American whiskey has become a global success story, with consumers flocking to buy the diverse flavors and styles the category offers – spanning rye, corn, wheat, Bourbon and single malts.
As judges moved up a price bracket to Bourbon – Super Premium, the first Master medalist of the competition was uncovered: Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. Selected by Elise Craft’s panel, the Bourbon was praised for its notes of “espresso”, “nuts”, “black pepper” and “barbecue”. A Gold was also bestowed upon “juicy” Old Forester 1920 115 Proof, while a Silver medal went to Old Forester Statesman.
Spearheaded by the popularity of TV programme Mad Men, Bourbon has cemented itself within the whisk(e)y ranks as the ‘cool kid on the block’ and an irrefutable driving force of American whiskey’s revival. The category has proven hugely favourable among that most coveted of demographics – millennials – as imbibers sip, shoot and shake it in cocktails.
But it’s not just Bourbon that is relishing American whiskey’s mounting success. Distillers have been pushing category boundaries with different styles of whiskeys, incorporating corn, rye and wheat into their portfolios – even American single malts are on the up.
And consumers seemingly can’t get enough of what the US has to offer. According to trade body the Distilled Spirits Council, the nation guzzled more than 23 million nine-litre cases of American whiskey in 2017, generating more than US$3.4 billion in revenue for US distillers.
Happily, quality is not being compromised for quantity, as was evident in this year’s American Whiskey Masters.
The first flight of the day was Bourbon – Premium, which delivered three Gold medals for Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Old Forester 100 Proof, and Wild Turkey 101, and one Silver for Old Forester 86 Proof. Judge Nick Bell, of Billy Abbott’s team, said the round was “consistently solid. Premium shouldn’t really be crazy things and the value for money you’re getting is great; a whole collection of styles”.
Progressing to the highest price range of the tasting, and the Bourbon – Ultra Premium round delivered a Gold for 291 Colorado Bourbon Whiskey Single Barrel, which was hailed for its “really interesting” notes of “chewy bubblegum”, “fragrant tea” and “crumble”. A Silver was also presented to “spiced” and “fruity” Balcones Texas Blue Corn Bourbon.
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey secured a Gold in the Bourbon – No Age Statement flight, with flavours of “marmalade” and “stewed fruits”.
A raft of medals followed suit in what was the biggest flight of the tasting, Bourbon – Aged up to 7 Years. One Silver and a total of nine Gold medals were awarded in this round – almost half of which went to Luxco-owned expressions: Rebel Yell – Small Batch Reserve Bourbon; Yellowstone Select – Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; David Nicholson Reserve; and David Nicholson 1843 Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
However, despite the impressive medal haul, the judges noted room for diversity of flavour within this particular category. “The consistency in flavour is a bit scary,” said Mark Jennings. “Variation between them all is getting a bit blurred. Some of these feel like they’ve been in wood too long.” Tommy Cummins agreed, and added: “If it was me, I’d bring the abv down a little on them. Because the wood is so forward, at high abvs it’s not going to be for everyone.”
One Silver medal was uncovered in the Tennessee Whiskey – Super Premium heat, earned by Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey. “It’s easy drinking – a crowd-pleasing whiskey,” said Bell.
Onto the single malts, a category driving much excitement in the American whiskey sector, and judges found two deserving Golds in the Single Malt – Super Premium round. “It’s a fairly new category,” said Abbott, “and people are starting to explore the range of flavours that are possible.”
Abbott’s panel enjoyed the “chocolatey, hazelnut” and “cereal” notes of Balcones Mirador, and the “intense richness”, “oak” and “caramel” of Balcones Peated Malt.
Bell added: “American single malt is underrepresented among the categories and it’s good to see them coming in and being really solid and different from each other. It’s not just a gimmicky thing; there’s a good range of flavour appearing.”
WARMTH AND SPICINESS
Balcones continued to reap the rewards of this competition in the next flight: Single Malt – Ultra Premium. The judges agreed Balcones Texas No. 1 Single Malt was Master-worthy thanks to its complex flavours of “sweet oak”, “candied orange peel”, “cereals”, “cloves” and “cinnamon”. Balcones Fr. Oak walked away with a Gold, impressing the panel with its “marzipan” nose and “woody” character. Bisson said about it: “The warmth and spiciness that I’d expect in American whiskey was there but it didn’t have the char notes that sometimes bother me – it was great to sip on, despite it being above 50%. I didn’t even want to try it with water.” Bell was equally impressed with the standard presented among the ultra-premium entrants: “You could tell this was ultra-premium – the level of quality was a step above the super-premiums. If someone just gave you this as an example of the range of American single malts, you’d think it was one of the strongest categories out there.”
Single Malt – Aged up to 7 Years was also a strong round and described as a “good flight for the age”. Craft’s team awarded two Golds to Uprising Single Malt Pedro Ximénez Finish, impressed by the whiskey’s flavours of “juicy stone fruits”, “leather” and “treacle tart”; and “chewy” Uprising Single Malt, with its notes of “barbecue pork” and “wood fire in the distance”. Battle Cry Single Malt was awarded Silver. Onto Rye – Premium, and Amy Hopkins’ panel enjoyed Gold medallist Woodford Reserve Rye. Chris Tanner said: “It’s got a mustiness. It’s really chewy, a really good rye.”
LIVELY, RICH AND COMPLEX
The next price bracket along, Rye – Super Premium, drew another Master medallist: Luxco’s Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey. Andre Carozzo said: “On the nose, it has apple, dried peach and raisin. The oak is well integrated and the palate is just delicious – complex, elegant, long finish.” Craft also had high praise for the expression, and added: “This is the kind of rye that converts people to the spirit – lively, rich, complex and really grounded.”
Craft’s team then tackled the Rye – Ultra Premium contingent and although a thoroughly deserved Gold was presented to Balcones Texas Rye 100, the group offered some advice on the category’s direction. “While I can love a very single-minded rye, you really need to be all in,” said Craft. “There’s no place for hesitation.”
The penultimate flight of the day, Other Grains, drew three Silvers: Woodford Reserve Malt, Balcones True Blue 100 and Ironroot Hubris Corn Whiskey.
The competition ended with a flight of Moonshine and Other Unaged Whiskey, in which a Silver medallist was discovered: Ole Smoky Moonshine Blue Flame. “I can certainly see the craft that’s gone into making this, and it tastes clean and crisp for a moonshine when water is added,” said Craft.
Overall, optimism abounded in this year’s American Whiskey Masters, which represented the growing diversity of flavour and style in the category. If there are lessons to be taken away, first and foremost it would be to expand on this flavour diversity. But also, the judges were keen to see less focus on age and abv. “I’d like to see more gentle wood management; sometimes the wood was too overpowering,” said Jennings. “But there’s a fantastic amount of flavour, which is great to see.”
Click through the following pages to view the results tables in full.