The American Whiskey Masters 2023 results
The American whiskey sector is one of strength and resilience, and its brands are increasingly popular overseas. Our annual taste test showed the depth of choice that consumers can enjoy from the category.
Over the past two decades, US spirits exports have almost quadrupled. Data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the US (Discus) showed the value of spirits shipped overseas rose from US$551 million in 2002 to US$2.1 billion in 2022, when 42 states exported abroad.
More than half of those sales came from American whiskey, which accounted for 62% of spirits exports last year – equal to US$1.3bn. However, this figure remains below pre-pandemic levels due to ongoing punitive tariffs that continue to hinder American whiskey’s sales.
Nevertheless, the category appears to be in rude health – and this year’s American Whiskey Masters proved there is an abundance of quality products on the market to keep whiskey fans happy.
Army of judges
A small army of judges were summoned to taste the entries, which spanned everything from Bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys to rye-based expressions and single malts. Held at Merchant House in London, the first panel comprised: Alan Uresti, head of mixology at Annabel’s Mayfair, London; Nuno Fecha, head bartender at Merchant House; and Melita Kiely, editor of The Spirits Business, and chair of The Global Masters Competitions (GSMC), who chaired the group.
A second team consisted of Nicola Carruthers, deputy editor of The Spirits Business, spirits educator Antony Moss, and Claire Filer, of Ginesthesia.
Evan Prousaefs, head bartender at London’s Sexy Fish, led a panel that included Mark Jennings, marketer and whisky writer, and Nick Larsson-Bell, senior buyer – spirits and beer at Harvey Nichols.
Toshio Ueno, vice-president and executive instructor at Sake School of America, formed a panel with Joyce Chou, WSET translation project manager, and Marie Cheong Thong, food-and-beverage educator, who chaired the group.
Tobias Gorn, co-founder and senior partner at the International Drinks Specialists, chaired a fifth panel. Judging alongside him were Dan Greifer, manager of Spitalfields’ The Proofing Room, and Ruchira Neotia, drinks-experience consultant for Darjeeling Express in London.
Matt Chambers, whisky and spirits writer, and co-founder of the Whisky For Everyone blog, chaired a team consisting of: whisky specialist Renata Ma, of Grain & Glass; and Herchelle Perez Terrado, founder of Drinks Partnership.
The final team was made up of David T Smith, spirits writer, consultant and co-founder of the Craft Distilling Expo, who chaired Keegan Menezes, independent rum consultant, and Julia Nourney, independent spirits consultant.
It didn’t take long at all to discover the first Master medallist of the day – 1792 Small Batch. The Sazerac-owned bottling collected the top award in the opening Bourbon – Premium flight, which looked at Bourbons priced up to £30 (US$39). The judges noted “classic” nutty notes of “peanut butter brittle” to accompany its “very fruity” aroma of “ripe banana and pear skin”.
Two Gold medals – Bowman Brothers Small Batch and Four Roses Bourbon – left the judges impressed by the standard available at this price point. Smith enthused: “Absolutely superb. How great that there is such a range of styles available for less than £30.”
A larger flight of super-premium Bourbons, ranging in price from £31 to £50, followed – delivering equally, if not even more impressive results. Twelve Gold medals were dished out in this round, but it was the two Master winners that really shone.
Both Master awards were snapped up by Sazerac, one for WL Weller Single Barrel, and a second for WL Weller Full Proof.
The Single Barrel Bourbon offered “caramelised, roasted nuts” on the nose, leading to “almond, coconut, complexity and richness” on the palate. “Big, bold with long-lasting flavour – would be great with a mixer,” said Cheong Thong.
The Full Proof bottling was described as having notes akin to “ginger, apple, caramel”, leading to a “long finish, very good aftertaste, and very rich texture”.
Gold winners included Tincup 10 Years Old, found to have notes of “almond, vanilla, and leather”. Wilderness Trail Bourbon – High Rye also received a Gold award for its flavours of “maple syrup and toasted nuts”.
Yet more success for ultra-premium Bourbons followed in the next heat, where expressions priced at £51 and above were put through their paces. Adding to the Master medal tally were Eagle Rare 17 Years Old, and William Larue Weller. Eagle Rare 17 Years Old delivered a “nice malty aroma with sweet coffee notes”, leading to a “silky texture with a touch of heat and spice”. William Larue Weller was enjoyed for its “well-balanced higher ABV of 62.35%, complemented by caramel sweetness and a slight minerality”.
Among the six Gold medals in this flight was Never Say Die Barrel Strength Bourbon, which the judges said delivered a “touch of furniture polish, sticky fudge and fresh tobacco – holds water well”.
Proving age is just a number was the Bourbon – No Age Statement heat, where another trio of Master winners upheld the high standard enjoyed up to this point. Old Emmer Cask Strength was one of the Master recipients. Smith discovered notes of “buttercream, toffee, banana and banoffee” on the nose, with a “good integration of alcohol and butteriness” on the palate.
EH Taylor Barrel Proof also secured a Master medal, as did its stablemate EH Taylor Single Barrel.
Barrel Proof was hailed for being “rich, sweet and fruity”, while Single Barrel was praised for flavours of “buttery caramelised sweetcorn, spiced caramel and toasted spiced oak”.
Thirteen Gold medals were also awarded in this strong flight, including to Bondstone Cask Strength, described as having “lovely rich, wine-like notes with some fruitiness”.
McFarlane’s Reserve Select also secured a Gold award, enjoyed for its “sweet and spicy nose” and “hints of cinnamon and sweetness” on the palate.
Moss said about the overall flight: “A very solid level of quality throughout, very true to style. There was really prominent oak use; they were assertive. None of them felt underaged or inadequately aged.”
Filer liked that the entrants showcased the “distinctive character of Bourbon. A solid round – everything was clearly indicative of style, true to the style and raw materials.”
The Bourbon entrants aged up to seven years old also left a lasting impression on the judges, achieving two Master awards, five Golds and one Silver. Durant & Booth Kentucky Bourbon secured the top Master award for being “expressive with a well-composed balance between orange zest and sweet pecan notes – great”.
Meanwhile, Master-winning 291 E Colorado Whiskey Batch #11 was celebrated for being “super expressive” on the nose, before the palate brought “hardcore corn, lots of toffee, caramel and stone fruit influence”.
Four solid Golds were celebrated in the Bourbon – Aged over 8 Years contingent, which included a Gold medal for Arizona Bottled In Bond Bourbon. The whiskey was found to be “mature, complex and flavourful”. Eagle Rare 10 Years Old also picked up a Gold medal for its “full body and complex” profile.
With Bourbon done and dusted, the judges turned their attention to Tennessee – Super Premium, ranging from £31 to £50. Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey won two Gold medals in this flight, including one for 1884 Small Batch Whiskey. “Extra sweetness and peppery notes on the nose, with sweetness on the palate and lingering finish,” the judges said.
In the ultra-premium flight, comprising Tennessee whiskeys priced at £51 and above, Leiper’s Fork Tennessee Whiskey won a Gold medal. “Full-bodied, muscular and spicy,” enthused the judges.
Proximo Spirits picked up two Gold medals in the Single Malt – Super Premium heat, for bottles priced between £41 and £60. Stranahan’s Sherry Cask collected a Gold medal for its “heavy aromas of fresh American oak, vanilla and spices”. Gold-winning Stranahan’s Original also secured a Gold award for its “chocolatey” profile, “elegance, bold flavours and long finish”.
Stranahan’s Diamond Peak collected a Master medal in the ultra-premium single malt heat, impressing the judges with its “remarkable” nose and “elegant, full-bodied, spicy and lengthy” palate.
As the single malt age statements were put to the taste test, Luxco won a Gold medal for Yellowstone American Single Malt in the Single Malt – Aged up to 7 Years round. The judges enjoyed the whiskey’s “beautiful notes of orchard fruits and cereal”.
In the final single malt round, for no age statements, Stranahan’s took another Gold medal, for Stranahan’s Blue Peak, which the judges described as “sweet and spicy”. Virginia Distillery Company took three Gold medals, for: “grassy, complex” Courage & Conviction American Single Malt; “very fruity and rich” Courage & Conviction Double Cask Reserve; and “big, robust” Courage & Conviction Sherry Single Cask Whisky.
Up next came another burgeoning style of American whiskey: rye. In the Rye – Super Premium bracket (£31 to £50), JA Frey & Co’s Rye Whiskey Finished in Pinot Noir Casks collected a Gold medal. Tasting notes included: “Ground pepper, vanilla and spices.”
Gold-winning Wilderness Trail Rye was also awarded a Gold medal, which shared similarities to Bourbon, according to the judges, but was also found to be “full-bodied, spicy with vanilla sweetness”.
In the top price tier of ultra-premium rye whiskeys selling for £51 or more, Sazerac secured a Master medal for Thomas H Handy. Kiely found the whiskey had a “lovely resinous quality, some furniture polish, medjool dates and sticky fudge”.
Sazerac Rye 18 Years was deemed deserving of a Gold medal for notes of “red fruits and some spice”.
In the age-statement portion of the rye segment, Fame & Misfortune Cask Strength Rye received a Master medal in the Rye – Aged up to 7 Years heat. Tasting notes included “deep herbal rye bread notes – deep, rich and mysterious”. The flight received a boost from six Gold medallists, including Reinheart Rye Whiskey, with notes of “baked pecan pie and maple syrup”.
Ma noted: “I loved this category, with some flavoursome whiskeys – so good, and great to see such good quality with plenty of dark coffee flavours.”
Perez Terrado added: “A hugely consistent flavour profile across the board. They were good examples with nothing too funky or experimental; very accessible styles.”
As the experts moved to Rye – Aged up to 8 Years, another Gold was discovered in Prosperous & Penniless Rye Whiskey. The whiskey delivered “a lot of chocolate with notes of tonka bean”.
The final rye flight, Rye – No Age Statement, brought another Master medallist to the fore: 291 All Rye 100% Rye Malt Colorado Whiskey. “A slight chocolatey aroma, rich, velvety texture, fruit, nuttiness – very unique,” Kiely’s panel noted. “Approachable and balanced” EH Taylor Straight Rye collected a Gold medal in the flight.
In the penultimate round, Other Grains, Tincup Original impressed the panellists with its “graceful” profile and “good alcohol integration”. Combined with notes of “wood and nuttiness”, these qualities resulted in a Master medal for the whiskey.
Proving that flavoured whiskeys can be done well was Ole Smoky Distillery, which took a Master in the closing round: Flavoured Whiskey. The judges agreed that Peanut Butter Whiskey was “very expressive and well made” with “peanut and heavy cocoa vibes”.
The Gold and Master standard of 2023 demonstrates the high standard American whiskey producers are holding themselves to, while spanning a gamut of styles and flavours. The exceptional quality seen in the contest made choosing an American Whiskey Taste Master all the more tricky.
However, there was one expression that stood out from the rest, and deserved the highest accolade of the day: Eagle Rare 17 Years Old. The whiskey’s “strong minerality and huge complexity” made it a firm favourite among the experts.
“Looking at this year’s results, it’s no surprise that American whiskey continues to build a positive name for itself among whisky fans and novices alike,” noted Kiely. “If this standard of production continues, there’s no limit to the success the category could have – and there is undoubtedly an eager audience of whisky lovers keen to see what American whiskey producers launch next.”
|Bourbon – Premium|
|Sazerac Company||1792 Small Batch||Master|
|Sazerac Company||Bowman Brothers Small Batch||Gold|
|Four Roses Distillery||Four Roses Bourbon||Gold|
|Bourbon – Super Premium|
|Sazerac Company||WL Weller Single Barrel||Master|
|Sazerac Company||WL Weller Full Proof||Master|
|Proximo Spirits||Tincup 10 Years Old||Gold|
|Sazerac Company||Elmer T Lee||Gold|
|Luxco||Remus Straight Bourbon Whiskey||Gold|
|Sazerac Company||WL Weller CYPB||Gold|
|JA Frey & Co Distillery||Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Pinot Noir Casks||Gold|
|Sazerac Company||1792 Full Proof||Gold|
|Campari Group||Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon||Gold|
|Campari Group||Wilderness Trail Bourbon Wheated||Gold|
|Campari Group||Wilderness Trail Bourbon – High Rye||Gold|
|Four Roses Distillery||Four Roses Small Batch||Gold|
|Four Roses Distillery||Four Roses Single Barrel||Gold|
|Bourbon – Ultra Premium|
|Sazerac Company||Eagle Rare 17 Years Old||Master & Taste Master|
|Sazerac Company||William Larue Weller||Master|
|Never Say Die||Never Say Die Small Batch Bourbon||Gold|
|Bhakta Spirits||Bhakta 2013 Bourbon||Gold|
|Never Say Die||Never Say Die Barrel Strength||Bourbon Gold|
|Sazerac Company||George T Stagg||Gold|
|Four Roses Distillery||Four Roses Small Batch Select||Gold|
|World Whiskey Society Co||Doc Holliday||Gold|
|Bourbon – No Age Statement|
|IJW Whiskey||Old Emmer Cask Strength||Master|
|Sazerac Company||EH Taylor Barrel Proof||Master|
|Sazerac Company||EH Taylor Single Barrel||Master|
|IJW Whiskey||First Call Double Oak||Gold|
|Sazerac Company||Buffalo Trace||Gold|
|Sazerac Company||WL Weller Special Reserve||Gold|
|IJW Whiskey||Bondstone Cask Strength||Gold|
|Distillery 291||291 Colorado Bourbon Whiskey, Barrel Proof Single Barrel||Gold|
|IJW Whiskey||Old Emmer||Gold|
|IJW Whiskey||Bondstone Distiller’s Select||Gold|
|Sazerac Company||EH Taylor Small Batch||Gold|
|Sazerac Company||Benchmark Bonded||Gold|
|Sazerac Company||WL Weller Antique||Gold|
|IJW Whiskey||First Call Cask Strength||Gold|
|IJW Whiskey||McFarlane’s Reserve Select||Gold|
|Bourbon – Aged up to 7 Years|
|Distillery 291||291 E Colorado Whiskey, Batch #11||Master|
|Boisset Collection||Durant & Booth Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey||Master|
|Fat Labrador Distillers||Whiskey Town, 3-Year-Old Straight Bourbon Whiskey||Gold|
|Boisset Collection||Prosperous & Penniless Bourbon Whiskey||Gold|
|Luxco||Yellowstone Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon||Gold|
|Leiper’s Fork||Leiper’s Fork Bourbon Whiskey||Gold|
|Campari Group||Wild Turkey Bourbon||Gold|
|Big Spring Distillers||Timber Craft Whiskey – Ninety-Eight –||Silver|
|Bourbon – Aged over 8 Years|
|Sazerac Company||WL Weller 12 Years Old||Gold|
|Sazerac Company||Eagle Rare 10 Years Old||Gold|
|Arizona Craft Beverage||Arizona Bottled In Bond Bourbon||Gold|
|Sazerac Company||A Smith Bowman Cask Strength||Gold|
|Tennessee – Super Premium|
|Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey||1884 Small Batch Whiskey||Gold|
|Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey||Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey||Gold|
|Tennessee – Ultra Premium|
|Leiper’s Fork Distillery||Leiper’s Fork Tennessee Whiskey||Gold|
|Single Malt – Super Premium|
|Proximo Spirits||Stranahan’s Sherry Cask||Gold|
|Proximo Spirits||Stranahan’s Original||Gold|
|Single Malt – Ultra Premium|
|Proximo Spirits||Stranahan’s Diamond Peak||Master|
|Single Malt – Aged up to 7 Years|
|Luxco||Yellowstone American Single Malt||Gold|
|Single Malt – No Age Statement|
|Proximo Spirits||Stranahan’s Blue Peak||Gold|
|Virginia Distillery Company||Courage & Conviction American Single Malt||Gold|
|Virginia Distillery Company||Courage & Conviction Double Cask Reserve||Gold|
|Virginia Distillery Company||Courage & Conviction Sherry Single Cask Whisky||Gold|
|Rye – Super Premium|
|JA Frey & Co Distillery||Rye Whiskey Finished in Pinot Noir Casks||Gold|
|Campari Group||Wilderness Trail Rye||Gold|
|Rye – Ultra Premium|
|Sazerac Company||Thomas H Handy||Master|
|Sazerac Company||Sazerac Rye 18 Years||Gold|
|Rye – Aged up to 7 Years|
|Boisset Collection||Fame & Misfortune Cask Strength Rye||Master|
|Proximo Spirits||Tincup Rye||Gold|
|Boisset Collection||Fame & Misfortune Rye finished in Cream Sherry Casks||Gold|
|Boisset Collection||Fame & Misfortune Rye finished in Port Casks||Gold|
|Boisset Collection||Fame & Misfortune Rye finished in Angelica Casks||Gold|
|Hammer & Son||Reinheart Rye Whiskey||Gold|
|Luxco||Rossville Union Master Crafted Straight Rye Whiskey Barrel Proof||Gold|
|Rye – Aged up to 8 Years|
|Boisset Collection||Prosperous & Penniless Rye Whiskey||Gold|
|Rye – No Age Statement|
|Distillery 291||291 All Rye 100% Rye Malt Colorado Whiskey||Master|
|Sazerac Company||EH Taylor Straight Rye||Gold|
|Proximo Spirits||Tincup Original||Master|
|Ole Smoky Distillery||Peanut Butter Whiskey||Master|