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Our Tasting Notes On the 2021 American Whiskey Masters Winners

We’re officially in the back half of 2021. Summer will be over soon. The holiday season is coming in fast. For booze, that all means whiskey awards are going to start dropping at a pretty quick pace. To that end, The Spirits Business just announced their American Whiskey Masters award winners. The top honors had some serious surprises and gave us a little pause. We knew we had to dig in.

The awards are chosen by small panels of industry insiders, whiskey writers, and bar folk. Each flight of whiskey is tasted blind and ranked. “Master” is the highest honor with gold, silver, and bronze prizes also awarded. We’re focusing only on the masters this time around as those are the best of the best.

Of the ten “masters” from this year’s tastings, six came from Sazerac Company with five from their Buffalo Trace distillery alone. This isn’t really surprising. Sazerac owns some of the best distilleries operating in America today and really pushes their brands on the awards circuit. What was surprising was the relatively cheap bourbon from Buffalo Trace that took home bourbon “masters” designations: Benchmark. In fact, three of the brand’s labels ended up at the top of the “premium” bourbon category.

To better understand this year’s American Whiskey Masters, we decided to provide our own tasting notes to add a little more context to the list of winners. If any of these bottles pique your interest, make sure to click on the prices to try them yourself!

Benchmark Small Batch

Sazerac Company

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $17

The Whiskey:

The McAfree brothers were the trio who followed the Great Buffalo Trail from Virginia into Kentucky in the 1770s and founded what would become part of today’s Buffalo Trace. The bourbon in this very cheap bottle is a standard “small batch” though there’s not a whole lot of information on what that entails exactly. Otherwise, this is a standard bourbon that’s made for mixing.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a truly basic bourbon vibe on the nose and throughout the palate. Vanilla extract, slightly wet oak, and that raw Buffalo Trace leather dominate the nose. The taste pretty much stays in that arena with caramel apples and floral honey popping up next to a slight metallic note and soft mineral water mouthfeel. The end is short and sweet and leaves you with that leather, oak, and vanilla primarily.

Bottom Line:

Sazerac is pushing Benchmark hard as a line of cheap bourbon to compete with the likes of Beam. It’s, well, fine. For under $20, you’re not going to go wrong but there’s really nothing to write home about with this bottle.

Benchmark Bonded

Sazerac Company

ABV: 50%

Average Price: $20

The Whiskey:

The juice in this bottle is from Buffalo Trace’s Mash #1, which has a scant amount of barley and rye next to mostly corn. This is the same mash that’s used for bigger hitting brands like Eagle Rare, Stagg, and E.H. Taylor. In this case, this is a four-year-old bonded that’s sort of like a proto-E.H. Taylor, Jr. Small Batch.

Tasting Notes:

This is surprisingly bright with a nose full of lemon-honey tart sweetness, a touch of vanilla extract, a hint of charred wood, and maybe a little wet leather. The taste keeps it simple and really leans into the oak and vanilla while the honey sweetness mellows to a standard caramel with a hint of spicy tobacco. The end is pretty short but leaves you with that vanilla, honey, and tobacco.

Bottom Line:

It’s amazing how much more refined this is than the Small Batch and even standard Benchmark. While we’d likely never put their Small Batch on a “best of” list, this certainly deserves a little respect for being a damn well-made bonded bourbon at a very approachable price point. Still, in the end, this really is just a solid mixing bourbon for the burgeoning home bartender.

Benchmark Full Proof

Sazerac Company

ABV: 62.5%

Average Price: $20

The Whiskey:

So, this is just taking the standard Benchmark and bottling it at barrel proof. Well, it’s more than that. Only a few barrels of Benchmark make it to a flavor point that’ll allow full proof barreling. Still, this vatted bourbon is all about the pure juice from the barrel with no cutting with water to tame it.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a mild intensity with notes of spicy dry tobacco next to dark chocolate on the nose with a hint of eggnog spices and creamy vanilla. That all delivers on the palate with the addition of brandy and spicy stewed apples, a touch of leathery chew, and a long, spicy tobacco finish.

Bottom Line:

If I were ranking this line, I’d always put the Single Barrel over the Full Proof. But, this isn’t my ranking. Overall, this is another perfectly fine mixing bourbon. You can sip it over rocks and it’ll be tasty though, frankly, pretty forgettable.

A. Smith Bowman Cask Strength

Sazerac Company

ABV: 70.55%(!)

Average Price: $100 (via lottery)

The Whiskey:

The A. Smith Bowman Distillery is a Sazerac distillery that hardcore whiskey nerds know of but the average whiskey drinker has probably never even heard of. Their line is primarily filled with experimental small-batch releases. That changed this year with A. Smith Bowman’s release of their new permanent release of A. Smith Bowman Cask Strength. The juice is a ten-year-old Virginia bourbon that somehow stayed at a bafflingly high ABV of 70.55 percent.

Tasting Notes:

This is hot on the nose but you still find nuanced and classic bourbon notes. Rich vanilla pudding, creamy and buttery toffee, very old wooden cellar beams dripping with cobwebs, and a touch of dark berry invite you in. The palate burns … just flat-out burns. That being said, there’s a distinct matrix of old leather tobacco pouches, the burnt sugar from a silky crème brûlée, and a dash of sweet apple covered in salty caramel. The end lingers for a while. There’s a mild nuttiness with an edge of almost nougat as the heat really falls off, leaving you with a real buzz.

Bottom Line:

I’ve been avoiding opening this bottle for a while now. Well, this was the perfect excuse to finally peel away that plastic wrapper and coax out that cork. This was an A+ bourbon for sure but, goddamn, is it hot. Absinthe is usually only 65 percent and this is well over that and you feel it. I’m going to give this a shot in a few cocktails as I can’t see this ever being an everyday sipper for me — at least not without a tumbler full of ice to cool it down.

E.H. Taylor, Jr. Barrel Proof

Sazerac Company

ABV: Varies

Average Price: $140

The Whiskey:

This much-lauded and beloved bottle from Buffalo Trace is classic whiskey making. The spirit is from Buffalo Trace’s low-rye mash bill. The juice is then aged in warehouses built by the Colonel over 100 years ago. The best barrels are selected yearly for batching and bottling with no fussing whatsoever.

Tasting Notes:

The sip draws you in with a spicy berry jam next to a perfumed note (kind of like wet potpourri) and buttery toffee sweetness. The taste, on the other hand, leans into vanilla oils, dry cedar, and a dusting of white pepper that leads back to the spice without the jam. The end is kind of long and really smoothes out, thanks to the vanilla and toffee as the peppery spice builds towards a tobacco-filled cedar box and a very distant hint of fresh mint.

Bottom Line:

On a recent re-taste of this, it really stood up to my memory of it. It’s just a solid all-around bourbon. I like it as a sipper on the rocks or in cocktails. You can’t go wrong with this one.

TX Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Tawny Port Casks

Firestone & Roberston Distilling

ABV: 50.8%

Average Price: $65

The Whiskey:

This new expression takes TX’s four-year-old straight bourbon and finishes it in a Tawny Port cask from Portugal. That French White oak spent ten years in the Duoro Valley in Portugal holding port wine before it was sent over to Texas to finish this bourbon for about six months of mellowing.

Tasting Notes:

That classic bourbon mix of candied apples, soft leather, rich caramel, and almost buttery vanilla invites you in on the nose. The sweetness of this dram leans into a honey vibe with a slight prune underbelly next to all that vanilla, buttery caramel, apple, and soft tobacco spiciness. A hint of stone fruit note carries you into the finish as the sweetness becomes more maple syrup with a thin note of roasted nuts and dry dark chocolate.

Bottom Line:

Port cask finishing is burning up the craft bourbon game right now. It’s easy to see why. These bourbons tend to be crowd-pleasers that deliver for the experts too. This is just a tasty sip of bourbon that’ll keep you reaching for another pour.

Hirsch The Horizon

Hirsch

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $40

The Whiskey:

Hotaling & Co., started by San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, is a hell of a blendery. This expression is a mix of two MGP of Indiana whiskeys. The lion’s share (94 percent) is a five-year-old bourbon with a fairly standard mash bill of 75 percent corn, 21 percent rye, and four percent malted barley. That’s married to a six-year-old bourbon with a mash bill of 60 percent corn, 38 percent rye, and four percent malted barley. The whiskey is proofed down to 92 proof and bottled.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a clear sense of pipping hot cornbread dripping with whipped butter cut with cinnamon and vanilla on the nose. That spicy vanilla butter really drives the palate’s flavor as the sweetness leans towards pancake syrup on a pecan waffle with a small hint of leather and tobacco lurking in the background.

Bottom Line:

Having finally tasted this recently, I get the hype now. This is a really solid entry into the sweeter bourbon world, especially for only $40. I can see using this to make a bomb bourbon-infused pancake syrup or simply enjoying it on the rocks.

New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon

New Holland

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $32

The Whiskey:

Beer barrel-aged bourbon isn’t a new thing. There’s a lot of mediocre representation out there though. This bottle comes from a brewer and tends to lean a little more into the “beer” vibe of the bourbon.

Tasting Notes:

The nose isn’t overly distinctive but does carry slight hints of nuttiness, dark spice, and a touch of dark chocolate malts. The palate gets a little bolder with a creamy vanilla backbone next to more baking spices, more chocolate, and a tiny hint of dark fruit. The finish is shortish with a sweeter edge that leans into the vanilla and spice, reminding you of a nice stout.

Bottom Line:

I’ve never been that impressed by this. It’s fine for what it is but feels very much like a novelty to my palate.

E.H. Taylor, Jr. Straight Rye

Sazerac Company

ABV: 50%

Average Price: $92

The Whiskey:

Buffalo Trace’s rye mash bill is an interesting one. This mash bill contains only rye and malted barley (other rye’s from Buffalo Trace are only 51 percent rye for comparison’s sake). The result is a rye that highlights the greener end of the genre with a deeply devoted fan base.

Tasting Notes:

You’re greeted with a nose full of raisins, holiday spices, a dash of green peppercorn, and a very distant herbal note that leans towards fresh dill. The palate has a toffee foundation with those dried fruits and spices as the main attraction of this sip. There’s a mild dry oak on the finish that leads back towards the green peppercorns and fresh dill with a slightly sweetened end.

Bottom Line:

I just did a blind tasting with this rye against a handful of other ryes I like. It did not win anyone over. If you’re not into that dill note, this is a hard swallow. It’s unique, sure. But there are tons of other ryes for well under half the price of this that are just as good and maybe even better.

Stagg Jr. — Master & Taste Master

Sazerac Company

ABV: Varies

Average Price: $100

The Whiskey:

This entry-point to the much older and much higher-priced, George T. Stagg, is killing the bourbon game right now. The juice is generally eight to nine-year-old bourbons, made at Buffalo Trace, and batched and bottled with no fussing, cutting, or filtering. The results are an award-winning bourbon that’s getting harder and harder to find for its MSRP.

Tasting Notes:

There is distinct and rich molasses next to hints of pecan, dark and bold holiday spices, and vanilla oils on the nose. The palate holds onto those notes and adds a cherry sweetness with a hint of woody apple in the background and a touch of toffee. The end is long and very hot, leaving you with a spicy tobacco buzz on your tongue and senses.

Bottom Line:

This is another hot bourbon. While I get that some people want extremes in their bourbon, this really works best as a cocktail mixer. In fact, it feels like this was built to be exactly that. Hell, its MSRP is only $60, making it an excellent candidate for a high-end cocktail mixer. Still, the hype machine got a hold of this one and now people are getting more and more precious about it. That’s a shame because this makes a mean Manhattan.


As a Drizly affiliate, Uproxx may receive commission pursuant to some entries on this list.

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