And then there was one...and you’ll probably never taste it.
The bourbon world has been flooded with the news of this year’s winner of Best Whiskey in the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, arguably the most talked about competition. Since the competition’s inaugural debut in 2001, bourbon has claimed this title only one other time.
The winner: Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled in Bond.
A 10 year old bourbon known for being good bourbon at a great value, McKenna can typically be found in the $30-$40 range and has not historically drawn a great deal of attention. It sits in an unassuming bottle and has been readily available if you know where to look. Last year it took Best Bourbon in the same competition, which led to a buying frenzy. However after an initial flurry of attention, it again receded to the shelves and minds of enthusiasts in-the-know. The attention was revitalized this year when it took Best Whiskey - a distinction as this means it was voted best overall whiskey out of any kind of whiskey in the competition, not just among bourbons. We noticed a large uptick in traffic for “buy henry mckenna” and related searches, causing our review (of a different barrel of course) to take the lead among reviews on the site. Online stores that tended to carry it were suddenly sold out.
But like I said before. Few will ever taste the bourbon that won.
I’m not being facetious either. Henry McKenna Bottled in Bond is a single barrel bourbon. According to Fred Minnick, who was present as a judge for the event, the bottle that won was from barrel #4976, put in oak on April 7, 2008. While each bottling shares the same distiller, mashbill, age, and proof, there will only about about 150-250 bottles per barrel, give or take. And while each barrel will exhibit general traits exemplary of the brand, they will vary from one another. If you’ve explored single barrel bourbons, you know the variation from barrel to barrel can make the difference from a good whiskey to a great one.
And then there are spirits competitions.
Dig into bourbon discussion groups, and you’ll find many opinions about spirits competitions - both positive and negative. The truth is, they vary wildly in terms of how they’re run. And no matter how well they’re run, the spirits are judged by people whose taste is ultimately subjective.
In the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, spirits are entered by producers for a fee. They’re judged blind and no information about the producer or brand is provided. However, judges are given some details if available on the label - in this case they knew they were drinking a 10 year old 100 proof bourbon, along with the barrel information. They also have the opportunity to discuss and even sway one another’s opinions about what they’re tasting. Spirits aren’t ranked against one another, but rather considered individually for medals. Notably, not all spirits entered into the competition are awarded medals.
Some will question how a $30 range value bourbon took it all, since many are programmed to automatically equate price with quality. But I don’t have any reason to think any of the judges had bad intentions, or voted for a whiskey they didn’t like. In fact, I can completely appreciate the possibility that an unusually exceptional bottle of Henry McKenna was presented at the competition. One of my all-time favorites and one of two whiskeys we’ve awarded a 5 barrel Overall rating to on Breaking Bourbon, is Parker’s Heritage Collection Promise of Hope, which is also a single barrel release from Heaven Hill. It shares all of the same details as Henry McKenna except for the label and proof, bottled as a special release under Heaven Hill’s Parker’s Heritage line and proofed only 4 points lower. At its time of release, they were the honey barrels, as bourbon enthusiasts will fondly refer to them. Notably, both the winning barrel of Henry McKenna and Promise of Hope were distilled by the late Parker Beam - a master of his craft and distiller who will be remembered for everything great he brought to bourbon.
So with this announcement, and the chatter that surrounds it, brings mixed feelings.
I’m happy debates are as heated as they are - it proves just how excited people still are about their love of bourbon. I’m frustrated knowing the winner is a single barrel and many reading mainstream headlines won’t understand what this means - they won’t understand that what they are drinking is not the exact whiskey that won the competition, so seeking it out is a fool’s errand. And I’m grateful, knowing that opinions of taste are subjective. There really is no such thing as a “Best Whiskey” - no different than the ratings and reviews we present here on the site which are, admittedly, merely our opinions and nothing more.
So while the whiskey world, along the rest of the world, is focused on Henry McKenna Single Barrel, take the time to explore some of the other great bourbons and whiskeys not in the spotlight right now. Winners of other bourbon categories maybe? Past standouts from the competition (2018 detailed here). A few from our Best Of lists. Maybe seek out some magical single barrels from brands you like, or have yet to discover (there are plenty of options for that, including our own Single Barrel Club). Who knows, maybe you’re drinking next year’s Best Whiskey right now. After all, the real judge of Best Whiskey, if you believe in that sort of thing, is you.