The year 2022 has been an exceptionally good one. Busiest year ever for my business, and easily the busiest year I’ve watched in whiskey news.
Some of those myriad changes and ever-present constants pleased me, while others were, well, irritating. That’s life, right? You can’t always get what you want and you rarely get what you expect. But that’s part of why this industry is so exciting to cover. Read along for a few observations about what made me happy and sad for American whiskey in 2022.
Happy: Matthew McConaughey’s contract with Wild Turkey ended Dec. 28. Don’t get me wrong, I like the guy as a movie star, but not at Wild Turkey. One thing bourbon fans have always loved about Wild Turkey is its no-frills, no-nonsense master distillers, Jimmy and Eddie Russell, and its flat-out delicious, glamor-free whiskey. That McConaughey was named WT’s “creative director” was just goofy. And then creating the contrivance of the Longbranch Bourbon brand was nothing but a waste of good Wild Turkey bourbon.
Sad: Trying to find something … nope. Can’t.
Happy: Maker’s Mark headliners Denny Potter (master distiller) and Jane Bowie (master of maturation) left that legendary distillery this summer to begin building one of their own. It’s cool to see young talent making such bold moves in an industry not known for such position changes.
Sad: When you get to know such accomplished people in certain settings, they take on a persona tied to those places. Their departures won’t change my love for Maker’s Mark Distillery, but it’ll be incredibly different without them. They brought a lot life and excitement to the brand; they left their marks on it.
Happy: American whiskey coverage continues to get better. More writers than ever are clearly educated on spirits, and their interviews with new varied whiskey industry sources is making their work more interesting. I really enjoy reading many of my peers’ work.
Sad: The growth of bad American whiskey coverage still outweighs the good. So many media outlets know American booze is hot, so they cover it hoping to be relevant and on trend. Problem is reporters at so many outlets don’t know the basics and have no plans to master them. Too many avoid any homework since it’s easier to cuddle up to brands with great PR teams who will tell them exactly what information to regurgitate. And don’t get me started on the “13 bourbons you have to taste right now” clickbait headlines. I’d celebrate the death of them.
Happy: Millions of dollars were raised for storm recovery efforts by the American whiskey community. Not only were donors incredibly generous with prized bottles given to help others, buyers were quick to spend huge sums acquiring them—all for the good of victims of 2022’s Western Kentucky tornado outbreak and Florida victims of Hurricane Ian. Oh, and credit the volunteers who organize these auctions. Few people know the hours required to pull off such feats.
Sad: I’m told by collectors that auction bottles are rarely consumed, much less shared. Instead, most go to the shelf … only come off it for future auctions. It’s cool that these same bottles become levers to raise cash for great causes, but it’s a bit of a bummer that too few are opened and enjoyed. Admittedly, this is a microscopically minor quibble in light of the good done by them.
Happy: Increased brand merger and acquisition activity. Why? Because it’s helping break down the idea that American whiskey is a trade still too close to its 30-year slump and not worth a long bet. To any readers still quick to say, “Surely the bourbon bubble is ready to bust,” I say, follow the money and you’ll see it differently. This is an industry of global significance, and the money to grow it is pouring in from confident players.
Sad: Acquisitions change things. Sometimes, and logically so, staff gets laid off to avoid duplicating positions. Brand leaders who whiskey writers know and have access to get pulled behind the corporate curtain and are often out of reach. Worst of all, whiskeys can change when marketing wonks want to be on trend and accountants want to cut costs. It takes a hell of a patient buying group to allow the great brand they bought continue to be itself.
Happy: New brands are still flowing into the already crowded American whiskey market. I’m not sure how liquor store shelves can handle the sheer weight of options now available, but consumers are still willing to try new potables. The coolest part is seeing so many whiskey business owners giving their work dreams a shot.
Sad: Not all these whiskeys are good, and some are just, “Why, oh why did you make this?” bad. It’s also disappointing that so many whiskey entries to market are cask finished. I’d like to get to know the base whiskey to be confident that the finished liquid is worth buying. Too many press samples I got this year were ordinary/young/inferior whiskeys cloaked in a cask finish.
Happy: The growth spurts underway at the nation’s largest and oldest distilleries is a sight to behold. Whether it’s a massive new home place experience or a major expansion to an already large distillery, growth is good, especially in my home state of Kentucky. James B. Beam Distilling Co. is spending $400 million to increase production at its Booker Noe Plant, and Heaven Hill is dropping $135 million on a second distillery, this one located in Bardstown. And Jefferson’s Reserve will finally get its own distillery from a $250 million investment from owner Constellation Brands. And don’t forget Buffalo Trace’s ongoing $1.2 billion expansion commitment.
Sad: This added capacity probably won’t ease tight whiskey supplies in the U.S. These investments are largely for ramping up global expansion.
Happy: The expansion of “DTCS”—direct to consumer shipping of beverage alcohol—and all the variety it brings to the marketplace.
Sad: Protectionist regulations enacted by some states, most notably my own, restrict this. Interstate commerce is a two-way street, folks. Make it happen!
Whiskeys that made me happy and sad in 2022
Happy: The King of Kentucky Bourbon, 18 years old. What an incredible release! Everything you’d want from a geezer bourbon without aridity and bitterness. It’s my favorite of 2022.
Sad: Only 250 bottles were made, it was released only in Kentucky,so other than sips given during the terrific press tasting hosted by Brown-Forman and my takeaway sample, I’ll probably never taste it again. SRP is $350, but retail prices online are six to 10 times that. Still, if you’re into chasing unicorns, this one is worth hunting.
Happy: Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon, Fall Release, 19 years old. After this got a little space in the sample bottle, it stretched out, got incredibly soft, wheat-and-yeast fruity and complex. Distillers claim that wheated bourbons are marathoners, not sprinters, and this release, in addition to the spring release 17-year-old, prove that true.
Sad: I left half my sample bottle at a friend’s house. I will be rude and retrieve it.
Happy: Bardstown Bourbon Co. has finally—seven years after it began distilling—released its own made-from-scratch bourbons and rye. This is The Origin Series, and it includes a 96-proof bourbon (made with rye), a Bottled-In-Bond (made with wheat), and a 96-proof 95/5 rye. All are 6 years old. The two bourbons are terrific, especially the BIB. But the rye will have to grow on me as it was finished in a cherry-and-oak stave mixed cask that tastes of young lumber.
Sad: Having tasted rye distillate from BBC, I was really excited about this one. Am I let down? No. It’s still well-made whiskey.
Happy: Michter’s 10-year-old rye was not only better than the amazing 2021 release, it was better than the equally terrific 2020 release. If you like verticals, do this one if you can find all three.
Sad: My bottles of that trio are nearly gone. I need to start pouring off reference bottles at the beginning so I can relieve and share those pours later.
Happy: Anything that came out of Laws Whiskey House in Denver was fresh, exciting, fun and one-of-a-kind. Its ryes—made from Colorado heirloom grain grown above 7,000 feet—are particularly outstanding, especially that 8-year-old Alan Laws treated me to—thieved from the barrel—on a summer visit.
Sad: Laws is hard to find in Kentucky. Get it if you can find it where you live.
Happy: Spirits of French Lick (Indiana), another small distillery making excellent whiskey that’s worthy of more attention, is finally shipping the bottles from a barrel that friends and I picked last summer. This is a Lee Sinclair Four Grain Bourbon: a 112.2-proof 4.5 year-old that’s a dandy. Any bourbon or rye from SoFL is fantastic if you can find it—especially barrel picks.
Sad: Not really sad, because I love anything SoFL does. But Mattie Gladden Bourbon was the one I’d hoped to pick. It’s so good that it’s in lean supply. Get it if you can find one. I regret not buying more of it
Happy: Not far from SoFL is Hard Truth Distilling Co. in Nashville, Indiana. This year saw it release multiple 30-odd-barrel batches of its excellent Sweet Mash Rye. At 3.5 years, these are bold (117 or so proof), lush and seemingly older given the customized casks created by Independent Stave Co. Truly outstanding rye.
Sad but happy: My bottles are nearly gone. But thankfully, Hard Truth is only an hour’s drive north. This multifaceted tourism-centric distillery is worth the trip and a glimpse into where American whiskey tourism is headed.
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Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....