Bardstown Bourbon Co.’s Discovery Series is an ultra-premium line featuring sourced whiskeys of various ages and mash bills. The second release is composed of 10-, 12-, and 14-year bourbons (undisclosed origins), each distilled in Kentucky with rye as the secondary grain.
Pour: Bardstown Bourbon Co. Discovery Series No. 2
Age: 10 years
Color: rich copper
Nose: salted caramel, honey-roasted nuts, dark citrus
Taste: brown sugar, charred oak, baked cinnamon
Finish: moderately long – vanilla spice, cola, clove gum
Overall: A robust, well-rounded, satisfying pour. While not unlike other bourbons in its class, Bardstown’s Discovery No. 2 brings its share to the table. The sole negative is its $130 price. Quite an expense considering similarly aged options.
Rating: Hefty pour, hefty price.
Fall 2020 saw the second entry in the Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series, SE4 x PR5. Curiously, it didn’t receive the level of hype typically associated with annual limited-edition bourbons. A great thing for Maker’s fans, as perception in the bourbon world is seldom 20/20.
Pour: Maker’s Mark SE4 x PR5
Age: not stated
Nose: maple syrup, semisweet chocolate, holiday citrus
Taste: creamy caramel, heavily toasted oak, orange cola
Finish: long & flavorful – vanilla extract, cinnamon, hazelnut coffee
Overall: An ambrosial delight of subtly exotic complexity. For $60, it doesn’t get much better than Maker’s Mark SE4 x PR5. To those that passed this impressive whiskey by, I leave you with the immortal words of Ms. Vivian Ward, “Big mistake. Big. Huge.”
Rating: Slept-on hit.
My experience with toasted-oak whiskey is rather limited, but generally speaking I’m not the biggest fan. I am, however, a fan of staying open minded. So, when I saw Elijah Craig’s latest special release, a straight bourbon touting a toasted-barrel finish, I rolled the dice.
Pour: Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Bourbon
Age: at least 4 years
Color: rosy copper
Nose: French toast, densely sweet oak, ripe plum
Taste: roasted marshmallow, brown sugar, caramel chews
Finish: moderate length – vanilla bean, tobacco, black licorice
Overall: Look, I’ll admit, this bourbon isn’t for everyone. But, for those seeking a uniquely sweet and dessert-like whiskey without a cloying or artificial quality, Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Bourbon is right up your alley. For $50, I’m satisfied.
Rating: Sweet success.
Michter’s is a bourbon enigma. It’s reported their whiskey is contract distilled by Brown-Forman, though their well-aged and coveted limited edition stocks are surely sourced. Yet, they leverage their brand on “pre-Revolutionary War quality standards dating back to 1753.” Hmm.
Anyhow, there’s a rabbit hole to descend with that tale, but I’d rather not. Instead, I’ll focus on Michter’s Small Batch Bourbon. You know the one – the bottle you always find on shelves but never get around to buying. I’ll proudly take the bullet – eh – musket ball, for you.
Pour: Michter’s Small Batch Bourbon (batch 20H1957)
Age: at least 4 years
Nose: vanilla creme, orange peel, hints of evergreen
Taste: caramel apple, sweet oak, citrus herbal tea
Finish: moderate length – vanilla icing, nutmeg, faint ginger
Overall: Well, it’s bourbon. Nothing much to rant or rave about. Strangely, Michter’s Small Batch reminds me of a “proofed up” Four Roses Yellow Label (and not at all like Brown-Forman). In a nutshell, core bourbon notes laced with citrus and faint evergreen.
In 2019, former Four Roses master distiller and Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame inductee, Jim Rutledge, revived the classic Cream of Kentucky brand. Today, I’m tasting the fourth release in that modern revival, a 13-year small batch bourbon reportedly sourced from Barton.
Pour: Cream of Kentucky (Batch 4)
Age: 13 years
Color: dark honey
Nose: charred banana, vanilla pudding, damp oak
Taste: Cadbury Creme Egg, butter toffee, boozy orange
Finish: moderate length – toasted caramel, baked cinnamon, leather
Overall: Signature mature Barton in virtually every way – woody banana and thick vanilla creme laced with dark citrus and baked spice. Cream of Kentucky batch 4 is robust and full-bodied, not to mention a significant improvement over the 12.3-year batch 3.
Rating: Doubly rich.
Bottle courtesy of J. W. Rutledge.
In 2020, Sazerac announced their acquisition of the Early Times brand. That considered, I figured the sooner the better on a review of the in-the-know popular Brown-Forman distilled Kentucky straight bourbon. Coming soon to a Pappy halo near you, Early Times Bottled in Bond.
Pour: Early Times Bottled in Bond
Age: at least 4 years
Nose: toasted banana, vanilla extract, nutmeg
Taste: caramel syrup, sweet oak, brown sugar
Finish: moderately long – burnt toffee, licorice, leather
Overall: This is good. Not just good for the money ($20/liter) but good, period. Most non-age-stated bonded bourbons taste their required four years. This one is an exception. Early Times Bottled in Bond is rich, flavorful, and surprisingly grown-up in profile.
Having reviewed Knob Creek 12 and 15, it seemed only appropriate to review the affordable and widely available 9-year expression. If it weren’t for Wild Turkey 101, Knob Creek might just be my table bourbon. But then, I’m spoiling this review. Let’s do this right.
Pour: Knob Creek 9 Year
Age: 9 years
Color: rich amber
Nose: nutty toffee, vanilla, sweet citrus
Taste: brown sugar, zesty oak, baking spice
Finish: moderate length – caramel, nutmeg, mild pepper
Overall: I don’t just like Knob Creek, I love it. It’s not going to win major awards or destroy competition twice its price, but it doesn’t need to. This is the profile an everyday bourbon should be. No youth, no tannins, just 100-proof, $30 goodness.
Rating: A modern classic.
2020 was a banner year for Knob Creek bourbon. Its original 9-year age statement returned, a reasonably priced 15-year limited edition was released, and a new 12-year expression was introduced. Having just reviewed the 15-year, I thought I’d give the 12-year a go.
Pour: Knob Creek 12 Year
Age: 12 years
Color: dense copper
Nose: honey-roasted peanuts, maple, orange tea
Taste: caramel-apple, brown sugar, baked cinnamon
Finish: moderately long – dark fruit, sweet charred oak, autumn spice
Overall: Possibly the most well-balanced Knob Creek expression I’ve tasted. While there’s maturity, there’s an equally present fruitiness not commonly found in Knob Creek Single Barrel selections of similar age. For $60, Knob Creek 12 is a winner.
Rating: Right on the money.
The best thing about Knob Creek limited edition releases is they’re relatively easy to find. 2020’s Knob Creek 15 was no exception. For $100 one could – and still can – purchase a 100-proof, 15-year Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey (sans sourced whiskey mystery bullshit).
Pour: Knob Creek 15 Year
Age: 15 years
Color: dense copper
Nose: woody cherry, fragrant oak, Coca-Cola Classic
Taste: earthy vanilla, chewing tobacco, sweet sassafras
Finish: moderately long – singed plum, clove gum, leather
Overall: I can’t help but compare Knob Creek 15 to the slightly younger but cheaper Knob Creek 12. While I generally prefer the 12-year’s profile, I remain impressed with the 15-year’s surprising elegance. This is well-aged bourbon done right.
Rating: Mature, meticulous.
Bardstown Bourbon Co. have made a name for themselves in the last few years. Having tried several of their sourced and finished expressions, as well as their distillate and two-year maturate, I can attest to their quality. But what about a blend of both worlds? Enter Fusion.
Pour: Bardstown Bourbon Co. Fusion Series No. 2
Age: 34 months (2-12-year KSBW)
Color: rich amber
Nose: Vanilla Tootsie Roll, roasted almonds, orange peel
Taste: light caramel, melted butter, mild spice
Finish: moderately short – toasted oak, nutty toffee, citrus
Overall: I’m torn with this bourbon. There’s a part of me that genuinely appreciates the experimentation aspect – a blend of young and old, distilled and sourced. But then, there’s nothing unique or noteworthy happening to justify Fusion’s $60 price.
Rating: Getting there.
I’ve been a fan of New Riff’s bourbon for some time now. What they can do in a handful of years is remarkable. Until today, I’ve yet to experience their straight rye whiskey, and I’m doing so with their single-barrel expression, bottled NCF at full barrel proof. Cue the riff!
Pour: New Riff Single Barrel KY Straight Rye Whiskey 16-2074
Age: 4 years
Nose: apple, honey-butter, lemon zest, floral spice
Taste: cake frosting, lemon-lime soda, hints of ginger
Finish: moderately long – toffee drizzle, peppery oak, faint leather
Overall: A zesty, enjoyable Kentucky rye. While there’s a trace of youth here, it’s not at all distracting. In fact, I’d argue the vibrancy enhances its character. New Riff Single Barrel Rye is flavorful, sips its proof, and as such, gets my recommendation.
Benchmark is one of two brands acquired by Sazerac from Seagram’s in the 1980s (the other being Eagle Rare). Today, it’s distilled by Buffalo Trace and is commonly found for less than $10 in liquor stores nationwide. Sounds like a deal, right? Don’t get your hopes up just yet.
Pour: Benchmark “Old No. 8” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Age: 36 months
Nose: margarine, strawberry Greek yogurt, apple juice
Taste: canned corn, sour pears, pasteboard
Finish: not short enough – Lemon Pledge, sadness
Overall: Rarely can I not finish a bourbon. Benchmark is one such pour. Yes, it’s labeled “Kentucky straight,” but three years in oak just doesn’t cut it here. It’s thin, youthful, oddly sour, and unpleasant. If this is a benchmark of whiskey, I’m Tom Handy.
Rating: Gag Jr.