There are a lot of spirits competitions these days. And while you don’t really need to keep track of them all, I do — it is my job, after all. One great thing about awards competitions is that it does give you a sense of what’s out there that’s actually worth buying. Also, each of these competitions seems to have a slightly different top tier of winners, which adds some nice variety.
Case in point, the top winners from this year’s Ultimate Spirits Challenge (announced this week) contain a varied group of American whiskeys. Some of them, we’ve seen on other award lists. Some we haven’t. The Ultimate Spirits Challenge (USC) — which has the requisite elite group of industry pros as judges — is a rigorous blind tasting and judging process. For the 13th edition of the competition, thousands upon thousands of bottles from 50 countries were entered. Those pours were evaluated multiple times and given points that equated to “Great Value,” “Finalist,” and “Chairman’s Trophy” — the latter of which highlights the best of the best and was only awarded to 57 bottles across all categories.
To help you understand the list of this year’s Chairman’s Trophy winners from the American whiskey category, I’m listing each of them with my own tasting notes. I’m lucky enough to get to taste a lot of whiskeys and I’ve had nice experiences with each of these. Hopefully, my tasting notes will give you an idea of which of these amazing whiskeys you might actually want to add to your bar cart. Let’s jump in!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
- The 50 Best Bourbon Whiskeys Of 2021, Ranked
- Every Winning Bourbon From Our 2021 Taste Tests, Blind Tasted And Re-Ranked
- The 100 Best Whiskeys Our Head Drinks Writer Tasted In 2021
- We Blind Tasted A Whole Bunch Of $30-60 Bourbons To See If Any Could Beat Weller
- The Best Ten-Year-Old Bourbon Whiskeys, Tasted Blind And Ranked
Bottled-In-Bond Bourbon: Old Fitzgerald Spring 2022 Edition 17 Years Old
Average Price: $1,276
This whiskey was distilled and laid down in barrels back in 2004. The barrels were vatted after 17 years and proofed down to the bottled-in-bond standard of 100 proof and then bottled in the iconic Old Fitz decanter for a Spring 2022 release.
A hint of woodiness comes through on the nose via cherry tree bark with the faintest echo of dried rose next to soft vanilla oil, a hint of cedar, a distant thought of old leather, and a touch of burnt orange peels. The palate starts off softly with a lush vanilla cream that builds towards a winter spice matrix of nutmeg, allspice, and clove with a touch of cherrywood that sweetens toward dried cherries. That mid-palate builds on the cherry with spices (nutmeg and allspice) and sticky tobacco vibes as the finish arrives next to a super creamy dark cherry in vanilla cream feel with a dusting of dark chocolate and more of that dry cherry tree bark.
This is one of my favorite bourbon whiskey of 2022, so far. It’s outstanding yet fleeting, unfortunately. Still, if you come across this at a whiskey bar, buy a pour and spend some time luxuriating in the good stuff.
Bourbon: Eagle Rare 17 Years Old
Average Price: $1,540
This whiskey was produced in the spring of 2003 at Buffalo Trace. Since then, it lost 73 percent of its volume to the angels as it rested in warehouses C, K, M, and Q on various floors. The barrels were then vatted, (barely) proofed down, and bottled.
The nose has this matrix of dark holiday spices that layer into a Black Forest cake with the finest stewed cherries, the moistest chocolate sponge cake, and the richest cream with a touch of vanilla and dark chocolate shavings and a whisper of pink finishing salt. The palate really leans into the cherry with a bright but saucy vibe that’s spiked with nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon (and maybe a hint of ground ginger) while little firecrackers full of salted black licorice, dry cedar bark, and Cherry Coke fill in the background. The finish takes its time as the mid-palate cherry sweetness slowly dissolves into an old wooden garden box full of fresh dark potting soil bursting with fresh mint and spicy nasturtiums.
Every year, this release hits it out of the park. This is phenomenal whiskey with a very accessible and classic profile. It’s a whiskey that truly hits you emotionally with the “feels” and deep comfort. This is a can’t miss, even with the inflated aftermarket price tag.
Rye Whiskey: Smooth Ambler Founders’ Cask Strength Series
Average Price: $83
This whiskey is West Virginia in a glass. The juice is made from 88 percent rye with 12 percent malted barley. The spirit then rests for five years before it’s bottled as-is, with no filtration and no cutting with water.
Black tea leads to what feels like a hint of Guinness’ roasted barley with notes of bitter dark chocolate, espresso beans, and burnt toffee with a thin line of vanilla cream and dried cherries. The palate builds on that foundation by sweetening that black tea considerably while dry and sharp cinnamon, clove, and anise add a layer of heat and a sense of dried mint and fennel counterpoint everything. The end sweetens again with a sense of woody maple syrup next to more of that dark toffee, bursting espresso beans, and soft and lush vanilla cream.
This is excellent rye whiskey. It dropped at the end of last year (December 2021) and I didn’t get a chance to review it for my best of 2021 list. Had I done, this would have been top tier.
Single Barrel Bourbon: Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel
Average Price: $450
Elmer T. Lee is another hugely popular release that’s very limited (and sought after). Where this differs from the other single barrels on this list is in the mash bill (this is a bit higher rye) and the placing of the barrel in the warehouse. It’s said that the barrels for Elmer T. Lee are stored where the master distiller himself used to store the barrels he kept for his own stash.
The nose on this is like a decadent breakfast of pancakes smothered in cinnamon butter, dripping with the best maple syrup, and topped with a hand-made scoop of vanilla ice cream. The palate holds onto the vanilla and spice but settles into more of a floral honeyed sweetness with touches of cedar, old library book leather, and a hint of tobacco buzz. The end lingers for a while and leaves you with a dry pear tobacco warmth next to a cinnamon heat and maple bar sweetness.
This is one of those whiskeys that’s just good. I don’t need to pontificate or justify. It speaks for itself and delivers on every word of hype it gets.
Single Malt Whiskey: Courage & Conviction Cuvée Single Cask, Cask No. 1266
Average Price: $150
This whisky is made with 100 percent malted barley. That juice is then loaded into French red wine or Cuvee casks for a minimum of three years (each cask is hand-selected for its distinct flavor profile). These single casks were chosen for their beauty as a stand-alone whisky that doesn’t need any adulteration or cutting with water. The honey barrel is then bottled as-is at cask strength.
The nose is seriously buttery with a touch of brandy butter next to lightly salted caramel with a vanilla whipped cream that merges into a fruity backbone with hints of raisins, new leather, and maybe a whisper of damp straw. Malts shine through first on the palate as hefty brown spices create a serious heat (from those ABVs) before a cherry tobacco chewiness kicks in with a hint of pear candy under all that malty spice and warmth. The mid-palate really leans into the dark and stewed cherry tobacco vibe as a hint of dry hay, reeds, and umami (sweetish tomato paste maybe?) poke in very late on the finish.
This is another unique and delicious whiskey. It’s a testament to where the burgeoning American single malt whiskey game is headed. In fact, grabbing this bottle feels like you’re getting in on the ground floor of something big.
Tennessee Whiskey: Jack Daniel’s 10 Years Old
Average Price: $200
This new age statement released from Jack Daniel’s feels like a throwback to a bygone era in Tennessee Whiskey. The whiskey is aged for at least ten years. During that time, the barrels spend time in the “Buzzard’s Roost” at the top of the rickhouse. Once they hit the right flavor profile, those barrels are moved to the bottom floors of other warehouses to slow the aging down. Finally, the whiskey is vatted, proofed, and bottled.
This opens with a rich matrix of cherry syrup, apple cores, sticky toffee, vanilla ice cream, and a thin line of wet and sweet wood. The palate opens up towards the dark fruit but dries it out and married it to a sticky and spicy tobacco leaf while toasted cedar soaked in salted caramel vibes with dry corn husks that are just singed. The finish really takes its time as the cherry attaches to an old cinnamon stick and the tobacco takes on a sticky chewiness with a mild savory fruit edge.
This whiskey continues to clean up at awards competitions this year. I can assure you that this is a legit bottle of Tennessee whiskey that’ll upend your preconceived notions about the mega-brand. It’s nuanced and deep but, more importantly, it’s really f*cking tasty.
Wheat Whiskey: Bainbridge Battle Point Two Islands Islay Cask
Average Price: $90
This organic wheat whiskey from up in Washinton has a pretty unique finish. The juice is made from 100% USDA organic soft white wheat pulled in from local Washington farms. The spirit then spends around two years mellowing in oak before it’s re-barreled into oak from Islay which held peaty whisky for ten to 12 years. After around ten months of finishing, the whiskey is vatted, proofed with local water, and bottled.
The nose draws you in with a sense of soft and damp nori next to a whiff of beach campfire smoke made from driftwood underneath a metal grill that’s searing pineapple and tart apples with a hint of white pepper and vanilla bean. The palate layers in more of the driftwood campfire smoke with a savory sea salt edge leading toward smoked pork belly fat and maybe a hint of smoked salmon belly too next to a touch of old boot leather. The finish veers towards a sweet and smoked toffee candy with hints of maple syrup next to dark chocolate sauce flaked with more sea salt and just kissed with that driftwood smoke.
This is fresh and young (that grilled tropical fruit on the nose cannot be denied) while also feeling old and deep. It’s a complex sip that takes you somewhere. It’s a perfect beach party sip if you’re looking for one this summer.
Other: Barrell Whiskey Private Release DJA1 Blend 1 Finished in a St. Agrestis Brooklyn Amaro Cask American Whiskey
Average Price: $400
These whiskeys highlight the art of masterful blending. The juice in this case is a mix of 14-year-old Kentucky and Indiana whiskey barrels that are vatted and then re-filled into amaro casks from St. Agrestis in Brooklyn. After that final rest, the whiskey is then bottled as-is with zero fussing.
The nose opens with a clear sense of apple Jolly Ranchers that leads to a deep layer of salted black licorice, sassafras, and singed sage next to peanut brittle and sultanas with a hint of old leathery vanilla under it all. The palate leans into the darker aspects of the licorice while a bitter and almost waxy dark cacao nib adheres to that old vanilla with a touch of creamy espresso, grapeseeds, and clove-heavy maple syrup. That sweetness informs the finish with a layer of burnt vanilla pods next to anise and nutmeg heavy gingerbread and a final note of stale cedar planks dipped in that spicy maple syrup.
As with all Barrell releases, this is funky, fresh, and very enticing. There’s so much going on that you’ll want to take your time with this one, add a little water, and really just let it wash over you. It’ll be a great tasting experience.