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2011 Sour Mash Manifesto American Whiskey Awards

The world doesn’t need any more whiskey awards. This is probably a fact we can all agree on, but I felt compelled to acknowledge some great work in 2011. I hope you’ll allow me to add my contribution to what I believe to be the best of American Whiskey for the year.

Sour Mash Manifesto America Whiskey Awards – 2011

Distillery Of The Year: Buffalo Trace
This was actually the easiest pick of all. When it comes to whiskey, few distilleries in the world can touch Buffalo Trace’s monstrous portfolio of rye whiskeys and bourbon. If you favor value focused products, then Buffalo Trace’s namesake bourbon delivers in spades. If you are looking for high end whiskey offering more distinctive flavors, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bring 5 whiskeys to the table with three or four vying for best American Whiskey of the year. This year also saw the first (from what we’re told) Pappy Van Winkle 15 year bourbon made entirely from Buffalo Trace wheated bourbon stock (they supply the Old Rip Van Winkle line as well). On top of all of that, Buffalo Trace undertook perhaps the most educational whiskey endeavor ever with the unveiling of the Single Oak Project. In spite of what I think of Single Oak as a whole, there is no doubt that it will serve to provide Buffalo Trace with invaluable information to help them continue to craft great whiskey. There are many great distilleries in America, but in my opinion none can match Buffalo Trace in 2011.

Bourbon Whiskey Of The Year: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year
If you want to get hardcore bourbon enthusiasts riled up, start feeding them information about shortages of their much beloved Stitzel-Weller wheated bourbon. Stitzel-Weller, closed since the early 90′s, has been the source of bourbon whiskey for the longer aged Pappy Van Winkle line. Last fall, Preston Van Winkle made it known that the Fall/Winter 2011 release of Pappy 15 was 100% Buffalo Trace wheated recipe bourbon. From that point the anticipation and frenzy reached new heights even by Pappy Van Winkle standards. Would it be as good? Did they ruin one of the most highly regarded bourbons on the planet? The short answer is “No!” The resulting bourbon lacked some of the softness and refinement of the Stizel-Weller whiskey, but made up for it with ramped up spice and bolder wood notes, which in some ways made the whiskey even more interesting. In spite of slight differences, the Pappy 15 DNA was still present, resulting in the highest rated whiskey of the year (9.7/10).

Rye Whiskey Of The Year: Sazerac 18 Year
2011 was a big year for rye. The craft and micro distillers have been on the rye bandwagon for a while now, but some of the big boys and independent bottlers got in on the act as well. A common trend for the year were sourced rye whiskeys from Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI). LDI’s 95% rye mashbill could be found in various ages, and bottled under names like Bulleit, Templeton, and Redemption to name a few. While quite good, many of these whiskeys tasted similar, leaving an opportunity for a new release rye whiskey to stand out from the crowd. Enter Buffalo Trace with their home run release of the 2011 Sazerac 18 Year Rye Whiskey. Each year this whiskey proves to be one of the better ryes, but the 2011 version had added depth and complexity. Few whiskeys can match the balance of dryness and sweetness as well as capturing both the vibrancy of rye with the stateliness of older whiskey. Not to mention that it’s one of the best noses in whiskey – period. Without a doubt one of the best Rye Whiskeys I had this year.

Craft Whiskey Of The Year: St. George Spirits Single Malt, Lot 10
Situated in a former Naval aircraft carrier along the San Francisco Bay sits one of the coolest distilleries in the country. St. George Spirits has been making whiskey longer than most craft or micro distilleries, but their approach and attitude is still fresh and vibrant. Well known for creating fantastic gins, absinthe, and liquers, the pride and joy of the distillery is the Single Malt Whiskey. Actually I just made that part up. They’d probably tell you their pride and joy is something else that they make, but to me it should be their pride and joy – it’s phenomenal. The Single Malt is made from a Sierra Nevada Beer, crafted especially for the distillery using a number of different barley malts (chocolate malt makes it’s presence felt). The resulting whiskey is unlike any other being made today – fruity and full of deep, rich, smoky notes from the beer. With more than 15 years of whiskey making under their belt, I can’t wait to see where St. George takes this delicious Single Malt Whiskey.

Value Whiskey Of The Year: Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, Bottled In Bond
I consider whiskey a “for the people” product – something to be enjoyed by all. As a result, value is very important to me. Don’t get me wrong I love the high end stuff and can’t wait to try them each year. But I get really excited when I get my hands on a whiskey at a great price that sacrifices nothing in the way of flavor and character. Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey (Bottled in Bond), which is distilled by Brown Forman for Heaven Hill, is undoubtedly one such whiskey. At 100 proof, this rye whiskey packs a wallop with great depth and balance. Unlike some of the newer rye whiskey offerings consisting of 90+% rye grain, Rittenhouse is less rye-forward. I categorize it as a “bourbon drinker’s rye” – a bit richer and fuller bodied. At between $19-$24 depending on your area, Rittenhouse is a must find for the value seeker. I keep a bottle on hand at all times, and consider it a foundation whiskey for any great bar. NOTE: Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond is now being distilled at Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Distillery.

As we all know, taste is very subjective. The above represent whiskeys and a distillery that I believe to be worthy of distinction relative to their peers. What about you? What gets your vote for whiskey of the year?

29 Comments

  1. Great stuff all around. I wish I could try the Sazerac 18, haven’t gotten my hands on that, but was lucky enough to snag a bottle of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye this year, which is phenomenally good.

    As for Rittenhouse Rye, couldn’t agree more, especially when you can find it for $14!!!! in Atlanta sometimes. Crazy value.

    Best value bourbon for me this year was Elijah Craig 12 year old at $23. I used to think the Evan Williams Single Barrel was a better value, but not any more.

  2. Matthew says:

    I agree with your observation regarding additional awards. Mostly. I would love to see one more category included in your form: the Pyle. The Pyle can be a whiskey or bourbon that can be singled out for reason unique to 2011 and outside the typical canon of a “best of” lists. It can be Parker’s Heritage Cognac Finish for its awesome use of a cognac barrel or the Pappy 15 for not letting [most] of us down.

    Criteria for The Pyle is flexible. This category should be fun and playful with an undercurrent of seriousness. For example, St George’s Breaking & Entering surprised me more than any other bourbon or rye in 2011. Or maybe the award can go to another whiskey for a different subjective reason. Just a thought.

    Who would you nominate for a Pyle?

  3. Lazer says:

    Lazer’s awards:
    Distillery – Four Roses
    Bourbon – PHC Wheater (I know its 2010, but I drank it in 2011)
    Rye – Ritt BIB
    Craft – haven’t had any
    Scotch – no thank you
    Blog – Sour mash manifesto!

  4. Matthew says:

    Slightly off topic, but…

    Any nominations for best bourbon (or rye) barrel-aged beer?

  5. Andrew says:

    Matthew, my vote would go to Cigar City’s Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout. Limited availability. Luckily, the brewery is not too far away so I got a hotel room for this weekend in Tampa so I could be there as part of Tampa Bay Beer Week.

  6. Matthew says:

    Andrew –

    I have a bottle of Three Floyds Dark Lord aged in Pappy 23 barrels. Waiting for a 23 to complete of a flight of Dark Lord (regular), DL aged in Pappy 23 barrels, and Pappy 23.

    Until then, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Coffee Stout is my preferred 2011 barrel-aged beer.

  7. Alan says:

    BT distillery – YES
    PVW15 – YES
    S18 – haven’t tried
    St. GSSM – haven’t tried
    RHR – YES
    Good job Jason! 3 out of 5 ain’t bad!

  8. Bmac says:

    Quite agree on BT distillery. It would be hard to match their efforts. Even Heaven Hill with their vaunted aging barrels would have a long hard road ahead of them to catch up.

    I’m with Thirsty South on Daddy Saz 18. It seems Texas didn’t get any allocation this year. I had heard it was in limited supply from a large vat. It might be completely spent O_O.

    Rittenhouse Rye BIB was a true surprise.

    I haven’t gotten any PVW 15 from BT yet. I got the Lot B 12yr but found out it was sourced from old Bernheim stock; so it can’t really match up.

    The other I have never heard of, and honestly I have not seen any “American” whiskeys here in Texas unless they are ‘blended.’

  9. DBMaster says:

    Good job, Jason. Nice post, good pics, well laid out, and well written. Picking the “best” of anything is always going to stir up some controversy, but overall that is the best test of peoples’ skills for civil discourse. I’m sure I haven’t tried the right stores here in the Dallas area, but I have not yet found Rittenhouse BIB. I’ve been wanting to try it ever since Ralf Mitchell reviewed it almost two years ago.

  10. Bmac says:

    @DBMaster – They should have some Rittenhouse BIB at Beverage Depot off of Stemmons Trail (35 nd Northwest Highway). That’s where I got mine and they had plenty. They have a website (that is their name .biz) where you can get their number. Give them a call, see if they have any on hand. It was in the 20-something price range.

  11. DBMaster, this doesn’t exactly help, but I have a buddy that gets it at Specs in Austin for about $19 almost all the time.

    Matthew, I sadly wouldn’t have too many recommendations on barrel-aged beers. I do welcome recommendations. Also I appreciates the thoughts and suggestions on additional awards. Hands down for me, the tip of the cap this year for stepping out on a limb a little, and creating something quite unique and wonderful in the process, would go to Parkers Heritage Collection Cognac Finished. I loved it. It’s been a very polarizing review. Few hate it but many vacillate between thinking it’s good/very good on up to outstanding/superb. I loved it immensely and thought it was a real standout.

    Thirsty South (Brad) – I do enjoy EC12 a great deal. It’s always consistent. For me I think there are a few bourbons and american whiskeys everyone must try – EC12 is one of them no doubt.

  12. iskch1 says:

    Jason, agree with the first award for B.T but for the rest I didn’t have a chance to try them yet. I will add a few awards:
    - best value bourbon under $ 10.00 E.W black label
    - best value wheated bourbon under $ 10.00 Old Fitzgerald
    - best value for Tennesse whisky under $ 10.00 George Dickel Cascade Hollow

    Have a good day!

  13. DBMaster says:

    Bmac, thanks for the tip about Beverage Depot. I’ve been shopping at Goody-Goody for many years due to price and selection, but the description on BD’s web site makes me want to just go there and look around. It’s a real bummer when I hear about “sub $20″ whiskies because none of the ones described are under $20 in this area. Texas has raised booze taxes several times since I became a legal drinker. When I was in college I used to get JD black label for $18 a half gallon. I guess I am dating myself there. I used to mix my whiskey with Coke or Mountain Dew (sounds gross, right?) at the time.

  14. ChrisB says:

    On the subject of awards: Too many film awards – definitely boring – whisky awards? bring em on!

    I keep missing the Pappy 15. In one case by minutes! Next year.

    Love the Saz 18 but I think I prefer the Handy which I bought as a consolation prize for the missing Pappy 15 and was blown away!
    Interesting how the 18 being the same juice for the last couple of years keeps evolving.
    What I don’t get is why they insist on using the exact same caramel coloring for both the Handy and the 18. That electric orange is bizarre to start with but you’d at least think that they would adjust the levels enough that both ryes, years apart in age, would look distinctly different.

    Keep up the good work.

  15. JWC says:

    i agree with bt being the distillery of the year. as far as the usa goes, for a while now, i think they’ve been kicking butt and taking no prisoners.

    i disagree about the bt pvw 15. i was hoping that last fall’s release would still be SW or SW blend distillate. i found out AFTER i got 2 bottles of it that it was 100% BT. i went in with an open mind (or at least i think i did) but i don’t think it is as good as the SW juice. is the bt pvw 15yo good? yes. is it as good (for me) as the SW pvw 15? no.

  16. Tom says:

    @ChrisB – I agree with you, the Handy was an amazing rye this year, and has always been one of my favorites for the younger ryes. In regards to the color, keep in mind that the Handy is cask strength, whereas the Sazerac is brought down in ABV before bottling. This could make it seem deceiving when comparing their colors directly, I’d be curious what you think after putting some water in the Handy to bring it down to the same ABV as the Sazerac.

  17. ChrisB says:

    “I’d be curious what you think after putting some water in the Handy to bring it down to the same ABV as the Sazerac.”

    Perhaps but it’s so damn tasty on it’s own that I’m not sure I could bear adding water in this case! (unless you can convince me that it opens up even more).
    Still, I sincerely hope that this particular caramel is there for something other than color as it is unnatural (like a spray tan!). I understand it has value in the blending process but these are not blended whiskys so not sure why, especially since the majority of those who purchase an 18 year old Sazerac won’t be laying down their hard earned bucks based on a pretty color.

  18. Rick J says:

    Are these whiskeys actually modified with artificial colorants? My understanding is that the finished color is naturally the result of barrel char and lenght of contact time.

  19. Rick J and ChrisB – there are no artificial colorings or additives of any kind. What you see in the bottle is a result of the wood and time only. Just FYI.

  20. Exem says:

    Jason, maybe u are aware of how much rye is included in rittenhouse 100 proof? what are other grains? In what kind of stills is this rittenhouse distilled?

  21. sam k says:

    Jason, thanks for pointing out that whiskey designated “straight” may not contain anything but water for dilution to bottling proof. This is one area where American whiskey has it all over scotch and Canadian, and many folks just aren’t aware of this important regulation.

    Drink your (unadulterated) bourbon (and rye)!

  22. ChrisB says:

    Thanks Jason, I stand corrected although I still am not sure how the Handy and the Saz 18 can have virtually the same color even if one is cask strength and the other not…live and learn I guess.

  23. woodisgood says:

    I’m enjoying some of the Sazerac 18 right now, thanking God I bunkered a few bottles. It’s soooo smooth, straight up. Certainly was my fave of 2011. Was always a fan of the Winkle rye, but this Sazerac to me easily bests it.

    And yes, while the “new” Pappy 15 isn’t quite up to the greatness of the S-W stuff, after 1/4 of the bottle has been drunk and it sits a spell (about three+ weeks), I swear, it takes such a delicious turn in the bottle. Smooths out some, and the maple + cinnamon burst across the palate in the way only Pappy knows how.

  24. SC Mike says:

    Speaking of Old Fitzgerald….bought a bottle (love the classic label) and Old Fitzgerald 12 yr….going to a blind tasting as see the differences.

    Has anyone stepped up to blind tastings?….get to the core of taste.

    BTW….this is not because i hate the stories, bottles, labels and provenance because i do…it certainly adds to the drink…but taste is the thing

  25. Buffalo Trace is always in stock at my house.

  26. Jason,
    I am just beginning to explore the world of bourbon, and I want to thank you for being such a generous, authoritative, reliable (yet non-snobby) guide. I really enjoy trying out a new whiskey, noting my impressions of the nose and palate, then “testing” them against your reviews. More often than not, I have found confirmation there, or at least food for further thought. Above all, I enjoy the articulate rhetoric of your video reviews (I am a professor at the University of New Mexico, and have recommended you to my students as an exemplar of passionate persuasion!). Thanks so much for the service you provide, and keep up the good work!

  27. Agreed Kevin – great stuff at a great price.

  28. Brian says:

    Jason – PA doesnt carry the Rittenhouse BB on the shelves, but you can order it in – no extra charge. When the call came from the state store, my wife came out to the garage singing “rye whiskey, rye whiskey” while I was working on a bike. She NEVER comes to the garage, much less singing!! I immediately knew what this meant.

    Ive tried a few snorts now, and the rye is very prominent – good nose too – tastes smooth and almost sweet when a drop of water is added. It has more body (and color) than the Bulliet – with a bit more “zing” to it. I must say though, I enjoy the Bulliet just a tad more. They are priced about the same here.

    Ive also “vatted” ( learned a new term there) both of these with some Black Velvet Canadian 8 yr old reserve (that I got as a Christmas gift and probably wouldve never opened). I find that besides stretching the rye out a bit longer, it softens the flavor and these things go down pretty easy.

    You have become a bad influence on me Jason – but I sleep a lot better now. Thank you.

  29. Brian, sorry that I am a bad influence, but glad you have enjoyed some of the whiskeys. It’s always fun to introduce folks to something new. Thanks for visiting!

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