There’s a lot to love about the world’s great whiskey from — Japanese, Scotch, and Irish. But when it comes to innovation, the ambitious bourbon producers in the United States have been leading the way for years.
In Kentucky and beyond, purveyors of America’s native spirit have refused to let the quality of their current roster obstruct their new work. Over the last 10-20 years, a line-up of incredible new whiskey with mash of at least 51 percent corn and aged in charred new oak barrels — the house rules for a whiskey to be called a bourbon — has arrived to market, some from brand-new producers, others new voices from veteran houses.
Here are the 10 best bourbon releases of the last 20 years.
Jefferson’s Twin Oak Custom Barrel
Founded in 1997, Jefferson’s is committed to crafting innovative small-batch blends, as evidenced by its slogan “alchemy is everything.” The brand is on a good path, and it’s 2018 release ($80) looks to be its most ambitious whiskey yet. For six years Jefferson’s worked with the Independent Stave Company to develop a proprietary flash-charred barrel produced with grooved staves that has maximum exposure to oak at the peak of flavor. The result is a well-balanced, mocha-tinged whiskey that coats the palate with sweet and spicy notes. Medium-length finish with a touch of cedar and tart lemon.
Parker’s Heritage Collection Cask Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Created to pay tribute to Heaven Hill’s longtime master distiller, Parker Beam. Beam himself personally selected the barrels that were used for the Heritage Collection Cask Strength’s first edition, released in 2007. Beam, who passed in early 2017, ventured to make classic Kentucky bourbon. And there’s no better example of superior traditional hooch than this bottle. Full-bodied, brimming with dried fruit flavor (figs and raisins) and ample oak and tannins. Originally priced at $80, a bottle can now go for several thousand dollars on the secondary market.
Maker’s Mark launched in 1958 under the distinctive dipped red wax seal that was the brainstorm of founder Bill Samuels Sr.’s wife, Margie. They made one whiskey, one way. Then, in 2010, Maker’s released 46 ($40), its first new taste in 50 years. In industry circles, this was a huge advancement, and many critics were curious. But, did iconic distiller Bill Samuels Jr. make his “mark”? He intensified natural flavor notes of the classic Maker’s formula — the vanilla, caramel, and spice—and created even more complex, richer-tasting bourbon with a creamier mouthfeel and lengthier finish. No bitterness. It’s eminently approachable and easy to enjoy.
Hudson Baby Bourbon
Revealed in 2006, Hudson Baby Bourbon ($50) is the first whiskey produced from New York since Prohibition and the first commercially available bourbon to hail from the Empire State. Made with locally sourced corn at the Tuthilltown Spirits distillery in the Hudson Valley, the whiskey is aged in charred new American oak barrels, which brings a strong, smoky wood quality. Beyond the char there’s a choreography of flavors, with vanilla toffee, pepper spice, and pops of honey, raisin, and mint. It’s a buoyant whiskey is easy to digest. Makes for an incredible start for newer adventurers.
Willett Family Estate Bottled Bourbon
Willett Family Estate Bottled Bourbon landed on the scene in 2008 as part of the family’s Private Barrel Selection program and was an instant hit with the industry and professional, which includes critics, bartenders, and flat-out whiskey enthusiasts. An un-chill-ﬁltered, barrel-proof, straight bourbon whiskey bringing unusual depth and complexity. Although it weighs in at a juicy 124.8 proof, Willett Family Estate Bottled Bourbon drinks unexpectedly light. Pear, cocoa, and cherry are among the more noticed notes. Bottles from the original release, which originally went for $100 at that time, go for upward of $4,000 now — if you can even find them.
The Burning Chair Bourbon from Savage & Cooke
Back in 1998, when he was barely 25, wunderkind Dave Phinney founded Orin Swift Cellars and promptly turned it into a behemoth on the strength of powerful Zinfandel-driven wines such as The Prisoner.
Now, at 46, Phinney is lighting up the whiskey world with the Burning Chair ($59), a bourbon produced at his recently built Savage and Cooke distillery in Vallejo, CA. Following a short experiment with new American oak from Phinney’s Cabernet-based projects, the bourbon is titrated to 88 proof with water from the Alexander Valley.
What goes into the bottle is a lively spirit showing off a diverse array of goodies including vanilla bean, maple and baked apple flavor. The initial sweetness opens for a bite of citrus zest and barrel char, creating balance and complexity. Many agree, this is fresh take at its best.
Michter’s 20 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Michter’s master distiller Dan McKee and master of maturation Andrea Wilson believe 17 to 20 year range to be the “fork in the road” point at which when some barrels achieve an extraordinary quality. The barrels McKee and Wilson selected were 2019 edition of Michter’s 20 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon ($700) which were indeed something very special — as the whiskey is nothing short of, well, masterful. This complex spirit is an array of symphony of flavors including black cherry, honeysuckle and pecans. At an aggressive 114.2 proof, it is not for the gentle. This bourbon’s got muscles, yet it’s tender. Potency that grabs your attention, with a delicate, long-lasting composure.
Widow Jane “The Vaults” 2019
In fall 2019, Brooklyn-based distiller Widow Jane launched their expression in a slate of mature bourbons sourced from diverse facilities in the Midwest. The Vaults 2019 ($150) is a romance of 14-year and older Tennessee and Indiana whiskies selected by head distiller Lisa Wicker, who finished and blended the juice at the Widow Jane Rickhouse on Conover Street in Red Hook. It’s hip and cool. But there’s plenty of old-school substance to go with the style in this 99-proof powerhouse. Sip it and allow the romance to indulge your taste buds — burnt BBQ ribs, vanilla ice cream, citrus zest, even crème brulee.
Kentucky Owl Bourbon Batch #9
The year was 1916, and Prohibition loomed. The government seized a quarter of a million gallons of Kentucky Owl bourbon and put the company out of business. A century later, the Owl takes flight again, resurrected by master blender Dixon Dedman, whose great-great-grandfather founded the brand back in 1879. Dedman insists that Batch #9 ($300) is the most robust expression he’s ever produced. It’s a muscular beast.
Made with four different distillates from four different mash bills, ranging in ages from 6 to 14 years old. Nose brings syrup with a hint of freshly mowed lawn. Spreads across the mid-palate with thick viscous mouthfeel. Light spice on a well balanced finish.
Old Rip Van Winkle 25 Year Old
In early 2017, the folks at the Buffalo Trace Distillery released 710 handmade glass decanters of Old Rip Van Winkle 25 Year Old at a suggested retail price of $1,800.
Almost impossible those bottles actually made it to a store shelf, and even less likely anyone grabbed them up for sticker price. There are bottles available online on the secondary market; current market rate is around $14,000. It’s worth it if you got it.
Wheated bourbon — means wheat is the secondary grain (behind corn) in the mash bill. Flavor wise, it’s smoother and softer than bourbons with more rye. Distractingly delicate for a whiskey with so many years of aging experience.