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The Best Ultra-Premium Bourbons According To The American Whiskey Masters 2023

The Global Spirits Masters Competition (GSMC), home of the American Whiskey Masters, is one of the most fierce competitions in the spirits industry. Every year, thousands of entries are received for each category. These spirits are then sampled by independent experts with unquestionable palates, with each entrant hoping to win a medal – either Silver, Gold, or Master, with Master being the most coveted. 

In 2023, The GSMC received an unprecedented number of entries for the American Whiskey Masters, demonstrating the growth of the sector in recent years. 

With several sub-categories in each larger category, I thought I would focus on one specific section of the GSMC American Whiskey Masters. Specifically, ‘Ultra-Premium Bourbon’.*

The American Whiskey Masters 2023 

Before we begin, let’s take a look at the judging process for the category. 

As stated above, there are three medals available for the entrants in each category: Silver, Gold, and Master. 

Once these medal winners have been decided, the Master winners are then considered for the overall title of ‘American Whiskey Taste Master 2024’. 

The category that I will be discussing in this article is ‘Ultra-Premium Bourbons’. The GSMC defines these as bourbons that are priced at £51 per bottle and above. 

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old 

The Eagle Rare 17 Year Old was named ‘Taste Master’ at the American Whiskey Masters 2023. Credit: Buffalo Trace

Medal(s): Master & Taste Master
Tasting Notes: Dark chocolate, cherry pie filling, caramel-drizzled chocolate sponge cask, cigar box
BUY NOW: (2015 expression) $2,009 

We begin with the bourbon that was named American Whiskey Masters Taste Master 2023. The Eagle Rare 17 Year Old has been a staple annual release from Buffalo Trace Distillery since 2000. The age statement in itself is extremely impressive, given that bourbon tends to be bottled at a lot younger than scotch, for example. 

Judges at the American Whiskey Masters commented on the bourbon’s “strong minerality and huge complexity. 

The 2023 release of Eagle Rare 17 Year Old was distilled in the spring of 2004 and bottled in the fall of 2023, making the whiskey, actually, 19 years old. 

Only bottled in small numbers once every year, the Eagle Rare 17 Year Old is a highly sought-after expression. 

Eagle Rare is an expression that is produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky, which is owned by the Sazerac Company. Buffalo Trace is home to several iconic whiskey brands including E.H. Taylor Jr. and Blanton’s Single Barrel

William Larue Weller 

Credit: Buffalo Trace

Medal: Master
Tasting Notes: Caramel corn, new leather, plums, pipe tobacco, marshmallow, salted almonds, nougat, figs, dates
BUY NOW: $1,525 

Another whiskey brand that is produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, William Larue Weller substitutes rye grain for wheat in the mash bill. 

The expression is named for William Larue Weller, who pioneered the wheated bourbon recipe used for this whiskey. Following his death in 1899, Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle continued his legacy at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. 

The use of wheat grains rather than rye in William Larue Weller bourbon imparts a smoother, softer texture to the bourbon. The judges at the American Whiskey Masters were impressed by the “well-balanced higher ABV of 62.35%, complemented by caramel sweetness and a slight minerality”.

Also an annual release, the 2023 edition of William Larue Weller was distilled in the spring of 2011 and bottled in the fall of 2023 at 133.6 proof.  

Never Say Die Small Batch Bourbon 

Credit: Never Say Die

Medal: Gold
Tasting Notes: Spice, citrus, vanilla, leather, caramel
BUY NOW: $63.96 

This small-batch bourbon is the flagship release from Never Say Die. The high rye expression is distilled from a mash bill comprising 75% corn, 21% rye, and 4% malted barley. The result is a spicy yet layered and complex bourbon bottled at 95 proof. 

Never Say Die has a fascinating history. The story goes that a foal was born in Lexington, KY, in 1951. The foal was weak and struggling to breathe. Horseman John A. Bell III promptly poured a shot of whiskey down the horse’s throat. Subsequently, the horse made a startling recovery and was christened Never Say Die. 

When Never Say Die was entered into the Epsom Derby in 1954, he beat staggering 33-1 odds and made Mona Best, a Liverpudlian woman who had bet all of her jewels on the horse, a fortune. With her new-found wealth, she founded the Casbah Coffee Club in Liverpool. The club’s opening night was played by a little-known band called The Quarrymen or, as they are better known today, The Beatles. In fact, Pete Best, The Beatles’s original drummer, was Mona Best’s son. 

All of the above happened because a small foal had a shot of whiskey one night in Kentucky, without which he may not have survived. 

Continuing the legacy of Never Say Die, the whiskey that is distilled in Kentucky is sent to England for its final maturation period, resting at the White Peak Distillery in Derbyshire. It is also bottled in the UK, utilizing some legislative grey areas in bourbon regulations, as well as some vague wording.  

BHAKTA 2013 Bourbon 

Credit: BHAKTA

Medal: Gold
Tasting Notes: Vanilla, biscuits, toasted oak, nutmeg, hazelnut, spice, stewed pears, apples
BUY NOW: $124.99 

From English x American to French x American, this BHAKTA 2013 Bourbon is full of French influences. The 99% corn bourbon was initially aged in American oak before undergoing a finishing period in French Oak barrels. These barrels had previously been used to mature Armagnac Brandy from Château BHAKTA. The result is a silky smooth and sweet fusion with kicks of spice. 

BHAKTA Spirits was founded in 2019 by Raj Peter Bhakta, founder of WhistlePig Whiskey. After selling his WhistlePig shares, Bhakta traveled to France, where he fell head over heels in love with an ancient Armagnac cellar, which he subsequently acquired. 

Bhakta’s passion for vintage spirits has produced some award-winning bourbons and Armagnacs

This particular expression was bottled at 100.6 proof after being aged for 9.5 years. The judges at the American Whiskey Masters appreciated the complex flavor imbued by the Armagnac cask. Only 2,000 bottles were made available. 

Never Say Die Barrel Strength Bourbon 

This is the second entry from Never Say Die to win a medal at the 2023 American Whiskey Masters.

Medal: Gold
Tasting Notes:  Subtle spice, caramel, vanilla, leather
BUY NOW: $229.99 

Another expression from Never Say Die, this bourbon is distilled from the same mash bill as the small batch expression. This one, however, is bottled at barrel strength, varying from 110-115 proof. 

The Never Say Die Barrel Strength Bourbon is released cask-by-cask and was recently named World’s Best Bourbon at The Drinks Business and The Spirits Business Autumn Blind Tasting in 2023. 

The barrel strength expression from Never Say Die is uncharacteristically smooth for a bourbon with such a high alcoholic content, something that the judges at the American Whiskey Masters clearly appreciated. 

George T. Stagg 

Credit: Buffalo Trace

Medal: Gold
Tasting Notes: Cinnamon, cherry cola, leather, chocolate, vanilla frosting
BUY NOW: $829 

Yet another expression produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, George T. Stagg bourbon has been an annual release from the distillery since 2002. 

The 2023 expression was aged for 15 years and 3 months before being bottled at 135 proof. The expression is comprised of multiple barrels of bourbon that have been aged for at least nine years. These barrels were all matured on different rick levels at five different warehouses. As such, the resulting blend is complex and multi-layered. 

Again, the releases are limited in number, making the bourbon highly sought-after both at retail and on the secondary market. 

George T. Stagg, for whom the bourbon is named, was a dominating force in the 19th century bourbon industry, having been the driving force behind the success of the Buffalo Trace Distillery (previously the George T. Stagg Distillery, recognizing his contribution to the industry). 

Four Roses Small Batch Select 

Credit: Four Roses

Medal: Gold
Tasting Notes: Apricot, berries, vanilla, light oak, raspberries, cloves, nutmeg, spearmint, cinnamon
BUY NOW: $49.99 

Described by Four Roses as being “for refined tastes”, the Four Roses Small Batch Select is crafted from six different bourbon recipes and blended for a complex and layered finish. It was awarded a gold medal at the American Whiskey Masters 2023. 

Four Roses is the only such distillery to combine two mash bills with five different yeast strains, creating ten individual recipes. Because of this, each recipe creates its own distinct product. 

Each bourbon in the Four Roses Small Batch Select is matured for between six and seven years before being bottled at 104 proof. 

The Four Roses name was trademarked by Paul Jones Jr. in the 1860s, when he established an office in Whiskey Row, Main Street, Kentucky. It is said that the name Four Roses was brought about by a marriage proposal from Paul Jones Jr. to his beloved. He sent her a proposal, and she told him that if she wanted to say yes, she should attend an upcoming society ball wearing a corsage of four red roses. She wore the roses. And the rest is history. 

The American Whiskey Masters 2024 

The American Whiskey Masters 2024 is being hosted by the GSMC in the summer of this year. Entries must be received by 21st June 2024

Keep an eye on The Whiskey Wash, where we will (of course) be updating you on further whiskey accolades as the awards season approaches. 

 

*Please note that ‘Doc Holliday’ bourbon was also awarded gold in this category. However, the age statement of this release was not specified, so I have decided not to include it in this article.   

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