Does the phrase “craft bourbon” really mean anything? I don’t write that flippantly. But in a world where chefs and influencers are sourcing and creating their own brands (from small, medium, and huge distilleries) and even the tiniest distilleries and blenders might have international distribution, can there even be a single definition of “craft bourbon” in 2021? See, we’re already in the weeds and we’re only three sentences in.
For me, “craft” can mean anything that’s not (directly) associated with the huge brands — Beam Suntory, Pernod Ricard, Bacardi, Diageo, Brown-Forman, Luxco/MGP of Indiana, Sazerac, Heaven Hill. But… there’s already an argument to be made with Heaven Hill. They’re technically an independent operator. They’re huge but still doing their own thing. Is that craft? And then where do the tiny brands that are contract distilling at big distilleries fall? I’m giving myself a headache thinking about it all.
Let’s just say this. For this exercise, a craft bourbon whiskey is one made by a small producer (distiller or blender) that isn’t owned by one of the huge multinationals (listed above). Now, that doesn’t mean some of the whiskeys below aren’t associated with big distribution companies. It just means that they’re all small, bespoke, and making juice that no one else is making (sourced, contract distilled, blended, own-make, or all of the above). Cool?
Okay, our lineup for today is:
- Woodinville PX Sherry Cask Straight Bourbon Whiskey (WA)
- Barrell Armida (IN & TN)
- Widow Jane Aged 10 Years (KY, IN, & TN)
- Paul Sutton Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (KY)
- FEW Straight Bourbon Whiskey (IL)
- Peerless Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (KY)
- Pursuit United. Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskies (KY, NY, & TN)
- Bib & Tucker Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey Aged 6 Years (TN)
- Hudson Whiskey NY Four Part Harmony 7 (NY)
- Garrison Brothers Small Batch Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey (TX)
Let’s get into it. As always, click on those prices if you want to try these yourself!
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Part 1: The Tasting
There’s a clear sense of holiday cake spices tied to dark orange oils with a hint of damp dried roses on the nose. The palate carries along the same route with a deep sense of that holiday cake next to a dark chocolate orange with a cinnamon stick woodiness and a touch of toffee. The finish leans into an apple tobacco sweet/spicy vibe, which is pretty nice.
This bursts with ripe and fresh pear from the get-go. Hints of orange zest, and spicy-but-wet cedar pop in on the nose too. The taste leans into brandy-soaked raisins and dates with hints of cedar boxes full of sweet tobacco next to a vanilla husk and sweet orange candy. The end circles back around to that pear with a candied feel next to a touch of vanilla-laced tobacco leaf.
Wow! This has a matrix of rich vanilla pudding next to oranges infused with mulled wine spices and … Irish Spring soap. It definitely works and draws you in. The palate is all marzipan and dark chocolate-covered brandy cherries that lead towards a dry maply syrup mid-palate. The finish dries out a bit more while still holding onto the cherry, bitter dark chocolate, and what I called in my notes “almost woody maple syrup.”
(Not a bad line by me if I do say so myself.)
Woah, again! The nose on this has a distinct barnyard funk tied to wet bales of straw that leads to a salted caramel sweetness with a twinge of a pine box full of cherry pits. The taste veers away from most of that towards sweet corn cakes with a touch of vanilla cream and eggnog spice. A Caro syrup-soaked pecan sweetness and nuttiness drive the mid-palate towards a cherry tobacco finish with a hint of dark cacao powder.
The nose on this is wild. It starts with a pretty standard dark cherry with a hint of holiday spices and vanilla pudding that slowly morphs into an old plastic silver holiday garland that’s fresh out of the decorations box but still has a touch of last year’s evergreen on it. The spices take over on the palate with cinnamon and nutmeg leading towards buttery toffee and a dry note that’s kind of like almond shells. There’s a slight cornmeal graininess on the mid-palate that sweetens towards caramel and cherry candies on the backend.
This is bold yet delicate with a nose full of berry brambles hanging heavy with dark fruits with a touch of tart next to old leather, a spicy plum pudding, and a touch of old cedar. The palate takes that cedar and leans into the wet bark as a moment of espresso bean bitterness leads into a mid-palate that’s the softest and moistest vanilla cake with poppy seeds. Those berries tumble onto the cake, now dusted with powdered sugar and ground cinnamon, as the finish slowly melts into pure silk.
There’s a tannic woodiness with a nice dried red fruit vibe on the nose with a touch of eggnog spice and pine. The taste has a lovely salted caramel with extra butter covered in deep dark chocolate with a hint of orange oil. The finish sweetens with a hint of burnt sugars over vanillas the chocolate ties itself to spicy tobacco.
The nose on this is all wet, almost earthy, cedar bark and crispy wafers filled with rich vanilla cream. The taste has a ginger snap quality in spiciness, graininess, and sweetness next to cinnamon-infused apple cider. The mid-palate to finish is very light and sort of just touches back on the spice but really leans into sweet apple tobacco.
This has a funky nose that’s almost an old-world rye bread mixed into a sweet cornbread with buttery vanilla lurking in the background. The palate leans into the vanilla creaminess with dark, dried berries, a hint of fat nuts, and thinness that sort of dissipates towards spicy tobacco and burnt corn husks.
There’s a dry straw funk on the nose that leads towards new leather, and cinnamon toast with plenty of butter and sugar. The butteriness turns into proper shortbread cut with vanilla and lemon. The mid-palate has an orange oil spiciness that leads towards a sweet yet spicy caramel apple and a final note of dry campfire smoke from far away.
Part 2: The Ranking
10. Hudson Whiskey NY Four Part Harmony 7 — Taste 9
Average Price: $85
This brand new release from Hudson is their first age-statement bourbon. The juice is made from locally sourced NY grains: 60 percent corn, 15 percent rye, 15 percent wheat, and ten percent malted barley. The whiskey then spends seven years resting before it’s batched, proofed, and bottled.
I think I need to try this again. It was… fine but definitely read a little thin for me today.
9. Bib & Tucker Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey Aged 6 Years — Taste 8
Average Price: $54
Bib & Tucker pulls barrels of Tennessee whiskey from an old and quiet valley in the state. They then blend those barrels to meet their brand’s flavor notes. While they are laying down their own whiskey now, this is still all about the blending of those barrels in small batches.
This was really good. The only reason it’s not higher is that there wasn’t an “x-factor” that really helped it stand out today.
8. Pursuit United. — Taste 7
Average Price: $65
This is a vatted from 40 total barrels from three different states, making it a “blended” straight bourbon whiskey. 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.
It’s always baffling where a bourbon you really like ends up on a blind taste test list. This is really solid bourbon but just didn’t pop as brightly as the others on this particular list.
7. FEW Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 5
Average Price: $51
This grain-to-glass craft whiskey from outside of Chicago is quickly becoming a craft classic. The grains in the high-rye mash bill are all sourced within 100 miles of the distillery. The juice is then aged for just under four years in small format Minnesota oak before it’s small-batched, proofed, and bottled.
It was hard to square the plastic silver holiday garland with this one. That being said, this was really goddamn tasty and will definitely be going into some holiday cocktails this year.
6. Garrison Brothers Small Batch Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 10
Average Price: $96
Garrison Brothers is a true grain-to-glass experience from Hye, Texas. The juice is a wheated bourbon made with local grains. That spirit is then aged under the beating heat of a hot Texas sun before the barrels are small-batched, proofed with local water, and bottled.
I was pretty surprised this ranked so low. It’s very distinct and tasty. It was more that nothing really reached out and grabbed my palate like some of the other drams. That’s really all. Otherwise, this is delicious bourbon.
5. Paul Sutton Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 4
Average Price: $75
Paul Sutton is a new bourbon from an old family recipe. I know, we’ve all heard it before. The new whiskey is not a blend of sourced bourbons. The brand took the time to release its contract distilled own-make juice. The bourbon mash bill has a touch of rye in it and it aged for up to five years in medium char barrels.
That funk on the nose was really interesting. Beyond that, this is a classic bourbon through and through. I’m looking forward to getting to know it a little better on ice and in cocktails.
4. Barrell Armida — Taste 2
Average Price: $120
Barrell Bourbon is one of the best blenderies and finishing houses in bourbon today. Their Armida expression is all about experimentation in finishing casks. The juice is a marriage of bourbons finished in pear brandy, Jamaican rum, and Sicilian Amaro casks. Those three barrels are then batched and bottled with no cutting or filtration.
This is where blind tastings can get a little ridiculous. This is a great bourbon and it only ranked fourth today. Wild.
3. Woodinville PX Sherry Cask Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $70
This whiskey takes Woodinville’s signature (and much-lauded) five-year-old straight bourbon and gives it a new finishing touch. The juice is finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, making a sort of sibling to our favorite bourbon of 2020, the Port Cask Finish. But while there are similarities between the two, this feels like a step up in many small, tough to define ways.
Point being: It’s very special.
I would have bet $100 on me picking this as my number one. I love this micro-distillery and pretty much everything they do. But, hey! I was surprised a lot on this tasting and that’s the point, right?
2. Peerless Smal Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 6
Average Price: $86
Kentucky Peerless Distilling takes its time for a true grain-to-glass experience. Their Single Barrel Bourbon is crafted with a fairly low-rye mash bill and fermented with a sweet mash as opposed to a sour mash (that means they use 100 percent new grains, water, and yeast with each new batch instead of holding some of the mash over to start the next one like a sourdough starter, hence the name). The barrels are then hand-selected for their taste and bottled completely un-messed with.
This could easily have been number one. The element of surprise from the Widow Jane put it over the top today, but this is near perfection in every way.
1. Widow Jane Aged 10 Years — Taste 3
Average Price: $75
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.
I’m not going to lie, I was shocked this was my number one pick. I think it was the boldness of that Irish Spring note actually working and leading to something that really blew me away today. In the end, this was so above average and unique that it was the clear standout in the best ways possible.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
This was so goddamn hard to rank. I must have changed the top five about five times. Then I shuffled the bottom five as many, if not more, times too. Finally, I just ranked them fast and hard and let it be.
Was I surprised Widow Jane 10 was number one? Absolutely. That’s a whiskey I drink very rarely but seem to be enjoying more deeply every time I drink it. For whatever reason, it’s just speaking to me right now. And that’s what’s so cool about blind taste tests, you’re almost always surprised.
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