Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: What's New (and Old) in American Whiskey

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Autumn is whiskey season in Kentucky, and at the recent Whiskyfest in San Francisco, I was able to try out some of the recent releases now appearing in bars and liquor stores (typically in very small amounts).

One of the most appealing American whiskies I tasted was Wild Turkey "Tradition," a 14-year-old, 101-proof bourbon that entered the U.S. market last week in a limited run of 14,000 bottles. With the characteristic spicy tang of Wild Turkey bourbons, the Tradition bottling has a deeper, richer character that comes from its older age, as well as its aging position in the "center cut" of the distillery's warehouse. Also memorable is the latest bottling of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, a 12-year-old, 97-proof whiskey that's pleasantly mellow with the aroma of wheat and iodine.

And of course, it wouldn't be autumn without the annual release of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, a series of limited edition and very much sought-after whiskies that appear each fall (and are usually snapped up by Christmas).

While longtime favorites include the George T. Stagg bourbon and Sazerac Rye, the standout bottling this year was the William Larue Weller bourbon. This wheated bourbon (bottled at a cask-strength 134 proof) has a character that's as-soft-as-a-baby's-blanket with a mellow, orchard fruit flavor that's tinged with cinnamon, nuts, and vanilla. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Weller, and this year's bottling is my favorite of the group.

Not everything in the world of American whiskey is taking place in Kentucky. Utah-based High West Distillery has sourced ryes and bourbons from other distillers and is custom-blending surprisingly good bottlings such as Rendezvous Rye, a mixture of six and 16-year-old rye whiskies. This year, High West added to a 16-year straight rye whiskey that, with 80 percent rye in the mashbill, is aggressively spicy and dry, and a 21-year-old whiskey aged in used brandy barrels, which gives the mellow spirit a silky, fruity character.

But perhaps my favorite American whiskey at Whiskyfest was Parker's Heritage Collection "Golden Anniversary" whiskey, made to commemorate all 50 years that Heaven Hill's master distiller Parker Beam has been working in the industry. Composed of bourbons distilled during each of the past five decades, the Golden Anniversary bottling is astonishingly complex, deep and bright, with flavors ranging from a deep vanilla oakiness to a crisp citrus and summer-berry lightness. An absolutely outstanding whiskey.

Those are a few of the American whiskies that caught my attention this year. Any other brands and bottlings you're excited to see as we move toward the holiday season?

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About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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