Whiskey and music collided last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky, during the triumphant return of The Bourbon & Beyond Festival. The festival is one of the biggest in the Ohio Valley, covering four days of whiskey tastings, whiskey panels, podcasts, food shows, and, yes, rock ‘n roll (with a little country thrown in for good measure). While the overall fest was a blast, I was there to focus on the whiskey, and I got to try some stellar pours.
Below, I’ve listed the top 10 pours of whiskey (all bourbon and rye) that I was lucky enough to sample. I’ve added my own tasting notes to each of my favorite pours to give you an idea of what you’ll find in the brown juice. I also added a link to buy these bottles. But, full disclosure, a few of these pours were Bourbon & Beyond barrel picks and you’ll likely not be able to get the exact bottle I tried. That said, each bottle has a link to buy the same brand/bottle just from a different source, which is about as close as you can get.
Lastly, I didn’t really rank these. They’re all too good (great, really) in their own way. Look at it this way: if you can get your hands on any of the 10 bottles below, you’ll be in for a real treat because these are all killer pours. Let’s dive in!
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Old Forester Single Barrel Chris’ Pick Series 3
Average Price: $169
This is classic Old Forester from a single barrel that’s not cut with any water. When you find these, they’ll generally be a pick from a retailer or bar program. That means they’ll vary slightly, depending on what the person picking the barrel was looking for. Still, there’s a consistency of “Old Forester” running through them all. In this case, this was a barrel pick for Kroger.
There’s a clear sense of dark fruit, especially cherry, that becomes stewed with dark winter spices on the nose with a good dose of dry tobacco in an old cedar box that’s wrapped up in old leather. A hint of old dry roses sneaks in on the palate as those spices and syrupy cherry and berries intensify and attach to the chewy tobacco. The mid-palate sweetens with an almost rose-water marzipan vibe as the cherry tobacco dried out pretty significantly, leaving you with a sense of pitchy pine sap and your grandparent’s old tobacco pipe that’s still hot to touch.
This was just freakin’ good. This was also the pour I probably went back to the most. It had a wonderful balance and felt light and fresh while still hitting that deep bourbon-y vibe.
The Prideful Goat 15 Years Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength
Average Price: $195
This whiskey is a sourced masterpiece of Kentucky bourbon that’s bottled down in Texas. The mash bill is corn heavy with 78.5% corn next to 13% rye and 8.5% malted barley. That juice is left in barrels in Kentucky for 15 long years before they’re shipped to Texas, blended, and bottled as-is at cask strength.
This is classic bourbon with a deep sense of buttery toffee next to dark cherries with a sour edge, slightly tannic oak, a hint of worn boot leather, and a spicy tobacco leaf. The palate hits on a soft ginger snap with sharp cinnamon and freshly ground nutmeg leading to a handful of allspice berries before wet brown sugar and maple candy kick in and mellows the mid-palate toward dark cherry tobacco wrapped up with old wicker canes and pine needles. The end subtly drops toward old oak staves, cellar floor, and caramel/cinnamon syrup with a dash more of that tobacco.
This was one of my favorite pours of the month (so far). It’s just delightfully “bourbon!” with a nice depth and perfect balance of flavor notes.
Peerless Double Oak Bourbon 2022 Edition
Average Price: $134
This whiskey from Kentucky Peerless is around five to six years old and comes from one barrel that lets the grains shine through before it goes into another barrel that lets the oak shine through. That final barrel is bottled at cask strength, as-is, allowing all that beautiful bourbon and oak aging to shine brightly.
This opens with a nose full of salted butter next to hints of very soft leather, light notes of vanilla bean, a touch of toffee sweetness, and freshly cracked walnuts with a dry edge. The taste leans into that oak barrel with dashes of woody spices (think allspice berries, star anise, and cinnamon sticks), dry cherry tobacco leaves, salted caramel, and more of that super soft leather. That leads towards a mid-palate of dark red fruits stewed in mulled wine spices and cut with a dollop of fresh honey before the (long) finish dries out towards an old wicker chair, a very distinct hint of a cellar funk, and a touch of dried mint.
This is a bottle that I actually keep open on my home bar. That should tell you all that you need to know when it comes to how freakin’ good it is.
Kentucky Senator Bourbon 15 Years Release #1
Average Price: $199
This sourced whiskey celebrates both Kentucky’s bourbon heritage and U.S. Senators from the Bluegrass state. The juice is made with a mash of 78.5% corn, 13% rye, and 8.5% malted barley (sounds familiar?). The whiskey is left alone for 15 years before the team at Kentucky Senator Spirits blends and bottles this one, without filtering or proofing.
This whiskey opens with a medley of dry cedar, black cherries, burnt toffee, buttered sourdough pancake, old leather, cinnamon bark, and spiced chewy tobacco. The palate leans into the woody spices with cloves and anise taking center stage as soft maple syrup and pecan-cinnamon-butter create a spiced/sweet/creamy vibe on the palate. In the end, more woodsy spices mingle with rich cherry tobacco as old oak, salted caramel, and vanilla cream pie round everything out.
This is going to be harder to find but worth the hunt. This is classic bourbon with real depth, balance, and flavor.
Blue Run Bourbon Reflection I
Average Price: $99
This whiskey was distilled at Castle & Key back in 2018. 200 of those barrels were hand-picked for this release to take a look back at the past two years and “reflect” upon the trials they brought.
This opens with a distinct note of tart-yet-slightly sweet cherry on the nose with a supporting cast of butterscotch candies, mild firewood, and a hint of pancake batter. That batter becomes a stack of pancakes with vanilla-laced butter, maple syrup, and a few nuts thrown in, leading to an herb garden full of rosemary bushes. That savory note mellows out through the mid-palate as a dusting of nutmeg rounds out the finish with hints of woody maple syrup and a final echo of that tart cherry.
This will be one of the easier bottles to find right now — it’s actually on shelves around the country. It’s worth tracking down because it’s both delicious and fresh.
Starlight Distillery Carl T. Huber’s Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Cognac Casks
Average Price: $79
This release — from the distillery’s broad selection of uniquely finished whiskeys — is made with Starlight’s own four-year-old bourbon that’s loaded into hand-selected Cognac casks for six months. The whiskey then goes into the bottles with no fussing.
Smoked maple syrup and raw tobacco lead the way on the nose as floral honey, dry cacao powder, and a hint of rum-soaked raisin mingle throughout. The palate turns that cacao into a dark chocolate bar with almonds layered in as a mild, dry chili pepper adds some pep on the mid palate. There’s a dark and worn leather vibe that kicks in as the finish arrives with hints of apple-raisin-honey cider pipe tobacco vibing with old leather tobacco pouches and dry sweetgrass braids rounding out the end.
This is worth traveling to Indiana for, trust me.
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Barrel Proof
Average Price: $72
Where Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select is cut with soft limestone water to bring it down to proof, this is the straight juice from the barrel. These barrels are all hand selected from the vast Jack Daniel’s rickhouses. What’s left from the angel’s share then goes straight into the bottle. That means the ABVs and tasting notes for this bottle will vary depending on which bottle you snag.
This is full of rich vanilla, caramel, and toasted oak, next to a rush of cherry-spiked spice. The sip reels in a mix of that vanilla, oak, and rich wintry spices with a nice dose of bright red fruits and a texture that’s more velvet than liquid. The end really holds onto that vibe as the mild spice, toasted oak, rich vanilla, and almost maple syrup sweetness slowly fade across your senses, leaving you with chewy cherry tobacco stuffed into an old cedar box.
This is one of my favorite Jack Daniel’s expressions. It’s just so easy drinking and rewarding. It’s a truly great sipper.
Eaves Blind Kings County Bourbon Barrel Strength
Average Price: $150
Marianne Eaves — who came up as the Master Blender at Brown-Forman and Master Distiller at Castle & Key — released a full line of bourbons from outside of Kentucky this year. This one is from Kings County in Brooklyn, New York, and highlights Eaves’ master blender status. The juice is Kings’ four-year-old bourbon that Eaves blended to create a barrel-proof expression.
There’s a nice balance of red fruit on the nose with woody pomegranate, burnt orange, sour cherry, and maybe some blackberry jam next to mild winter spices, light cedar, and a hint of dark and old leather. The palate leans into brown sugar and maple syrup with a hint of cinnamon butter, walnut, and raisin before a warming and sharp cinnamon and dried red chili pepper peek in. The end leans back toward the dark red fruit with a hint of cedar and cinnamon bark layered over dry tobacco.
This is another winner that’s gettable (from the distiller) right now. Hit that price link below the image and try this one yourself!
Bardstown Bourbon Company Chateau de Laubade Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskies Finished in Armagnac Casks
Average Price: $160
This bourbon is a blend of 12-year-old, low-rye bourbon from Kentucky and 10-year-old, very-low-rye bourbon from Tennessee. The whiskeys were re-barreled into Armagnac casks from the famed Chateau de Laubade. One set spent two years mellowing on the bottom floor of the rickhouse while another set spent 16 months mellowing on the top floor. After that, the barrels were vatted and bottled as-is.
The nose on his one is deep and meanders through cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and mace before hitting a sweet edge of toffee covered in crushed almond with a dash of leather, dry sage, and some old oak. The palate starts off lush with a vanilla cream base before layering in sultanas and dates with a hint of gingerbread sweetness and spice. The end hints at cherry bark and grape must with a thin line of winter spice and old cellars full of old wood and dirt floors.
I’ve had this a few times this year and it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite pours of the year.
Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey 13 Years Old
Average Price: $4,080
This is the only non-wheated whiskey in the Pappy line. While we don’t know the exact mash bill, Buffalo Trace does use a rye mash bill that’s very low-rye (some say only 51% to meet legal requirements). Either way, the juice is then barreled and allowed to mellow for 13 years before blending, proofing, and bottling.
Imagine sweet tobacco leaves spiked with red peppercorns, rich caramel apples, and plenty of Christmas spices. Worn leather arrives with hints of fatty nuts and dried fruits next to the sharply spicy pepperiness. With a little water, that pepper mellows towards a powdery white pepper, with hints of vanilla and toffee lurking underneath. The end is very warm at first but fades out evenly and slowly, leaving a cedary sense of wood and a final whisper of pipe tobacco smoke.
It’s almost annoying how good this is and how inaccessible it has become. Everyone who loves whiskey should be able to buy and try this without the rigmarole that it takes to find Pappy these days. That said, this is just f*cking delicious.