“Whiskey is everything” may as well have been this year’s theme. Releases were numerous, coming out at a fast and furious pace. New distilleries continued to appear, established distilleries continued to expand, and single barrel clubs remained as popular as ever. In our Favorite 2018 Whiskeys article, we mentioned that the whiskey train continued to pick up speed in 2018. In 2019, the market seemed to have pulled a page straight out of a moonshiners playbook and dumped ethanol into its engine!
2019 reminded us that there is still a ton of room to grow. Line expansions happened from multiple major distilleries, including Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey. The year also saw lots of limited editions, including many like Lux Row Distillers Double Barrel Bourbon, which unfortunately, was a Kentucky-only release. Thankfully not all limited releases were contained to Kentucky only, as many were released nationwide, including Maker’s Mark RC-6, which was Maker’s Mark first ever national limited release. Additionally, we saw promising inroads from new distilleries, such as the new make of Stoll & Wolfe Rosen Rye Whiskey.
In the meantime, as is tradition since we founded Breaking Bourbon, we like to end the year highlighting our favorite whiskeys we’ve had this year. But keep in mind, our 2019 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 2019.
Last year, the resurrection of King of Kentucky from Brown-Forman caught my attention and easily made my favorites list. This very limited release returned this year, more than doubling in size, with just 2,100 bottles being made available again exclusively in Kentucky. When the only flaw you can find with a bourbon is that its availability is limited to one state, you know you have a winner. Throughout the year, King of Kentucky kept pecking at the back of my brain as I couldn’t shake the delicious flavor profile it left behind in my memory. It’s a prime example of a perfectly well-rounded bourbon, delivering a flavor profile full of rich cinnamon, oak, and spice, that makes you curse that this isn’t a more widely available bottle to obtain.
I’ve always been a fan of ryes that buck the typical rye flavor profile. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a well-rounded classic rye whiskey, it’s that I’m drawn to whiskeys that are willing to buck the norm, yet still deliver a pour that will make you stop and ponder why this hasn’t been released sooner. Balcones Texas Rye certainly falls into that category. Texas Rye may not be for everyone, but to me, this rye quickly became one of my favorites to pour for friends who haven’t had the opportunity to try it yet. Its rich chocolate aroma draws you in and rewards you with a sip full of rich spiced chocolate and malt. This easy drinker is one that I find myself appreciating with each bottle I open and pour.
Rare Perfection 15 Years Old caught me totally off guard. Like so many other “lost barrel stories” out there, I just assumed barrels with a bourbon mash bill that were aged and forgotten in Canada was just another marketing ploy. And then I had a glass, and all of my preconceptions couldn’t have disappeared fast enough. This whiskey delivers a rich sweet sip that comes with a hint of “dusty funk” on the nose that you normally see in bottles from the decades long past. Its finish delivers a lingering hint of butterscotch that sticks with you for what seems like forever, making you ponder how to obtain more bottles of this. It may be labeled a Canadian Whiskey due to where it was aged, but this is a prime example of not judging a book by its cover.
When Heaven Hill announced Larceny Barrel Proof would become an ongoing release, my gut reaction was less than excited. On a visit to Heaven Hill to select three barrels for our Single Barrel Club in June, I had the opportunity to taste Larceny straight from the barrel as it was one of the brands we were selecting. To my surprise, the Larceny barrels we tasted straight from the barrel were disappointing at barrel proof - unbalanced and surprisingly tannic. Proofing them down, it turned out, rounded out those rough edges resulting in much better pours. Was this why Larceny Barrel Proof had never really gotten off the ground?
So how did the end result turn out? Wow is it good! It’s rare that I’m impressed at first sip, and then each time thereafter on multiple occasions. Full-flavored and warming with gooey-sweet caramel, vanilla, summer fruits, and just the right amount of oak. Where Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is a bit more oak-focused and at times rather bold, Larceny Barrel Proof Batch A120 is sweeter, softer, yet just as rich in flavor. Considering this is a batched product, it really demonstrates how blending multiple barrels effectively can enhance the end result considering my first experience tasting Larceny directly from individual barrels.
Rare Perfection 15 Year comes from Preservation Distillery, a small distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. While they are distilling in small batches of 1-3 barrels, their current releases are all sourced whiskeys. Rare Perfection 15 Year comes from a surprising source - Canada. While it’s made from a wheated bourbon mashbill (and it's believed that it contains some rye as a fourth grain), the fact that it was distilled in Canada means it doesn’t qualify as bourbon. It was batched and bottled at its cask strength of 119.7 proof. However, this whiskey isn’t one of my favorites of the year because it was distilled in Canada, rather, in spite of it. While its background is interesting, its unique punchy-sweet flavor profile is even more so. If anything, it’s reminiscent of what I would imagine an Angel’s Envy Rum Finished Rye with its sweetness toned down a few notches might taste like at cask strength. Truly unique and memorable.
Comprised of 27 15 year old single barrels with proofs ranging from 125-135, the second iteration of this Kentucky only release hit the market for what feels like a split-second this past July. No different than Brown-Forman has impressed me with their ongoing Whiskey Row releases, their ultra-limited King of Kentucky releases have exemplified what it means to showcase an ultra-limited whiskey that is arguably about as good as bourbon can get. A near-perfect marriage of flavors, dark chocolate, cherries, rye spice, and a hint of sweetness combine with just the right amount of oak to let you know the bourbon’s age. At barrel proof, it’s delivered with a punch that’s unlike many other sophisticated aged bourbons that clock in at much lower proof points. It’s one I’ll remember for years to come, and I can only wish there was more of it.
I really had a hard time believing Four Roses was going to find success introducing another ongoing release to their brand portfolio and have it stand out against their already excellent offerings. Yet they somehow did and took what they do best, blending, and applied it to a more available and affordable product than their yearly limited edition release. Four Roses Small Batch Select was the product I suggested to more people than any other product in 2019. Its availability, price point, and easy-to-love fruity flavor profile is a perfect trifecta that many bourbons strive for, but few accomplish as well as Four Roses Small Batch Select does.
It takes all of a sip to fall in love with Larceny Barrel Proof Batch A120. Its rich sweet flavors quickly overtake you and remind you that not all barrel proof bourbons are created equal. By definition, barrel proof bourbons are bold and rich, but few nail the perfect balance of intensity, drinkability, heat, and agreeable flavors. In a year of many excellent barrel proof bourbon releases, Larceny Barrel Proof might not be as challenging flavorwise as others, but it does just about everything else right. It’s unfortunate it took Heaven Hill so long to release a barrel proof Larceny on an ongoing basis, but thankfully it was worth the wait. With wide availability and an affordable price, every bourbon drinker needs to experience Larceny at barrel proof. It’s that good.
You’ve got to hand it to the small-sized Lux Row Distillery for taking on the double barrel or micro batch process. This labor intensive process of curating specific barrels together is extremely hands-on and time consuming. The result was a knockout. It is a beautiful proof of concept and an all around fantastic tasting bourbon that stands out to me as one of the best tasting bourbons all year. The question still remains if the company can make this a repeatable limited release that can keep a consistent level of quality of barrel pairings release after release. Like the excellent King of Kentucky this year, this was also a Kentucky-only release, but saw 6,000 bottles hit the state. I really hope Lux Row can replicate this again and release it in more states, as its unique barrel pairing process and excellent end result makes it one of the best limited release bourbons in 2019.