I’ve blind tasted a lot of whiskeys this year. While there was a good mix of blended scotch, single malts, Irish whiskeys, and ryes in the mix, the majority of those were definitely bourbon. In fact, I did fourteen blind taste tests with bourbon in 2021.
It was … a lot. But it was also a worthwhile pursuit to find the best bourbons out there in a variety of styles and price ranges.
To that end, I decided to go back and pull the winning pick from every bourbon blind tasting of 2021. I ended up with 14 bourbons that fall into a wide swath of categories — from barrel proof to single barrel to cheap to crafty. I ended up with a hell of a list of whiskeys.
Then I re-tasted them all (blind). In the end, I was honestly shocked at the bottle I picked as the best overall. So shocked in the fact, that I’m eager to get right into it.
Our lineup today includes:
- Woodinville Port Cask
- Michter’s Single Barrel Bourbon 10
- Barrell Bourbon Batch 23
- Bulleit Bourbon
- Elijah Craig Barrel Proof A121
- William Larue Weller
- Noah’s Mill
- Jefferson’s Very Old
- Evan Williams Black Label
- Blue Run 13.5-Year-Old “The Honey Barrel”
- Pursuit United
- Wild Turkey 101
- Widow Jane Aged 10 Years
- Heaven’s Door Redbreast Master Blender’s Edition
Ready? Let’s go!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of 2021
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- Our Favorite Bourbon Whiskey From Every Price Point Between $10-$200
- All 19 Brands From The Buffalo Trace Distillery, Ranked
- Here’s Who Won Our Big Barrel Proof Bourbon Whiskey Blind Taste Test
Part 1: The Tasting
Candied fruit, fat nuts, and mild spice combine on the nose to create a holiday cake vibe with a nice line of worn leather throughout. The palate is very “plum pudding” with browned butter, almost molasses sugars, and very dark and dried fruits with a touch of sweet-yet-salty toffee drizzled everywhere. The end is like a velvet pillow of Christmas cake, soft sugars, and dried berries all wrapped up in some light tobacco leaves.
Light toffee, spicy tobacco, maple candy, and raw leather drive the nose on this one. The taste holds onto that maple as a rich, malted, and silky vanilla pudding comes into play with a lacy, hard-candy sugar while hints of dry cedar bark mingle with dark fruits. The mid-palate veers towards a pecan/maple butter/tobacco vibe that sings across the senses.
New leather pouches are filled with marzipan with a touch of vanilla and rosewater next to a hint of dry wicker on the nose. The taste is thin-ish with the wicker driving the palate towards berries touched with brown spices and a hint of vanilla oils. The finish spices things up with a tobacco chewiness that leans more into the dry wicker than anything else.
This opens very “classic bourbon” with notes of caramel, cinnamon, apple, and vanilla with a thin touch of spice. That spice drives the palate with a cinnamon powderiness that leads towards brown sugar and apples. The taste sort of drops off after that, leaving you with spicy tobacco that’s just touched with apple and caramel.
This is all about the red, tart, and sweet berries in vanilla cream with a clear sense of the berry brambles — think leaves, stems, seeds, thorns, and even a little dirt. That vanilla drives the palate with a hint of light green pepper spice that gives way to a mid-palate that’s a medley of fresh blackberry, blueberry, and raspberry. Those berries take on a dried rose note as a rich berry-laced and slightly spiced tobacco drives home the sip.
Vanilla drives the nose with hints of roasted but sweet almond next to brittle toffee that’s just touched with salt. The palate teeters between smoked plums with a hint of spice and a tower of cream puffs with plenty of butter and vanilla. The mid-palate moves from cherry tobacco towards a dark chocolate powder until eventually an almost menthol note rounds out the finish.
Eggnog spices and creaminess sit next to an old cedar tobacco box on the nose of this one. Cinnamon candy, buttery toffee, and dry wicker dominate the palate with caramel cinnamon apple Corn Pops with a lush background leading back towards that dry wicker on the finish. That old tobacco box fills with cinnamon candy as the finish fades away.
This opens with a dollop of honey next to eggnog spices, soft leather, and green reeds that are almost grassy. The taste is all about the apple-cider-soaked cinnamon sticks with a touch of clove next to an Almond Roca vibe. The mid-palate leans into the toffee as a very light vanilla tobacco drives the subtle finish.
Roasted corn husk leads towards a buttery vanilla sauce with a touch of generic oak on the nose. The palate dives into caramel apples with a touch of brown spice and maybe a hint of cherry, almond shells, and thin marzipan. The end has a pear/apple candy sweetness with a hint more of thin wood.
This opens with rich and buttery toffee next to cherry tobacco, vanilla pods, and soft cedar staves wrapped up in old leather. The taste has lush dark cacao with a spiced toffee pudding silkiness. The spices mellow towards creamy eggnog on the mid-palate as green pepper and dry reeds linger on the senses.
Dark chocolate-covered caramels that are just touched with orange oils draw you in on the nose. The taste has this light sense of cornmeal next to dark chocolate-laced tobacco with a hint of dried red fruit that feels like a red wine stave. The mid-palate has a Christmas cake feel with spice, fruit, and nuts all with a hint of vanilla leading towards an old cedar box that used to hold tobacco.
Vanilla and butterscotch pudding cups mingle with burst sugars, leather, and woody spice on the nose. That butterscotch turns into toffee on the palate as those woody spices narrow down to dried cinnamon sticks, allspice berries, and a touch of ground nutmeg. The mid-palate has a sweet orchard fruit vibe with a touch of vanilla tobacco that leads towards a long, spicy, and chewy finish.
Soft leather, spicy yet sweet mulled wine cut with oranges, and … I swear … Irish Spring soap mingle on the nose. Brandied cherries mix with marzipan covered in dark chocolate as a woody maple syrup drives the mid-palate. The finish takes on a cherry tobacco sweetness and spice on a slow, gentle fade.
Leathery dates, soft marzipan, and apple cores lead the way on the nose with cedar and cherry in the background. The palate has this rich and moist vanilla pound cake vibe with poppy seeds mixed in and a touch of orange oil to help it pop. The end comes with a mild sense of spice and instead leans fruity with dark and mildly dried stone fruits and a mild tobacco buzz.
Part 2: The Ranking
14. Bulleit Bourbon — Taste 4
Average Price: $32
This Diageo bourbon has a high-rye mash bill, with 28 percent of the recipe consisting of the spicy grain. While most of the older juice is still sourced, Diageo has built a distillery that’s making the juice for Bulleit now.
This was fine, classic even. But it was also really thin compared to a lot of bourbons on this list, which made it the most forgettable today.
13. Evan Williams Black Label — Taste 9
Average Price: $18 (1-liter bottle)
This is the entry point for Evan Williams. The juice is a mix of four to seven-year-old barrels of the standard Heaven Hill bourbon. The difference in this bottle is that it’s proofed at a slightly higher 43 proof.
This had a bit more depth to it but was still pretty thin. You really can’t get away from the “cheap” vibe of these whiskeys when tasting them right next to better-built juice.
12. Barrell Bourbon Batch 23 — Taste 3
Average Price: $90
Barrell Craft Spirits might be one of the best whiskey blenders working today (especially in the U.S.). This expression blends ten, 12, and 15-year-old barrels from Kentucky, Tennesee, and Indiana into a final product. On paper, this shouldn’t be this refined. Tthis is all about expert barrel selection and blending as the final product is bottled at cask strength with no proofing or filtration to hide behind.
This was a really nice sip. But it just sort of got lost in the crowd on this go-around.
11. Noah’s Mill — Taste 7
Average Price: $60
This is Willett’s high-proof bourbon that’s barely cut down to a very high 114.3 proof. This is kind of like the big and bolder sibling of Willett’s Rowan’s Creek bourbon, which is cut down to 100.1 proof.
This is another bourbon that kind of got lost in the mix a bit. It was really distinct and tasty but there wasn’t any “wow” factor against these bourbons.
10. Jefferson’s Very Old — Taste 8
Average Price: $58
Jefferson’s Reserve is a masterclass in the power of blending. This expression is a marriage of only eight to 12 barrels from three different bourbons which are, for the most part, very old. How old you ask? There are 20-year-old barrels in the mix — sorta crazy, considering the price.
This was pretty tasty all things considered. Still, it didn’t pop for me. It felt more like something I’d mix with if I wanted to make some killer cocktails.
9. Wild Turkey 101 — Taste 12
Average Price: $26
A lot of Wild Turkey’s character comes from the hard and deep char they use on their oak barrels. 101 is a high-rye and high-ABV bourbon that leans into the wood and aging, having spent six years in the cask. A little of that soft Kentucky limestone water is added to cool it down a bit before bottling.
This did not feel like a cheap bourbon in the same way some of the bottles in the lower slots did. It was deeply hewn and very tasty without being overdone, but it was still a little light at the end.
8. Pursuit United — Taste 11
Average Price: $68
This is a vatted from 40 total barrels from three different states. While the team at Pursuit United doesn’t release the Tennessee distillery name, we know the juices from Kentucky and New York are from Bardstown Bourbon Company and Finger Lakes Distilling, respectively.
This was a solid bourbon. There wasn’t an “x-factor” that helped it rise above but I totally can see using this to make a Manhattan tonight, or just sipping it on the rocks.
7. Widow Jane Aged 10 Years — Taste 13
Average Price: $76
This is sourced from Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee bourbons. The hand-selected barrels are sent to New York where they’re blended in small batches (no more than five barrels), proofed with New York limestone mine water, and bottled. What you’re paying for here is the exactness of a whiskey blender finding great barrels and knowing how to marry them to make something bigger and better.
This really did shine but lacked a little something I can’t quite put my finger on. It was deeply flavored and really tasty but it didn’t really stick with me today.
6. Blue Run 13.5-Year-Old “The Honey Barrel” — Taste 10
Average Price: $230
Jim Rutledge’s new project, after leaving Four Roses, is one of the most sought-after new bourbons on the market. The juice in the bottle is hand-selected by Rutledge and barreled as a single barrel at cask strength. That also makes each bottle unique … and fleeting.
This was in a good stretch of drams. It fell a little lower for being almost … small when compared to the other big bourbons on the list. But it still tasted great.
5. Heaven’s Door Redbreast Master Blender’s Edition — Taste 14
Average Price: $116
The juice in the bottle is Heaven Door’s low-rye ten-year-old Tennessee bourbon. They take that whiskey and fill it into Redbreast whiskey casks that had previously aged Irish whiskey for 12 years. After 15 months of final maturation, those barrels are vatted and slightly proofed down with soft Tennessee spring water.
I was also surprised that this ranked so low. That could be because my palate was fatigued by the time I got to dram 14. Or it just didn’t quite stand up to the others it had to go up against. Either way, it was still damn fine.
4. Michter’s Single Barrel Bourbon 10 — Taste 2
Average Price: $200
Michter’s is currently distilling and aging their own whiskey, but this is still sourced. The actual barrels sourced for these single barrel expressions tend to be at least ten years old with some rumored to be closer to 15 years old. Either way, the juice goes through Michter’s bespoke filtration process before a touch of Kentucky’s iconic soft limestone water is added, bringing the bourbon down to a very crushable 94.4 proof.
I would have put money on me picking this as number one. Still, the top five isn’t a bad place to be for this much-adored brand.
3. Woodinville Port Cask — Taste 1
Average Price: $52
Woodinville Whiskey has been cleaning up awards recently. Their Port Cask takes their five-year-old bourbon and ages it for a final six months in Ruby Port barrels to add a whole new dimension to the whiskey.
I’d argue this still holds up, given that it took a top-three spot. Plus, it’s just so damn delicious that it’s hard not to still love after a year of tasting so many different whiskeys.
2. William Larue Weller — Taste 6
Average Price: $832
This wheated whiskey from 2008 eschews the more common rye and adds in North Dakota wheat. The juice is then barreled and stored in two warehouses where 73 percent of the whiskey is lost to the air in those Buffalo Trace warehouses. The juice is then bottled untouched and unfiltered.
I would have also put serious money on me picking this as my number one — I tend to love this juice. But here we are. I’m sure the good people at Buffalo Trace will survive this second-place ranking, somehow.
1. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof A121 — Taste 5
Average Price: $80
This expression is all about finding the best barrels in the Heaven Hill warehouses and letting that whiskey shine on its own. These are released three times a year and have been winning award after award. The whiskey in the bottle is generally at least 12 years old and bottled with no cutting down to proof or filtration whatsoever, thereby letting the barrel shine on its own.
I’m truly shocked I picked this blind as my favorite of the day. I’ve spent the last year really only using this for mixing cocktails but it was a delight neat in a Glencairn. This is why we do blind taste tests. You really never know what’ll stand out.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
I 100 percent thought that Michter’s 10, Heaven’s Door, or Weller would have won the day. That Elijah Craig won still has me scratching my head a bit. But here we are, and I learned that even my own preconceived notions from tastings ebb and flow throughout the year.
Excited to see what 2022 brings!