The American Whiskey Masters 2017 results

10th August, 2017 by Amy Hopkins

The strength of whiskeys from the US, whether they be rye, Bourbon, single malt or even moonshine, was evident in the impressive entrants to this year’s American Whiskey Masters.

US whiskey is an exciting place to be in the spirits industry in 2017

The American whiskey category has reached a critical point in its history. The craft movement, continued growth of cocktail culture around the world, and consumer interest in brown spirits means demand has hit a 50­-year high. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, volumes of Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye whiskey from the US grew by 6.8% to 21 million cases in 2016, as revenues increased 7.7% to US$3.1 billion.

At the same time, shortages persist across the sector, and distillers are all too aware that the decisions they make today will have a dramatic effect on the success of the category in the future. Nevertheless, as new brands continue to flood the market and acquisitive multinationals cut themselves a slice of the American pie, it’s clear that US whiskey is an exciting place to be in the spirits industry in 2017.

Assessing the state of the category in our annual American Whiskey Masters competition were Cherry Constable, freelance wine and spirits writer; Paul Everest, co­founder of Banstead Vintners; Dennis Oetinger, independent whisky consultant; and Matthew Neal, drinks consultant for The Beefy Boys and Shake ‘n’ Stir Cocktail Company – all chaired by Melita Kiely, deputy editor of The Spirits Business.

The competition got off to a promising start, with the Bourbon – No Age Statement flight resulting in one Gold and one Silver medal for Luxco stablemates David Nicholson Reserve and David Nicholson 1843 respectively. “This was lovely and complex, with a thick, oily texture, and very balanced,” Kiely said of the Gold medalist.

On to the aged varieties, and in the Bourbon – Aged up to 7 Years round, Rebel Yell Small Batch Reserve secured a Gold for its “complex nose” and “good depth”. “This category has shown that if you are brave enough to give your whiskey plenty of character, it can really work,” said Everest. Two Silvers were also awarded in the flight.

Judges then bestowed a Gold medal on Sazerac’s Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey in the Bourbon – Aged over 8 Years flight. “For me, this is like a bouquet of flavours – you can’t get tired of smelling it,” said Oetinger. “It has a very complex nose, which keeps developing. Very impressive.”

Moving into the price divisions, and the Bourbon – Premium flight resulted in two Golds for Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Wild Turkey 101, and one Silver for 1792 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. “This round showed that you don’t have to break the bank to have an enjoyable, easy­drinking whisky,” said Oetinger.

The first Master medals of the competition were found in the Bourbon – Super Premium round. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked won unanimous praise from the panel for its “silky, deep, intense and complex” character. Meanwhile, fellow Master medalist Old Forester Statesman Kentucky Straight Bourbon was deemed to be a “solid, sweet, and fruity Bourbon”.

“Distillers seem to be much more adventurous with flavours in this price bracket, which is really exciting to see,” said Kiely. “And others are creating brilliantly made ‘typical’­style Bourbons, which are utterly delicious, full of flavour and complexity, and well worth spending your money on.” The round also yielded three Golds and a Silver.

At the top of the price range in the Bourbon – Ultra Premium tasting, the Master medals continued to roll in. Balcones Blue Corn Bourbon was described as a “storm in a glass” with “a lot of chocolate on the nose” as well as “dark fruits, polished leather, and spices”.
Neal described fellow Master recipient Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel as “whiskey on steroids”. He added: “It shows that if you pay more, you can get more flavour.” The round yielded a further Gold and Silver medal.

Supple, well-balanced

Judges then turned their attention to a small Tennessee Whiskey – Super Premium flight, which produced a Silver medalist in Ole Smoky Straight Whiskey – described as “supple” and “well-­balanced”.

Then came an armada of single malts – an intriguing and rapidly emerging sub­section of American whiskey – starting with the Single Malt – No Age Statement flight. Rúa and Balcones Texas No. 1 Single Malt both impressed and were duly awarded Gold medals. “These were two very different whiskeys with the same medal, but both great in their own individual ways,” said Neal.

Single Malt – Aged up to 7 Years was what you might call the stonker round of the competition, producing three Masters: “deep and malty” Dead Guy Whiskey, “delicate and floral” Peat Week 2016, and “rich and smoky” Westland Sherry Wood. Oregon Single Malt Whiskey, meanwhile, snapped up a Gold.

“This is not necessarily what you would associate with American whiskey, but this category is stunning,” enthused Neal. “I would be interested in seeing future releases from all the distilleries that created the whiskeys we have tasted here.”

Moving into the Single Malt flights divided by price, and the Premium contingent produced a solitary Gold medal in Corsair’s Tennessee Single Malt, which judges believed “delivered on value”. More Corsair whiskeys were praised in the Single Malt – Super Premium round, with Pecan Smoke and Wildfire awarded Gold and Silver medals respectively.

In the Single Malt – Ultra Premium round Balcones Single Malt Rum Cask Finish secured a Silver for its “sweet chocolate nose”, though judges noted that some whiskey drinkers may struggle with the hefty 64% abv. Rounding off the single malt focus was a flight of Single Malt – Single Barrel whiskeys, which resulted in a duo of Golds for Corsair’s Triple Smoke Single Barrel and Applewood Smoke. “These whiskeys were trying to be different and push flavour innovation,” noted Constable.

Succulent and juicy

Then, the ryes. In the Rye – No Age Statement flight, a solitary Gold medal was awarded to “succulent and juicy” Sazerac Straight Rye. Into the age statements and Oregon Rye Whiskey and Ezra Brooks Straight Rye Whiskey secured Golds in Rye – Aged up to 7 Years, while Rebel Yell Small Batch Rye Whiskey bagged a Silver.

Moving on to assess rye whiskeys according to price, and judges discovered a Gold medalist in Wild Turkey Rye in the Rye – Premium category. “I thought this was very elegant and approachable,” Constable said of the expression. In the Rye – Super Premium round Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey and St. George 2 Year Old from That Boutique­y Whisky Company won Golds.

Judges then turned their attention to American whiskeys outside of the Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and rye categories in the Other Grains flight. A duo of Golds were awarded to Texas distillery Balcones for its corn­based Baby Blue and True Blue 100 expressions – which judges agreed both deserved honourable mentions. “These were stunning,” said Kiely. “A lot of thought has clearly been put into making them.”

Last, but not least, came Moonshine & Other Un-­Aged Whiskeys. The flight yielded a Master medal for Ole Smoky Blue Flame Moonshine, which won praise for its “hot, zesty and peppery profile”. “I would love to see more of this sort of product,” said Oetinger. “I was pleasantly surprised; this is a very under­appreciated category.”

Summing up, the judges agreed that American whiskey is in rude health when it comes to quality. “The quality and diversity within the single malts made it the stand­out category,” added Oetinger. “There’s a lot of innovation going on, and the overall whiskey category seems to be on fire.”

Click through the following pages to view the results tables in full.

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