It’s New Year’s Eve so it’s time for my second annual whiskey awards! There’s no Pappy 15, Alberta Premium or Larceny Barrel Proof to be found here. Just like last year I haven’t tasted nearly enough whiskies for this to be even remotely authoritative and I am just as unqualified to call something the best so these will just be my favorites.
Requirements to be on the list:
- Released in 2020
- I was able to get a bottle and drink a reasonable amount of it
- No barrel picks for the non-barrel pick award categories (IB releases don’t count as barrel picks ie SCN)
- For whiskies I wrote reviews for this year I respected the scores given
- Otherwise it is whatever I enjoyed most
To be clear this my favorite whiskies released in 2019 and not “The best whiskies released” or “Whiskies I think everyone will love” and definitely not “Things you should tater over.”
Winner: 2020 George T Stagg
Runner Up: Doc Swinon’s 15 Year Release 6
This year’s Stagg was even better than last year’s but not quite at ‘17 levels for me. That said it was definitely my favorite straight bourbon from this year. It feels bad to but a BTAC here since they are so hard to get but it really did stand out.
Doc Swinson’s first 15 year old release was also fantastic. It was sweet, nutty, complex and still approachable especially compared to something like Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. While the 7-9 releases were also good none of them was at the same level as the 6 for me.
Winner: Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend 19
Runner Up: Bardstown Bourbon Company Chateau De Laubade Collaboration
Basically the same as last year but what am I supposed to do? Cigar Blend remains one of my favorite pours and I think this was a great year even with the increase in the number of batches. I do think some of the batches from this year were a little weaker and sort of diverged from what I consider to be the classic Cigar Blend profile(ie 25 and 29) but the great batches this year like 19 were still some of the best bourbons I drank. This year Bardstown narrowed the gap with their exceptional Chateau De Laubade Collaboration which was MGP finished in Armagnac casks so it’s no surprise I loved it.
Winner: Thomas H Handy Sazerac 2020
Runner Up: High West Rocky Mountain Rye 16 Year
After last year’s very disappointing Handy release I was cautiously optimistic after seeing some early hype for this year’s release and it definitely lived up to it. COVID has gotten in the way of me doing a BTAC/Van Winkle round up but I’m optimistic that bars will still have their bottles long enough for me to do it.
I learned that High West was bringing back their Rocky Mountain Rye early this year and was very excited especially when they announced that it was a blend of 16 year straight ryes, higher proof and was a relatively reasonable 130. Thankfully my Park City connection came through and the bottle delivered. It’s old and delicious and I’ll definitely be doing a longer write up on it.
Winner: Single Cask Nation Whistle Pig Rum and Vermouth Finish
Runner Up: Single Cask Nation Whistle Pig Tokaji Finish
These slapped basically everything else I tried this year. MWND 8 was enjoyable but wasn’t on the same level as these two and the same goes for the other various High West barrel select ryes I tried. I skipped the finished releases from Sagamore so I can’t say how they stacked up.
Bourbon Barrel Pick:
Winner: ADLS Smoke Wagon 13 Year
Runner Up: Bourbon Enthusiast XO Cognac
When I found out a local club I’m in was getting a 13 year old Smoke Wagon Private Barrel I almost couldn’t believe it. The presale sold out in minutes and thankfully I got one. I was fan of Smoke Wagon going into the year and this 13 year old bottle is right up there with the original Chip’s Liquor Drink Smoke Every Day for my favorite Smoke Wagon release. It’s a great balance of sweet MGP brown sugar and strong oak notes.
With Belle Meade putting their barrel selections on hiatus I was very fortunate to be able to grab a couple of Bourbon Enthusiast’s XO Cognac finished pick. Surprising no one I was a big fan of good cask strength MGP finished in a cognac barrel. The finish is heavy without being overwhelming leaving enough of the MGP notes to cut through the rich dark fruit.
Rye Barrel Pick:
Winner: Bourbon Boyz Nashville Barrel Company Rye
Runner Up: ADLS Nashville Barrel Company Rye
Nashville Barrel Company has been releasing some amazing 7 year old MGP and these two bottles easily topped my list of the 6 or so I tried this year and beat out the Barrell and Nulu 7 years ryes as well(though those were no slouches either). I’m super excited to see these middle aged MGP ryes coming back and still delivering.
Winner: GlenDronach Single Cask ‘The Belter’ GAS Selection
Runner Up Winner: Edradour Spec’s Single Cask
I was a little hesitant to buy an expensive scotch pick from a group I’d never heard of but I was very curious about these GlenDronach single casks and this was the lowest entry cost I’d had on one so I went for it and I’m glad I did. The PX sherry cask does wonders to GlenDronach’s excellent distillate leading to tons of rich dark fruit with leather, oak, spice and everything else I’d want in an old single malt.
Despite being only 10 years old this basically looks like motor oil thanks to the first fill Oloroso butt. I’d never had cask strength Edradour before and this little sherry bomb has made sure I won’t keep missing out. Hopefully more places here in Austin start doing scotch selections.
Whiskey You Can Actually Buy For a Reasonable Price:
The criteria here are simple a bottle must be on shelves at ~MSRP in Austin and <$5 for a 1.5 oz drink so <80 for a fifth or <40 for a pint.
Winner: Wilderness Trail Rye Picks
Runner Up: Remus Repeal Batch 4
The first one is sort of cheating but there are currently at least 2 Wilderness Trail rye picks sitting around town (ABC Liquor and Austin Shaker) and I think they are both great bottles. The Shaker pick is on the sweeter side of the Wilderness Trail profile while the ABC is a bit spicier.
This year’s Remus Repeal was another winner for me. I’m an MGP fan and 100 proof is a sweet spot for me so it’s not a surprise though.
- Willett Family Estate Single Barrels: I loved the Willett single barrel releases that hit town this year and grabbed as many of them as I could. Highway Kind was the standout bourbon and Walkin the Floor was the standout rye for me.
- Bardstown Bourbon Company Discovery Series 3: The addition of older MGP to this years Discovery Blend led to a really interesting end product where both the Indiana and Kentucky notes shine through without overwhelming each other. That said it’s pretty pricey and if I was going to go by a ~150 bottle of bourbon it would Doc Swinson’s over Bardstown right now.
- Moonshine Four Roses OESK: It was a tossup between this and Bourbon Enthusiast XO for the runner up spot for bourbon barrel picks for me this year. Moonshine keeps killing it with the Four Roses picks even if I did prefer the previous 12 year OBSV to this one. That said it handily beat out this year’s Beastmaster’s OESK and another random OESK from my shelf.
- All the Whistle Pig picks I did this year: I did 3 different Whistle Pig picks with 3 different stores throughout the year which ended up being sort of awkward but I loved them all and would do it again haha. Also I’d definitely take a WP pick over Alberta Premium any day even with the higher price tag.
- Boss Hog VII: I wasn’t sure whether to count this as a finished rye or not with the teakwood so I just dropped it here. I’ve never bought a Boss Hog before and I’m not sure I would again but this bottle was fantastic and tasted like cinnamon rolls to me. I had the chance to buy it in the low 400s, which is still crazy expensive, right when I was looking to buy something nice as a celebration bottle and this did the job.
2020 was another great year in bourbon for me and once again most of my favorites barrel picks or other releases outside the usual tater suspects. Ignore the awards, ignore the internet hype and drink what you like.
New high cost releases did a bit better for me in 2020 than in 2019. I didn’t get suckered into buying anything from Kentucky Owl this year and I skipped all the Cream of Kentucky releases. The gamble on Doc’s paid off, Bardstown’s Discovery releases were great and Four Gate was good if pricey for what it was. Still my general advice would be to stay away from these 100+ bottles if value is important to you.
Craft distilleries keep getting better with a slew of great picks coming out of New Riff and Wilderness Trail. Woodinville, Wyoming Whiskey and Still Austin here are also dialing it in and will be ones to watch for me. The New York craft distilleries haven’t impressed me yet and Texas whiskey is still divisive.
TL;DR: 2020 was a great year for bourbon