Now is the time to praise traditional straight whiskey. While we applaud the recent craft-spirit movement, we hasten to recall America’s more-than-two-century heritage in making straight whiskies of superior age with a few innovations of their own.
Maker’s Mark spiced up its Bourbon this summer, releasing the distillery’s first line extension since 1958. Maker’s 46 is a collaboration of the master distiller and cask maker. They make a Bourbon just like the original and then give it an extra finish by dipping 10 French oak staves, which have been quickly seared at high temperature, into the barrel for about 11 weeks. The supremely smooth liquor gets a zest of licorice in the bargain.
A close look at the superpremiums Booker’s, Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek (expect a single-barrel expression soon) of the Original Small Batch Bourbon Collection reveals that they are Jim Beam products. Jim Beam Black, the double-aged version of standard Beam with the big taste and the approachable price, has no such identity issue. Fred Noe, son of Booker, is the seventh-generation Beam at the still house.
Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell is the distiller’s distiller and his (along with son Eddie’s) Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10 Year Old exemplifies their craft with plenty of maple, vanilla, oak and orange peel. At 90 proof, it’s a little less forbidding than Turkey’s signature 101 strength.
Jack Daniel’s is the Bourbon everyone thinks they know. And they do,—it just isn’t Bourbon, but a close cousin called Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey. (George Dickel is similarly made.) Both are made like Bourbon, then are filtered through charcoal. Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel came from serendipity when, in the early 1990s, space utilized in warehouse attics was found to give the whiskey extra maturation.
Woodford Reserve is made in one of Kentucky’s most storied distilleries in copper-pot stills. The spirit is smooth and the taste sweet, with cherry, vanilla and caramel. Woodford periodically experiments with its Master’s Collection. The latest has a maple-wood finish.
Bulleit Bourbon, like Basil Hayden’s, is marked by a high rye content in its mash bill. The spicy jolt—prescribed by an old family recipe from the founder’s great-great-grandfather—is reminiscent of the frontier.
Heaven Hill, the last family-owned distillery in Kentucky, makes the venerable Elijah Craig Bourbon and beguiling Rittenhouse straight ryes. Our favorite is Evan Williams’ Single Barrel Vintage, another great buy. Master distiller Parker Beam, great nephew of Jim, personally picks the barrels for a new version of this 10-year-old each year.
They’ve made spirits under different names at Buffalo Trace since before the revolution, conjuring such storied whiskies as Blanton’s Single Barrel, Elmer T. Lee and George T. Stagg. Now add the Eagle Rare Single Barrel, a distinct 10-year-old at value price, with maple sugar and orange notes.