The Bourbon Bonanza has been raising money for charity for years now by auctioning off some pretty serious whiskeys. The event is usually held at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival every fall. Last weekend, it expanded and held its first West Coast version at The Ballard Cut in Seattle, Washington (one of our favorite whiskey bars in the country). I was lucky enough to get an invite to mingle and taste some serious vintage and new whiskeys at the event and let me tell you — there were some hardcore drams being poured for charity.
Before I dive into the best of the best that I was lucky enough to taste, let’s get a little context. Bourbon Bonanza is a charity auction where barrel picks, super rare bottles, and even whiskey experiences are auctioned off to support the CLR Academy (Community. Leadership. Revolution.). The Academy is a youth outreach and wellness program for kids in Michigan; it includes weekly programs with several sports alongside educational lessons (reading, math, etc.) with no costs to kids or their families.
To fund CLR programs, Bourbon Bonanza auctioned off a lot of high-end booze. A Willett barrel pick experience bid was above $130k when I left the party at The Ballard Cut. A five-bottle pack of Willett sold for north of $15k at auction the same night. There’s serious money in whiskey right now, folks.
Overall, there was a ton of Willett at the event. And while those bottles are worthy of review, they’re so hard to find that I’m only highlighting three of them below. I’m also highlighting some serious barrel picks from some of the best whiskey bars in the country. Alongside The Ballard Cut, Jack Rose Dining Saloon (DC) and Delilah’s (Chicago) were also in attendance and pouring their very own barrel picks — which you can actually buy from their bottle shops if you’re near those bars. So while these bottles are very elite, they’re not impossible to source.
Let’s just get to it!
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Knob Creek Single Barrel Select Rye
Average Price: $50
This is Knob Creek’s famed rye whiskey in a single-barrel format. Those barrels are usually barreled at cask strength or cut down to a consistent 115 proof. In this case, we’re looking at a barrel pick by The Ballard Cut for their bar.
The nose is full of green herbs like dill and mint next to a dollop of floral honey and plenty of barrel char. A hint of rye bread crust sneaks in early on the palate before black pepper gives way to dried chili pods, a hint of vanilla pudding with cinnamon, and dark cherries. The barrel builds with the spices on the finish before dark chocolate powder, candied pecans, and creamy vanilla smooth everything out for a soft finish.
This is a great place to start. It’s familiar yet very refined. There’s a great herbal sense that leads to a classic Kentucky rye vibe (spice and cherry with plenty of vanilla backbone). I like this over a single rock or mixed into a mean Manhattan.
Old Forester Single Barrel Barrel Strength Jack Rose Pick
Average Price: $99 (available in September)
This is classic Old Forester from a single barrel of bourbon that’s not cut with any water. When you find these, they’ll generally be a pick from a retailer or bar program. This bottle was picked by the Jack Rose crew and will be available next month at the bar’s bottle shop.
There’s a clear sense of dark fruit, especially cherry, that becomes stewed with dark winter spices on the nose with a good dose of dry tobacco in an old cedar box that’s wrapped up in old leather. A hint of old dry roses sneaks in on the palate as those spices and syrupy cherry and berries intensify and attach to the chewy tobacco. The mid-palate sweetens with an almost rose-water marzipan vibe as the cherry tobacco dries out pretty significantly — leaving you with a sense of pitchy pine sap and your grandparent’s old tobacco pipe that’s still hot to touch.
This is an excellent example of both a barrel pick and an Old Forester. It’s deep and nuanced while still feeling comforting and kind of fresh. Amazingly, that high ABV was well hidden and there was almost no burn, which is kind of a magic trick at 65%.
JR Hughes Bros. Belle Of Bedford Straight Rye Whiskey Jack Rose 2022 “Kind of a Big Dill”
Average Price: $99
This rye whiskey is sourced from MGP of Indiana and bottled by JR Hughes Bros. in Pennsylvania. The juice is a 95 percent rye and five percent malted barley mash that then ages for over eight years. The crew at Jack Rose picked a single barrel from the JR Hughes Bros. stash for as-is barreling at cask strength.
Fennel and a hint of caraway-crusted rye bread lead on the nose with a hint of salted black licorice next to sour dried cranberry, burnt orange peels, and a whisper of grilled pineapple with a drizzle of mint-infused honey. The palate leans into the herbal vibe with a mix of rosemary and thyme next to more fennel and a hint of flat leaf parsley before dried blueberries and tart salted cherries arrive with a vanilla oil underbelly and a smidge of singed cedar bark. The end hits that black licorice again with a whisper of sasparilla wood chips, papaya skins, and some dry oolong tea bags.
This was a delightful rye whiskey. A touch of water brought out a creamier sense of vanilla with a hint of dry espresso bean and maybe some cherry tobacco chewiness.
Point is, this is a stellar pour worth grabbing when/if you’re in the DC area.
Willett Estate Bottled Single Barrel Bourbon 9-Year Barrel no. 4380
Average Price: $2,450+
This is a barrel pick from The Ballard Cut of classic nine-year-old Willett bourbon with a crazy high proof. Willett’s barrels in the low 4000 (barrel number) range are their original recipe of 72 percent corn, 13 percent rye, and 15 percent malted barley. That juice goes into the barrel at 125 proof (or 62.5 percent ABV). In this case, it came out of the barrel concentrated down to 140.6 proof thanks to those angels pulling a hefty share over those nine years of aging.
This is hot on the nose with a rush of bitter dark chocolate-covered espresso beans with an oily texture next to dark dried cherries with a sharp sour edge next to Red Hot cinnamon and a burning sense of dried red chili next to hints of spicy honey and maybe a little bit of root beer. The palate leans into the heat big time with a dose of sour dried red chili peppers next to sharp cinnamon and ginger spices before a crescendo of heat crashed toward a creamed honey and vanilla pudding with layers of old wicker, pine floorboards, cedar bark braids, dry straw, and a hint of tannic oak staves.
This really needed a rock or some water to calm it down. Once it was cut down to a lower proof, it was a delight. The creaminess of the vanilla and honey migrated toward a molasses rum-raisin vibe with a hint of cinnamon toast with plenty of butter and sourdough vibes.
All of that said, this is a collector’s item that you break out for very special occasions. Otherwise, this is an investment bottle that you squirrel away and then sell off for a down payment on a car in a few years.
Starward Single Malt Single Barrel Delilah’s Barrel Pick
Average Price: Bar only
This Australian barrel pick highlights the cask strength version of the beloved brand from Down Under. The whiskey is a single malt that’s aged for up to eight years in the hot yet mild Australian climate around Melbourne. The malt is aged in locally sourced American oak red wine barrels before the Chicago crew from Delilah’s picked one of them for their bar program. It was then bottled as-is (with no filtering) at cask strength and shipped to the U.S.
The nose is rich and creamy with a sense of waxy dark cacao next to a latte made with oat milk and really good coffee beans next to a hint of vanilla tobacco leaf and sour cherries flaked with sea salt. The tartness fades on the palate as the cherry marries to the vanilla with a light sense of cherry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream before a rush of ABV heat peaks and then falls toward a mocha frappuccino vibe with a creamy foundation. The end has a hint of tannic oak stave next to dry sweetgrass and sour cherry tobacco packed into an old pine box.
This is another delightful pour. A little water lets the creaminess amp up with a vanilla sauce and fatty sour butter on a Southern biscuit feel. This is definitely worth seeking out the next time you’re in Chicago.
Willett Estate Bottled Single Barrel Bourbon 9-Year Barrel no. xxxx
Average Price: $2,450+
I forgot to write down the barrel number on this one but it was in the low 3100s. That means this is a high rye bourbon mash bill (52 percent corn, 38 percent rye, and ten percent malted barley) that’s aged for just north of nine years. The barrel pick (from The Ballard Cut) has a slightly lower proof than the bottle above.
Singed vanilla pods and candied cherry stems lead to a hint of burnt sugars on the nose next to chewed cigar stubs and a dash of sticky toffee pudding spices (a lot of sharp cinnamon and soft nutmeg next to black tea bitterness). The palate leans into the tart cherries with a good dusting of smoked sea salt with a hint of stewed plums with a whisper of dill underneath and plenty of wintry spices adding to the heat of the mid-palate. The heat falls off dramatically as a sense of old porch wicker with a hint of black mold melds with worn saddle leather with a hint of wax next to dry bunches of cedar and pine kindling with an echo of maple syrup and pecan waffle underneath it all.
This was a pour I actually went back to and enjoyed as a simple drink of whiskey (instead of tasting and spitting for work). The depth of this whiskey is astounding, and you kind of start to get why these bottles are so revered in the higher whiskey tasting/collecting echelons while sipping this one.
Willett Estate Bottled Single Barrel Rye 9-Year Barrel no. 2047
Average Price: $450
Barrels in the 2400s are Willett’s high rye rye mash bill. That’s a juice made with 74 percent rye, 15 percent malted barley, and a mere eleven percent corn. That spirit is then left for nine years to mature until The Ballard Cut team came along and picked it.
Bruised white peaches and nectarine skins mingle with apple seeds and stems that lead to a crunchy piece of sourdough rye bread with a light sense of sour butter flaked with salt and a whisper of dry fennel that then leads to dry espresso beans and waxy cacao nibs with a hint of burnt orange. The palate has a deep and dark cherry vibe that’s dried and almost smoked before a tart dried cranberry kicks in and mixes with creamy vanilla and burnt sugar vibe. The mid-palate warmth is very mild and leads to a mix of pine resin and dried green herbs with a slightly oily nature before a spiced sour cherry tobacco chewiness leads to old leather and bundles of dry reeds.
This is an outstanding rye whiskey. If you’re anywhere near Seattle and love whiskey, this is a must-buy bottle.
1986 Blanton’s The Original Single Barrel Bourbon
Average Price: $650+
This vintage bottle of Blanton’s is from the early days of the brand (it all started back in 1984). This Blanton’s was actually made and bottled by the legend, Elmer T. Lee, himself. That alone adds an aura of rarity to this pour. That aside, this is classic Blanton’s made at what is now the Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky back when it was still called the George T. Stagg Distillery. The single barrel juice was proofed down and bottled by hand … just back in the mid-1980s.
There’s a clear sense of Christmas spices right away, leaning towards honey spiked with vanilla and an old cedar cigar humidor on the nose with a dash of worn leather boots and an echo of cherry wood kindling. The taste leans into freshly grated nutmeg with salted caramel kettle corn, more fresh honey and tart red berries. Vanilla husks mid-dominate the palate alongside a hint of freshly fried old-fashioned sourdough doughnuts dusted with raw sugar. The end hints at lush eggnog spice, dry vanilla pods, and salted butter toffee syrup with a dash of bitter black tea-soaked dates and meaty prunes wrapped in thin sheets of dry wicker.
This was vintage but somehow felt fresh. It was bright and fun and damn near airy while having a serious depth. Was it that different from a 2022 Blanton’s? That’s a much harder question to answer. But the short answer is “not by much.”
Overall, this is a collectible for a bourbon fanatic.
Caol Ila Single Malt Single Cask 13-Year Cask Strength Exclusive to Jack Rose
Average Price: $119
This Islay whisky is an iconic peated single malt. The juice is aged basically a stone’s throw from the briny and dark sea on the small island. Generally, Caol Ila releases a 12-year-old single malt that’s a blend of their best casks as an entry point to the brand. This is a year older and from a single cask that’s bottled completely as-is for Jack Rose in DC.
There’s a subtle sense of the sea and runway tar on the nose that leads to a fruit orchard on a cool fall day when the fruit is fermenting in dead leaves on the ground and the bark is hardening on the tree with a hint of white moss and soft black soil. The palate has a sense of smoked floral honey with a dash of smoke prunes and pears next to a light sense of cold ash from the bottom of a Weber grill. The warmth on the palate is never overpowering and leads to a finish full of oily green herbs, dried pear chips, oyster pearls, and a sense of a pebble beach campfire on a rainy day.
This Islay single malt is a classic and beloved whisky (I rushed over to the table when I heard they were pouring this one). This is a masterpiece whisky. There’s really nothing more to say.
Okay, this isn’t a pour of whiskey but it’s a whiskey cocktail and it was the highlight of the event. This is a vintage cocktail made with I.W. Harper bourbon from the 1980s. That’s when I.W. Harper was being made according to the “old formula” before it was changed in 2015.
The vermouth that was selected is a 1950s Dubonnet Rouge. As a fortified wine, that means that the vermouth was made with a red wine base and then accented with botanicals and sweetened with pure cane sugar.
The Campari from the 1970s is the real star of the show. Pre-2006 Campari was colored red by using crushed cochineal insects. To make the drink vegan friendly, they switched the recipe to a standard food-safe red dye. Campari diehards (like me) scoffed at this as the flavor did shift slightly from the original, and has since made vintage Campari a massive collector’s item for home bars.
The botanical base of the Dubonnet really shines through on the nose with a hint of black currant, cinchona bark, and bright orange oils with a sense of Campari bitterness and old cellar walls and a dirt floor. The taste leans into the red bitterness of old and musty Campari with a hint of buttery and toffee-forward bourbon underneath it all. The finish is sharp and spicy with a sense of ginger snaps and cinnamon bark next to sweetened black tea and a hint of pine berries and allspice.
This felt like a once-in-a-lifetime cocktail. I had two. So… twice in a lifetime.