The spring John Barleycorn Awards have arrived. This year’s first batch of “double gold” bourbons is a solid list of great whiskeys that you should consider chasing down right now. And I’m not just saying that because I was a judge. The beauty of these different award sets is that it shines a light on whiskeys that you might have never heard of or even considered. All of that is to say that following these awards is a great way to find something new in a very saturated bourbon market.
Before I dive into the list, let’s look at the awards. The John Barleycorn Corn Awards are a part of the John Barleycorn Society which is a group of spirits writers, designers, and marketers who care deeply about the spirits industry. From this group, the judges are chosen because “Their opinions, ideas and creative talents inform and influence consumer perceptions and buying decisions.”
Self-aggrandizing aside, the actual judging takes place at home — an outlier for big awards like these. Judges receive a box full of tons of unlabeled 50ml samples. Those judges are given a long list of instructions on everything from setting up the tasting to palate control along with a link to a spreadsheet for scoring. This is where the John Barleycorn Awards go a bit deeper. While other awards judging asks for an overall medal or score, Barleycorn asks for an individual score for the nose, palate, and finish. Those scores are combined to ascertain a medal. If a pour gets 90 points or more (out of 100), it receives a coveted “double gold” medal. Going further down the line, 80-89 points is a gold, 70-79 points is a silver, 65-69 points is an “honorable mention,” and 0-64 points is no medal.
And yes, there are plenty of “no medal” pours/entrants. They’re not all gems, folks.
Circling back to my original point, this list is a great way to find new and fresh bourbons to try right now. I’ve added my tasting notes to every double-gold bottle that I know I’ve tried (I tasted a lot of pours for this award set but of course don’t know which, because it was all double-blind and my knowing would defeat the purpose). Okay, let’s dive into some delicious bourbons!
15 STARS Timeless Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Aged 13 Years
Average Price: Coming Soon
This new whiskey from the father and son team is a blend of two carefully sourced barrels. The mix blends a 13-year and 15-year barrel together to make a sharp and delicious bourbon.
Nose: Soft orchard fruits and maple syrup lead the way on the nose as roasted almonds and vanilla/caramel tobacco pipe tobacco round things out.
Palate: The palate balances creamy vanilla sauce with a dark and bitter chocolate powder that’s nearly espresso bean oil.
Finish: The finish is subtle but deep with a hazelnut vibe that blends with the chocolate for a lush Nutella feel next to woody maple, rum-soaked raisins, and a hint of old porch wicker draped in old leather.
I was lucky enough to try this recently and it truly is delicious. It’s incredibly rare (just 1,400 bottles and only in Kentucky), so you’ll need a little luck to get into this one.
Cedar Ridge Iowa Bourbon Whiskey Double Barrel Release 002
Average Price: $50
This whiskey from craft distillery favorite Cedar Ridge combines their beloved whiskey with new oak one more time. The juice has a classic base of 74% corn, 14% rye, and 12% malted barely. After about four or five years, that whiskey is reloaded into brand-new charred American oak barrels for a final finish.
Nose: This opens with a faint hint of toasted oak with a burnt sugar vibe next to Christmas spices, dusty dark chocolate powder, vanilla cake, and pecan shells.
Palate: The palate leans into the woody spices with star anise, allspice berries, cardamon pods, and full sticks of cinnamon over butterscotch candies, more of that dark chocolate, and a hint of rum-raisin.
Finish: The end has a light black tea vibe with dates and prunes dusted by all that woody spice and packed into a fresh pine box.
This is a lovely craft whiskey release that really leans into the classic notes with plenty of wood spice, deep butterscotch, and soft dark fruits. If you’re anywhere near Iowa, then this is a must-try.
Cedar Ridge Port Cask Finished Bourbon Release 022
Average Price: $55
This yearly (holiday) release from Cedar Ridge is beloved in Iowa. The whiskey is classic Cedar Ridge Iowa Bourbon that’s then finished in Port casks from the winery next to the distillery. Those barrels are then vatted and proofed with local water before bottling.
Nose: There’s a nice mix of stewed plums and apples next to tart berries, vanilla pods, and orange zest on the nose with hints of old wood and sweet raisins.
Palate: The palate mixes cherry jam with dates and prunes next to brown sugars, winter spice, and more old oak.
Finish: The end layers together Christmas spice cake with vanilla sauce and dried fruits with a light finish.
This is a great bottle to snag around the holidays. It’s creamy, dreamy, and edgy. It also tastes like Christmas in a glass.
Cumberland Falls Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $41
This whiskey was named after the majestic Cumberland Falls. The whiskey in the bottle was made at the Owensboro Distillery where it aged 4 years before a small batch run for this sourced release.
“Well-structured and well-balanced, with vanilla crème, caramel, and oak, this has the maturity of an older bourbon.”
This is from a bottler and not much is known. This is on the shelf in Kentucky but I’ve never tried it because it kind of gets lost in the mix these days. Given this award, it must really stand out as a tasty whiskey though. I’m going to snag a bottle on my next trip to Total Wine. I’ll see what all the fuss is about and get to y’all.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Batch No. B523
Average Price: $69
The latest Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is here (number two of three for 2023). This edition is a batch of bourbons that are a minimum of 11.5 years old (down from the usual 12-year age statements). The batch is bottled completely as is without cutting with water or chill filtration.
Nose: There’s a nice sense of funk and fruit on the nose — think standing by a barn in an apple orchard — that leads to salted caramel, cherry tobacco, and rich dark chocolate cut with red chili pepper flakes with a lush vanilla foundation of almond cakes and powdered sugar icing.
Palate: Rich winter spice cakes with a hint of rum raisin drive the taste toward dark cherry spiced tobacco with a rush of ABVs that cause a deep buzz before old cellar dirt floors and oak arrive with a dark sense of chocolate and espresso all kissed with salt.
Finish: Cherry Coke and gingerbread drive the finish with a lush and vibrant sense of red chili pepper spice, black pepper woodiness, and cinnamon bark softness before stewed apple and buttery pie crust lead back toward a vanilla almond cake vibe with a lingering warming sensation.
This is probably the least shocking double gold medal on this list. This is a classic bourbon that runs so deep. I prefer it over a rock or two to calm it down (it’s brash) or in a cocktail with a good kick.
Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $25
This is Elijah Craig’s entry-point bottle. The mash is corn-focused, with more malted barley than rye. The whiskey is then rendered from “small batches” of barrels to create this proofed-down version of the iconic brand.
Nose: There’s a light sense of rickhouse wood beams next to that mild taco seasoning on the nose with caramel apples, vanilla ice cream scoops, and a hint of fresh mint with a sweet/spicy edge.
Palate: The palate opens with a seriously smooth vanilla base with some winter spice (especially cinnamon and allspice) next to a hint of grain and apple pie filling.
Finish: The end leans towards the woodiness with a hint of broom bristle and minty tobacco lead undercut by that smooth vanilla.
I’ve always considered this a great cocktail base but never really a sipper. Given that these awards are all neat pours, maybe I need to revisit this one without those preconceived notions.
Evan Williams Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $16
Look, Heaven Hill makes great whiskey, especially inexpensive bottled in bonds. This “b-i-b” is tailored for the Evan Williams flavor profile. Still, this is Heaven Hill, so we’re talking about the same mash bill, same warehouses, and same blending team as beloved bourbons like Elijah Craig and Heaven Hill releases. This is simply built to match a higher-end Evan Williams vibe.
Nose: There’s a lovely nose at play with soft taco mix spice next to creamy vanilla, caramel-dipped cherries, a hint of pear skins, and plenty of nutmeg.
Palate: The palate has a minor note of cornbread muffins next to cherry-vanilla tobacco with a dash of leather and toffee.
Finish: The end leans into some fresh gingerbread with a vanilla frosting next to hints of pear candy cut with cinnamon and nutmeg.
This is the best deal on the list and 100% easy to find. I use it for basic cocktails and highballs. It makes a good shooter with a beer back too. I’ve been known to drink this on the rocks too. It’s a workhorse.
Heaven Hill Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled-In-Bond
Average Price: $56
This expression has been a touchstone “bottled-in-bond” since 1939 and remains a go-to for many bourbon lovers. The whiskey is the classic Heaven Hill bourbon mash bill that’s left to age for an extra three years compared to Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond (also from Heaven Hill and the same base spirit).
Nose: The nose draws you in with this rich and creamy vanilla ice cream (you know the kind that’s likely labeled “Tahitian”) that’s drizzled with a buttery and salty caramel sauce next to soft leather and dried apple blossoms with a hint of old cedar bark braids.
Palate: A floral honey vibe melds with Graham Crackers on the palate as creamy toffee covered in crushed almonds mingles with vanilla-laced pipe tobacco and old leather-bound books.
Finish: There’s a bit of freshly ground nutmeg near the end that leads to a light cherry tobacco note with whispers of old cellar beams and winter spices on the finish.
This is another really solid bourbon that just works — cocktails, on the rocks, or however you like.
Jack Daniel’s 12-Year-Old Tennessee Whiskey, Batch 1
Average Price: $84
Jack Daniel’s doesn’t hide any of its processes. The mash at the base of this whiskey is a mix of 80% corn, 12% barley, and 8% rye. Those grains are milled in-house and mixed with cave water pulled from an on-site spring and Jack Daniel’s own yeast and lactobacillus that they also make/cultivate on-site. Once fermented, the mash is distilled twice in huge column stills. The hot spirit is then filtered through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal that’s also made at the distillery. Finally, the filtered whiskey is loaded into charred new American oak barrels and left alone in the warehouse. After 12 years, a handful of barrels were ready; so they were batched, barely proofed, and bottled.
Nose: The nose is creamy with deep notes of old boot leather, dark and woody winter spices, black-tea-soaked dates, plum jam with clove, and an underbelly of chewy toffee-laced tobacco.
Palate: That creaminess presents on the palate with a soft sticky toffee pudding drizzled in salted caramel and vanilla sauce next to flakes of salt and a pinch of orange zest over dry Earl Grey tea leaves with a whisper of singed wild sage.
Finish: The end leans into the creamy toffee chewy tobacco with a hint of pear, cherry, and bananas foster over winter spice barks and a deep embracing warmth.
I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t end up with “best in show” or something close to that. This whiskey is delicious and on a whole other level compared to a few others on this list.
K.LUKE Small Batch Barrel Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $109
This new-ish small-batch whiskey is a blend of Indiana and Kentucky bourbon with a very high rye mash bill, 36%. The batch is blind-tasted over and over again before the final mix is decided on. Finally, the barrels are batched and bottled as-is without any filtration or proofing at Bardstown Bourbon Company in Kentucky.
“Robust on the nose and decadent on the tongue, with notes of compote and fruit cake followed by a long finish. Excellent bourbon!”
I’ve seen this brand around here and there but, again, it kind of gets lost on the shelf. I’ll give it a try soon and see where it lands.
Rabbit Hole Heigold Single Barrel Cask Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: Distillery Only
This is a four-year-old single-barrel version of Rabbit Hole’s beloved Heigold expression. That’s the brand’s double malt (malted rye and malted barley) that has a high-rye bourbon mash bill (70/25/5 corn/malted rye/malted barley).
“Nutty and honeyed maple syrup aromas turn to richly spiced flavors on the palate, buoyed by chocolate, roasted pecans, and leather flavors. I’d drink this anytime, anyplace. What a barrel.”
I’ve actually selected single-barrel Heigolds and they’re always been pure fire. There’s no reason to think this one isn’t too. I didn’t put my tasting notes from those picks simply because they could be fairly different depending on the barrel.
RD One Spirits Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished With Brazilian Amburana Wood
Average Price: $79
RD One is the new version of the Old Wm. Tarr whiskey lines out of Lexington, Kentucky. The whiskey in this bottle is four-year-old bourbon that was finished in Brazilian Amburana casks — which is a huge thing right now. That wood previously held cachaça down in Brazil before coming up to Kentucky and then filled with bourbon. Those barrels are batched and barely touched with water before bottling.
Nose: Huge notes of cinnamon-laced apple cider mixes with raw sugar syrup just kissed with stewed peaches, dry apricot, and a hint of oolong tea matcha balls on the nose.
Palate: The palate is lush and silky with a sense of spiced winter cakes stuffed with dried dates, prunes, and sultanas next to candied ginger and black tea-soaked blackberry hand pies with this whisper of white pepper and mocha lattes in the background.
Finish: The end stays super lush on the mouthfeel as that pepper mellows toward allspice and clove with a sweet cedar vibe attached to a creamy nuttiness that’s almost Nutella.
This is a pretty delicious pour of bourbon. It’s a woody one but very balanced with sweet creaminess and dark dried fruits. If you’re in the Kentucky area, it’s definitely worth snagging a bottle.
RD One Spirits Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished With French Oak
Average Price: $79
This whiskey is made with RD One’s four-year-old bourbon. Before those barrels are batched, French oak wood staves are inserted into the barrels for anywhere from two to four months. Once those barrels are just right, they’re batched, barely proofed, and bottled as-is.
Nose: That old porch wicker and boot leather lead on the nose with a hint of bespoke Almond Joy, dried rose petals, and allspice cherry cola.
Palate: The palate has a lush creaminess tied to vanilla cake with a cherry compote next to eggnog spices and creaminess and a dash of woody winter spice with a pipe tobacco edge.
Finish: The end has a rich toffee vibe that leads to almonds and raisins with a sense of spiced choco-cherry tobacco just kissed with orange oils.
This was one of my favorite bourbons of 2022 (number 89/100), so there’s that. This is a very tasty bourbon and worth checking out, especially if you’re looking for a good food pairing whiskey or Manhattan base.
Rock Town Column Still Collection Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $59
This Arkansas whiskey is made with a very local vibe. The mash bill is made with 79% Arkansas corn, 8% Arkansas wheat, and 13% malted barley. The actual whiskey was distilled in Kentucky though, at Bardstown Bourbon Company on a column still (that’s only for these releases, the rest is actually made in-state). After at least 34 months of mellowing, a single barrel of whiskey was hand-picked and bottled at cask strength for this release.
“Brown sugar and caramel swirl in the glass while flashes of citrus peek above the sweetness to add depth, as do hints of vanilla custard. Hits on all notes. Fantastic.”
I’ve not had this single barrel release but I fully stand by Rock Town. They’re my favorite distillery in Arkansas at the moment.
Rock Town Column Still Collection Small Batch Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $41
This whiskey is pure Arkansas ingredients that are sent out to Kentucky for mashing and distillation. A mash bill of 79% Arkansas corn, 8% Arkansas wheat, and 13% malted barley are shipped out to Bardstown Bourbon Company in Kentucky where it’s fermented and distilled. That juice then ages for at least 34 months before it’s bottled in small batches back in Arkansas.
“Tasty with rich fruit and caramel aromas carrying over to the palate where it meets banana pudding and baking spice. A lovely depth of flavor and lingering finish warrants another pour.”
This is another one from Rock Town that I haven’t tried yet. But given the pedigree, I can’t imagine it’ll disappoint.
Two Souls Spirits 4-Year Ohio Straight Bourbon Whiskey Featuring Watershed Distillery
Average Price: $89
This is a sourced one-off of single-barrel Ohio straight bourbon from Watershed Distilling that was bottled up in Wisconsin at Two Souls. The whiskey in the bottle is made from a mash of 72% corn, 21% rye, and 7% malted barley that aged for exactly 4 years, 4 months, and 16 days before bottling 100% as-is without proofing.
“This is a delicious whiskey — round and orangey with oils, molasses, and fudgy oak notes. Perfect.”
Two Souls rarely misses as a bottler and there’s no reason to think that this won’t be a great one. Now, actually finding one to sample is a whole other story. Click that price link and see if they deliver to your state!
Uncle Nearest Master Blend Edition Single Barrel Whiskey Batch No. 017
Average Price: $150
While Uncle Nearest is distilling their own juice these days, this is still the work of Master Blender Victoria Eady Butler with carefully sourced Tennessee whiskey barrels. In this case, Eady Bulter hand-selected the best-of-the-best from their inventory to create the perfect whiskey to exemplify the brand and Tennessee whiskey traditions.
Nose: The nose leans into sticky toffee pudding with a sense of black licorice that’s almost absinth adjacent as soft caramel and winter spice round things out.
Palate: Gingerbread cookies and stewed pears mingle with sharp chili spice, red peppercorns, and a hint more of that dark licorice on the palate with this mild sense of creamy vanilla oils and maybe some maple syrup fresh from the tap.
Finish: The pepperiness really drives the finish toward a creamy vanilla cake end with a nice balance of woody winter spices and a hint of soft leather.
I just re-tasted this last week and it still rocks. Get yourself a bottle if you can.
Whiskey Thief Distilling Single Barrel 23 Rain Fall Down Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $149
This is a single-barrel pick from a very unique Kentucky experience. Basically, you can drop into this barrel house and try a whole bunch of whiskey barrels and they’ll sell you a barrel or a bottle or two from a barrel. The location is also a 172-acre working farm. It’s a trip.
“Absolutely a great barrel. If I stumbled across this gem I’d start an entire brand based around it.”
I’ve only had a few of these and they’ve been pretty solid. They’ve sourced some incredible barrels and are really looking after them well. That said, you’re not finding this outside of a very narrow and hardcore whiskey nerd window … or if you happen to be on Kentucky’s Whiskey Trail.