbon mash bills of Heaven Hill represented in future batches. Regardless, this one is the classic Heaven Hill bourbon mash bill (78% corn, 10% rye, 12% malted barley), weighing in at 59.1% ABV (118.2 proof). That puts it just under the range of typical Elijah Craig Barrel Proof batches, though the 17-year-old age statement really only hints at the maturity here—it actually contains even more 19 and 20-year-old bourbon than it does 17-year-old juice. I’m not sure I like it quite as much as the 85th Anniversary single barrel from 2020, but it’s still among the best Heaven Hill releases of the last few years. As we wrote when tasting:
On the nose, this 17-year-old (or 18.7, take your pick) bourbon presents the expected notes of old oak, slightly musty and funky, but not predominant over the rest of the profile. Rather, the first things one is likely to notice are dark fruit syrup impressions, along with dark chocolate, mild spice, caramel corn and a slightly tart woodiness. Ethanol is quite mild on the nose for the 118.2 proof, suggesting that this one has mellowed considerably in its old age. It’s an appreciably delicate nose, in fact, without any one element dominating the others, though it does suggest a certain fruity richness first and foremost. On the palate, this bourbon delivers a big punch of flavor up front, quite sweet and syrupy up front with big fruit dollops of blackberry and black cherry, transitioning into spice notes of clove and ginger, delicately bitter molasses, and the expected assertive oakiness. Thankfully, this does not read as overly oaked or tannic—rather, the balance between sweet/fruity and dry/okay works quite nicely, supported by sturdy but not overwhelming alcoholic heat.
King of Kentucky Bourbon
The bourbon world is replete with annual, “limited” releases, but few can command the kind of excitement and worthy hype of Brown-Forman’s King of Kentucky. The few releases in this series I’ve had a chance to try have been testaments to what the company’s spirit can taste like when everything goes just right inside their heat-cycled warehouses, and the 2022 batch of King of Kentucky is no exception. Likewise, these are a big advertisement for the blending prowess of Master Distiller Chris Morris, without a doubt. This batch was drawn from 43 single barrels distilled in 2006, making for a 15-year-old, cask-strength expression that weighs in at a muscular 65.3% ABV (130.6 proof). The $250 MSRP is steep, but laughable all the same, as the secondary market prices on these are particularly absurd. Suffice to say, you’re typically best off hoping to find it in a whiskey bar, but prepare to be gouged for the pleasure. Still, King of Kentucky really earns its hype, as we wrote when first tasting:
On the nose, this bourbon presents a symphony of mature, alluring richness. Old oak and dark chocolate intertwine with mocha, graham cracker and honey toffee, supported by subtle earthiness and tobacco. Mild to moderate spice notes hint at rye and baking spice, especially allspice. The juicier fruit impressions I remember from the 2020 expression are less present here, but the chocolate is definitely quite assertive. Compared with the only other King of Kentucky in my recent memory, this one seems a bit more oaky and savory, herbal and rye-accented, albeit with plenty of suggestion of richness as well. The ethanol, meanwhile, is incredibly mild and integrated on the nose—smelling this, no one would ever, ever think it could possibly be 130 proof. The rough edges have been utterly smoothed away.
On the palate, this is clearly and immediately a home run. Rich, fairly decadent and sweet, it leads off with caramel and vanilla bean, but especially molasses, into chocolate and big, spice-forward oak. The aromatic oakiness comes forward as cinnamon, stem ginger and cardamom, while the fruit now steps forward with prominent dried fruit notes. As on the nose, ethanol is in wonderful harmony with the flavor profile, although here it doesn’t run or hide—it blooms in the chest with the requisite Kentucky hug. If there’s one whiskey descriptor I generally hate, it’s “smooth,” but this is one of those rare cases when I can’t argue against trotting it out—it’s a beautiful but accessible flavor profile, which I imagine the neophyte bourbon drinker would love, but the expert would simultaneously love to dissect at length. There’s something here to tantalize anyone who loves bourbon.
Old Fitzgerald Spring 2022 (17 Year) Bourbon
This was a year of very well-aged Old Fitzgerald releases, as the recent Fall 2022 expression bore an especially eye-catching 19-year age statement, but I ultimately preferred the slightly younger (but more balanced) batch from this spring, which was merely 17 years old. Like all batches of Old Fitzgerald, this comes from Heaven Hill’s wheated bourbon mash bill and is bottled at 50% ABV (100 proof), in a bottle that is still among the most attractive in the game. The Spring 2022 batch can boast an especially impressive balance between its rich and oaky elements, which ultimately gave it the edge. As we wrote at the time:
On the nose, the Spring 2022 Old Fitzgerald has the requisite big, weathered oak you’d be expecting, but I’m pleased to see that it isn’t really overtaken by it. Rather, I’m getting more impressions of cornbread, slightly burnt toast, fudge, black cherry and orange citrus. On top of it all, there’s that old, mature oakiness. On the palate, this is actually quite rich on the front end, with tons of caramel, vanilla and sweet oak that turns more dry and tart as it goes on. Surprisingly, this release isn’t overly oaked or totally defined by oak in my opinion, which was my biggest concern when seeing the 17 year age statement. The oak is definitely assertive, and it transitions to more dominance on the finish as the slightly tart nature closes out the sip with tannic dryness, but throughout most of the sip it’s quite well-balanced by sweetness and the richness of this wheated bourbon. In the mid-palate, I’m getting cherry here, and sweet mulling spices, while the ethanol is pretty mild for the proof. All in all, this has a mildly desserty vibe, but simultaneously functions as a pretty elegant sipper with its old oak profile when all is said and done.
Redwood Empire Grizzly Beast Bottled in Bond Bourbon (Batch 002)
One of 2022’s other most pleasant, recent surprises was my first taste of Redwood Empire’s own distillate, the now moderately aged, 5-year-old bourbon and rye in the second batch of their bottled in bond series. The bourbon left a particular mark: Grizzly Beast is a uniquely flavored and very characterful four-grain bourbon (66% corn, 23% rye, 7% wheat, 4% malted barley) that shows the full range of Redwood Empire’s capabilities as they move beyond simply being purveyors of sourced whiskey. Like Frey Ranch above, this is the result of a still young distillery that displayed a great deal of patience, waiting to unveil their own in-house distillate until it was far older and more mature than most competing brands on the market, a factor that helps soften the blow of an admittedly high $90 MSRP for a five-year-old bourbon. Regardless, the liquid inside these bottles should be enough to make both critics and drinkers take immediate notice, as we wrote when tasting it:
Redwood Empire’s in-house bourbon leads off on the nose with juicy cherry, countered by cornbread, caramel and a sweet spiciness reminiscent of Dr. Pepper. Perhaps slightly hot on the nose, it’s nonetheless very fruit forward, which I usually enjoy, and suggests a great depth of sweetness. On the palate, this one is a lovely combination of fruit and spice, with some really bright red fruit notes, combined with darker tones suggestive of Luxardo maraschino cherries. There’s plenty of caramel, along with cinnamon, brown sugar and cola spice, and a suggestion of stem ginger. You’re also presented with flourishes of toasted oak, and perhaps a bit of black tea-like maltiness. Residual sweetness is on the higher side, and this will really appeal to bourbon fans who love the cherry note. You certainly can’t say that it’s hurting for character, individuality, or approachability.
Remus Gatsby Reserve 15 Year Bourbon
At the end of the day, it should come as no surprise to American whiskey and bourbon geeks that MGP of Indiana would eventually develop a house brand worthy of great critical acclaim. After all, their sourced bourbons and rye whiskeys have for years and decades helped to build the profiles of countless other distilleries large and small, and it was only the distillery’s business model that kept MGP from receiving the lion’s share of the credit for all those years when it was primarily known as a purveyor of sourced whiskey. When the George Remus brand launched a few years ago, it was immediately clear that this was going to be the in-house showcase that MGP bourbon had always needed, and subsequent limited releases in particular have done nothing but illustrate how great their spirit really is.
That’s certainly true of the lovely Gatsby Reserve, with its equally lovely art deco bottle. This is a 15-year-old, “cask strength” expression that comes in at a surprisingly low 48.9% ABV (97.8 proof), owing to the fact that MGP bourbon barrels often lose rather than gain proof over time, likely owing to cooler temperatures in the warehouses. Regardless, this one doesn’t need a really advanced proof to be a stunner, as we wrote when tasting:
Holding up this glass, its auburn color really gives a good indication of all those years it spent in the oak—it looks every bit of 15, and even more. I’m reminded visually of nothing so much as grade A maple syrup from the farmer’s market. And that proves apt, because on the nose, Remus Gatsby Reserve does indeed evoke maple, along with molasses, black cherry, clove and old, musty oak. After thinking for a moment, a star note appears: Browned butter, with a wonderful nuttiness. It has a quality that evokes a shortbread cookie in the oven that has been taken past golden and is just starting to get brown and crisp along the edges. Lovely. On the palate, I’m getting molasses cookie and deeply caramelized sugars, along with sweet oak and earthier impressions. The black cherry fruitiness remains, along with cinnamon brown sugar and something that might remind cocktail geeks of pomegranate molasses. There’s also a solid roastiness/char, but it’s actually not nearly as oak dominant and dry as I was afraid it might be. The tannic profile isn’t particularly aggressive or drying, but it lends some appreciable structure that works well with moderate residual sweetness. Over time, I’m getting additional layers of earth, leather, cinnamon and tobacco, along with dark and dried fruit complexity. Each sip here is increasing my esteem. I have seen a few reviewers saying that they found this oak dominant or unpleasantly dry, but I’ll have to disagree in a big way—I found a wonderful interplay between oak, fruit, earthiness, spice and lovely caramelized sugars.
Remus Repeal Reserve (Series VI) Bourbon
Remus Gatsby Reserve a bit too hard to lay hands on in 2022? No matter—the significantly more accessible Series VI release from the Repeal Reserve series was almost entirely as great! Like the last entry, this is another showcase for several high-rye bourbon mash bills from MGP, notably its 21% rye and 36% rye mash bills, in batches that primarily hail from 2012 and 2014, with just a splash of 2008 bourbon in the mix as well. Like all other entries in this series, it’s bottled at a respectable 50% ABV (100 proof), a level of strength that I imagine probably makes some proof hounds pine for a cask-strength version. Nevertheless, I’ve never found myself drinking this series and honestly wishing for more intensity. If anything, the hallmark of the Repeal Reserve series is typically harmony, balance and subtlety. As we wrote when tasting:
On the nose, this one leads off a little bit delicately—sweet and fruity, but slightly reserved rather than immediately big or intense. I’m getting lovely notes of baked fig or dates, along with aromatic cinnamon, a little chocolate and toasted oak. Ethanol is extremely mild on the nose, accentuating the gentleness here. On the palate, this one also has a certain mildness, but it’s lush and supple at the same time. Candied fruit is a big player, with darker notes of plum or bramble fruit, along with ginger snaps, cinnamon, and a moderate brown sugar sweetness. This is accentuated by barrel char and hints of old oak, along with rye spice and a touch of mint. Ethanol, again is extremely mild, which makes this register as somehow both decadent and effortlessly drinkable. It’s just really remarkably balanced between elements of fruit, caramelized sugars and spice, with subtle supporting oak. All in all, this is a masterfully balanced expression of what MGP presumably believes their high-rye bourbon mash bill is all about. It’s not the most bombastic or boisterous release, but the beauty here is in the balance, making for one of the most harmonious bourbons I’ve sampled in recent memory.
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Unforgotten Rye Whiskey
Pretty much any whiskey geek who’s been around the industry for long enough would at least remember the compelling story that first gave us Wild Turkey’s occasionally released Forgiven brand—it’s a great, semi-apocryphal tale of how a distillery employee accidentally combined mature Turkey bourbon and young Turkey rye, only for distiller Eddie Russell to save their bacon by being pleased with the new creation. Forgiven has been released sporadically since the late 2000s, but this new entry in the distillery’s Master’s Keep series raises its profile to much greater heights in the form of Unforgotten. This is essentially a hugely upgraded version of Forgiven, featuring barrels of both bourbon and rye that are much more mature, presented at cask strength. Specifically, Unforgotten is made from 13-year-old bourbon (which is quite old, for WT), blended with 8- and 9-year-old rye, which ranks among the oldest rye that Wild Turkey has ever released. The whiskeys were blended together and then given time for a secondary maturation in rye casks, before being bottled at 105 proof (52.5% ABV).
The results … well, they are lovely, making for one of the most distinctive and nuanced whiskey releases of 2022. As we wrote when tasting it:
On the nose, I’m getting a potent and complex combination of oak, char, subtle smoke, vanilla and lots of caramel, met by plenty of earthy rye spice. There’s a slight mustiness, but also a brighter fruitiness, with orange and cinnamon or cardamom, and toffee rippled with cigar smoke. After a while in the glass, I’m catching some kind of faint berry that almost reminds me of fresh strawberries. On the palate, Unforgotten features moderate residual sweetness and lots of char/coffee, along with earthy rye, plenty of pepper, citrus and black cherry. The fruit has an almost slightly juicy quality, supported by char and herbal rye. The effect, quite honestly, is hard to describe—there are a lot of delicate tones here, and the more I taste it the more I’m admiring the beautiful balance between sweetness and spice. It’s really beautifully composed and balanced, never feeling indebted too strongly to bourbon or rye whiskey flavor profiles. It’s subtly sweet, but nowhere near desserty or decadent. It has a slightly drying finish, but one wouldn’t really describe it as “dry” overall. It’s a lot of things at once—lightly honeyed and fruity, but also spicy and slightly smoky.
The Best Additional Spirits (Rum, Mezcal, Gin and More) of 2022
As always, this isn’t just a whiskey game. 2022 was another year for exploring the wider world of spirits, and this time around I found myself especially likely to be diving headfirst into mezcal and aged rum. It’s probably safe to say that in particular, I consumed more Caribbean rum and rhum agricole in 2022 than ever before, which coincided with a continued fascination with tiki cocktails. To that end, here are the best new, non-whiskey spirits I sampled in 2022, including a first dive into exciting new corners of the spirits market, such as sotol.
Bosscal Mezcal Joven
Mezcal is maybe the biggest “cocktail hero” among all the spirits families, on one hand because it’s purely delicious, but likewise because mezcal is so wonderfully assertive that it has the ability to shine through seemingly any accompaniment. It has a strange way of working with the most disparate of flavors, but at the same time we shouldn’t limit ourselves through the assumption that all mezcal is the same, or even similar. Like other agave spirits, and indeed spirits of every description, mezcal comes in an incredibly varied array of flavors, and not even its signature smokiness is something you can always take for granted. That’s the case in something like Wolf Spirits’ Bosscal Mezcal Joven, a notably mild and approachable mezcal from Durango. It’s a fairly traditional product in production—cooked with volcanic rock in earth ovens, ground by hand with axes before fermentation in oak vats, and double distilled in stainless steel pots—but it doesn’t have anywhere close to the omnipresent roasty/smoky tones that so many drinkers think are universal to mezcal. As we wrote when tasting it:
On the nose, what stands out here most strongly are sweeter, fruitier notes, with impressions of grapefruit juice and tropical fruit, complemented by roastier notes, sweet agave, and only a light, delicate smokiness. I’m getting some mint, and slightly smoked, roasted agave, but none of the more intense wood smoke and rubber notes that are often associated with punchier mezcals. This one is clearly taking a less bombastic approach on that front. On the palate, I’m actually surprised to find that the flavors are fairly assertive for the proof, although again it’s not in the dimension of smokiness specifically. There’s a lot of citrus here again, copious orange and grapefruit, and it reads as quite salty and maritime as well—reminiscent of a salt-rubbed, herb-crusted broiled grapefruit. It’s creamy in texture, with subtle vanilla and florals, and a very gentle smoke. All in all, this might be the most delicately smoky mezcal I’ve had to date—you could probably give this to someone who doesn’t know much about agave spirits, tell them it’s tequila, and they’d accept that designation.
Now, to some mezcal drinkers that will be an indication that this spirit simply isn’t for them—like lovers of Islay single malt whiskies, the intense smoke/tarry/rubber tones are an indispensable part of the flavor profile to them, not to be tampered with. But at the same time, this is a very gentle and inviting joven mezcal, perhaps one that could be used to ease someone into the category, or one that would appeal to drinkers whose palates are sensitive to smoke. It drinks very easily neat, but it likely won’t give that assertive, smoky punch to cocktails that you would want from mezcal in some scenarios. All on its own, however, I’m quite enjoying what this bottle is bringing to the table.
Chairman’s Reserve Vintage 2009
Rum geeks are absolutely well aware of the outstanding spirits made by Saint Lucia Distillers (SLD), the sole distillery of the small island nation of the same name. Whether they’re column, pot or blended rums produced by SLD, from molasses or cane juice, the island produces some of the most flavorful spirit in the Caribbean, and it’s long past time that the more rank and file rum consumer gets on board with brands such as the flagship Chairman’s Reserve. In particular, this is a style of rum that those bourbon geeks who have flocked to the rum scene in search of Foursquare bottlings would do well to discover, as the styles share more than a thing or two in common.
This bottle, meanwhile, is a vintage year batch (2009) of all-molasses rum that is split between column and pot distillate, aged for more than 11 years in ex-bourbon casks in St. Lucia, and a few more months to marry after blending. It’s bottled at a pretty robust 46% ABV (92 proof), with no additional color or filtration. It is, in short, just a beautiful expression of blended St. Lucian rum, the kind of gem that I can’t help but feel that any fan of Barbados or Jamaican rums would likely find to be a new obsession.
On the nose, Chairman’s Reserve Vintage 2009 is redolent of rich molasses and brown sugar sweetness, but spiced heavily with stem ginger, cinnamon and clove. Simultaneously, it’s also pretty savory, with olive brine, antique leather and a little rubber. Additionally, I’m getting malted milk balls and smoked nuttiness, like cold smoked almonds. On the palate, this presents with molasses cookie and spicy phenols (pepper, cinnamon), with prominent baking spice, supported by tropical fruit (mango, stone fruit). The more savory dimension of tobacco is there as well, as is a significant coffee roast, bringing a touch of drying astringency. All in all, it’s a sophisticated neat drinker, offering a level of flavor complexity that whiskey geeks often end up paying many hundreds of dollars to match.
Copalli White Rum
At $25 or $30 from most online retailers I’ve seen, Copalli represents a solid and intriguing value in the world of younger rum brands, especially when you take into account the environmentally conscious production methods of this distillery in the Belizian rain forest. Their product is marketed with a big focus on natural production methods, being organic and non-GMO, and proofed with “canopy water” collected straight from the rain forest. Likewise, the company highlights its green efforts and energy efficiency, using leftover sugar cane matter, post-crushing, to power their boiler, while the resulting ash is used as fertilizer. All the rum they produce is likewise made from fresh sugar cane juice, which is pressed only hours after being hand cut, before distillation in copper pot stills and column stills. Various Copalli bottlings are expressions of one or both of these stills. I’ve tasted both aged and unaged Copalli spirits, and ultimately was most charmed by the unaged white rum—a blend of pot and column distillate bottled at 42% ABV (84 proof). Being distilled from fresh cane juice, one might consider this essentially a Belizian answer to something like rhum agricole, but the flavor profile ultimately proves distinctive and not super reminiscent. As we wrote when tasting:
On the nose, I’m getting clean citrus and some muskier, funkier fermented pineapple, along with more reserved notes of grass or resin. It’s a bright nose, suggesting a certain acidity, but without a lot of the deeper funky/earthy/wild notes one might expect from clairin or many Martinique agricoles. This seems somewhat easier going, with almost a slight graininess to the nose, a little something like toasted strands of wheat. On the palate, Copalli White Rum is mildly sweet, with grass, resin and green pineapple, transitioning into a slightly spicy green character. There’s a little ripe tropical fruit as well, but overall the palate is fairly mild and befitting of the relatively lower ABV, nor am I getting a ton of obvious fruity esters from the pot still portion. What stands out here is how clean this is, with lovely citrus and cane juice fruitiness, though it does have traces of that husky grain note from the nose as well, somewhere far in the distance. All in all, at this price point, it feels like something that would make a dynamic daiquiri.
El Sativo Tequila Reposado
Sometimes you just have to disconnect entirely from the marketing surrounding a brand to really appreciate it best. That’s me when it comes to El Sativo Tequila—the cannabis-adjacent promise that the tequila’s terpene content somehow could include health benefits is the sort of thing that makes me automatically roll my eyes, but at the same time I can’t deny the delicious quality of the spirit itself. I became a fan of El Sativo’s blanco expression the first time I tried it a few years ago, and it’s little wonder—at heart, it’s a very traditional tequila, cooked in stone ovens, fermented with natural yeast , and double pot distilled before blended with water filtered through volcanic rock. I was happy to see, then, that the brand launched reposado and anejo expressions this year, expanding the El Sativo brand into the other expected regions of the tequila universe. The anejo, I will confess I found a little bit overwhelmingly rich—something I feel about many anejos, so this is hardly unusual—but the reposado (also sweet) is more within the bounds of reason, and repeat tastings have made me a fan. As we wrote when tasting it:
On the nose, this is understandably more oak forward than most reposado (aged 9 months), and the barrels have certainly expressed themselves strongly. There’s juicy citrus here, along with loads of vanilla, some cooked agave and a little pepper. Touches of roast underline butterscotch and hints of salt. On the palate, this turns quite sweet, with butterscotch and bruleed grapefruit, sprinkled with vanilla flavored sugar. Truly a “vanilla bomb,” and probably too strongly flavored in that respect for some traditional palates, it is somewhat balanced by moderate woodiness and a bit of tannin, but this reposado still reads as very sweet overall. Flashes of bright, raspberry-like fruit also crop up in some sips. All in all, this bottle is more reflective of the barrel than most reposados, so keep that in mind when you see it on the shelves. It’s also quite sweet, so it functions best in cocktail applications where that sweetness is desired.
Equiano Rum Original
Equiano Rum launched in 2020 with an extremely versatile, if not exactly cheap, blend that features both the comfortably familiar aged rum of Barbados and the largely unknown aged rum of the African nation of Mauritius. Both are classic, molasses-based aged rums, unlike the also quite pleasant Equiano Light, which includes a portion of Mauritius rum distilled from fresh cane juice. Specifically, the Equiano Rum Original blend includes 10-year-old Mauritius rum from Grays & Co. Ltd., which is matured in ex-cognac casks, along with 8-year-old Barbados rum from the venerable Foursquare, matured in ex-bourbon casks. The rums are then blended and bottled at 43% ABV (86 proof), with no added sugar, color or flavorings. As it should be. The result is both engaging and versatile, crying out for classic cocktails in particular. As we wrote when tasting it:
On the nose, Equiano Original is rich but also somewhat delicate, with pronounced notes of brown sugar cookies, molasses, baked apples and hobby store cinnamon brooms. Ethanol is nicely subdued, allowing traces of spicy toasted oak and coconut to emerge. It smells pretty similar to a classic blended (pot and column still) rum from Barbados of moderate age, with some spicy oak flourishes. On the palate, the molasses richness jumps out at you, with moderate residual sweetness and a slightly syrupy texture, before the flavor profile turns increasingly in the direction of spice. I’m getting cinnamon and some spicy ginger, along with aromatic oak and more delicate dried fruit impressions (a little estery funk), plus some coconut. There’s a bit of heat, curiously felt on the back of the throat rather than the palate, and a slightly peppery, chile-like quality that makes it seem a bit hotter than it actually is. A subtly dry oakiness, meanwhile, closes each sip. All in all, it’s very drinkable neat, featuring an elegant balance between complexity and accessibility. All in all? I quite like this, even more than I thought I likely would. Equiano Original has enough intense caramelized sugar flavors that it would probably serve well in a classic cocktail like the Jungle Bird, but it also has enough complexity to be quite pleasant as a neat dram.
Hendrick’s Neptunia Gin
Not content to rest on its laurels as one of the pioneering gins that helped give birth to the entire craft gin segment and subsequent cocktail renaissance, Hendrick’s Gin continues its yearly experimentation, typically with great success. Master Distiller Lesley Gracie, from the palatial splendor of the brand’s impressive Gin Palace, has produced a handful of entries now in her “Cabinet of Curiosities” series, the latest of which is the “coastal-inspired” Neptunia. Those sourced coastal plants and herbs apparently include the likes of sea kelp, coastal thyme and lime, which is not found in the classic Hendrick’s recipe, famously accented by cucumber and rose. The resulting, coastal Scottish gin is bottled at a somewhat more robust 43.4% ABV (86.8 proof), but simultaneously proves to be a more subtle and gentle experiment than some of the other, more boisterous Cabinet of Curiosities releases. As we wrote when first tasting it:
On the nose, I get the classic resinous/berry fruity character of juniper at a modest level, along with significant floral notes, punctuated by something a bit more savory. I think perhaps I’m getting the thyme here—it has a slightly wilder, musky note that feels a bit more rough and tumble than the sophistication of the base spirit. There’s a citrus melange as well here on the nose—you know it’s there, but it’s more difficult to isolate each individual citrus element. All in all, though, this doesn’t feel like a radical departure from the classic Hendrick’s Gin profile, but more of a subtle deviation. On the palate, this assessment holds true—unlike something bracing like Orbium, Neptunia seems to represent a more delicate evolution of the brand’s core themes, rather than a dramatic departure. I’m getting a combination of citrus sweetness, florals, herbal savoriness and slightly warm spice notes. The slight salinity you would probably expect from a “coastal” gin is there, but it’s fairly subtle, a sensation on the lips more than an outright flavor. You do get that Hendrick’s rose petal perfume for sure—the classic flavors have not been minimized in this go-round. Overall, the Neptunia has a pleasant sweetness and citrus accent to it, with gentle ethanol and a kiss of resinous juniper.
Mount Gay Rum The Madeira Cask Expression
The 2022 installment in Mount Gay’s Master Blender Collection is a really ambitious bottle of rum, an experiment that effectively goes against many of the qualities for which the distillery is known. Whereas most of their expressions are blends of pot and column still distillate, this one features only column still rum—nor is it aged in ex-American whiskey casks like most Mount Gay products. Rather, as the name would imply, this one is matured in casks that previously contained the Portuguese fortified wine Madeira for their entire 6 year maturation. That likewise makes for a smaller age statement than one typically expects to see in these limited release expressions with price tags in the hundreds of dollars, although the sturdy 55% ABV (110 proof) certainly feels right. Regardless, one gets the sense that Master Blender Trudiann Branker was likely trying to explore entirely new territory here, ultimately bringing us all along for the ride. Thankfully, the rum delivers on the palate, as we wrote when first tasting:
On the nose, this bottle proves exotically fruity but oddly familiar all the same, with notes of poached pear, butterscotch, rhubarb and hints of earthier tobacco. I’m getting honeycomb-like sweetness and perhaps a bit of chocolate-covered shortbread, while the ethanol of this proof point stings a bit on some passes, but doesn’t seem particularly intense on others. This is a fine nose, but it evolves rapidly into a more complex one after the rum sits in the glass for a little while—suddenly, I’m getting the more intensely vinous, dried fruit character when I come back and taste it again a few minutes later. The Madeira has emerged, in other words, with a richly vinous array of concentrated fruit. On the palate, this does have the lighter body of a column still aged rum, but the combination of proof point and rich fruit notes give it a different kind of heft. I’m getting lots of vanilla, slightly floral, along with honeycomb, pears in syrup, citrus and dried fruit suggesting sultana. There’s also a subtle, not too aggressive brown spice creeping forward from the oak, tempered by fairly substantial ethanol heat. It’s a rum with great richness, but not a lot of actual, residual sweetness, which gives it a sophisticated sort of air. All in all, this is one of those limited release rums that seems to be a tale that grows in the telling, a product that opens up and invites more tasting and contemplation as it sits in the glass.
Quechol Sotol Wheeleri
In any given year, I always try to discover at least one style of spirit that is newly thrilling to the palate, and in 2022 that spirit was definitely sotol. Another traditional Mexican spirit distilled from a native plant, sotol is superficially similar to tequila and mezcal, but it’s not produced from any species of agave. Rather, sotol is made from … well, sotol, the plant known otherwise as “desert spoon.” The cores, or piñas, of the sotol plant are roasted in underground pits, as in the production of mezcal, although for whatever reason most of the sotols I’ve tasted haven’t had nearly the same overt smokiness as your average mezcal. Rather, sotol often tastes like an herbaceous explosion, celebrating the plant-forward flavors of its point of origin.
Quechol Sotol is one of the companies trying to pounce on the tiny U.S. market for sotol, with a very traditional product that comes in two expressions, each highlighting a different species of sotol plant. In each case, the spirit is produced by cooking the cores in a volcanic rock pit oven for three days, fed by mesquite, before the cores are shredded and undergo natural fermentation without the use of additional cultivated yeast. The fermented liquid is then distilled twice in copper pot stills. I found myself preferring the Quechol Sotol Wheeleri, as we wrote when first tasting it:
The nose on this one quickly announces that the differences between the two brands will be fairly easy for most drinkers to perceive—they’re similar, certainly, but the Wheeleri immediately stands out in a different way from the Texanum. This one is significantly brighter and sweeter on the nose, with much more pronounced, tangy fruit tones of lemon of grapefruit, paired with bay leaf and a little brown spice. Clove, perhaps? On the palate this is likewise tart and punchy, while also being significantly sweeter than the Texanum. That sweetness and acid makes for a brighter and more angular profile, suggesting creme bruleed grapefruit, and a habanero-like fruitiness, albeit without the chile heat. The Wheeleri is also sort of perfumey and floral, which to me likely makes this one the more attractive of the two for neat drinking purposes.
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 2022 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.
Best Value in Bourbon — Ben Holladay Bottled in Bond Missouri Straight Bourbon
It’s significantly harder to think about the concept of “value” in the bourbon world these days than it was at say, the beginning of 2020. The pandemic era and rampant inflation/price gouging from retailers has led to an across-the-board spike in whiskey pricing, which has on some level obliterated traditional, shared norms of value. Conversations about value now require more context, unless we’re talking about some of the bottom-shelf classics that remain good deals today—entry level bottles from the likes of Beam, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, etc. But surely we all know those bottles.
What I want to talk about is Ben Holladay Bottled in Bond Bourbon, a product of Missouri that I feel is a good roadmap to “fair value” for what it’s offering in 2022. This is a brand new release from the McCormick Distilling Co., a name traditionally associated with bottom-shelf value brands, which sees the company finding an entry point to more of a premium sector to compete against industry leaders. With a 6 year old, 100 proof, bottled in bond bourbon, the company has sized up industry competitors such as Heaven Hill’s revamped Bottled in Bond Bourbon, and I think when all is said and done they’re offering a superior product. Paying $60 for that bottle may not feel like much of a value off hand, but this is increasingly the range one expects to pay for moderately aged BiB bourbon from smaller distilleries, and Ben Holladay BiB significantly exceeds the quality of many of the same whiskeys one would compare it to. As we wrote when first tasting it:
On the nose, this BiB bourbon leads off with a panoply of classic bourbon notes: Dusty corn, a bit of seasoned lumber, peanut brittle, before it takes a turn for the notably fruity and rich with lots of cherry syrup, evocative of the syrup one finds on Luxardo maraschino cherries. I’m also getting hints of spice and more deeply caramelized sugars with traces of ginger molasses cookie. On the palate, this is dark fruity and jammy up front, with richly caramelized sugars, vanilla and dulce de leche. At the same time, the richness is cut by a certain brightness to the fruit, a bit of acidity that gives it life. Spice notes reveal ginger and licorice, while significant oakiness is also present, imparting mild dryness and traces of bitter roast. The texture is slightly syrupy overall, though residual sweetness is moderate, with trailing notes of chocolate and pepper. Ethanol heat is moderate and appropriate for the proof. I’m sure there’s more than enough character here to stand out in any classic cocktail application, though it’s also a perfectly pleasant neat dram.
Best Value in Rye Whiskey — Pinhook Straight Rye Whiskey
Pinhook’s horse-themed lineup of products are currently being distilled at Castle & Key Distillery, but their mash bill is different from Castle & Key’s own flagship products. This one is a 60% rye, 20% corn and 20% malted barley rye, essentially splitting the difference between the old-school Kentucky rye style and modern high-rye styles, with a greater contribution from the malted barley. What we have here, then, is a young rye whiskey around two years of age, at a sturdy 99 proof, with a fairly unique mash bill. It provides good uniqueness for this segment, and some fun flavors, as we wrote when first sampling it:
On the nose, Pinhook Straight Rye plays up the honey and caramel, slathered across buttered rye toast. There are hints of fresh apple and florals, and the suggestion of more than a little sweetness. This definitely reads more like classic Kentucky rye than the ultra spicy, drier style made popular by the likes of MGP of Indiana, with less pepper and hot cinnamon and more sweetness and toastiness, along with a floral quality that may hail from the larger percentage of malted barley in the grist. On the palate, I’m getting apple and pear, along with toffee, pepper and lots of vanilla. Over time, chocolate caramel candies are emerging. There’s a very pleasant, moderate residual sweetness, with notes of toasted rye bread and moderate black pepper, along with candied citrus and fairly heavy toffee.
Best Classic Malt I Discovered — Old Pulteney
Each year, I try to offer a tip of the cap in this list to an old-school Scottish malt whisky I discovered or rediscovered in the calendar year, and this time the one that most stands out in my mind is Old Pulteney. Known by enthusiasts as “the maritime malt,” with its namesake distillery residing in the Highland town of Wick, Caithness, this is one of the most northern Scottish mainland distilleries—if you go much further north, you’re in the ocean. As with other seaside malts, this is often said to infuse a certain sense of salinity and “sea air” into the barrels as they undergo their long maturation. The flagship Old Pulteney 12 Year is a solid value that can often be had in the U.S. for $40-50, or occasionally even less, but the 18 Year core brand I tasted earlier this year demands a rather dramatic MSRP bump. This is sadly not uncommon for sherried malts in particular, as secondary maturation in Spanish oak adds its own increase in cost, and the consumer expects to pay more for such cask finishes. The drinker is rewarded, however, with a fruit-forward dram full of lovely, drier sherry tones. As we wrote when tasting:
On the nose, Old Pulteney 18 is quite fruit forward, with bright notes of peach, apricot, citrus and sultana. The sherry contribution is on the more delicate side, present in the dried fruit notes but presumably less so in the brighter and fresher ones. Cobbler-esque baked fruit mingles with additional hints of cocoa powder and vanilla for a nose that is overall fairly rich but not particularly or overtly “sweet.” On the palate, I’m getting more of the same baked fruits, along with an earthier quality that is more heather than peat—this is not a smoke-forward Highland dram. Cinnamon spice meets light dried fruit and slightly vinous tones, but then make way for a surprising amount of oak/roast, which brings a notably bitter dimension to the finish, which is also moderately tannic. Overall, the impression is a bit more dry than the nose would suggest, and it’s an interesting combination of some nuanced sherry influences without a lot of the greater sweetness that secondary sherry cask maturation tends to deliver. It’s a fruit-forward malt with a drier, woodier finish than expected.
Trend I’d Like to See More Of — Quality Canned/Bottled Cocktails
This was a big year for the ready to drink or “RTD” segment, as the number of premixed canned or bottled cocktail brands on the shelf seemed to multiply at an exponential rate. Companies have been jockeying for position in this field, and in the process they’re trying to come to a conclusion on the following question: How much quality does the consumer actually demand from a canned or bottled cocktail?
Because rest assured, if these companies can get away with making fake cocktails, essentially “spiked” hard seltzers produced with “natural flavors” and alcohol from malt fermentation, that’s exactly what they would prefer to do. It’s much cheaper to produce canned cocktails that way, which accounts for all the heinous canned mai tai rip-offs I bemoaned earlier this year. There’s entirely too much opportunity for deception in this corner of the industry, as even a company like WhistlePig, famous for their rye whiskey, introduced a canned “rye smash” cocktail series this year that contained absolutely no whiskey. These types of products are deeply troubling.
At the same time, however, there’s a counter movement in the RTD cocktail world, increasingly making legitimate cocktails with distilled spirits and recognizable, traditional recipes. This year, for instance, I tasted the best premixed Manhattan I’ve come across to date from Barrelsmith, while also being impressed with cocktails from companies such as Golden Rule or Post Meridiem. The takeaway is that the consumer needs to be vigilant—there are a lot of bad canned cocktails on the shelf, but the ones that are good have never been better than they are right now. Here’s hoping that consumers are able to recognize and reward the best quality examples out there, which will lead to more quality canned cocktail brands increasingly displacing the charlatan hard seltzers. At the very least, I can dream, right?
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.