The spirits trade shows are back, baby! If you’re not in the booze industry, you’re probably thinking, “huh?” But the big trade shows — BCB in Berlin, The Whisky Show London, Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, Whisky Live USA in Nashville, and several more — are where industry pros meet to network and taste what’s new. I was lucky enough to attend one last weekend in Nashville and do just that, sampling a ton of diverse whiskeys in the process.
Whisky Live USA recently relaunched following a three-year hiatus. The show is one of the most accessible whisk(e)y trade shows around, in that you can 100% buy tickets even if you’re just a whiskey lover who isn’t covering, promoting, or selling. You don’t need media credentials or proof you’re in the industry to attend Whisky Live — and you very much do for other trade shows. For around $160, you can access dozens of brands, panel discussions, and free pours of a great whiskey while mingling with insiders, distillers, and fellow whisky lovers.
Below, I’m calling out 10 exceptional whiskeys that I tasted in Nashville. That in and of itself was very difficult as there were 39 brands pouring several expressions at each booth. That makes this ranking very loose. Naturally, the ridiculous bottles — the unicorns if you will — were the ones that rocketed to the top of the tasting experience. Still, I tried to keep this list balanced, with plenty of obtainable bottles and a wide array of American single malts, bourbons, scotch, limited edition ryes. And, yes, a couple of unicorns, because those are fun to read about even if you can’t always get your hands on them.
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10. Balcones Lineage Texas Single Malt Whisky
Average Price: $52
This expression starts as a combination of Simpsons Golden Promise malted barley from Scotland and barley from the high plains of Texas. Those malts are fermented and then distilled on stills Balcones imported from Scotland. The spirit then goes into both used bourbon barrels and new American white oak (like bourbon and rye) for a rest under the hot Texas sun. Finally, those barrels are batched and bottled with a little Texas water for bottling.
This opens with a rush of tea tree oils in a mug of apple cider with freshly chopped and sappy Douglas fir firewood next to notes of raw pancake batter, old peaches, and a freshly cracked can of Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda. The palate builds on that with spicy yet sweet mulled wine, a big dollop of fresh honey, and plenty of soft cedar with a hint of allspice, burnt sugars, and maybe some floral black tea. The finish arrives with a syrupy red wine pan sauce with butter and cinnamon next to dry cedar, wet black tea grounds, and a walnut cake full of spice and vanilla with a caramel drizzle.
This is one of my favorite American single malts. So seeing it ranked tenth is a good indication of the great whiskies to come on this list.
All of that aside, this is a mellow pour whisky that packs a hell of a deep punch of flavors. You’ll definitely want to add a little water or a single rock to let this one bloom in the glass to get to some of those flavors, but that journey is part of what makes this one so good.
9. Virginia Distillery Co. Courage & Conviction Cuvee Single Cask
Average Price: $150
This whisky is made with 100% malted barley. That juice is then loaded into French red wine or Cuvée casks for a minimum of three years (each cask is hand-selected for its distinct flavor profile). These single casks were chosen for their beauty as a stand-alone whisky that doesn’t need any adulteration or cutting with water. The honey barrel is then bottled as-is at cask strength.
The nose is seriously buttery with a touch of brandy butter next to lightly salted caramel with a vanilla whipped cream that merges into a fruity backbone with hints of raisins, new leather, and maybe a whisper of damp straw. Malts shine through first on the palate as hefty brown spices create a serious heat (from those ABVs) before a cherry tobacco chewiness kicks in with a hint of pear candy under all that malty spice and warmth. The mid-palate really leans into the dark and stewed cherry tobacco vibe as a hint of dry hay, reeds, and umami (sweetish tomato paste maybe?) poke in very late on the finish.
This might need a rock to calm it down a bit and let it bloom. Then it really shines in the glass. It’s a really easy sipper with really deep nuances. It’s rewarding but a little sweet (for me), hence it’s ranking a tad lower on this particular list.
8. Bardstown Bourbon Fusion Series #7
Average Price: $65
The Fusion Series from Bardstown carries the tradition of blending Bardstown’s own juice with expertly sourced barrels. In this case, 70% of the blend is from three different three-year-old bourbons with varying high-rye mash bills. The remaining 30% is from two 12-year-old barrels with a low-rye bourbon mash. Those barrels are vatted at Bardstown and touched with a little water before bottling.
The wood comes through on the palate as a cedar plank that’s had nectarines crushed on it and then thrown on a grill with supporting notes of crushed almonds, floral honey, and buttery toffee rounding out the nose. The taste leans into the sweet wood and toffee as a touch of old malt cookies with a hint of vanilla leads to a spiced mulled wine with a little more of that honey. The finish is bold and warm with plenty of cedar, dark spice, and mellow toffee.
These expressions always rule. Moreover, the ABVs on this are on the lower side (relatively), making this a great neat sipper. I also really like this as a base for a Manhattan or Sazerac — something where the base spirit can really shine.
7. Barrell Dovetail
Average Price: $85
This is a complex whiskey from one of the country’s best blenderies. Barrell sources a 10-year-old Indiana whiskey that was finished in Dunn Vineyards Cabernet barrels and marries that juice to 11-year-old Tennessee bourbon that was finished in both blackstrap rum casks and port pipes. That blend is then bottled as-is.
You’re greeted with the port notes of dried raisins and plums, leading towards a touch of licorice next to a really rummy sweetness. There’s a sense of spicy stewed cherries (think clove and anise) that supports a touch of charred marshmallow with a bit of soft oak. The end holds onto the fruit and sweeter notes while going all-in on the warmness of the ABVs with a black pepper spiciness and long yet subtle tobacco buzz.
This is always a refreshing pour year after year. It’s so deeply hewn while still maintaining an accessibility that’s, well, fresh. Pour this over a rock or two and you’re set.
6. Old Pulteney 18
Average Price: $154
Old Pulteney is a renowned Highland single malt. The unpeated whisky is aged in second-fill ex-bourbon casks for 18 years before being re-barreled into first-fill ex-Oloroso sherry casks for a final maturation. Finally, the juice is vatted, proofed down, and bottled.
Bright notes of floral honey greet your nose as yellow pears, orange blossoms, and tart apples mingle with a thin line of vanilla cream, winter spice, and chocolate-covered raisins. The palate leans into the chocolate while the taste gets slightly bitter like an espresso bean before a minced meat pie drops in with sweetness and meaty dried fruit with a good dusting of brown spices. The end has a nice hit of orange zest that leads to a holiday cake with tons of dried and candied fruits and a good measure of wintry spices.
This is just freakin’ good. It’s a quintessential single malt sipper. It’s great neat but really blooms with a rock or a few drops of water. You might even find a little bit of lemon meringue and chocolate/orange pudding in there as it gets creamier and creamier with that water.
5. George Dickel x Leopold Bros Collaboration Blend
Average Price: $120
The blend is built from four-year-old rye made in Denver at Leopold’s distillery in their bespoke three chamber column still. The mash bill is 80% Abruzzi Rye and 20% Leopold Floor Malt. That’s blended with George Dickel’s un-released new column still rye, which is a 95% rye cut with five percent malted barley.
The nose has clear notes of bright florals (think lavender and orange blossom) next to an almost woody touch of maple syrup with a very mild dusting of dark cacao powder and soft leather. The palate opens with touches of holiday-spiced orange oils and rosewater leading towards light marzipan next to a prickly bramble of berry bushes hanging heavy with dark, sweet, and slightly tart fruit. The mid-palate holds onto the sweet and meaty date while bitter yet floral Earl Grey tea with a healthy dollop of fresh honey leads towards a finish full of more of that powdery dark cacao just touched by dry chili flakes, adding a slight warmth to the backend.
This gets better every time I try it. This time around it was a delightful and nuanced change of pace (I had just been tasting a lot of classic bourbons). It’s very fresh and new with a deep flavor profile that invites you back to try it again and again. It also works wonders in a simple cocktail.
4. Gordon & MacPhail Tormore Distillery 1994 Singel Malt Scotch
Average Price: $216
Gordon & MacPhail get their hands on some of the best (and rarest) barrels in the whisky game and bottle them as-is. In this case, that was a 1994 barrel of Tormore, which is a very bespoke distillery in Speyside. For this bottling, Gordon & MacPhail chose a barrel that shines on its own without any fussing and at barrel proof.
The nose opens with a mix of orange candies with a hint of winter spice, dashes of clove, cuts of green grass, and a buttery toffee smoothness. The palate leans into dark chocolate laced with a light and almost woody chili pepper as bruised sweet apples (skins and all) counterpoint marzipan and dry cedar bark braids. The end combines those old apples with winter spices to create a spicy apple compote with a hint of vanilla beans and orange marmalade on the backend.
This is one of those “whoa” sips. It’s just f*cking delicious. And that’s going to be the theme going forward on this list.
3. Benromach 1978 Single Cask
Average Price: $2,300
This ultra-rare single cask single malt from Speyside is a thing of beauty. The juice is from a single barrel — a sherry cask — that was filled in 1978 and left alone for 40 long years. That barrel yielded 184 bottles, all of which were bottled as-is with no fussing.
The nose opens with this mix of kiwi skins, sandy pear flesh, saffron threads, and creamy honey with a thin line of old vanilla husks. The palate layers orange and lime citrus into the honey as soft notes of black and green peppercorns mingle with a faint whisper of wet chili pepper, old lemon candy wrappers, and dark chocolate powder laced tobacco. The end softens considerably toward a lush and silky finish full of chocolate malts, rich toffee, marzipan, and this almost invisible line of peaty yet sweet fireplace smoke.
This is just magnificent. There’s nothing more to say.
2. Belle Meade Single Barrel — Barrel 2947
Average Price: $768
This expression is all about the barrel-picking prowess of the team at Nelson Green Brier. Each of these barrels is hand-selected for its beauty and then bottled at cask strength to let that barrel shine through in the finished product.
The nose opens with deep vanilla that mingles with hints of dark chocolate sugar cookies with a touch of mint and maybe a little dried ancho chili with a woody vibe. The palate centers the creamy vanilla while adding in cinnamon bark with notes of black pepper and floral honey moved into the background as a chocolate-mint espresso bean pops in. The end is long-ish and carries more of that vanilla cream while that cinnamon becomes slightly chewy like a Red Hot with a dried choco-mint tobacco buzz on the tip of the tongue and a lush feeling around.
This was one of the biggest surprises at the fest. I hadn’t had a Belle Meade Single Barrel in a while and tasting it again more than lived up to my fond memories. It’s just a spectacularly well-rounded bourbon that will make you whisper “wow” to yourself.
1. Michter’s 20-Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Average Price: $6,000
Master Distiller Dan McKee personally selects these 20-year-old (at least) barrels from their rickhouses based on, well, excellence. The juice is bottled as-is with no cutting with water.
Imagine dark and sweet cherries smothered in rummy molasses with a touch of dried roses, nuts, and cedar all leading towards the soft — almost wet — tobacco leaf. That’s just the nose. The palate doesn’t veer too far from those notes but adds in a touch of burnt ends from vanilla pods with a light spice that leans more towards that tobacco than woody brown spices. The finish really embraces the cherry but more towards the stem and seed as the nuttiness leans marzipan and the tobacco takes on an ever-so-slight chewiness.
This ran out pretty quickly once people said that Michter’s opened the bottle. That aside, this might be as close to perfection in bourbon as any brand has gotten since Julian van Winkle stopped making whiskey. I think it might be time to put this in a head-to-head against a Pappy 20 and see which one reigns supreme. But that’s a tasting for another day.
Lastly, this is also the perfect example of why you should consider going to these types of events. This pour will cost a minimum of $200 at any high-end whiskey bar. Michter’s was pouring it for free to guests at Whisky Live USA last weekend. That, along with the other insane bottles that were poured listed above (and not even listed on this ranking), is the real incentive to hit up this whiskey fest. You simply won’t get this level of whisky poured — again for free — at a fest you can attend without being in the industry.