Who’s at the top of the class?
Considering the landscape of large Kentucky whiskey distilleries recently, I pondered how they would stack up in a forced ranking. First, it would be necessary to determine some criteria on which they would be evaluated. This begs the question: what should whiskey lovers care about when it comes to the products on offer from a given distillery?
It’s not fair to judge a distillery solely on the top of its range, as the current environment makes these expressions unobtainable for a majority of whiskey consumers. That said, a constant stream of workaday output doesn’t really get the heart pumping in a way that truly exceptional bottles do. The platonic ideal is a balance of a solid core of affordable, readily available everyday whiskeys, augmented by some premium offerings, and additional one-off special releases or an annual limited edition that justify the added effort and expense of obtaining them.
Another key feature of today’s whiskey world is barrel picks, private selections, or whatever else you want to call them. All distilleries covered here offer them in some form, under one or more of their respective labels. While some of these brands restrict available picks to so-called “on-profile” barrels (ones that share notes in common with their reference expressions), others allow for weird and wonderful “off-profile” barrels that showcase aromas and flavors that can diverge meaningfully from the norm.
Keeping all that in mind, I’ve come up with a scoring rubric for the eleven major U.S. whiskey distilleries. Using Malt’s scoring bands, I’ve assigned a numerical grade from 1 to 10 in each of the following categories:
Core Expressions: The everyday bottles that can be found at most liquor stores, supermarkets, or wherever else common men and women go to pick up some whiskey. These are typically priced in the $20-90 range (I’m excluding bottom-shelf offerings) and are evergreen, available year-round. Criteria for evaluation here is mostly value for money in a very competitive field.
Limited Editions: This refers to both one-offs as well as annual limited releases (such as the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection). Bearing SRPs in the $90-250 range, these collectibles usually change hands at multiples of those figures on the “secondary market.” In this category, I am looking for whiskeys that deliver the superior drinking experience commensurate with their elevated prices.
Barrel Picks: All the selections available from a given distillery in the form of private barrel picks. Emphasis in this category is on both quality and breadth of the offerings. As mentioned before, the ability of pickers to choose “off-profile” barrels is a major determinant of success in this area.
Overall Score: A triangulation between the above, with my gut feeling and overall inclination toward the distillery being the principal guide. I have given more weight to the core offerings, as these will reflect the exposure that the majority of our readership will have to the distillery.
Given the staunch pushback I occasionally receive on my reviews, it bears repeating that what follows are simply my opinions, and our readers are free to disagree/and or debate them so long as they do so respectfully and civilly. That said, let’s get a-gradin’!
Core Expressions: The 1792 Small Batch performs solidly for the price. Availability varies based on geographic location. However, the Very Old Barton Bottled in Bond has been discontinued in favor of non-age-stated, lower proof expressions, in a continuation of a depressing trend certainly not limited to Barton. Score: 5/10
Limited Editions: Aged Twelve Years, Bottled In Bond, Full Proof, High Rye, Port Finish, Single Barrel, Sweet Wheat… Barton seems to tick most every box in terms of the possible combinations and permutations. I’ve tried a few of these and they’ve varied from OK to pretty good, but none has really set my world on fire. Again, depending on where you’re located, these might be readily available or require the sacrifice of a firstborn. Score: 5/10
Barrel Picks: Limited to the Bottled-in-Bond and Full Proof expressions, these again have proven themselves solid if unspectacular, in my experience. None have been eye-popping in terms of radically novel notes. Score: 5/10
Overall Score: 5/10
Brown-Forman (Old Forester)
Core Expressions: Old Forester 86 proof is the entry-level offering, but a slight premium gets you the excellent value 100 Proof. The Whisky Row Series, particularly the 1910 and 1920 expressions, have quickly become fan favorites. Score: 8/10
Limited Editions: Though I have not tried the President’s Choice nor the Birthday Bourbon, they have received relatively poor feedback from folks I trust. Add to the fact that these expressions become ludicrously difficult to get – this year’s Birthday Bourbon release saw more than 100 folks camped out 40 hours ahead of time – and these limited editions feel like a pass. Score: 3/10
Barrel Picks: The program got an upgrade in January 2020, when the 90 proof option was eliminated in favor of a Barrel Strength choice (the 100 proof still remains). I recently had the pleasure to participate in an Old Forester Barrel Strength pick with Master Distiller Chris Morris. Picks occur in an elegant tasting room inside Old Forester’s brand new downtown Louisville facility. We chose from between five barrels, all above 126 proof (63% ABV), all about four years in age. While I’d prefer some older stock, I am still highly satisfied with the end result. Score: 6/10
Overall Score: 6/10
Core Expressions: The evaluation of this category is complicated by two factors. First, the sheer breadth of the expressions produced by Buffalo Trace makes generalization difficult. In addition, the “allocated” status of many of these whiskeys (even plain ol’ Buffalo Trace is in short supply in some areas) means that what may be commonplace for me is unobtainable for you, or vice versa. Still, some of my favorite whiskeys sit within the Buffalo Trace portfolio: Eagle Rare, Stagg Jr, and Weller Antique 107 are perennial buys IF (again, big IF) they can be located at SRP. Score: 8/10
Limited Editions: Between the Antique Collection, the Van Winkle bourbons, and the annual Kosher release, there’s something for everyone in the coveted Buffalo Trace outturns. Though there will be hits and misses, depending on the year, there’s usually several solid offerings in the bunch. Even more so than the core expressions, however, these suffer from lack of availability and some truly ambitious price gouging when they do appear. Buffalo Trace is increasingly the subject of their customers’ ire for failing to reform pricing and allocations, hence I’m knocking a full point off of what would otherwise be top marks. Score: 9/10
Barrel Picks: There’s a plethora of ways to pick from Buffalo Trace: the mainstay expression, Eagle Rare, E.H. Taylor, and Sazerac Rye, and the recently inaugurated Stagg Jr. barrel selections. However, this program has a bad rap for only allowing on-profile barrel picks, screening out those deviant barrels in advance. The picks typically aren’t bad, but they don’t offer the eye-opening experience that warrants paying up for them. Score: 4/10
Overall Score: 8/10
Core Expressions: I have previously lauded Four Roses for their relative restraint in terms of their core expressions, which are all typically strong performers for the money. Both the Small Batch and the Small Batch Select are reliable go-tos, with added intrigue from the retail Single Barrel expression. In total, a respectably above-average performer. Score: 7/10
Limited Editions: Again, there’s a narrow selection here, being restricted to a single annual limited edition. I’ve liked or disliked these depending on the year, but the specs are disclosed and – at least on paper – these argue in favor of paying a higher price. Score: 6/10
Barrel Picks: Perhaps the king of the barrel pick programs, the ability to select between the 10 recipe codes is the stuff of a whiskey geek’s dreams. These barrel picks are getting more difficult to secure, as they’re being more parsimoniously awarded to the stores that move the most Yellow Label and Small Batch. However, they always promise intrigue at a comparatively competitive price. Score: 9/10
Overall Score: 7/10
Core Expressions: There’s perhaps no better value for money than the Heaven Hill whiskeys found on every store shelf. To name a few common ones: Evan Williams, Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, and Pikesville Rye are always to be found in my liquor cabinet. Score: 10/10
Limited Editions: Parker’s Heritage Collection has its fans, though I’ve also read mixed reviews. The Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bonds were abysmal, though the distillery-exclusive pre-fire Evan Williams 23 Years Old was a thing of beauty. In total, and in light of what is offered by peers, I’m marking this section below average. Score: 2/10
Barrel Picks: Another program enhanced of late, with the Elijah Craig Private Barrel now available as a Barrel Proof pick. I recently had the chance to experience just such a pick for myself, and that visit to Heaven Hill produced memories to last a lifetime, as well as some fiendishly tasty whiskey. Score: 6/10
Overall Score: 8/10
Core Expressions: Beam suffers from one of the same problems as Buffalo Trace, in that the breadth of the expressions coming out of this distillery defy easy categorization. While the ubiquitous Jim Beam White Label may not arouse any fondness from serious bourbon folks, there’s plenty of gems hidden behind labels from Knob Creek, and the sporadic batch of Booker’s bourbon. Score: 6/10
Limited Editions: At their best, the limited-edition whiskeys from Beam are sublime, such as the superlative Booker’s 30th Anniversary Bourbon. For each of these, unfortunately, Beam drops a handful of shelf turds. The aspirationally-priced and dubiously-crafted Little Book has turned me off that series entirely. The less said about Basil Hayden’s, the better. Overall I’m giving Beam a mark reflecting very high highs and exceedingly low lows. Score: 4/10
Barrel Picks: Beam’s Knob Creek barrel picks have included some bourbon in its mid-teens (not necessarily a guarantor of quality, but still unique), and generally provide excellent bang for the buck, sometimes veering very far off profile. Score: 7/10
Overall Score: 6/10
Core Expressions: Kentucky’s own Rock of Gibraltar, Maker’s Mark is a byword for consistent, good quality, affordable bourbon. The 46 expression adds intrigue, while the Cask Strength bottling is another of the quotidian purchases for my home bar. Score: 10/10
Limited Editions: Maker’s annual Limited Editions are essentially just distillery versions of the stave finishing experiments in the Private Selection program. They’ve been hit-and-miss; at the least, they are reasonably priced in comparison to the limited releases from other distilleries. Score: 4/10.
Barrel Picks: Though the Private Select program seemed novel initially, I am now starting to be fatigued by the endless options. Adding in the reputation for consistency and the disinclination to release a single barrel at barrel proof, and this section gets a big yawn from me. Score: 4/10
Overall Score: 7/10
(mostly on the strength of the core, which is among the best in the business)
Core Expressions: Speaking of the best in the business, the Russells have maintained a core portfolio of knockout bourbons that remain available and cheap. From 101 up through Rare Breed and the retail incarnation of the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, Wild Turkey has earned several spots on the bar of every bourbon drinker. Though I don’t particularly care for any of the rye whiskeys, I am conscious that I am in the minority here. Overall, though, the excellence of the bourbon portfolio is enough for me to give full marks to Wild Turkey. Score: 10/10
Limited Editions: While they may not all have won me over, I like to think that I appreciated each of the Wild Turkey limited editions in some way. However, the best ones have been some of the greatest contemporary whiskeys I have tried. When I dream of the types of whiskey I’d love to find another bottle of, I dream of Revival and Bottled-in-Bond 17 Years Old. Score: 7/10
Barrel Picks: Between the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel and Kentucky Spirit picks, there’s the opportunity to find your favorite rickhouse (hint: it’s Camp Nelson F). Offering mostly good barrels with the occasionally spectacular off-profile pick, Wild Turkey Barrel picks can be bought with confidence. Score: 7/10
Overall Score: 9/10
Core Expressions: I’ll have to confess that I don’t love Woodford Reserve’s profile in a general sense, which will color all my assessments of this distillery. I don’t even really like it. I find most of their whiskeys to be unbalanced toward the wood, starting from the baseline bourbon. Their Malt whiskey was OK, I guess, but the Double Oak simply doubled down on the acrid wood notes that I can’t tolerate. I’m giving this a score reflective of the fact that I pass on every bottle of Woodford Reserve I pass by. Score: 3/10
Limited Editions: Very Fine Rare Bourbon was one of the worst Limited Editions I have tasted, both on its own merits and in consideration of the price. I’ve heard similarly poor things about the other entrants in the series. Again, a score reflective of the fact that I’d encourage you to ignore the temptation to splurge on these. Score: 2/10
Barrel Picks: I’ll confess to not having tried any of the picks that have come out of the Personal Selection Program, though they appear with regularity in my area. Expressions available include the bourbon, plus Double Oaked and the distillery’s rye whiskey. Presuming they’re anything like the retail versions, I’m going to award a similar score, though I will keep an open mind if ever offered a sample. Score: 3/10
Overall Score: 3/10
Looking back across this, I’ve revisited both high peaks and low valleys of my own Kentucky whiskey experience. If I’d like you to take anything away from this piece, it’s the following: there are plenty of great bourbons out there that don’t require a weekend spent hunting through liquor stores or the assumption of a second mortgage to afford. Limited Editions often fail to deliver the goods, but they’re not all naked cash grabs. Barrel picks are not guaranteed winners, though the standouts are worth your special attention.
Beyond these specific, utilitarian pieces of advice, I’m reminded of the reason I love bourbon (and whiskey more generally). It sits at the nexus of many subjects I’m passionate about: chemistry, gastronomy, history, law, and business. It takes simple ingredients and combines them in ways that produce an end product with a surprising amount of deviation. More than this, though: it has been a means to connect with strangers, to create some truly wonderful relationships, and to enhance others through the sharing of good times.
For all the folks that make bourbon, and for all the folks that have generously shared their bourbon with me or have taken the time to educate me: I raise a glass to you. Cheers!
Lead image, Barton 1792, and Old Forester photos author’s own. Other photos courtesy of the respective distilleries.