Whisky Advocate

2013: The Year of Great Premium Bourbon

November 7th, 2013

author-hansellWhiskey prices keep climbing, and none of us are happy about it. It’s a simple matter of economics: supply vs. demand. The entire world has discovered the joy of whiskey and there isn’t enough to go around.

But if we can set aside the price issue for a moment and look at the quality of the product on the market, it’s quite apparent to me that 2013 will go down as a great year for premium and super-premium bourbon, and other American whiskeys, like rye and Tennessee. Let’s take a look at what’s been released this year.

The premium whiskeys we expect to be great every year are great again this year

Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection (George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Eagle Rare 17 yr., Parker's_ALS_Promise of Hope_Bottle ShotSazerac 18 yr., and Thomas H. Handy) delivers an amazingly consistent combination of quality and variety.

Then there’s the new Parker’s Heritage Collection “Promise of Hope” bottling. While the Antique Collection might get all the attention, Parker’s new release is just great, honest, no frills bourbon that I could drink every day and never tire of it.

On top of this, we have another stunning Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch for 2013. After we gave the 2012 Limited Edition Whisky Advocate’s “American Whiskey of the Year” honors, I thought that there was no way Jim Rutledge and the team at Four Roses could ever match that one. But they did with the 2013 Small Batch release! And the Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Single Barrel offering is no slouch either.

Even the “hit and miss” annual releases are great this year

2013 saw two different Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection releases, six bottles in total—four different wheated bourbonsOldForBDay2013 that experimented with barrel entry proof and two 15 year old bourbons that varied the barrel stave seasoning times. All four wheated bourbons, while tasting quite different, were very good to excellent. The 15 year old bourbon with the extended 13 month stave drying time blew me away with enriched sweet, creamy notes that balanced the dried oak spice that comes with 15 years of aging, without the harsh tannins often found in bourbon that old.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon release for 2013 was the best in many years. And my Elijah Craig 21 year old Single Barrel rocked! (Mine was from Barrel No. 42 if you’re keeping track. I did taste whiskey from other barrels and they were still good, but not quite of the stature of No. 42.)

George Dickel gets into the act too!
Dickel Hand Selected Barrel 9
After wishing for years that George Dickel would put out some great super-premium Tennessee whiskeys, they finally did. I was thrilled to see them introduce to retailers the new single cask “hand selected barrel” offerings at both 9 and 14 years of age—and higher proof! I particularly enjoyed the 9 year old samples I tasted. There’s so much untapped potential there at Dickel. Let’s start tapping it.

The new stuff is also exciting

Angel’s Envy Rye was like a breath of fresh air, combining rye spice with the rummy notes gained from being finished off in rum barrels. Beam came out with a new Distiller’s Masterpiece finished in PX casks and two new “Signature Craft” releases; one a standard 12 year old, the other finished with Spanish brandy. Wild Turkey Forgiven married bourbon with rye whiskeys. Okay, so maybe some of this new stuff isn’t of the caliber of the other whiskeys I mentioned above, but it was the icing on the cake of a really great year.

Sure, there’s still some ho-hum whiskeys

The Stagg Jr. I reviewed was a bit harsh and aggressive on the finish, and I could take or leave the two new Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Limited Edition Malt releases. Still, these were the exceptions to what otherwise was an outstanding year for premium and super-premium American whiskey.

All this, and not one mention of Pappy…

10 Responses to “2013: The Year of Great Premium Bourbon”

  1. onlylivtwice says:

    Indeed it is a great time for the American Whiskey lover. It’s nice to know that, during a time when super-rare whiskeys like BTAC and VW get all the attention, there are still plenty of other great whiskeys that can be found on the shelf. For me, I would add recent releases of Willett Family Estate handpicked barrels. Despite the unknown sources, it’s still good stuff!

  2. Melon says:

    Great post, but one correction is needed. The Jim Beam Signature Rare Spanish Brandy is finished by adding actual Spanish brandy, not by finishing in brandy casks. I’m a regular reader and really enjoy your posts.

  3. I agree that it’s a good time to find quality American whiskey, but the American whiskey industry seems to know that too. All of the whiskies in the first four-or-so paragraphs are very difficult to find, and none of them are cheap. I’m all for paying what’s due for quality products, but, even with the high quality of the offerings, these prices are a little out of hand. Pretty soon I’ll be forced to stick to my Elijah Craig 12 and Weller Special Reserve (because the 12 and Antique are sold out) if this keeps going the way it is!

  4. Gary Gillman says:

    Very fair comments based on my experience (I haven’t tried them all) but one thing I deprecate, John, is the plethora of bourbons finished in wine casks or treated in some way. Usually what is old is new again but to my mind, this is a departure from tradition and the idea of straight bourbon, and I don’t think the taste really generally is improved in this way.

    This seems to me potentially the beginning of a blurring of the bourbon category. I think there is never enough excellence in the regular product. Lots of tastes and ages out there, but not too many fine flavours that reach the gastronomic heights. One bourbon that knocked me out recently – and it wasn’t a one-off since I’ve bought it a few times now and the flavour is consistent – is current WT 81 proof. It has a fine mature flavour yet you know it’s whiskey not wood chips’ extract, perfect for neat sipping. It’s a better taste – just the flavour itself – than most other bourbon I’ve tasted in recent years regardless of price. When the 81 first came out I didn’t like it but clearly the taste panel has drilled down and it is now a consistent and top-quality product. I will take that any day over a bourbon flavoured in some way with port or sherry. That Woodford Reserve that had the finishing in various wine casks, I forget the name for a moment, was not what I look for in fine whiskey – it tasted like a whiskey swallowed after eating a piece of toast and dark marmalade. Never much liked Angel’s Envy either and I don’t get the connection between port (or sherry) and bourbon.

    There is enough greatness in traditional bourbon that the producers IMO should work on making it as good as they can – by adroit mingling and selection – rather than adding things to it that are not traditional.



  5. Andrew B says:

    I largely agree with these reviews, and who wouldn’t? Stagg, Parker’s, & Four Roses are consistently good and worth mention, praise even. I was a bit surprised to see mention of some others items which were good, but not stellar, and even items that left something to be desired. I did notice an absence of one whiskey which I was maybe most impressed with this year. That bottle being the Russel’s Reserve Single Barrel. What a beautiful bottling! 110 proof & NCF, an explosion of flavor with cinnamon up front and a long lingering finish. I was also pleased to see it released earlier in the year rather than with the holiday rush. Absolutely the best ever Turkey related hooch to grace my palate and in my top 3 of the year, Pappy and Buffalo Trace included.

  6. Rhonda A. says:

    How do you find out about these whiskies before they are released. I am the Whisky buyer at Groton Market and I always seem to be a minute late to jump on the band wagon for these things. I know Four Roses limited and Old Forrester Birthday come out in August but I stumbled on that info. Where can I find this information. For Single Malt Scotches too.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      You’re going to have to talk to your suppliers, Rhonda. If you’re buying regularly from them, they should be keeping you up to date on them, and you should ask them what you have to do to get prior notice and, most importantly, part of their allocation. Best of luck!

  7. LRay says:

    I have a complete Buffalo Trace Antique Collection for 2013. I am looking to sell the collection and do not know how to go about doing this. Any suggestions?

  8. JerseyGuy says:

    LRay, private sales are illegal. Drink ’em, don’t be one of those a$$hole bottle flippers.

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