It’s no secret that we talk about whiskey a lot around here. But even with lists of our favorite bourbons, ryes, and scotches reaching into triple digits, we still miss a bottle or two. That’s why I’m calling out nine more bourbon whiskeys — and one more rye! — that I’ve personally underhyped this year.
Look at it this way, I’ve tasted somewhere around 1,000 whiskeys this year (and that doesn’t even count other spirits, beer, wines, cocktails, etc.). Sometimes, bottles simply fall through the cracks. That doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of our attention, time, or money. It just means that there’s a lot out there, folks, and covering it all is… pretty much impossible.
The nine bottles of bourbon whiskey below are bottles that I think deserve a little more attention than they received. I also added a rye whiskey at the end because I really think it’s worth a little more attention too. I may have reviewed other bottles from some of these brands but these are bottles of whiskey that I haven’t written about previously but still definitely dig.
Cool? Let’s dive in.
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Smoke Wagon Uncut Unfiltered Bourbon
Average Price: $75
Smoke Wagon is one of those brands that suddenly seems like it’s everywhere. That’s thanks, in part, to co-founder Aaron Chepenik for killing it on IG. The other part of the brand’s meteoric rise is that Smoke Wagon’s crew is masterfully blending some of the best barrels from MGP of Indiana that were made available.
Case in point, the latest batch from the company was a high-rye bourbon (60 percent corn, 36 percent rye, and four percent malted barley) that was an instant hit.
Based on Batch 29 from early this year, expect a nose full of classic bourbon notes of orange oils, cinnamon stewed apples, caramel with a touch of salt, and peachy wood chips. The palate really embraces the fruit and moves from that peach vibe towards a blackberry crumble that’s just kissed with nutmeg and clove that leads towards a hint of old leather, singed cedar planks, and a late hint of cherry-touched tobacco. That leather, berry tobacco, and cedar drives the finish towards a dry end.
This is classic bourbon that’s just generally cool (bottle, vibe, flavor notes). The price point isn’t too high for the quality of this blend. For those who mix drinks, this works wonders in an old fashioned thanks to that orange and berry vibe.
Average Price: $44
Stephen Beam is working some serious magic from his tiny Limestone Branch Distillery. While we really love his limited-edition releases, we’ve slept on his standard-bearer, Yellowstone Select. The whiskey is a blend of four to seven-ish-year-old barrels with a mash bill Beam keeps to himself. While the whiskey is mostly produced by Beam at Limestone Branch, the barrels are stored at Luxco’s massive property down the road.
This is a classic on the nose as soft and sweet oak mingles with vanilla pods, caramel apples, a hint of singed marshmallow, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. The palate lingers in a bowl of fresh peaches and rich cream infused with vanilla as almost sweet suede leads towards a tiny note of spicy streusel. The finish is straightforward and dries out with a cedar box full of vanilla-laced tobacco leaves, a hint of Cherry Coke, and a dusting of fine white pepper.
This feels like a great “table bourbon” or everyday sipper and mixer that’s taken up a notch. It’s refined but approachable. It’s light but well-hewn. It’s just nice, folks.
Penelope Bourbon Barrel Strength
ABV: 57.6% (Batch 7)
Average Price: $65
Penelope Bourbon is another great example of what a master blender can do with MGP whiskey. In this case, three barrels were blended — aged three to five years — to create a barrel strength expression that highlights the quality of those casks. The final product ended up being a four-grain bourbon with a mash bill of 74 percent corn, 16 percent wheat, seven percent rye, and three percent malted barley.
The nose on this bursts forth with peaches, red berries, blueberry, and an almost savory gooseberry next to cotton candy, a touch of toffee, and very light-yet-sweet oak. The palate shines as the peaches and berries combine to make a sort of summer fruit crumble with plenty of butter, dark sugar, and spice alongside a thin line of soft leather, rich vanilla, and more of that sweet oak. The mid-palate sweetens with more cotton candy before diving into a warming and spicy finish that keeps the spice sweet and subtle.
If you’re looking for a unique MGP bourbon to try, this is the bottle for you. It’s so bright and fruity while still feeling like a rich and classic bourbon. It’s also an excellent highball whiskey thanks to that bright fruit.
Basil Hayden Toast
Average Price: $55
This year, Beam released a new Basil Hayden’s that changed the brand’s finishing game as well as the mash bill. While Hayden’s was generally the same high-rye mash bill as Old Grand-dad Bourbon, this expression is built around brown rice instead of rye with a mash bill of 63 percent corn, 27 percent brown rice, and ten percent malted barley. The final product comes with no age statement and is proofed down to Hayden’s signature 40 percent after a secondary maturation in a toasted oak barrel.
There’s a burnt marshmallow note on the nose that’s very inviting next to buttery cinnamon wheat toast, a touch of dry pine, and a light wet brown sugar sweetness. The taste bursts with rich butterscotch hard candy next to roasted almonds, cherry-soaked cinnamon sticks, and an almost smoky note of cedar bark. The finish arrives pretty quickly and has an almost Nutella vibe with hints of raw leather and dry and dark spices lingering on the short end.
This is one of those sips that feels all over the place at first but then somehow comes together like the prestige of a magic trick. It just makes sense and tastes pretty damn unique overall, while still feeling like a very easy-drinking bourbon. Again, though, I’d really recommend this more for mixing and sipping on the rocks than a neat dram by the fire.
Chattanooga Bottled-In-Bond Vintage Series, Spring 2017
Average Price: $55
Just to be clear, yes, this is Tennessee whiskey. But, remember, all Tennessee whiskey is bourbon by definition and law. This particular whiskey was made back in spring 2017 and released this year. The whiskey is a blend of four mash bills that all feature specialty malts ranging from honey malts to peated barley to naked oats to chocolate roasted barley to caramel malts and many more. The throughline is yellow corn, bonded warehouse aging, and proofing down to 50 percent ABV.
You get all those grains on the nose with rich toffee, dark chocolate-covered sweet and tart berries, malted vanilla milkshake, and a hint of yellow masa. The palate sweetens like honey dripping on a buttery southern biscuit while hints of soft leather mingle with cherry tobacco and this very distant whisper of hickory smoker smoke. The sweetness of that woody smoke dissipates quickly as hints of dry cedar mix with cherry tobacco leaves and a mix of vanilla pods and allspice berries bring a mild warmth.
This sip is a bit of a rollercoaster of flavors that’s, well, thrilling. You’ll definitely want to let this bloom with a little water or a rock, but you’ll be in for a great ride.
Elijah Craig Beer Barrel Finish
Average Price: $40 (200ml bottle)
This very limited edition, distillery-only release from Heaven Hill takes their classic bourbon (78 percent corn, 12 percent malted barley, and ten percent rye) and finishes in a beer barrel for about nine months. In this case, Elijah Craig Small Batch barrels were sent to Goose Island Brewery to age their famed Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. Those barrels were sent back to Kentucky and re-filled with Elijah Craig Small Batch for those aforementioned nine months before proofing and bottling in cool little 200ml bottles.
The stout comes through immediately on the nose with a matrix of chocolate malts, rich and buttery toffee, light eggnog spices, oily vanilla beans, and a hint of beer-soaked wood. The palate lets that chocolate malt shine as chocolate-infused Graham Crackers lead towards an almost creamy vanilla-laden eggnog with plenty of nutmeg and allspice mingles with a hint more of that wet wood. The finish really delivers on the “stout-aged” vibes as the chocolate bitters towards a long end full of subtle dark spices, toffee candies, and sweet oak with a hint of old leather.
This is technically a late 2020 release, but I got to try it this year, so here we are. Anyway, this is really solid for a beer-barrel-finished bourbon. In fact, I’d rank this amongst the best in the category. Now, actually finding one of these is a totally different story.
Wild Turkey Aged 13 Years Father & Son
Average Price: $400
This is classic Wild Turkey left alone for over a decade before father and son team Jimmy and Eddie Russell build this whiskey together. The juice is standard Turkey with a mash bill of 75 percent corn, 13 percent rye, and 12 percent malted barley that’s left to age in their rickhouses until they’re just right. The whiskey is made to lean into Wild Turkey notes more than the Distiller’s Reserve 13 and this year’s Russell’s Reserve 13.
The whiskey opens with this medley of rich cherry tobacco next to well-worn leather gloves, singed dried rose petals, dried peach skins, smudged sweetgrass, and orange blossoms with a hint of dark and powdery spice. The palate turns the cherry into a cobbler with plenty of toffee and vanilla pudding next to a slight note of crafty root beer that’s more sassafras than sugar while an almost mossy and black-dirt-ground tree bark arrives late. The finish takes on the darkness and earthiness and builds towards a sweetened yet still slightly bitter black tea, smoked honey, and maybe a hint of dried mint, Tellicherry black peppercorns, and more of that worn leather.
If you can find this, it’ll be pretty mind-blowing. This is the bottle I bring out when I want to take someone on a great journey while also championing Wild Turkey as a brand of whiskey that always wows. Just make sure to let some water let this one bloom in the glass so you can really dive deep into all those flavors.
Four Gate Whiskey Company Batch 4 Split Stave by Kelvin
Average Price: $175
Four Gate is one of those brands that whiskey nerds will throw you under the bus to get their hands on. The juices’ source is kept under wraps and the bottles are usually only released in Kentucky and maybe Tennessee, adding to the mythos. This batch really ups the ante by having famed cooperage Kelvin Cooperage step in to finish the whiskey with a special mix of their staves. The short story is that Kelvin’s team dismantled toasted barrels with #2 and #4 char levels and used those staves to build new barrels alternating the char on the staves.
The barrel 100 percent comes through on the nose with a light bitter char next to sweet oaky notes, a buttery burnt caramel sauce, and a load of rich vanilla that feels like pods soaked in vanilla brandy before being wrapped up in vanilla-laced tobacco leaves and stored in an old cedar box. Red Hots and clove buds arrive late and drive the finish towards a woody, spicy, and slightly sweet toffee end with plenty of nuanced warmth to keep you feeling this sip for a while.
This is one of the most wood-forward whiskeys I’ve had in a while. It’s unabashedly in your face with that dark toasty wood but it sort of works. The sweet balances that bitter char really well and you’re left with a one-of-a-kind whiskey tasting experience.
George Remus Bourbon
Average Price: $42
While we loved Remus Reserve V this year, this entry-point bottle deserves a lot more attention. The juice is MGP’s bourbon but they don’t let us know the mash bill or how long these barrels age before they go into the batch. We can guess it’s a low-rye mash bill due to this being very fruit-forward. But that’d just be an educated guess at this point.
The nose is full of berry brambles heavy with sweet, tart, and dark berries, thorny stems, green leaves, and even a little dark soil next to Cherry Coke with a hint of spicy and a touch of sweet oak. The cherry morphs into a syrupy and spicy cherry pie with a lard crust next to hints of vanilla pudding, brittle toffee, and more of that soft and sweet oak. The finish is short and sweet and really highlights that cherry while layering in new leather, more oak, and nice and lush vanilla cream.
This is just a solid all-around whiskey. It’s great in a cocktail but also works easily as a sipper on the rocks. You can’t beat the price or the quality of this one.
Plus One More Rye: BLACKENED x Willett
Average Price: $155
This new release from Metallica’s BLACKENED is a masterful collaboration with Willett. The rye is a blend of whiskeys that were aged around six or seven years (with one barrel up to eight years old) that are vatted and then finished Madeira casks. After an undisclosed amount of time mellowing in those casks, the whiskey is then bottled as-is at cask strength.
This is a berry bomb on the nose with raspberries mingling with Bing cherries, blackberry, and maybe even some tart red currants while this strawberry-mint vibe veers the nose towards a hint of burnt spices. The taste leans into fruit with a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler feel next to plenty of vanilla, bitter cacao nibs, cherry-kissed oak, and a hint of, I want to say, Chardonnay. The savory and tart end of the fruits really kicks in late with figs and more rhubarb leading the charge towards a subtly sweet and spicy end that’s like a spicy plum pudding wrapped in a cherry tobacco leaf.
Yes, these are expensive. But they’re also so unique and well-crafted, especially this rye. There’s really nothing else quite like this out there and that alone makes it worth seeking out — even if only to expand your palate.