Whiskey of the Year Contenders


December 4, 2019

Announcing my whiskeys of the year…. the contenders.

What is my pick for Best American Whiskey?

Find out December 20 on YouTube Live. (Watch the YouTube Live unveiling from last week to see my rationale behind these picks and set reminder for the competition. Subscribe to the channel.)

I have tasted all of these at least three times and they are my favorites for the year. But this is just my opinion and you should seek these / all whiskeys out for yourself. With that said, it’s a blind tasting. And just like a sporting event, anything can happen.

When I taste to select my winner, I realize my palate will be affected by a number of factors. Dr. Michael Williams, of Sweden’s Department of Neuroscience Uppsala University, tells me even our genetics impact how we taste: “But these perceptions are also influenced by our current physiological state. In other words, how we perceive a whiskey’s flavor profile is influenced by such things as how long it’s been since we last ate, how well we slept and are we catching or recovering from a cold. What you tasted last influences what your mind expects, which affects how you perceive flavors. Your perception of taste can also be impacted by your mood — are you happy, depressed or distracted at the time. Finally, recent research has demonstrated that our internal clock plays a role in how we perceive flavors, meaning, even the time of day can impact on how we rate a whiskey. Taking all this into consideration, it is unfair to any whiskey to rate it after only one trial.” In summary: Just because I like something one day doesn’t mean I will like it another day.

So, let’s get on with it: Here are your contenders…..

Best Everyday Bourbon

This winner will be selected December 13. See the contenders. 

Best Tennessee 

Jack Daniel’s Barrel Proof: Day in and day out, this is one of the best Jack Daniel’s products ever produced. I love its depth and richness and can’t wait to see how it fares in the blind competition.

Uncle Nearest 1820: In a recent Forbes article, I professed my appreciation for this brand and its liquid. I also put them on the cover of Bourbon+. How will they do in my blind competition?

Dickel Bottled-in-Bond has fared well with me in the past. Could it upset the field?

George Dickle Bottled-in-Bond: Winner of Whisky Advocate’s whisky of the year. Can they win mine as well?

Pursuit Series Episode 007 (disclosure: My partners on the Bourbon Pursuit podcast are the owners of this brand, but I am not affiliated with the whiskey.) This sourced product has one of the most unique notes in all of whiskey–oyster shell, which is common among grower Champagnes. Following this note comes an array of sweetness.

Best Non-Kentucky or MGP Bourbon

WINNER. Woodinville Washington Straight Bourbon: Fared extremely well in the Final Episode of Pappy vs. the Field. And in reviewing my old notes, I was reminded that I loved their whiskey at another blind competition. So, Woodinville’s got my blind palate’s number.

Celebrity-related Whiskeys

Slipknot’s No. 9 Reserve: This whiskey is an ode to the Iowa distiller–Cedar Ridge. It’s the best whiskey I’ve had from Iowa.

Last year, Metallica launched a whiskey called Blackened with longtime master distiller Dave Pickerell, second from left. Shortly, after its launch, Pickerell passed away. I interviewed Dave about this project for a Bourbon+ story and my Amazon Prime Show, Bourbon Up.

Metallica’s Blackened: This blend will definitely stand out in the field. It’s got a particular bitterness on the back palate that’s very identifiable.  

Matthew McConaughey Longbranch, Wild Turkey: Alright, alright, alright.

Wheat Whiskey

Woodford Reserve Wheat launched earlier this year and is a mash bill of 52 percent wheat, followed by malt (20%), corn (20%) and rye (8%). This unique recipe could be why I like it so much.

WINNER. Woodford Reserve Wheat Whiskey: This is, by far, the best wheat whiskey I have tasted since the Parker’s Heritage Wheat Whiskey from a few years ago. It’s rich with caramel and has a dose of spice, which is unique for the category. Perhaps what this doesn’t have is what I love most about it. Woodford Wheat Whiskey does not have that damn bubble gum note I get in so many wheat whiskeys. But how will it do in this competition? We’ll see. I think it has a real shot to go far.

Kentucky Bourbon 

Old Forester 2019 Birthday Bourbon. I feel this is one of the more nuanced and complex bourbons in the field, which isn’t always a good thing in competition. If palate fatigue sets in, which I am hopeful it won’t, I may not be able to spot a particular note.

Booker’s 2019-2.  Nose is a very sweet butterscotch. On the palate I get caramel and a lot of that butterscotch. I also get some marzipan and cinnamon as well as roasted almonds. I’ve been eating sunflower butter lately so I can pick up some sunflower butter. This is really good with a long finish and a hint of fruit pie.

Four Roses 2019 Small Batch Limited Edition. When I first tasted this, I nearly declared it the winner right then and there. Just amazing. But blind competitions are tricky. One day you like something. The next day you don’t.

Rare Breed. Beat Buffalo Trace Antique Collection in a blind tasting. Unfortunately, technical difficulties prevented this monumental victory from living on the cyber webs.

Michter’s 20 year old. This is the best older bourbon I’ve tasted all year. But I have found on certain days I am extremely sensitive to oak. Could this be one of those days?

New Riff Bottled-in-Bond. New Riff is easily one of the hottest new distilleries in the world. Their flavor profile screams well-aged, and it’s only 4 years old. It’s nearly won San Francisco and Whisky Advocate’s competitions as well.

King of Kentucky. I have long believed Brown-Forman is sitting on a gold mine of great whiskey and the King is incredible.

Cream of Kentucky Batch 2: Jim Rutledge’s return as a sourced whiskey seeker is turning out pretty good. Batch 2 packs layers of toffee and spice, and I think has a taster’s chance to win it all.

Jim Rutledge, the former master distiller of Four Roses, selected the barrels for Cream of Kentucky, a sourced whiskey from Kentucky.

William Larue Weller, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2019: Is anybody surprised this made my list?

Elijah Craig Batch A119: I tasted this release against the brand’s other 2019 barrel proof releases and A119 just had more depth. Big fan.

Four Roses Small Batch Select: Unlike many on this list, Four Roses Small Batch Select is fairly attainable. It’s also damn good.

Old Forester 1920: Like Four Roses Small Batch Select, Old Forester 1920 is attainable. However, it’s not a new release. So, why is it on here? Because, I am selecting my Best Whiskey of the Year, and I think it’s one of the best whiskeys I’ve tasted all year.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength: Following the same logic as Old Forester 1920, this is what I order when I’m out with friends more often than not. I love Maker’s straight out of the barrel.

Henry McKenna 10 year old: Winner of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2018 and 2019

Blend of Straights

WINNER. Barrell Batch 21. In a weak showing of blended straits this year, Barrell stood out as the category leader. Note: Barrell won my competition last year.


Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Cornerstone: When I first tasted this I thought, “this is really good”. After the second time I was like, “Holy shit this is really, really good”. So now we are on the third time. I did go on Twitter and declare this a whiskey contender of a year. And here we are: This cinnamon-and-marzipan combo’s got me thinking about it a lot.

The Thomas Handy Rye stood out for me as the best BTAC of 2019.

Thomas Handy Rye: Easily, the best of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection this year.

Dad’s Hat Bottled-in-Bond. Whenever I have posted positive things about Dad’s Hat, it’s often met with a groundswell of “this is crap” comments. And hey, we’re all entitled to our own opinions (for God’s sake, I blab for a living), but I often think people misunderstand this rye and its style. You can genuinely taste rye bread, and that appeals to me. I also love seeing Pennsylvania return to the whiskey game.

New Riff Bottled-in-Bond Rye. Once again, New Riff is ready to compete.

Old Forester Rye. In Forbes, I declared this to be the Best Value in American Whiskey earlier this year. And that still holds true. But can it defeat these other ryes?

Wilderness Trail Bottled-in-Bond Rye. Such a wonderful young rye. I love the oils in this expression.

Pikesville Rye. Just like Old Forester 1920 and Maker’s Cask Strength, Pikesville is not a new product. But it’s still one of the best ryes produced this year.  

Best Finish

Fast forward toward the end to see my Live tasting for Best Finish, which Angel’s Envy Cask Strength won.

291 Colorado Straight Bourbon Aspen Finish

WINNER: Angel’s Envy Port Finish

Angel’s Envy Sherry Barrel 

Belle Meade Honey Barrel

Who will win it all?

Tune in December 20 to find out, and watch December 13 for the Best Everyday Bourbon. Subscribe to the YouTube channel.

Fred Minnick is the editor-in-chief of Bourbon+ Magazine and host on numerous shows on the Spirits Network.