This past year has been a good year for American whiskey. While we always find some hits and misses from year to year, we believe that producers continue to release standard rye and bourbon offerings that are on par with releases of recent years, and continue to wow with annual special releases. Some producers continue to innovate, with new creations like four grain whiskeys, toasted barrel finishes, and even blended whiskey, just to name a few. Yet all of this is transpiring at a time when the bourbon and rye industry continues at an upward trend.
Here at Flight Club, we have been fortunate to get to sample some of the best of this year’s best releases. For many of those we have been able to provide you with backgrounds, reviews and commentary. Below are some objective observations from some of this year’s most notable releases, listed in the order in which we posted reviews. Inter-disbursed are this year’s Top 10 Lists from Scott Hill, Chris Crow, Jay Cary, Stephen Benson and Stephen Netherton.
E. H. Taylor Four Grain – Released here in Kansas in early May, Four Grain was one 2017’s most notable new releases. Four Grain is a 12-year, 100 proof Bottled-in-Bond offering under Buffalo Trace’s E.H. Taylor lineup. We reviewed it, and while we certainly enjoyed it, we questioned whether the combination of corn, rye, barley, and wheat limit each individual grain from reaching its full potential. In October, Jim Murray named it his top overall Whiskey in his 2018 Whiskey Bible. Those of you who follow secondary markets certainly noted a huge increase in both prices and transactions following this announcement. Buffalo Trace has indicated that a 13-year version will be released in 2018. We will certainly look to get our hands on a bottle – I’m sure we are not alone on that.
Four Roses Al Young 50th Anniversary – Kansas is not noted for its allocations of Four Roses products. While many of us hunted for this bottle, amongst our club only a few of us were able to even sample a bottle at out-of-town whiskey bars. Our reviews are consistent with just about every other reputable review around: “this is really good!” It’s hard to imagine someone who has been able to try this and it doesn’t make their top 10 list (yes, with that we are hedging our collective Top 10 lists below).
Barrel Bourbon Batch 11 – This year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition saw a major upset. Barrell Bourbon – a relatively newcomer to the bourbon scene – took first place with its Batch No. 11, a 6-year blend of bourbon sourced from an undisclosed distillery in Tennessee. This bottle was somewhat polarizing in our club. Scott Hill, Jay Cary, and Chris Crow enjoyed it greatly. Stephen Netherton sampled blind, and didn’t share in the praise. What all could agree on, however, is that this pour presented a different experience from the norm. We are excited to sample more from Barrell.
George T. Stagg – 2017’s biggest news may not have been a new or special release, but instead that Buffalo Trace would be releasing nearly 40,000 bottles of the 15-year, 129.2 proof George T. Stagg. 2016’s release count was much lower, and clocked in at 144.1 proof. We all loved last year’s “hazmat” release (anything over 140 proof is prohibited from air travel) and we were curious if the dramatic change would reduce quality. It did not.
Knob Creek 25th Anniversary – In 2016, Knob Creek released a “2001 Limited Edition,” a 14-year, 100 proof special release bourbon. It was met with mixed reviews, most notably criticized for a $100+ price point, while Jim Beam/Knob Creek was actively pushing 12-14 year Knob Creek Single Barrel, 120 proof bottles at a $40 price point. The skepticism didn’t sway Jim Beam. In 2017, they released a 14 year, barrel strength (our bottle registered 121 proof) bourbon marking Knob Creek’s 25th anniversary. We sampled all the above at our November Flight Club tasting. The 25th Anniversary was received quite favorable, price excluded however.
Thomas H. Handy – This bottle is the most often overlooked of all the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bottles each year, due in most part to its meager 6-year age. However, this young age has not stopped us from reviewing it quite highly, both in 2016 and 2017. Around Kansas, other than the huge 2017 release of George T. Stagg, this is the easiest of the BTAC bottles to find. No shame there, as we rated the Thomas H. Handy higher than either the 2017 Eagle Rare 17 or the 2017 Sazerac 18, which are near impossible to find anywhere.
Wild Turkey Decades – Flight Club celebrated Wild Turkey Month – 30 Turkeys in 30 Days this past November. Despite some great bottles dating back even to the late 1990’s, one of our favorite pours of the month was the Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades, a blend of 10 and 20 year bourbons released in 2017. For those familiar with old Wild Turkey, this bottle wasn’t as “dusty” as some, but had rich notes of tobacco, leather and butterscotch that seem to be lost in most of today’s releases. This one can still be found on shelves and is a worthy pickup for prized 2017 obtainable releases.
Kentucky Owl Rye – A brand new player to the rye whiskey game and a relatively new player to the whiskey game in general. Kentucky Owl (now owned by Stoli) was resurrected in 2014, when Dixon Deadman began releasing hand-blended, small-batch sourced bourbons. These releases, while highly sought after, were of limited distribution (Kentucky only). To achieve a wider audience but to not sacrifice its primary product line, Kentucky Owl released batch 1 of its 11-year rye in 2017. Many in the industry have declared this the release of the year. While we agree that it is good, we are hesitant to give it so much praise.
William Larue Weller – A perennial favorite. For many, William Larue Weller gets its fame from being the alter-ego of Pappy Van Winkle. However, while “Pappy” annually releases a 15-year, 20-year and 23-year bourbon, as well as the 10-year Old Rip Van Winkle and the 12-year Van Winkle “Lot B,” Pappy has no barrel proof release. William Larue Weller fills just that gap, a 12-year, barrel proof, wheated-bourbon produced by Buffalo Trace from the same stock as the Van Winkle line. For us, this one is probably the most sought after Buffalo Trace release.
A Midwinter Nights Dram – Notable for this year’s most sought after releases is the number of sourced products on the list (we will count them for you – three). Being a “non-distillery producer” is no longer a four-letter word. For High West, sourced whiskeys have made them not only a prominent player in the rye market, but also home to one of the most desirable finished American whiskeys of the year. Here, High West takes a sourced/blended Rendezvous Rye, and finishes it in port barrels. The results keep us anxious for the annual release.