Breaking Down The Award-Winning Bourbons And American Whiskeys From The World Spirits Competition

Finding the “best” bottle of bourbon — or any whiskey for that matter — is a tough task. There’s just so much of it out there. Hell, this year alone I’ve ranked bottles as best under $30 (I also did that with rye, scotch, and Irish whiskeys), best over $30, and best way way over $30. It can all be confusing and frustrating for the uninitiated.

Now the good news, there are reviewers and judges all over the world (and right here on this site!) trying their damndest to help you figure out which whiskeys really are “the best.” Of course, that word itself isn’t easy to define. Judges of big competitions, like the recent San Francisco World Spirits Competition, have specific characteristics they look for but sometimes it still comes down to a special magic something.

To help you understand why some whiskeys get chosen as standouts, we’re breaking down* the 12 top American whiskey picks from the 2020 SF World Spirits Competition. These are the cream of the crop — Double Gold and “Best In Show” winners — as chosen by people who spend their lives sipping the best of the best. These whiskeys are also fairly widely available for delivery. Though, to be fair, there are a couple of bottles that are in a very expensive and very rare category.

*Two bottles that we didn’t have the chance to taste because of the quarantine have been noted.

Best American Blended Whiskey — FEW American Whiskey

ABV: 46.5%
Distillery: FEW Spirits, Evanston, IL
Average Price: $47.49

The Whiskey:

FEW offers a solid grain-to-glass craft whiskey experience. This expression is a blend of their signature bourbon and rye whiskeys cut with whiskey made with cherrywood-smoked barley malt whiskey. There’s no age statement on the bottle but each whiskey is nuanced and well mellowed, creating a fascinatingly unique American whiskey.

Our Tasting Notes:

This is kind of the best of all worlds if you dig on rye and bourbon. There’s a clear sense of apples, cloves and cinnamon, clear vanilla, and wet brown sugar next to a hint of that cherry smoke. Fresh ginger sharpness marries with oak, black pepper, and caramel apples. The spice heats up on the short finish with a slight sense of dark chocolate that leans dry and spicy.

Best Flavored Whiskey — Catskill Provisions New York Honey Rye Whiskey

ABV: 40%
Distillery: Finger Lakes Distilling, Burdett, NY
Average Price: $43.50

The Whiskey:

This flavored whiskey is made from a rye whiskey made by Finger Lakes Distilling. The mash bill of 80 percent rye and 20 percent barley make this one pretty bold on the rye side. The whiskey then makes its way to Catskills Provisions where it’s infused with local, fresh honey from upstate New York.

Tasting Notes (from the blender):

“Indulge in our smooth, rich flavor with hints of toffee, burnt orange peel, and golden raisin.”

Best Bourbon (Best Small Batch Bourbon Aged 6 To 10 Years) — Barrell Bourbon Batch 021 10-Year-Old Cask Strength

ABV: 53.1%
Distillery: Barrell Craft Spirits, Louisville, KY
Average Price: $84.52

The Whiskey:

Not only was this expression deemed the “best small batch bourbon” but the absolute “best bourbon” overall this year. This dram is comprised of 18 barrels chosen for three main attributes: Corn-focused and buttery, the woodiest notes present, and the easiest drinking lower-proof bourbon. The barrels ranged from ten to 14 years old and hailed from distilleries in Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky with the final product blended and bottled in Kentucky.

Tasting Notes:

Blackberries touched with a hint of tanginess lead to black tea, light rushes of tobacco, ground cardamon, toasted oak, and a note of fresh peppermint. Fatty and sweet marzipan sits next to dark chocolate nougat while mingling with a minerality, peaches, fresh honey, orange, orchard flowers, and more of that blackberry tang. Finally, the sip reels off with mild spice, bitter cacao, dried roses, anise, and mellow, almost tart warmth.

Best Straight Bourbon — Woodinville Straight Bourbon

ABV: 45%
Distillery: Woodinville Whiskey Co., Woodinville, WA
Average Price: $42.99

The Whiskey:

This Washington state bourbon is another great grain-to-glass craft whiskey experience. The classic mash bill of corn, rye, and barley is all grown in Washington specifically for the distillery. The new oak is aged on-site for 18 months outdoors, rain or shine. The oak is then slowly toasted and then deeply charred before the hot juice goes in for a five-year rest.

Tasting Notes:

Toasted oak and a slight bitterness from the char mingle with a ripe black cherry fruit sense. Dried herbs and fresh mint cut through the heavy hand of oak with doses of vanilla and caramel pushed to the background. The fruit, spice, and herbs come together on an oaky final note, with a wisp of smoke billowing underneath the sip.

Best Small Batch Bourbon Aged Up to 5 Years — Kings County Distillery Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon

ABV: 50%
Distillery: Kings County Distillery, Brooklyn, NY
Average Price: $60.99 (Half Bottle)

The Whiskey:

New York’s Kings County has been a mainstay on the awards circuit since they started. The craft distiller uses New York grown organic corn and English malted barley in its mash bill. The bourbon is then aged in small format oak and bottled at higher proof under federal regulations, hence the “bottled-in-bond” moniker.

Tasting Notes:

Malts create a biscuit-covered-in-butter-and-honey base with a sense of Christmas spices alongside bright and fresh cherries. Those spices carry on as the cherries turn into dried fruit and bitter chocolate comes into play. A rich salted caramel sweetness peaks as dark fruits and spice combine for a big finish.

Best Small Batch Bourbon Aged 11 Years and Older — Eagle Rare 17-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon

ABV: 50.5%
Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY
Average Price: $501.50

The Whiskey:

This is one of the five classics that are part of Buffalo Trace’s yearly “Antique Collection” release. This expression is classic Eagle Rare 10 which is simply aged an additional seven years. The 17-year-old barrels are hand-selected for an exemplary small-batch quality.

Tasting Notes:

Dried tobacco mixes with cedar, old cinnamon sticks, and dried fruit soaked in sugar. The tobacco carries through the palate as a rich sense of vanilla peeks in beside hints of worn leather, spice, and oak char. Rich toffee rises next to cacao bitterness as the spicy final note lingers next to a whisper of tobacco smoke.

Best Single Barrel Bourbon Aged Up To 10 Years — Baker’s Single Barrel Bourbon

ABV: 53.5%
Distillery: Jim Beam, Clermont, KY
Average Price: $249.99

The Whiskey:

Hailing from the Jim Beam rickhouses, Baker’s Single Barrel is a unique and refined bottle of bourbon well-worth seeking out. The juice is aged on the higher floors of the rickhouse and the barrels are hand-selected for exactness in quality.

Tasting Notes:

This is a single barrel, so iterations will vary. Based on my dram, expect an opening of dark blackberries next to bourbon vanilla and caramel. That vanilla carries through as oak helps usher in sharp spice and a hint of licorice and roasted nuts. Expect the vanilla to carry on to a spicy, warm, and velvety end.

Best Special Barrel-Finished Bourbon — Bardstown Bourbon Company Collaborative Series “Phifer Pavitt Reserve” Bourbon

ABV: 53.5%
Distillery: Bardstown Bourbon Company, Bardstown, KY (sourced)
Average Price: $139.99

The Whiskey:

Bardstown Bourbon’s Collaborative Series partners well-made whiskey with unique finishing programs. This expression is a nine-year-old Tennessee straight bourbon that’s transferred to French oak from Napa Valley’s Phifer Pavitt Winery. The whiskey spends an additional 19 months in that oak.

Tasting Notes:

Marzipan, black pepper, and cherries greet you. The black pepper mellows to more of a white pepper and cinnamon spice mix as the marzipan carries through with a clear sense of plummy oak wine barrels. Bourbon vanilla pops in alongside the spice with a long, svelte finish.

Best Tennessee Whiskey — Davidson Reserve Tennessee Straight Sour Mash Whiskey

ABV: 50%
Distillery: Pennington Distilling Co., Nashville, TN
Average Price: $53.99

The Whiskey:

Tennessee whiskey is finally making a comeback and Davidson Reserve is a fine example of that resurgence. The Tennessee whiskey is made from locally grown corn and rye with a touch of barley that’s twice distilled and then filtered through new sugar maple charcoal a la the Lincoln County Process that makes Tennessee whiskey so unique. The juice is then aged for a minimum of four years before going into the bottle.

Tasting Notes:

Crème brûlée infused with real maple syrup creates a base for dried red berries. Malted crackers covered in buttery caramel mingle with the burnt sugars from grilled fruits and a slight marshmallow sweetness and texture. All of that sugar is cut by a rush of fresh mint sprigs that helps usher in a short and, yes, quite sweet finish.

Best Rye Whiskey — Parker’s Heritage Collection 13th Edition Rye Whiskey

ABV: 52.5%
Distillery: Heaven Hill, Bardstown, KY
Average Price: $399.99

The Whiskey:

This rye is all about the nuances. This edition is comprised of a small batch of 75 barrels that are hit with fire twice as long as usual, creating a deep black char and rippling for the juice to rest in. The whiskey is then aged exactly eight years and nine months on a high floor of the Heaven Hill rickhouse.

Tasting Notes:

That char imparts a sense of smoke next to dark chocolate bitterness, pine resin, banana, and vanilla. Dark spices and sharp black pepper arrive with a note of fresh honey as a counterpoint. That woody pine, char, chalky bitterness, and spice combine on a long and warm end.

Best Craft Distiller Whiskey — ASW Distillery Maris Otter Single Varietal Single Malt Whiskey

ABV: 54.2%
Distillery: ASW Distillery at American Spirit Works, Atlanta, GA
Average Price: $53.99

The Whiskey:

This is going to be a tough bottle to get a hold of as only so many were made. This expression comes from the brainchild of homebrewers and has deep roots in beer malts. The whiskey is Scottish whisky distilling meets American bourbon aging. The mash bill is 100 percent English Maris Otter Malt and distilled in Scottish pot stills. Then the juice goes into medium and medium-heavy charred new American oak, adding that bourbon element.

Tasting Notes (from the distiller):

“Black cherry, Cardamom, Fudge, Lemon.”

Best Other Single Malt Whiskey — The Notch Nantucket Island Single Malt Whisky Aged 15 Years

ABV: 48%
Distillery: Cisco Brewers Triple Eight Distillery, Nantucket, MA
Average Price: $350

The Whiskey:

This one is going to be really hard to come by. The dram also hails from brewers turned distillers and also utilizes a 100 percent mash bill of Maris Otter Malts. It’s treated like scotch via pot still distilling and then aging in ex-bourbon barrels (mostly from Buffalo Trace) for 15 long years.

Tasting Notes:

Dried apples and pears lurk alongside bourbon notes of caramel and vanilla. Sweet cherries flutter past as rich pipe tobacco, libraries full of worn leather, oak, and mild spices mingle on the palate. Finally, the dram comes to a close with a flourish fresh green peppercorns, toasted oak, and a final hint of tart fruit.