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 Malts 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.
The American single malt category has really come into its own over the last several years. While Beam Suntory is best known for its bourbon and, to a lesser extent, rye releases up until 2023, no one associated the company with American single malts. That all changed with the release of Clermont Steep, a 5 year old whiskey that is the company’s first mass-produced American single malt.
Jim Beam is a name that consumers trust, and thanks to that trust, for many, Clermont Steep very well could be a whiskey drinker’s first foray into American single malts. While the whiskey highlights its malt grain prominently, its sweeter notes provide a change of pace compared to many other American single malts. This makes it more approachable as a result, acting as a “bridge whiskey” into American single malt for those who are more comfortable drinking bourbon. This is why after our original review, we’ve found ourselves taking an even greater liking to it as the year has progressed, exceeding our original sober expectations of it. Clermont Steep not only delivers a well-rounded sip that is full of classic malt flavors, but it does so in a really approachable manner and will ultimately help pull in many more consumers over to the burgeoning American single malt category.
Westward Whiskey has made a name for itself in the American whiskey space due to its singular focus: American single malts. Based out of Portland, Oregon, Westward Whiskey has quickly grown in popularity in this space, as they focus not only on their base malt product but also on a slew of various finish releases that they bring to market every year. In the case of Westward American Single Malt Grand Cru Sauternes Cask, the company utilizes their standard single malt whiskey and finishes it for an extended 14 months in Sauternes casks from one of France’s Grand Cru Classe estates in the Graves region.
The extended time in the Sauternes casks adds subtle yet noticeable influences to the whiskey, but not as much as you’d expect if you’re used to Sauternes finished bourbons. Thanks to its finishing, the pour is slightly elevated and differentiated enough from the standard Westward Single Malt. The Sauternes cask influence is most noticeable at the start of the sip and gently tempers as you move through it, resulting in well-rounded qualities that draw you back again and again. Sauternes cask finishing can be tricky to get just right, but Westward Whiskey Grand Cru Sauternes Cask nails it and serves as a reminder of why the brand is so dominant in the American single malt space.
Lost Lantern redefined what it means to be a non-distiller producer. They don’t simply source whiskey and call it their own, but instead curate, working directly with distillers and shining a light on them and what they created. It’s a refreshing prospect that has resulted in a number of amazing collaborations between Lost Lantern and many of the brands they've worked with.
Lost Lantern 2023 Single Cask #11 Balcones Distillery is one particular release that stood out to us this year. Balcones is not a distillery that’s particularly shy about being bold or wildly inventive with their releases. Lost Lantern 2023 Single Cask #11 manages to capture both in one of the most flavorful whiskeys of the year. The whiskey was made with 100% Golden Promise malted barley and was then divided into three parts before it entered new American, European, and French oak barrels, and then finished in used Balcones peated Golden Promise single malt barrels. Filled with s’mores-like flavors and a manageable amount of smoke and peaty finish, the release manages to balance all of its flavors and somehow not come across as pure chaos. Lost Lantern 2023 Single Cask #11 Balcones Distillery is an incredibly unique and inventive whiskey that is a brilliant showcase of two companies coming together to shine a light on a whiskey that may not have had it otherwise.
Bendt Distilling Company was founded in Lewisville, Texas in 2012 and is starting to really get noticed though their reach still remains fairly limited. That hopefully changes soon as the company has been releasing whiskey that is uniquely their own. This comes across most evidently with their Unbendt Straight Malt Whiskey. There are few bottled-in-bond American made malt whiskeys on the market, and sourcing local grains and Texas aging have combined to create an original tasting whiskey.
While malt whiskey still remains a hard sell for many bourbon and rye drinkers, Unbendt has managed to create a sort of stopgap between the two. Including 40% red winter wheat with its malted barley creates a flavor profile that tastes a bit more familiar and bourbon like with the wheat’s added sweetness and potency. Yet, the Malt still remains, adding on layers of roasted notes along with light caramel and honey ones. With American made single malts still finding their voice, Unbendt Straight Malt Whiskey Bottled in Bond comes out of the gate knowing exactly what it wants to say.
Two Souls Spirits is an independent bottler that intends to “curate craft spirits from across the United States that are big, bold, 100% uncut and unfiltered, and exceptionally rare.” Venturing into the growing American single malt category, this release features the first ever American single malt from Watershed Distillery out of Columbus, Ohio. Adding their own unique twist to it, Two Souls had the 5+ year old base whiskey finished in a used apple brandy barrel for an additional 8 months. The result: an American single malt whiskey that absolutely nails it the first time out.
American single malts can be a potent affair, often leaning heavily into malty flavor territory that’s just too much for some. Finishing in an apple brandy barrel really dials this potency back, finding a perfect balance between a not-overly-sweet fruit-forwardness and a delicate malty base, making this a whiskey that you take note of right away. Two Souls Spirits Ohio American Single Malt Apple Brandy Finished Whiskey Featuring Watershed Distillery sets the tone for the synergy that can happen when American single malt whiskey is dialed in with a unique finish.