There's been a lot going on in the whisk(e)y world these past few years, with distilleries releasing cask-finished bottlings, new expressions and out-and-out experiments to a thirsty market. While much of the excitement has taken place in the realm of scotch whisky, American whiskey makers have been showing a little more creativity recently. In the past month, between visits to several distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee, and at Malt Advocate's Whiskyfest event in San Francisco, I've had a chance to taste some of the new whiskies (and variations on old whiskies) that will be popping up in liquor stores over the next few months (and some of these are on the shelf now).
Here are a few of the more interesting American whiskies to look out for.
Whistle Pig Straight Rye Whiskey
Okay, first things first: this isn't technically an American whiskey. Whistle Pig has a new distillery in Vermont under the guidance of former Maker's Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell, but it'll be a few years before any of that whiskey is ready to pour. For now, Whistle Pig is selling a 10-year-old, 100-percent rye whiskey made in Canada and bottled in Vermont. The notion of putting your label on a whiskey made by someone else annoys some purists, but let's focus on what's in the glass: as a 100-percent rye spirit, this whiskey is bursting with a dry spiciness, redolent of cloves and tinged with nutmeg. There's a mild, honeyed sweetness to it, and an alluring nuttiness.
All in all, a very engaging whiskey, one that's good enough to make me eager to see what else Whistle Pig has coming down the pike.
Another bought-and-bottled whiskey, with a twist: Angel's Envy is a Kentucky straight bourbon aged between four and six years that was obtained by Lincoln Henderson, a former master distiller for Brown Forman, maker of Woodford Reserve and Old Forester.
Before Angel's Envy is bottled, 40 percent of the whiskey is finished in used port barrels for three to four months; the finished whiskey is then blended with the rest of the bourbon to taste. With such a short period of finishing on only a fraction of the overall whiskey, the port casks don't impose the deep richness found in similarly finished scotch whiskies; rather, the port element seems to work as more of a seasoning, enhancing some of the sweet, winter-spice flavors of the bourbon and touching up notes of cherry and coffee, without overwhelming the whiskey with an imposing jamminess. A very good whiskey that ventures into new territory (for bourbon) without losing sight of its roots. Angel's Share will open its own distillery in Louisville in 2011.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve has been one of the top-selling premium bourbons in the country for a number of years, and this Single Barrel Reserve represents their first extension of the line.
I got a taste at the Jim Beam distillery in Kentucky last month, prior to the whiskey's January release; keep in mind that as with any single-barrel whiskey, there will be differences between barrels. The sample I tried weighed in at 120 proof, and had a robust character of cinnamon and cloves underscored by the richness of toffee; the bourbon had the signature spiciness I think of for Knob Creek, but at an amplified volume, with richer characteristics of tobacco and caramel. There are plenty of excellent single-barrel whiskies out there; the Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve is very good but not exceptional, but not everything has to be. A very drinkable whiskey.
Buffalo Trace Antique Collection
One of the most highly anticipated times of the year for many American-whiskey drinkers is early October, when Buffalo Trace has its annual release of the Antique Collection. The collection is a group of three bourbons and two rye whiskeys, and each year at least one and usually more of the selected whiskies is a top candidate for the best whiskey of the year.
For the 2009 release, the real winner was the William Larue Weller, a cask-strength, wheated bourbon, and in 2010 the Weller is once again one of the top whiskies in the pack. The sample I tried at Whiskyfest was bottled at 126.6 proof, and had a huge, sweet aroma of brown sugar and orchard fruit, and an extraordinarily gentle flavor (especially considering the proof) of maple syrup, apple cider and fresh peaches. Truly a phenomenal bourbon. Also notable for 2010: the George T. Stagg bourbon, bottled at a whopping 143 proof, and with a rich, oily aroma of leather and wood smoke, and a cascading flavor of caramel and tobacco. Absolutely excellent stuff.
Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Maple Wood Finish
This will be the fifth year Woodford Reserve has released a limited-edition whiskey as part of their Master's Collection. Past releases included a Four-Grain Bourbon, a Sweet Mash Bourbon and a Seasoned Oak Finish; for 2010, Woodford chose to go in the cask-finishing direction, placing their aged bourbon into 120 barrels made of toasted sugar maple for anywhere between 2 1/2 months to a year.
Technically no longer a bourbon, the whiskey was bottled at 94 proof, and has an aroma of pecans and brown sugar, touched with fresh pears. A taste of the whiskey is at first rich and full on the palate, but the initial sweetness quickly recedes, leaving a surprisingly dry finish. After a few minutes in the glass, the whiskey develops a strong maple aroma, and the sweetness seems to evolve.
I've had mixed feelings about Woodford's Master's Collection in the past, and I'm still on the fence about this one, though I'm leaning towards liking it. It's an intriguing whiskey, sure, and if you're a collector, then absolutely go for it. But is it something I'd like to have around and break out on a regular basis? I'm not convinced the answer is "yes."
Parker's Heritage Collection Bourbon
This is the fourth annual release of
Parker's Heritage Collection Bourbon from Heaven Hill, and the first wheated bourbon in the lineup. From the beginning, Parker's Heritage Collection has been, for me, one of the highlights of the spirits I try at Whiskyfest, and this year was no different. Non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength, the bourbon is 10 years old, and is as soft and as smooth as a down comforter. The aroma is full of vanilla and nougat, and the flavor is vibrant with caramel, dates and cinnamon. An absolutely wonderful whiskey, and I'm already anticipating Parker's 2011 release.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, 2010 release
Another annual bourbon, and another consistent winner. I had a glass of the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, 2010 release soon after its debut, on the recommendation of a bartender at Bourbon's Bistro in Louisville, and it was the best advice I've received in some time. Twelve-years-old and bottled at 95 proof, the bourbon has a floral aroma tinged with soft notes of peaches and honey. Surprisingly dry at first taste, the flavor blooms with the addition of a few drops of water, blossoming into a warm expression of cinnamon, cloves and allspice. A lovely, comforting whiskey—not as ostentatious as some of the other annual releases, but an engaging bourbon with plenty to love.
Those are a few of the American whiskies that have caught my attention in the past couple of months. How about you? Tried anything interesting, or is there a whiskey you're looking forward to?