Column: Despite The Coronavirus, 2020 Gave Us A Lot To Like About Whiskey

January columns tend to start with a look back at the previous year. But seeing as some of the dreadfulness of 2020 is spilling over into 2021, does any of us really want to look back at the source?

If you’re a whiskey fan, yes. The American whiskey industry and the businesses that sell, pour and mix it for us gave us a lot to love in the time of COVID-19.

Remember back in March when the feds and states allowed bars and restaurants to sell cocktails and packaged booze? Wasn’t that cool that it happened in a flash? One day liquor was still all law and order; the next, social media was bursting with “Get a meal and a bottle here!” posts. Ready to shake cocktail kits were rolling out the door at bars, and everybody who didn’t have a package license got one. It was a smart move to help the desperately struggling hospitality industry. Apparently, that’s not changing anytime soon, either, which is great. The government has greatly neglected these valued, independently owned businesses.

Maker’s Mark CommUNITY Bourbon

Maker’s Mark CommUNITY Bourbon (image via Maker’s Mark)

Video tours and events drawing eyeballs to Buffalo Trace Distillery. Despite onsite distillery tours resuming at BT, a news release revealed live stream events such as its Whiskey Wednesday have drawn more than 3.6 million viewers from around the world since mid-May. That’s a lot of eyeballs on that historic distillery compared to the roughly 300,000 visitors who saw it firsthand in 2019. Hosted by master distiller Harlen Wheatley and beloved tour guide Freddie Johnson, those tuning in are viewing behind-the-scenes operations, live bourbon tastings and the chance to participate by commenting and asking questions online. BT said these events will continue, and you can bet that other distilleries will copy this. Click here for a sample.

Cheers to those who wait: I’m not against sourced whiskeys, but I’m impressed by distillery owners that make their own and let it sit until it’s actually good. Some favorites in my glasses this year include Wilderness Trail, Kentucky Peerless, New Riff, Castle & Key, Spirits of French Lick, Ragged Branch, Pennington and many others. Even better, these distilleries are making signature whiskeys designed not to match the tastes of big distillery products—especially so when with rye whiskies, where inspiration and experimentation is everywhere. My favorite rye for 2020 was a Wilderness Trail single barrel cask strength at 99 proof—6 proof below its barrel proof. Gobs of easy-sipping complexity in that one.

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Keep the single barrels coming! Since it’s so bloody hard to get super-allocated whiskeys, the next level of unicorn bottles are one-and-done single barrels. Private picks are everywhere in Kentucky, so surely I’m spoiled to go into independent liquor stores and find at least one. Larger chain players may have 10 to 15 single barrel bourbons, ryes, brandies and tequilas on hand. Some are better than others, but it’s rare to find a bad one. By and large, most are remarkable. Thank you, distilleries, for keeping these in the mix despite the logistical challenges not seen by customers.

Following are some notable bottles from 2020—ones I liked and didn’t—listed in no particular order. Here’s to enjoying even more of this goodness in 2021!

  • Chicken Cock 15 year: Weirdly floral at first, but it grew on me. Really nice whiskey, but priced at $300!
  • Weller Full Proof: Had it twice. Hot on the first run, but delicious from another bottle. Go figure.
  • Sazerac 18 year: Friggin’ loved it. Loads of complexity and sharpness born of rye. MSRP is a laughable $99.
  • Old Forester 150th Anniversary Batch 2: Love at first sip. Everything that makes Old Fo’ my favorite Brown-Forman bourbon. $150 makes this a splurge bottle, so share selectively—if at all!
  • Old Forester 2020 Birthday: Not fond of it at all. (Shockingly different from the 2019, which was phenomenally good.) Wouldn’t pay the $130 MSRP for it.
  • King of Kentucky 14 year: Hot, vaporous and shrill, just like the 2019 release. (I much prefer it’s younger brother, Early Times Bottled-In-Bond, which was bought this year by Sazerac.) $250 MSRP? No way.
  • Old Fitzgerald Bottled-In-Bond 9 year: Juicy Fruit bomb. Loved it. Bargain—no, a steal—at $90.
  • Old Fitzgerald Bottled-In-Bond 14 year: OK, but nowhere as lively as the 9 year. No go at $140.
  • Larceny Barrel Proof, 6-7 year: Any release works for me. Fun to taste a wheated bourbon with such punch-in-the-mouth force as this. At an MSRP of $50, well worth it.
  • Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Finish: Really liked it from the start, but the second barrel finish notes faded over time. One of those bottles that may be best enjoyed in a month or less. Still, at $49 MSRP, get it.
  • Elijah Craig Rye: Love it! Great line extension. Now get it in the Kentucky market, please, Heaven Hill! $39.
  • Heaven Hill 85th Anniversary 13 year: OK at first, a bit tannic, learned to let it breathe 20-30 minutes, complexity came on strong and now I love it. Big ask at $300, though.
  • William Heavenhill Bottled-in-Bond 13 year: Superb in every respect. $179.99 is a steep price for my budget, but goodness, but since it’s flawless, it’s a justifiable splurge—especially when it’s the same age yet almost half the price of the HH 85 year.
  • Elijah Craig Barrel Proof 12-year: I like any release of these brutes, but the A120 was aces. I get that some say they’re too hot for sipping neat, but if you pour and forget them for a while, they’ll calm some. If you don’t want to wait, tame it with a large ice sphere. Bargain at $60
  • Maker’s Mark 2020 Limited Edition Wood Finishing Series: Muy delicioso! Total bargain at $60.
  • Maker’s Mark CommUNITY Bourbon Release: Made from mingling of 37 barrels of previous Maker’s Private Selection recipes. If you can find one, get it. Not only a truly amazing bourbon, I’d vote it the best Private Selection ever.
  • Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished In Japanese Mizunara Oak Casks: Definitely my favorite Angel’s Envy bourbon, and one of the most interesting barrel-finished bourbons I’ve ever enjoyed. Tree-fiddy per bottle, though! At least it comes in a gorgeous crystal decanter.
  • Angel’s Envy 2020 Cask Strength: Much improved (for me, anyway) since it bears more port barrel influence than present in most recent releases. Steep ask at $200, but it sells out quickly.
  • Knob Creek Single Barrel Bourbon or Rye: These are everywhere and we’re glad about it. I pick these up frequently and sometimes for as little as $40. Bold, complex, spicy, great sippers and decadent cocktailers. Unrivaled quality at that price.
  • Knob Creek 12-Year 100 Proof: Not nearly as crazy about it as some. I’ll take a “KC pick” over it any day.
  • Baker’s Single Barrel 7 year: Not a fan of this 107 proof, and I’ve tried for years to like it. Baker Beam, though, sure is a likeable guy. The eye-catching packaging is super cool. Still, it’s well-made whiskey and there are many who love it at $60.
  • Little Book Chapter 4, Lessons Honored: An honorable lesson in whiskey blending, for sure. And, yes, I love the brown rice bourbon used in it. Take that, scoffers! $130 makes this a splurge bottle.
  • Four Roses 2020 Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon: Superb in every way. Master distiller Brent Elliott raises the bar with every new LESB release. Unicorn material that’s well worth the $150 ask, but you’ll not find it at retail for less than $600.
  • Blade & Bow 22 year: Oak bomb and buckets of tannin. Some people really enjoy these, but I don’t, and I gave it my best shot. Pricey at $300.
  • Dickel Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey 15 year: Great nose, sweet at center palate but quickly drying. Would expect more complexity for its age, but the price isn’t bad at $60.
  • Rabbit Hole Boxergrail Rye, 3 + years: Nicely sweet for a 95/5 rye, light bodied … would like to taste it at 5 years. $50 is a bit steep for such young whiskey.
  • Castle & Key Restoration Rye Batch 1, 3 + years: Complex, aromatic, grain-forward, a great sipper and cocktailer. Total bargain at $40. Can’t wait to try it at 5 years and 7 years.
  • Barrell Craft Spirits Bourbon 15 year: This 104.9 bourbon drinks well below that and is chockful of hard candy cherry and butterscotch. Sells for $200 and then some.
  • Barrell Bourbon Batch 026 9 year: Man, this one took work! “(A) blend of straight Bourbon whiskeys distilled and aged in Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana … and ages 9, 10, 11, 13, and 15-year-old barrels.” It’s all over the place, challenging to think through, but delicious and worth the effort. Solid buy for $75.
  • Michter’s Single Barrel Bourbon 10 year: I’ve always liked using this release in food pairings, but this year’s was extraordinary. $130 is a lot to ask, but dang it’s good!
  • Michter’s Single Barrel Rye 10 year: Just like its 10-year bourbon sibling, the 2020 iteration was remarkable; my favorite of the lot. But $160 is a big ol’ ask.