The whiskey train continued to pick up speed in 2018 as consumers just can’t get enough of it. Bottle lotteries were as popular as ever, and the secondary market was like a bull in a china shop. Store picks and the custom stickers that accompanied them were the talk of the town and the creation of single barrel clubs revved up at a feverish pace. Distillers continued to pull pages out of Scotch’s playbook with more elaborate bottle packaging, and the prices to try and justify them. The number of limited releases once again rose and demand was right there to match it.
In our Favorite 2017 Whiskeys article, we mentioned how we had felt there weren’t many WOW releases last year. Thankfully 2018 reversed that trend with a slew of bottles that made us all snap our heads to attention. Bourbon was back in 2018 and in a bigger way than ever!
In the meantime, as is tradition since we founded Breaking Bourbon, we like to end the year highlighting our favorite whiskeys, or in this case look back at it. But keep in mind, our 2018 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 2018.
Old Ezra Barrel Proof
Last year if someone told me I would be putting an Ezra Brooks bourbon on my favorites list this year I probably wouldn’t have believed them. Of course who would have thought Luxco would have succeeded rebooting Rebel Yell with the brand’s Single Barrel release a few years ago? Apparently it has less to do with luck, and more to do with bottling what will appeal to the masses. While that is often used to describe a product in a negative light, it’s exactly why this product succeeds in every way. Sure it’s safe, and it doesn’t exactly challenge the taste buds like some limited editions do, but great bourbon doesn’t always have to. It’s a bourbon that I immediately want more of when I finish my glass and eventual bottle. And to top it all off, its barrel proof, age stated, and incredibly value priced. It’s exactly the opposite of what many bourbons have become nowadays. It’s a bourbon we can all believe in.
Yellowstone 2018 Limited Edition Bourbon
Being someone that doesn’t love barrel finished bourbon you might be as surprised as I am to see this brand on my favorites list for the second year in a row. By reusing the same barrels used to finish Yellowstone Limited Editions for the past three years, like me, you have every right to be skeptical. It simply sounds like a recipe for disaster. Yet, these limited edition releases keep getting better. This year’s release sports a potent and balanced nose, and a well-integrated and flavorful palate that’s highlighted by a delicious blend of dark chocolate, rich raspberries, and brandy soaked cherries. Its unique barrel finish enhances without overpowering, and accomplished what few whiskey did for me this year - it never left my mind.
1792 Single Barrel (Breaking Bourbon Single Barrel Club Pick/Third Base Market & Spirits)
Self indulgent? Perhaps, but hear me out. After re-tasting many whiskeys for this article, I struggled to nail down my final third pick. Sure I enjoyed my honorable mentions listed below, but I just don’t see myself being that in love with them that I would “clear the shelves” of them given the chance. When this Third Base Market & Spirits' single barrel goes on sale in a few weeks, I can’t wait to buy multiple bottles of it, and that sentiment was shared by my Breaking Bourbon colleagues. Much like how Old Ezra Barrel Proof nailed a flavorful palate that’s hard to dislike, this 1792 Single Barrel hits all of the same marks. With a full flavored, decent complexity and a winning price point, this is what bourbon is all about
Barrell Craft Spirits Infinite Barrel Project (February 12, 2018 Release)
The folks at Barrell Craft Spirits are expert blenders, and if you weren’t already a believer they solidified their status as expert blenders with the late 2018 release of the premium BCS Line comprised of a 15 Year Bourbon, 25 Year Whiskey, and 13 Year Rum. They also released a new whiskey that doesn’t seem to have received much press yet - Dovetail, a whiskey comprised of 10 year Indiana whiskey finished in Dunn Vineyards Cabernet barrels and 11 year bourbon distilled in Tennessee and finished in black strap rum casks and LBV Port Pipes. Each of these is outstanding in its own right, and I wrestled with which was most deserving of making this list because it could have been any one of them to tell you the truth.
But I kept coming back to something they released in early 2018, the Infinite Barrel Project. It seems like forever ago and seems like it hasn’t been talked about much since launch, but the first edition was dated February 12, 2018. Since then six more editions have been released, each different except for the last two which contained identical components. It’s a whiskey geek’s infinity bottle on a much larger scale. A simple concept at its core - blend various whiskeys together and then pull some off, always leaving a portion behind to ensure a component of every whiskey ever blended remains in the mix, even if very small. Getting a blend of Tennessee whiskey, Polish Malted Rye, Tennessee rye, Indiana whiskey, Irish whiskey, Scotch whiskey, and more to taste good is not an easy task, yet Barrell succeeds at it.
In the end, the 2018 Barrell release I’ll take with me as the one that will stand out the most for me into the future is the Infinite Barrel Project. Going forward I’m excited to see what Beatrice and Stimson do with it.
Old Ezra Barrel Proof
I hate to sound like I’m jumping on a bandwagon, but it’s just that good. I noticed this right away after tasting my media sample, and very quickly started looking for bottles as I anticipated their arrival in New York. The fact is, it’s a reasonably accessible bourbon priced lower than the liquid in the bottle could rightfully command. At 117 proof it has a robust flavor profile that won’t please everyone, but also deviates enough to stand out from the crowd. It reminds me of three bourbons that landed on my 2016 Favorites List - 1792 Full Proof, Rebel Yell Single Barrel (first release), and Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style, each of which was relatively accessible (two still are) and reasonably priced. Going back to Old Ezra many times since my first taste explains why I kept buying bottles as I found them and solidified it as one of my favorites of the year.
McKenzie Bottled-in-Bond Wheated Bourbon
I’m fortunate to have been able to sample many limited releases this year, from Wild Turkey to the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection lineup and more, though I didn’t try everything. Limited releases from major distilleries are often really good, but I’ve come to expect that, and the prices and availability typically reflect it. What I’ve been increasingly more excited about are quality whiskeys that are either craft distilled or offered as part of single barrel programs. McKenzie Bottled-in-Bond Wheated Bourbon is distilled and bottled by Finger Lakes Distilling. The distillery is located only about an hour and a half from where I live, on the southeast side of Seneca Lake which is one of New York’s larger Finger Lakes nestled snugly in wine country. Made from a mashbill of 70% corn, 20% wheat, and 10% malted barley, non-chill filtered, and then bottled at the required 100 proof and minimum of 4 years old, this bourbon is the real deal. It also carries a suggested price of $42.99, so in my book it rivals what the major Kentucky distilleries are producing. It’s a fine example of quality craft whiskey, and a sign of what’s to come.
King of Kentucky
2018 seemed to have a higher than normal limited release cycle. It seemed like every distillery either upped the limited releases they were putting out or started selling them if they hadn’t in the past. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing as some really great bourbons ended up being put out on the market.
One such limited release bourbon that really caught my attention was King of Kentucky from Brown-Forman. This was a very limited release with only 960 bottles available exclusively in Kentucky, which was really a shame since more people didn’t have a chance to try this. King of Kentucky was a full flavored bourbon that pleased in all the right spots and really delivered on every sip. As I stated in my review, the inaugural 2018 release could have easily been a marketing ploy, à la the Orphan Barrel line, to resurrect an old brand and use high aged Early Times barrels that weren’t designated for anything specific. Instead, what Brown-Forman delivered is a really great limited edition whiskey.
Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond 9 Year Fall 2018 Release
I’ve always been a fan of bottled-in-bond (BiB) bourbons. Usually this is due to the fact that you can find some great value pours for the price when it comes to bottled-in-bond bottles. That’s why I was so surprised that not only was I okay with the fantastic pour, but also the high cost of entry for a bottle of the Fall release of Old Fitz BiB. This is a classic bourbon that really exemplifies what the bottled-in-bond stamp is meant to represent. It delivers a rich sip that draws you back in again and again, all without needing to sport a high proof or double digit age statement.
Belle Meade Bourbon Cask Strength Reserve
Few pours stick with me throughout the year like Belle Meade Bourbon Cask Strength Reserve did. This small batch bourbon really impressed me with its rich aromas and baking spice profile. Not often does a sip make me think of a single food item, but this really reminded me of spiced apple pie through and through. While Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery may have originally sourced this bourbon from MGP, it’s clear that they know how to masterfully blend their stock in order to pull from it some great results.
A number of the whiskeys selected as Favorites, Honorable Mentions, and Biggest Disappointments were received at no cost courtesy of distillers/producers. We thank them for the samples and for allowing us to evaluate them with no strings attached