Trying to find the best bourbon whiskey is getting harder and harder. That’s largely due to the bourbon boom and there being so, so many brands on the shelf these days — with umpteen expressions from each brand, special limited editions, retailer picks, bar picks, and on and on. We’re spoiled for options, is the point, and that means we’re more likely to need help navigating.
One way to track down the best bottles is to follow the spirits award circuit. This, at the very least, can help you source whiskeys that are actually breaking through the noise. To that end, I’m tasting some award-winning bourbons blind and sharing what I think are the best of the bunch.
I chose eight Double Gold winning bourbons from last year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition (which, full disclosure, I’m a judge at this year). It’s a shockingly diverse mix of whiskeys with high-ryes, wheated bourbons, newbie craft, and some of the biggest names in the business. I pulled eight bottles from my shelves, had my wife shuffle and pour, and then I started tasting.
- Blue Run 13.5-Year
- Eagle Rare 17 Antique Collection
- Still Austin “The Musician”
- George T. Stagg Antique Collection
- Redemption High-Rye Bourbon 10-Year
- Maker’s Mark
- Barrell Craft Spirits Batch 024
- George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond Fall 2008
Let’s get tasting!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
Part 1: The Tasting
Buttery toffee opens the nose, with a Cherry Vanilla Coke vibe next to a lot of old leather and cedar with just a hint of fresh green jalapeño. The spice builds on the palate towards rich and almost creamy dark chocolate and black-tea soaked dates layered into sticky toffee pudding. A cherry candy sweetness arrives on the mid-palate with a final note of green pepper.
Wintry spice mingles with rich Black Forest cake on the nose as a flake of smoked salt and almost raw leather (hello, Buffalo Trace) rounds everything out. Freshly ground nutmeg, allspice, dried ginger, and cinnamon open up the palate, towards stewed cherries with a hint of salted black licorice, cedar bark, and cherrywood. The end arrives with dark, black potting soil, sharp nasturtiums, and a hint of old mint.
This is pretty light on the nose with tropical fruits leaning towards papaya and a very young-feeling raw pancake batter. The taste leans into Christmas cake spices with caramel, spicy hot chocolate powder, a touch of marzipan, and vanilla cream pie. The end is soft and watery with more of that savory tropical fruit and spiced chocolate powder flavor.
Lots of big spice and bark notes on this nose with dark leather and a flutter of dried roses. There’s a singed cedar bark vibe on the palate that leads towards cinnamon bark, vanilla pods, and a hint of apple butter. The mid-palate leans into the cherry with more of a bark feel as soft cherry tobacco leaves give way to a very mild and, well, lovely floral echo.
Floral honey counterpoints burnt toffee on the nose as vanilla pods and an almost sour birch soda builds towards old leather. Espresso beans covered in chocolate move the taste towards black peppercorns, green reeds, and a minor note of tobacco. The mid-palate gets sweet with apple candies as the dark chocolate bitters the thinnish end back towards the peppercorns.
Sweet char leads off a very “classic” feeling nose with plenty of caramel apples, vanilla cream, and sweetgrass notes. The taste is slightly floral with spicy apple pie filling that gets watered down with a rocky mineral vibe. The mid-palate fights its way past the proofing water to bring about chewy apple tobacco that turns into more sweetgrass, sweet leather, and a final note of cherry-infused caramel chews on the finish.
Apple tobacco and stewed pears (with a hint of saffron) mix with a hint of cedar and soft suede on the nose. The palate is part dried mint and part summer squash with nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon sticks adding warmth. Almond and chocolate combine on the mid-palate to create a boozy Almond Joy with hints of wet wicker furniture right after a rainstorm and touch more of that soft suede.
This opens with a hint of dried florals next to pecan pie, maple syrup, and apple Neco Wafers (hello, Dickel). Dried apple chips lead towards roasted nuts on the palate as vanilla pudding powder and dried cherries covered in dark chocolate with a flake of salt round out the taste. The mid-palate leans into a spicy/fruity tobacco chewiness with a brown butter underbelly, vanilla pound cake, and a cherry-infused cedar humidor.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. Still Austin “The Musician” — Taste 3
Average Price: $45
The folks at Still Austin have spent the last six years perfecting their grain-to-glass whiskey experience. The juice is rendered with grains from Texas and water from the ground beneath their feet. The actual whiskey is a two-year-old bourbon that’s batched to highlight the bright fruits of the new and crafty whiskey.
The youth and thinness of this really left it pretty far behind today. What’s wild is that there are lower ABV bourbons on this list that didn’t feel as low ABV as this. Also, those young IPA tropical fruit notes and raw dough just feel a little unfinished.
7. Redemption High-Rye Bourbon 10-Year — Taste 5
Average Price: $102
Redemption has a knack for sourcing some of the best barrels from MGP in Indiana. This multi-award-winning bourbon starts off with a base mash bill of 60 percent corn, 36 percent rye, and four percent barley. After 10 years of maturation, the barrels are expertly vatted to make a highly sippable bourbon. That marriage of bourbons then goes into the bottle, uncut and unfiltered.
I really like this but it just missed the massive heights of some of the other bottles on the list. That being said, this has a solid beginning, middle, and end that make sense and deliver a great drinking experience …just maybe not a “wow” one.
6. Maker’s Mark — Taste 6
Average Price: $32
This is Maker’s signature expression. You know the drill: Red winter wheat, seasoned Ozark oak, six to seven years in the barrel. This expression’s juice is then sourced from only 150 barrels (making this a small batch, if you want to call it that). Those barrels are then blended, proofed, bottled, and dipped in red wax.
This nearly lost me on that minerally mid-palate and then it completely recovered for a bold yet refined finish. And that, folks, is why something as well known as Maker’s is still winning big prizes this many decades later, in my humble opinion.
5. Barrell Craft Spirits Batch 024 — Taste 7
Average Price: $90
This much-loved expression from Barrell marries bourbon from Tennessee, Indiana, and Kentucky. The juice is pulled from nine to 15-year-old barrels. Those whiskeys are vatted and then go into the bottle with no cutting or fussing.
This is where things get very “I’m splitting tiny hairs” in this ranking. This dram offers something unique in bourbon and it’s stellar. For whatever reason, it wasn’t what I was looking for today, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t a damn fine dram (a DFD, if you will).
4. George T. Stagg 2020 Antique Collection — Taste 4
Average Price: $1,100
We started off with the biggest whiskey of the line-up. This juice is distilled from Kentucky corn, Minnesota rye, and a touch of malted barley from North Dakota. The whiskey then spends 15 years and four months in oak in three different warehouses on three different floors. Over that time 59 percent of the whiskey is lost to the angels, leaving a high-proof bourbon.
This always runs a little hot for me. It’s nuanced and spicy with serious depth. This time, it felt a little more approachable. That could be from this bottle/sample being open for two years and oxygen seeping in to calm it down. Still, this had real nuance that felt super accessible.
3. George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond Fall 2008 — Taste 8
Average Price: $45
Nicole Austin has been killing it with these bottled-in-bond releases from George Dickel. This year’s release is a whiskey that was warehoused in the fall of 2008. Eleven years later, this juice was bottled at 100 proof (as per the law) and sent out to the wide world where it received much adoration.
This is unique while still being delicious and approachable. I know a lot of people get turned off by that “Neco Wafer” or “vitamin” note but it works for me. Moreover, there’s so much more going on that speaks to the depth of this whiskey’s build that you can’t help but be drawn in.
2. Blue Run 13.5-Year — Taste 1
Average Price: $1,755
Jim Rutledge’s new project after leaving Four Roses is one of the most sought-after new bourbons on the market (we’ll be doing a live tasting soon). The juice in the bottle is hand-selected by Rutledge and barreled as a single barrel at cask strength. That also makes each bottle unique… and fleeting.
This was one of those whiskeys you never want to end. It had the depth of something special while still feeling like you weren’t being overwhelmed with “flavor” or “ABVs.” I wish I had more.
1. Eagle Rare 17 2020 Antique Collection — Taste 2
Average Price: $1,560
This whiskey was produced in the spring of 2003. Since then, it lost 73 percent of its volume to the angels as it rested in warehouses C, K, M, and Q on various floors. The barrels were then vatted, proofed down, and bottled.
I’ve been drinking a lot of Eagle Rare lately and I think that’s why this hit so well for me today. It’s just classic while also being refreshing and interesting. As I mentioned, the top five are so close that maybe had I not known this was Eagle Rare it would have ranked (a little) lower. But, it really just is too damn tasty to deny.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
This tasting was a little front-loaded. I wasn’t going to miss Eagle Rare or Dickel Bottled-in-Bond in this tasting. And whether I knew they were there or not, there’s very little that can beat them.
All of that being said, it was pretty clear why all of these whiskeys are beloved and win awards — well, maybe with the exception of Still Austin’s bourbon. It’s so young and fruity. It feels almost there but not quite, especially when tasted against the heavy-hitters on this list.
In the end, the top five could have easily been a tie or ordered differently, depending on my mood. If you can find one of those bottles, you’ll be set.