At this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition, I tasted bourbons that absolutely wowed me. This competition restored my faith in the new bourbons hitting the market, and it reminded me of an old friend that is pretty damn good.

As soon as I learned the winners, including one brand I’d never tasted, I immediately texted distilleries to find out more on the beautiful whiskeys. Suffice it to say, one of the best bourbons of 2015 is one we’ll truly never know much about. I hate that, but more on this frustration later. (Read my experiences at the 2013 and 2014 competitions).

How It Works

 

We tasted all spirits in the Neat Glass, which performed well for bourbon and gave bourbons 8-12 years-old a chance against the often oakier older bourbons.

We tasted all spirits in the Neat Glass, which performed well for bourbon and gave bourbons 8-12 years-old a chance against the older bourbons that have dominated the competition in years past.

Behind the scenes, volunteers and employees work year-round on this competition and the San Francisco World Wine Competition. To enter, the spirit manufacturer pays an entry fee of $475 and ships a few bottles. Judges receive a stipend and expenses, and we get to wear a cool smock. If a brand wins, they can choose to add the well-known logo on its bottle for a licensing fee.

The bottles are stored in a warehouse until time of competition, where volunteers keep them under lock and key.

In the panel round, the spirits are poured into flights that range from two glasses to sometimes as many as 20. In a blind tasting, we smell, taste, spit, mark our personal scores and then discuss as a panel. It’s true San Francisco gives a boatload of medals, but the guidance we follow is essentially this simple: No Medal – does not represent category; Bronze – Good; Silver – Very Good; Gold – Excellent; Double Gold – Exceptional / Superb; and Category Winners – Elite, best of the best.

In the first round, we do not judge these glasses against each other. We judge each glass by its own merit.

In my third year, David Wondrich, author of Imbibe! and Punch, served as my panel captain, and my co-panelists were Steven Izzo, beverage director of Waterbar, and Max Salono, Delmonico’s all things whiskey. Tasting with these three was a blast, and we typically saw eye-to-eye on the spirits we tasted. We disagreed on a few, but always came to a consensus.

In the non-bourbon flights, the most fascinating thing I tasted was a blend of Corn Whiskey, Rye, Bourbon and an American Single Malt. At the time of this writing, I still don’t know what that was. I thought it was going to stink to high heavens when we were given the product’s descriptor, but it was fascinating.

I also tasted an incredible Black Walnut Liqueur (Brand: Bloomery) that I can’t wait to make a bourbon cocktail with. Of the more than 150 spirits my panel tasted, we gave out a handful of Double Golds and many Bronze medals. The competition tasted more than 1,500 spirits.

The Bourbon

I’ll just skip right over the panel rounds and go straight to the Super Tasting, where we tasted the Double Gold winners that would be paired down for the Sweeps round, aka the finals for Best Bourbon.

In the Straight Bourbon category was one that was ripe with flavor, rich in caramel and vanilla, and offering an old whiskey structure. I had not tasted this style in bourbon in a very long. It honestly reminded me of an old dusty whiskey I cracked open at my Kentucky Derby Museum event with the former Stitzel-Weller master distiller Edwin Foote.

We selected this whiskey as the best Straight Bourbon and it went on to compete for Best Bourbon.

In the final round, I’m not going to lie, this was the toughest job I’ve ever had as a professional taster. The bourbons were all so damn good. Winner of the Special Barrel Finish, the Sherry Cask-finish bourbon was a game changer for me, and it showed how exciting these barrel finish programs can be. Glass No. 22 at 100 proof was complex and offered a unique structure that you could find in great Scotch, where the whiskey just drops down your tongue and enchants your sensations with all of its wonder and glory. A cask strength bourbon competed here, too, but it didn’t measure up against the other three.

When it came time to vote for the Best Bourbon, I was on the fence between Sherry Cask, the older whiskey style and No. 22. This is where I believe in really rewarding a distiller for doing something special. They were all excellent, but I voted for No. 19, the older whiskey style, because it really reminded me of a man I never thought got enough credit in this business—Foote.

No. 22 edged the beloved style I preferred, but it was really close.

I was happy with No. 22 winning and it nearly beat an older Single Malt for Best in Show of Whisky. Hey, maybe bourbon wins next year!

So, the moment we were all waiting for, the final reveal, I went straight to No. 19, the brand I loved, and it was in a sample bottle. It was Diageo’s Blade & Bow, and I immediately sighed, giving an “oh XXXX” expletive. I knew I would likely never learn this whiskey’s true origins, its verified age, or batch size, among other things. The one time Diageo attempted transparency about its whiskey stocks, Sazerac lawyers didn’t care for Diageo mentioning its trademarks. There are whispers that Diageo is sitting on tons of stock, but when I ask questions, I’m given a fairly formal answer: Can’t say anything, we signed non-disclosure agreements.

My blind notes tell you what I think of it.

If you can put the whiskey origins curiosity aside, you’ll love Blade and Bow. If you can’t, then, you’re going to miss out on some tasty whiskey.

As for who won Best Bourbon and nearly won it all, well, it’s likely in your liquor store right now. Knob Creek, ladies and gentleman, out tasted the Buffalo Trace products, Four Roses, and all the rest to become the 2015 Best Bourbon at San Francisco.

While I’ve always liked Knob Creek, I’ve never put it in the super elite, the Staggs and Pappys of the world. I’ve not even considered Knob Creek the best bourbon in the Jim Beam portfolio; Booker’s has held that crown. Has Knob Creek been hidden under my nose as the best bourbon this whole time?

Noted Bourbon Winners

All products were tasted in the Neat Glass and these were bourbon’s best:

  • Best Overall Bourbon — Knob Creek
  • Best Straight Bourbon — Blade & Bow Deluxe Bourbon
  • Best Special Barrel Finish Bourbon — Belle Meade Sherry Cask Finish
  • Double Gold contenders for best in respective categories: Lost Prophet, Four Roses Small Batch, Buffalo Trace Single Barrel, Old Forester 1870, Stagg Jr.

As competitions go, we could taste them all over again next week and pick something else. There were 96 bourbons entered and Knob Creek was the best bourbon on this day. I asked Beam Suntory, owners of Knob Creek, if anything changed. They said it’s the regular Knob Creek.

But I love the fact Knob Creek is this year’s winner. It’s damn good, and I know I can buy it.

I’m heading to the store now.

Disclosures: For best white spirit, I voted for vodka. My apologies to the Whiskey Brotherhood of Vodka Haters.

 

Fred Minnick is the author of Whiskey Women and Bourbon Curious.