Consumers’ fervent desire for bourbon continued to push the market in 2017. Bottle lotteries seemed to expand everywhere with entries for those lotteries - especially in controlled states - exploding, and the secondary market continued to grow at a rapid pace. In addition, a slew of new releases hit the market from new upstart distilleries and old establishments alike. Age statements continued to be threatened, and empty shelves of common bottles of the past seemed to be a regular occurrence.
While the market may have been pushed to new limits, it seemed like the same can’t be said for master distillers this year. While past years have found the three of us at Breaking Bourbon raving about various releases throughout the year, this year seemed to contain many more “ho hum” releases. Sure there were some highlights like the releases we listed below, but fewer whiskeys made us jump up and say WOW!
It needs to be noted though that we all agreed that one spirit did make us feel alive again during our tastings. While not a bourbon, Four Square 2004 Rum aged in used bourbon barrels for 11 years did make us take note. This is a spirit that reminded us what it means to drink something truly great. Now before you start worrying too much, no we won’t be abandoning our first love and switch over to being rum writers anytime soon. However what it did remind us, is great spirits come in many forms and we’re hoping that we are able to recapture that feeling with a few whiskey releases in 2018.
In the meantime, as is tradition since we founded Breaking Bourbon, we like to end the year highlighting our favorite whiskeys. But keep in mind, our 2017 Favorites are not necessarily the “best” whiskeys of the year. They're the few that stood out from the rest, challenging us and possibly surprising us at the same time. These are the whiskeys we will remember most from 2017.
Wigle Quaker Strength
2017 didn’t seem to deliver any super standout wow whiskeys for me. Sure there were some gems in the BTAC lineup, but nothing that truly blew me away. What that translated to was looking outside the box both in composition and in price. This was no better exemplified than with Wigle Quaker Strength.
The biggest surprise for me was how much I enjoyed Wigle Quaker Strength from the Pittsburgh distillery Wigle Whiskey. On paper this should have been a Frankenstein release that could have gone in many directions due to its eccentric 6 malt mashbill. In reality, it was one of the most unique and flavorful whiskeys I’ve had in a long time. It had a flavor profile that just delivered a wow factor that makes me smile when thinking about it. From the oaty nose, to the dark chocolate palate, and finally the delicious finish that just went on for an absurdly long time, this whiskey reminded me that it never hurts to try something new. I’m looking forward to what other “Frankenstein” sounding releases I come across in the future that might just be hidden gems waiting to wow me in unexpected ways.
Kentucky Owl Rye
High in age, high in proof, and high in price….at least it got two of the three right! Kentucky Owl was the “limited” release that took me and many others by surprise this year. Its flavor profile is straightforward and filled with classic rye undertones throughout. Additionally, its higher proof is easily manageable and helps enhance the overall drinking experience. In short, it’s an elegant rye that delivers a really fantastic flavor profile, albeit at a higher than preferred price tag. Pricing aside, Kentucky Owl is one of those ryes that is just plain good. It may not be an all time great, but it was memorable enough to be great in 2017.
William Heavenhill 5th Edition
When I first reviewed this bourbon I stated “that it’s by no means the best I’ve ever had, nor will likely have in the next few months.” Ironically, 2017 proved me wrong in that sentiment. While William Heavenhill 5th Edition isn’t an all time classic, it’s good enough to be memorable when I look back on the year. It’s a shame that I’ll always remember this for both its flavor profile and its $250 price...but welcome to the state of bourbon in 2017. However where it counts is not the price, but the bourbon in the bottle. Plain and simple, the flavor profile isn’t groundbreaking any more than it is a definition of classic bourbon flavors at their finest. Despite its 115 proof, this is an extremely easy sipper and exemplifies what a solid bourbon from Kentucky should taste like.
William Larue Weller (2017)
I almost hate including a bourbon like William Larue Weller on this list. In some ways it’s a foregone conclusion - it’s always good and we expect it to be. However, this year’s expression was just different enough to make it really resonate with me. It’s still the bold, sweet, wheat-based bourbon flavor profile you expect. But this year seemed even more full-flavored than usual, a cherry bomb in every sense of the word. It comes in at a lower proof than recent years, but that only seems to intensify the flavor even more. It may be a bit more one dimensional than past years, but that served to make it more memorable. For me it’s the star of the Antique Collection this year, and worth hunting down to have a taste. Fortunately there was a lot more of it produced this year, (we estimate over 19,000 bottles, up over 40% from last year) so the chance of finding it, even if only at a bar, is greater than usual.
Barrell Bourbon Batches 011 and 013
Barrell Bourbon has been on my list of favorites the past two years, first with Batch 005, then with Batch 006. I’ve enjoyed every batch I’ve had, but some batches just take it to the next level. Batches 011 and 013 are two of them. Batch 011 should come as no surprise if you’ve read my review of it. Bourbon fans took note as well, after it took first place at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition it was followed by eager fans scooping it up quickly off the shelves. But Batch 013 was kind of a sleeper. A blend of 5 and 8 year old bourbons with undisclosed mashbills, I took a liking to its lively and unique flavor profile. It doesn’t offer a traditional flavor profile, but rather one that’s heavy on spice and complexity. It shines in a world of increasingly average bourbons, or at least more similar tasting ones. Fortunately, you might even still be able to find a bottle if you look hard enough.
Old Forester Statesman
There is no doubt we all want the hard to find and high quality limited releases. They often represent the best barrels distilleries have to offer, with master distillers carefully selecting the limited number of barrels to be included in the release. But what impresses me more is when a company releases a new and accessible product for a fair price…and nails it. Old Forester’s Whiskey Row Series has been fantastic with 1870 Original Batch, 1897 Bottled in Bond, and 1920 Prohibition Style. It made me wonder - where have they been hiding all this great bourbon? To my surprise, the company managed to continue the trend with Statesman, a bourbon inspired by the film “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” On paper it’s innocuous - 95 proof batched bourbon that seems to do nothing more than piggyback on the marketing efforts of the film. But the bourbon inside is anything but. It offers a classic bourbon flavor profile, and reminds me of the no gimmicks style of bourbons like Henry McKenna Single Barrel and Parker’s Heritage Promise of Hope (one of my all time favorites). Like those, Statesman doesn’t fall back on a high proof or unique flavor profile to get your attention. It has a great mouthfeel, rounded edges, and robust flavor profile that doesn’t overdo it. It’s just good, straightforward bourbon, period. Accessible and reasonably priced at $55 - I’m impressed.
Old Forester Statesman
Surprised? I am too. I never thought this would make it on my Favorite Whiskeys of 2017 list. But this wasn’t love at first sip. I had this bourbon a few times at bars and tasting events and wasn’t all that impressed by it. With Old Forester 1897 and 1920 in the same price range and having already proven themselves last year, why should I bother with this silly movie tie-in bottle that under 5 years old? Us Breaking Bourbon guys found ourselves in a situation where we needed to buy a bottle for a gathering since we were away from our own collections. We decided to give Statesman a shot. After finally having a chance to have more than just a few sips, I began to realize this is actually a very enjoyable bourbon. It packs a sweet, fruity, and bright palate that might not be as complex or as high proof as the great Old Forester 1920, but it just might be an all around more drinkable bourbon. Statesman falls into the Barterhouse/I.W. Harper 15 Year/Blanton’s group of bourbons that hit a certain sweet spot for me. Although not numbered and label “Limited Edition,” it’s unclear how long this movie-tie in bottle will sold for. Priced at $55, this is certainly a bourbon that I want to grab a few more of.
Barrell Bourbon Batch 013
When a company like Barrell Craft Spirits is constantly putting out products that don’t have to adhere to a repeatable flavor profile, more unique batches are bound to come up. I think most people would say Batch 011 would be their favorite Barrell Bourbon product this year, as it has a very agreeable flavor profile that almost anyone could love. As I said in my review, Batch 013 with its robust spice-filled profile surprised me with its complexity and overall uniqueness, and as result wowed me even more.
This might not be the best batch introduced by Barrell Bourbon, but it will give you a glimpse at what unique traits Barrell Bourbon batches can offer. Being a blend of 5 and 8 year bourbons, it's a bit shocking how spicy and complex it is for its age. For me this is one bourbon this year that I have continually gone back to as it offered something different, interesting, and surprisingly all in one package.
Yellowstone 2017 Limited Edition
I’ve never purchased a bottle of any of the yearly Yellowstone limited edition releases, but I’ve tasted them all. I’ve been impressed by every release, with 2015 still the standout. The $100 price point is still a big roadblock for me. It’s not necessarily because the juice isn’t worth it, but mainly because do I need another $100 bourbon on my shelf? With many high-profile limited release this year (and last) failing to live up to their pedigree or their price point, Yellowstone Limited Editions are subtly becoming one of the best and consistent releases every year.
Elijah Craig 9 Year SiB (Astor’s Wine)
After a year and a half since its inception, Elijah Craig non-age stated (NAS) Small Batch isn’t the product I hoped it would become. The overall flavor intensity and quality is lacking compared to what the brand was before becoming a NAS small batch. But that’s where the excellent private selection Elijah Craig single barrels comes in.
The 9 year old single barrel I purchased from Astor’s Wine is everything one would expect a middle bottle between the NAS Small Batch and the discontinued 12 Year would be and then some. It has a great smooth and creamy mouthfeel compared to the other bottles. It evens out some of the 12 Year’s heavy oak and barrel char notes, while retaining a good deal of character that’s missing from the NAS Small Batch. Oddly, single barrel private selections are typically priced only a few dollars more than their NAS Small Batch counterpart. Based on the quality difference between the two, it seems like an obvious move for Heaven Hill to release a permanent age stated 94 proof single barrel and charge more for it. For now, if you see a store with a private selection Elijah Craig, don’t hesitate to pick this one up. Priced in the $30 range, there’s a chance it will be a fantastic value for a great bourbon.
Parker’s Heritage Collection 11th Edition
Barrell Rye Batch 001
Basil Hayden’s Rye