The Best Bourbons And American Whiskeys, According To The International Whisky Competition

We’re constantly in search of the best bottle of bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, or just whiskey overall. Call it a life-long quest. Part of that journey is tasting whiskey. Another part is studying the stuff. And yet another part is listening to people in the industry and what they like to sip. Today, we’re focusing on that last bit — diving into the “USA” section of the Internation Whisky Competition’s 2020 results.

The International Whisky Competition is yet another yearly award that means a lot in the whisk(e)y world. Their gold medals are coveted by the best distillers and blenders in the game. While the talent behind the tasting committee is fairly U.S. focused (in Las Vegas specifically), they still make up an international who’s who of folks from the drinks industry. People that know what they’re talking about when it comes to whisk(e)y’s various styles and expressions.

The eight bottles below represent the core of the U.S.A. winners that were announced this week. While we’re very familiar with some of these bottles, a few of them are from very small and local distilleries and we’ve yet to try them. In those cases, we’ve pulled tasting notes from either the distiller or a retailer to fill in the gaps.

Best Overall American Whiskey/Best Straight Bourbon Whiskey/Best Kentucky Whiskey — Eagle Rare 10-Year-Old

ABV: 45%
Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY
Average Price: $40

The Whiskey:

This whiskey from Buffalo Trace’s core collection line is a damn fine bottle of bourbon. The price is very accessible and the juice never disappoints. The whiskey is made in a straightforward manner, with a classic bourbon aging process that lasts ten years.

Tasting Notes:

Dark cherries mingle with ripe apples next to classic bourbon vanilla and hint of oaky spice. The palate has a velvet texture that leans into the fruits, mild spice, and light creaminess underpinned by a flutter of dark chocolate. That velvet feeling lingers for a spell on your senses as the dark spices, fruit, vanilla, caramel, and a hint of honey fade out.

Best Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey — 1792 Full Proof

ABV: 62.5%
Distillery: Barton 1792 Distillery, Bardstown, KY
Average Price: $55

The Whiskey:

1792 is a great bottle to chase down for any occasion. Their Full Proof goes through a very specific aging process that’s all about the barrel’s placement in the rickhouse. These barrels are stored in three different rickhouses where they’re bathed in direct sunlight from seven-story high windows. This daily dose of warming sun adds that x-factor to the juice before it’s bottled without any fuss.

Tasting Notes:

Apple orchards and fresh honeycombs mix with a very distant thought of banana. Those apples edge towards a cinnamon and clove laced stewed apple feel, with a bit of maltiness and a spritz of lemon zest. There’s a moment of vanilla in the background but it’s the warmth and fruitiness that lingers in the senses.

Best Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey — 1792 Single Barrel

ABV: 49.3%
Distillery: Barton 1792 Distillery, Bardstown, KY
Average Price: $45

The Whiskey:

This, naturally, is another stellar expression to pull drams from. Each barrel is hand-selected from the Barton rickhouses for their individuality and beauty. The resulting bottle is shockingly affordable for the quality of booze therein.

Tasting Notes:

The apple and banana are still present but the apple rings more tart and the banana more edging towards banana bread. Creamy toffee and sharp spices come into play on the palate with more of an emphasis on black pepper than cinnamon alongside that hit of lemon oils. The end is a warm one with the fruit really shining through as it fades.

Best American Rye Whiskey — Old Elk Straight Rye

ABV: 44%
Distillery: Old Elk Distillery, Fort Collins, CO
Average Price: $90

The Whiskey:

This small distillery out in Colorado already gained prominence for its straight bourbon, thanks to its high malted barley mash bill. Their rye is making all the waves this year and remains a bit of a sphynx when it comes to what’s in the bottle (besides deep craftsmanship).

Tasting Notes (from Total Wine):

These are pretty vague… is this stuff even real?

“Smooth enough to be had alone or added as a delicious kick to your favorite mixed drink, this drink is of the highest quality and includes only the finest ingredients. Carefully selected for its distinctive flavor profile, this drink is distilled for a smooth, bold taste.”

Best American Single Malt — Old 55 Single Barrel American Single Malt

ABV: 40%
Distillery: Old 55 Distillery, Newtown, IN
Average Price: Limited

The Whiskey:

This is another super niche expression from a small and very local distillery in Indiana. The brand is known for its bourbon more than anything else and, to be honest, their American Single Malt is going to pretty hard to find unless they make some more bottles.

Tasting Notes (from the distiller):

Not available.

Best Micro Distillery Whiskey — Old Hamer Straight Bourbon Cask Strength

ABV: 57.5%
Distillery: West Fork Whiskey Co., Lawrence County, IN
Average Price: $40

The Whiskey:

We’re deep in the weeds of some seriously regional and small-time whiskeys. This brand is interesting, given its mash bill of 99 percent corn and only one percent malted barley. The juice is then aged at least two years and bottled at barrel proof. You’ll likely only run across this label if you’re in the Indiana/Illinois area.

Tasting Notes (from the Drizly):

“Caramel, Cherry, Cinnamon, Vanilla.”

Best Moonshine/White Lightning/New Make — The Mob Museum Moonshine

ABV: 50%
Distillery: The Mob Museum Distillery, Las Vegas, NV
Average Price: $25

The Whiskey:

You kind of have to laugh that that very touristy Mob Museum in Las Vegas is now distilling their own ‘shine. “Why not?” we say. Gangsters and moonshine go hand-in-hand and it’s a pretty impressive feat for a souvenir bottle to win an award like this. Then again, the awards are in Las Vegas. So… take that as you will.

Tasting Notes (from Total Wine):

“With notes of buttery sweet popcorn, you won’t find moonshine like this anywhere else.”

Best Tennessee Whiskey –Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium

ABV: 50%
Distillery: Nearest Green Distillery, Shelbyville, TN
Average Price: $60

The Whiskey:

Uncle Nearest has been cleaning up the awards circuit for that last few years. And with good reason, their Tennessee whiskey is some of the best sourced and finished whiskey on the market. Plus, supporting this brand means supporting BIPOC in the whiskey industry.

Tasting Notes:

Pears hanging from a tree in the late summer sun sit next to a real sense of dark spices. There’s a slight tartness that counterpoints a fresh herbal note before a whiff of vanilla arrives next to more spice. The dram slowly fades out from the oak through the tart fruit and vanilla until the warming spices are the only thing that’s left alongside a svelte coating in your mouth.