The American Whiskey Masters 2019 results

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The American whiskey industry may be suffering at the hands of the country’s on-going tariff wars, but when it comes to the liquid in the bottles, consumers are spoilt for choice.

It’s been a tempestuous year for American whiskey. The category has become an unfortunate casualty in international trade wars after the US government introduced steel and aluminium taxes last year, which ruffled feathers across the globe.

The effect, if the issue is not fully resolved soon, could be severe. In its 2019 fiscal results, Brown‐Forman said sales were hit by tariff pressures. The company’s Jack Daniel’s portfolio increased sales by just 1%, “negatively impacted by approximately one percentage point due to tariffs”.

However, despite the negative press regarding American whiskey tariffs, there is still excellent liquid pouring out of the US, as our 2019 American Whiskey Masters clearly demonstrated.

Hungry for more, our judges took their seats for the third Masters of the day at London’s Indian Accent as a flight of premium Bourbons was presented to my panel. A full‐house of Gold medals was awarded to Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon with notes of “stewed apples and brioche”; “quintessential Bourbon” Bowman Brothers Small Batch Virginia Straight Bourbon; “spicy, cinnamon” Balcones Texas Pot Still Bourbon; and “resinous, woody” Isaac Bowman Port Finished Virginia Straight Bourbon.

“They were all just quintessentially, distinctively Bourbons,” said Joe Harper, assistant bars manager at The Savoy hotel. “The stylistic thing is really evident. They’re not doing anything radical; just whiskeys that feel very familiar and comfortable. Solid examples of the style.”

Moving on to the slightly more costly super‐premium Bourbons, and the first Master of the competition made itself known: Elmer T Lee Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Billy Abbott, ambassador for The Whisky Exchange, and his team of judges found notes of “strawberry laces” and “berry pie”. The team also awarded three Golds and two Silvers.

“This dispels some of the opinions snobby Scotch drinkers have that Bourbon isn’t complex or doesn’t have as many interesting characteristics, and that it isn’t one note,” said Mark Jennings, founder of Drinks Galore. “Long may it continue.”

Top price tier

At the ultra‐premium end of the Bourbon category, things only got better as one more Master was named. Chosen by Amy Hopkins, editor of The Spirits Business, and her team, the award was presented to Colonel EH Taylor Jr Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon. The judges enjoyed the Bourbon’s aroma of “soft vanilla and fudge”, and “complex” palate filled with flavours of “tarte tatin and spice”. Four Golds completed the impressive flight.

Abbott’s team then assessed a selection of no‐age‐statement (NAS) Bourbons. NAS has – and still does to an extent – received a bad rap from whisk(e)y drinkers across all categories. However, this flight was the evidence needed to dispel any concerns that no age statement means lesser quality, as two out of the three whiskeys scored Master medals. Brown‐Forman took home a Master for its Old Forester 1870 Original Batch, in which judges were thrilled to find flavours of “marmalade, leather, pear juice, black cherry”.

The US firm also walked away with a Master for its Old Forester 1897 Bottled in

Bond. Dan Greifer, head bartender at Belmeis, said about this particular expression: “I got a lot of spice and dryness at first, then a light fruitiness afterwards that lifted it into a different dimension. That created a harmonious journey that worked well.” A Silver medal was also awarded in the flight.

Abbott noted: “A variable round with much more complexity in some of the Bourbons than you might expect – no age statement isn’t as much of a barrier to producing complex whiskey here than it is in some other categories.”

But there were also Masters to be found among the age‐stated Bourbons, as my panel proceeded to judge the Bourbon – Aged up to 7 Years round. 291 Colorado Bourbon Whiskey Aspen Stave Finished was one of the Master recipients, displaying aromas of “rich Sherry, leather and bitter orange”, with tastes of “dried fruit” on the palate.

Our second Master in this round was awarded to Ironroot Harbinger Bourbon, which had a “fresh, complex” nose, despite being 57.5% abv. Notes of “chilli chocolate, coffee and apple strudel” were prominent on the palate. An impressive flight, we also awarded five Golds and two Silvers.

Harper said: “For a spirit category that has a lot of rules, it’s nice to see people finding freedom to be creative within that. Some really different approaches to this style, which was cool.”

Older Bourbons

Back on Abbott’s panel, a short flight of Bourbon – Aged 8 Years and Over produced one Gold and one Silver medallist. Gold medal winner Brown‐Forman’s Birthday Bourbon had hints of “pear and grapefruit”, offset by a “nice dryness”. While Weller Special Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon received a solid Silver medal, the judges were left wanting more from the older Bourbons. “In a world where larger age statements often imply higher qualities, it’s whiskeys like these that show there’s more to it than just a large number – good, but not up to the standard of some of the other rounds,” said Abbott.

In the Tennessee – Super Premium heat, Hopkins’ team handed a Gold medal to Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey for its “really interesting” flavours, such as “passion fruit cheesecake”. The panel continued to award a Gold to Balcones Texas No.1 Single Malt in the Single Malt – Ultra Premium category, with its flavours of “pink pepper, wheat and mulberry”. A Silver also went to Balcones Single Cask.

The group then switched to the Rye – Premium round, which delivered one Gold Medallist: Brown‐Forman’s Old Forester Rye Whiskey, which judges said had “cracking rye spice”. “This was textbook – and light for the abv,” noted judge Toby Sims, distiller at Rebel Distillers.

The more expensive super‐premium ryes were presented to Elise Craft, Whisky Squad co‐ordinator, and her fellow judges, who awarded a Silver to James E Pepper 3 Year Old Oloroso Cask Finish (That Boutique‐y Whisky Company). Judges found flavours of “banana bread” and “spit‐roasted pineapple”.

Moving up a price bracket to the ultra‐premium ryes, we unearthed another Master: 291 Colorado Rye Whiskey Aspen Stave Finished. Ciaran Duffy, 1806 manager, said: “I was excited to taste this; the nose was so enticing. There’s nice subtle barbecue smoke in there.” Another top scorer was Master winner St George 2 Year Old from That Boutique‐y Rye Company, praised for its “wonderful Riesling grape nose” and “cloves, dried orange and banana”. The group also awarded Gold to Sazerac’s Colonel EH Taylor Jr Kentucky Straight Rye.

When the panel turned to the Rye – Aged up to 7 Years flight, two more whiskeys were deemed deserving of the Master title. The judges had fine things to say about New York Distilling Company 2 Year Old – Batch 1 (That Boutique‐y Rye Company), with its “classy maturity”. “A lovely rounded rye with all the character you’d expect from a middle‐aged rye,” said Craft. The second Master was given to Distillery 291 Batch 1 – 11 Months Old (That Boutique‐y Rye Company). “This is a pretty textbook rye whiskey, really solid,” praised Duffy. “It doesn’t really step out of place in any way, but that’s not a bad thing necessarily. The added abv of 44% gives it a kick that elevates it.”

The final round of the day – Other Grains – drew a Gold medal for Heaven Hill Corn Whiskey 9 Year Old by That Boutique‐y Whisky Company, which impressed with its notes of “sawdust and varnish”, and a Silver for Ironroot Hubris, which judges said had “some nice architecture”.

Taste Master

But as another competition neared its close, which Master medallist was deemed to be the cream of the crop of American whiskey? Taking the coveted Taste Master title was Brown‐Forman’s Old Forester 1870 Original Batch from the NAS Bourbon round.

Jamie Matthewson, Waitrose buying manager – wine, reflected: “American whiskey is so diverse; in the £10‐£15 price bracket you can find completely different things. You can have a Manhattan bottle, winter bottle, over ice, Highball – there’s good value to be had.” The industry can only hope that the remaining tariff wars are swiftly resolved so consumers can continue to enjoy more bang for their buck.

Click through to the following page to see the full set of results from The American Whiskey Masters 2019. 

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