Every year, hundreds of new batches of bourbon hit the market. In fact, every month you can get up to a dozen new expressions from distilleries across the land. The industry is practically like streetwear — with surprise drops and long-awaited reveals. Meaning there’s a lot to keep up with and that’s before you consider the standard year-round releases and the releases from past years that are still available on shelves. If you love bourbon enough to track this stuff, you’ve got your hands full.
I do track this stuff — tasting a lot of whiskey over the course of a year for the sake of this gig. Some of it’s amazing. A lot of it is fine. Sometimes it’s shockingly bad. As with all booze (and anything creative), there are always going to be blind spots in craft and execution. So far this year, I’ve tasted a few duds, plenty of solid expressions, and 10 bottles that absolutely demand a place on your bourbon shelf. The latter category is what we’re here to talk about today.
The ten bottles below are drams that I 100% vouch for. They’re the best new bourbons of 2020 I still think about, weeks or months after I wrote about each sip in my notebook. They’re also (mostly) available for delivery, though there are some serious price point barriers in play. Some of these bottles aren’t cheap. Still, with bottles this good, spending a little extra cash is well worth it.
Michter’s US*1 Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon
Distillery: Michter’s Distillery, Louisville, KY
Average Price: $70
I think about this bottle a lot. This isn’t a brand new expression, but it is released yearly. The ripple with this expression is the secondary aging process. The juice is transferred to “toasted” barrels for finishing. The barrels are dry-cured outdoors for 18-months — rain or shine — and then toasted, not charred.
Seasoned oak, smoke, and spice dominate upfront. The sip reminds you of pecan pie spiced with cinnamon and allspice that leads towards more smoky flavors, stewed pear, and a clear sense of the barrelling program. There’s longevity to this whiskey — it fades very slowly, leaving you with a sense of campfire smoke and a pitchy woodpile.
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Batch Proof
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Distillery: Brown Forman Distillery, Shively, KY
Average Price: $140
This series from Woodford aims to highlight each step for the whiskey-making process: water, grain, fermentation, distillation, and maturation. This particular expression specifically highlights the maturation step. The juice is bottled at “batch proof” — straight from the barrels — and holds a very high 60-plus-percent ABV with no fiddling in the final product.
Big notes of oak counter a classic vanilla pod and caramel essence. The oak is really the star of the show with support from a sharp and dark spiciness next to an overripe apple/pear combo with a hint of honey. There’s a real marrying of the vanilla, oak, and dark spices on the end with a hell of a kick from the high ABV as the sip slowly fades away.
Belle Meade Bourbon Honey Cask Finish
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Distillery: Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, Nashville, TN
Average Price: $125
Full-disclosure, this one is going to be very hard to find until it’s re-released. Still, it’ll be worth tracking for whenever it does return. The bottle takes Belle Meade’s much-lauded bourbon and finishes it in a honey cask from TruBee Honey in Tennessee, where they’ve previously aged all-natural honey in the barrels.
There’s a sweetness on the nose but it doesn’t scream “honey!” It’s more of a honey-soaked wildflower vibe with a grassiness and plenty of vanilla. The sip holds onto that floral and honey nature with hints of bitter orange, creamy pudding, and a note of oak. The bourbon gets leathery near the end with echos of cherry, spice, and mint slowly dissipating.
Barrell Bourbon Batch 23
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Distillery: Barrell Craft Spirits, Louisville, KY (Sourced)
Average Price: $90
This is a blend that should dispel any idea of “blends” being a bad word in whiskey. The juice is sourced from ten, 12, and 15-year-old bourbons made in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana. The expression is then bottled in Kentucky while maintaining the cask strength of the booze.
This dram sticks with you. There’s a sense of a buttery, rummy, and nutty Christmas cake alongside oily vanilla pods. Rich toffee spiked with dark and very sharp spices offset the wet, brown sugar sweetness. The velvet feel of this whiskey sticks in your senses as the vanilla, spice, and mild sense of oak lingers like a fog.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof A120
Distillery: Heaven Hill Bernheim Distillery, Louisville, KY
Average Price: $72
Elijah Craig’s Barrel Proof line aims to highlight great barrels from their rickhouses as the months tick by. In this case, the A120 stands for the release with “A” being the first of the year and with “120” signifying January 2020. The juice in the bottle is straight from the barrels and tends to be at least 12 years old when bottled.
There’s a lot going on in this sip. Baked stone fruits swim in toffee and spices with hints of smoke, vanilla, and tart berries. The spicy baked fruits carry on with an emphasis on the spice as hints of sourdough, more berries, and creamy toffee mingle. The sip starts to fade slowly with a small billow of smoke accentuating all of that vanilla, spice, and fruit.
Blanton’s Gold Edition
Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY
Average Price: $230
This one comes with a hefty price tag. The whiskey is made for the international market, which doesn’t help the pricing in the U.S. since it has to be brought back. Still, the whiskey in the bottle is the ultimate in refinement and a testament to how filtering can be done without hurting the end product.
Cedar bark, dried tobacco smoke, and old oak barrels in a musty rickhouse dominate upfront. The sip ebbs through notes of tart and sweet red fruit as dark spices, creamy vanilla, and grassy nature mix on the palate. The sip slowly fades out, leaving the smoke, wood, and spice with a mild echo of dark chocolate bitterness.
Wilderness Trail Single Barrel Bourbon
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Distillery: Wilderness Trail Distillery, Danville, KY
Average Price: $50
This a very young and unique whiskey. The mash bill leans into wheat with 24 percent of the recipe coming from the locally grown grain. The mash is a sweet mash, not a sour mash (meaning the recipe uses completely new ingredients with every batch). The juice is aged for five to six years using toasted oak staves, giving it extra depth.
Brown sugar, pecans, cedar, and apple orchards greet you. The sip stays airy as notes of vanilla, apples, spice, and wood mingle on the palate. The end is long with the sense of the wood and corn lasting the longest.
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep 17 Year
Distillery: Wild Turkey Distillery, Lawrenceburg, KY
Average Price: $155
This year’s Master’s Keep 17 Year is another smash for Wild Turkey. The barrels that hold this sipping bourbon are moved between stone and wooden rickhouses. This multi-environment aging process makes this expression one of the most unique on the market.
This is Wild Turkey turned up to eleven. Soft billows of campfire smoke, rich vanilla pods, Christmas spices with orange zest, and clear oakiness are all present. The sip builds from those notes with a salted caramel sweetness alongside a lot more spice and vanilla. The sweetness has a marshmallow and bitter chocolate vibe as the finish descends through the senses in a smoky haze.
Blade and Bow 22 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery & Heaven Hill Bernheim Distillery, KY (Diageo)
Average Price: $212
This high-end expression form Diageo is bottled at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery. The juice that’s blended for this dram is sourced from Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill but they don’t say exactly what the mash bill of those juices are. It’s fine. The end result stands on its own as a very sippable whiskey and that’s enough.
Chewy plums mingle with oak, honey-roasted almonds, and straw. The palate builds on notes of spicy pepper, dark spices, and a lumberyard feel, while vanilla and sweet fruits cut through. The end is short, sweet, and full of more spice, vanilla, oak, and a flourish of wildflowers.
Little Book “The Road Home”
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Little Book chapter 3: “The Road Home” has BOLD classic bourbon flavors of caramel, brown sugar, honey, vanilla, and oak with undertones of peppers and spice. 👍🏾@jimbeamdistillery @littlebookwhiskey #jimbeam #littlebook #littlebookwhiskey #littlebookchapter3 #freddienoe #beamsuntory #bourbon #whiskey #bourbonwhiskey
Distillery: Jim Beam, Clermont, KY
Average Price: $115
Little Book is Jim Beam’s ode to the wonders of blending whiskey. This expression blends nine-year-old Basil Hayden, nine-year-old Knob Creek, 11-year-old Booker’s, and 12-year-old Baker’s. Each bourbon goes into the final blend unaltered and barrel strength. It took master distiller Freddie Noe 57 tries to get this one exactly right and that devotion to greatness comes through in each sip.
This is just a classic dram of bourbon. Rich vanilla pods and corn-focused caramel marry charred oak and Christmas puddings spices, candied fruit, and zest. The sip moves into dried stone fruit territory as the oaky char bitterness is counterpointed by a sweet vanilla underbelly. That oak lasts as the warm end embraces the senses and slowly fades away.