Each year we taste and review hundreds of American whiskeys, which are predominantly bourbons but also include ryes, malts, finished whiskeys, and other classifications of American-made whiskeys. Our annual “Best Whiskeys of the Year” series features five categories: “Best Malt, “Best American Whiskey,” “Best Rye,” “Best Finished,” and “Best Bourbon,” finally culminating with our overall #1 Whiskey of the Year.
Our Best Finished Whiskeys of 2023 start with those released in 2023 and rated 3.5 barrels or higher, but are not based purely on our initial tasting and individual rating. Instead, we retaste and discuss this wide range of whiskeys extensively. We ask questions, such as is the whiskey exciting, memorable, unique, and most importantly, how does it compare to the rest of the field for the year.
We look for whiskeys that move us, and dig into whiskeys that may be off the beaten path. While availability and price are factors, they are not absolute. The intent is to highlight the whiskeys of the year that stand out the most to us, even if they might be difficult to obtain - and the reason we maintain evergreen “Best of” lists to highlight more readily accessible whiskeys. Ultimately, we must agree on which whiskeys make the list, and which do not - combining the diversity of our different palates.
What a year 2023 was for Penelope Bourbon. In May MGP Ingredients announced they would be acquiring Penelope Bourbon for $105 million with further potential earn-out contingent consideration of up to a maximum cash payout of $110.8 million. This was certainly eye-catching as Penelope is a non-distiller producer and sources all of their bourbon from the company that acquired them. But that only tells half the story, as Penelope has created an amazingly strong brand in a relatively short amount of time. Perhaps it was divine fate or good old fashioned luck, but as news hit of Peneople’s acquisition, the company dropped Rio on the world.
There weren’t many other releases this year that popped quite like Rio did in May. The Amburana finished craze was just shifting into high gear as it hit, and the Penelope team was shocked at the instantly red hot reception it received. Anyone that’s had Rio knows why, as the combination of honey and Amburana makes for a match made in heaven. Equal parts warm and sweet, with lingering cinnamon notes for days, there isn’t anything quite like it. Rio instantly connected with drinkers, and its only fault (like with most limited edition releases) is that there wasn’t enough to go around. That wasn’t by design, as this barrel finished marriage was unproven, and no one knew when the whiskey went into the barrels that it would ultimately work so well. Thankfully more is on the way in 2024, but that doesn't make this year's release any less special.
When consumers think of Dragon’s Milk, the first thing that usually comes to mind is their barrel aged stout beer. While New Holland Brewing Company is well known for their beer, their spirits line, particularly Dragon’s Milk Origin Small Batch which came to market in 2022, has been making waves these past few years. The brand took things a step further recently by releasing eight limited edition toasted expressions, most of which were single barrels. While these were all distillery exclusives, one stood out so much from anything else we tasted this year that it was hard to ignore not placing it on our best of list.
Dragon's Milk Origin Toasted Barrel - 2023C “Stay Classy” is one dangerously delicious high proof bourbon. The interplay of the toasted finishing barrel with the bourbon's unique production process, which includes copper pot distillation and a mashbill of 70% corn, 25% malted barley, and 5% rye produces a flavor profile that is wholly its own. From start to finish, the sip is full of sweet notes that are intermixed with earthy undertones that beckon you to come back and revisit it in short order. New Holland Brewing Company struck gold with the release of Dragon's Milk Origin Toasted Barrel - 2023C “Stay Classy,” which reminds consumers that you don’t need to be located in Kentucky to release bourbon that sits at the peak of 2023 releases.
Always pushing innovative boundaries, Bardstown Bourbon Company’s Collaborative Series has been a source of many interesting and creative finished whiskeys over the past few years. This year they collaborated with the ever popular Foursquare Rum Distillery to utilize the company’s Foursquare barrels to finish their rye-bourbon blend in. Foursquare is beloved for their back-to-basics nature and their signature taste, thanks to the fact that they use no additives or sugars in their rum making.
Bardstown Bourbon Company Collaborative Series: Foursquare features the rum distillery’s distinct taste, but does so in a nuanced way that results in a harmonious blend between the base whiskey and rum influence. Rye spice is apparent throughout, contrasting with the rum notes, throwing balance to the wayside, and ultimately making for a more dynamic sip. Bardstown Bourbon continues to push the boundaries of what consumers should expect from barrel finished whiskey. Bardstown Bourbon Company Collaborative Series: Foursquare demonstrates that the best finished whiskey goes beyond just relying on the finishing barrel, and instead finds a nuanced middle ground that pushes all of the components involved to a higher level.
This year was dominated by toasted barrel finishes. Seemingly every company released one, though many opted to stick with bourbon as their base whiskey. A few producers broke from the pack, but it was Michter’s experience with the finish that perhaps ultimately gave them the edge. Having first released a Toasted Barrel Finish Rye in 2014, they’ve been doing it longer concurrently than anyone and the results speak for themselves.
There are two main components that resulted in Michter’s Toasted Barrel Finish Rye success. First, its viscosity is immediately noticeable, and it's amazingly effective at carrying the whiskey flavors. It is these old fashioned related flavors that define the second component and work hand in hand with the whiskey’s creamy mouthfeel. This tandem relationship of amazing mouthfeel and fantastic flavors transforms this from being yet another toasted barrel finished whiskey in 2023 to the absolute best.
Barrell Craft Spirits has taken meticulous blending to a historically unprecedented level. Founded in 2013, the company focuses on one thing and one thing only - what’s inside the bottle. Blending from distilleries located not only around the country but around the world, they don’t back down from a challenge. Sinking their teeth into the bourbon’s newest, most wanted, and possibly most polarizing finish, the team at Barrell Craft Spirits decided to tackle the elusive Amburana finish.
This may come as no surprise, but Barrell was able to find a level of balance that’s incomparable to any other Amburana finished bourbon out there. Sure, we love a strong Amburana finish when the mood is right as much as the next person, but so far no one has been able to maintain a bourbon’s base structure against an Amburana finish to the same degree as Barrell Craft Spirits. Amburana is a polarizing beast, but if there is any Amburana finished whiskey that can make someone a believer, Barrell Bourbon Cask Finished Series: Amburana is the one.