Monday, April 6, 2015
Ranking the American Distilleries
There are twelve major American whiskey distilleries in the United States. We all know them and drink their whiskey, but how do they compare? This is how I would rank them in order from best to worst, taking into account all of their whiskey products.
1. Four Roses. Compared to many distilleries, Four Roses doesn't have many labels. There are just three standard bottlings (Yellow Label, Small Batch and Single Barrel) and now that they have discontinued the Single Barrel Limited Edition, just one special release (the Small Batch Limited Edition), but for the last few years, they have been operating at an extremely high level. The standard bottlings, especially the Single Barrel, are very good. The Limited Edition Small Batch has probably been the best bourbon of the year for the last three years, and it's shocking how many amazing bottles I've tasted from their private bottle program which allows retailers to choose a single barrel of one of their ten recipes. For me, it's hard to quibble with the fact that Four Roses is currently the best bourbon distillery out there.
2. Heaven Hill. It's a virtual tie between Heaven Hill and third ranked Buffalo Trace. Both of these distilleries have seen a bit of decline over the past few years. The last three years of the annual Parker's Heritage Collection release have been disappointing compared to some of the earlier ones, and the disappearance of Elijah Craig 18 in exchange for slightly older and much more expensive expressions makes me sad, but Elijah Craig 12 is still one of the best easily available bourbons out there, and the barrel proof version is fantastic, probably one of the best new regular release bourbons of the past few years. Add to that Rittenhouse Rye, the standard Evan Williams, which is one of the top budget bourbons (though I'm not a fan of the very popular Evan Williams Single Barrel), and some very good private bottlings of Henry McKenna, and despite some slippage, Heaven Hill is still a top contender.
3. Buffalo Trace. Five years ago, there is no doubt that Buffalo Trace would have ranked at the top of this list. Since then, their star has faded a bit while Four Roses has simultaneously brightened. The last few years of the Antique Collection that I've sampled (which does not include 2014) have not lived up to past releases, but they still make plenty of great whiskey. Even ignoring Van Winkle and the BTAC, which are now so hard to get as to be irrelevant, Blanton's, Sazerac Rye, Weller 12, EH Taylor, the Experimental Collection, Eagle Rare and the standard Buffalo Trace are all solid choices. Yes, even the run of the mill bottlings seem to go through shortages, but it's hard to blame the distillery for that.
4. MGP. MGP (Midwest Grain Products) is unique in that it's the only major whiskey distillery in America that doesn't sell its own whiskey (save for one very small release). Despite that fact, there is tons of it on the market. Their 95% rye whiskey has become so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget how good it can be, and how unique it was when it first came out in a world of 51% ryes. Bulleit Rye has become a bar staple based on the strength of that recipe. And while we all make fun of the fakers and schemers who carelessly bottle MGP whiskey, let's not forget all the great MGP bourbon and rye that goes into various bottlings of excellent whiskey from High West, Smooth Ambler, Willett and others. MGP deserves a seat at the table whenever we talk about the great American distilleries.
5. George Dickel. Diageo's Tennessee distillery is another one that has been upping its game in the last few years. The No. 12 has always been a go to for me with its unique mineral and plywood notes, but the recent retailer program bringing us 9 and 14 year old versions has put some great aged whiskey on the market. Dickel is definitely the best whiskey coming out of Tennessee.
6. Maker's Mark. Another distillery that has improved in the last few years, Beam Suntory's Maker's Mark used to make only one bourbon for domestic consumption, and it was just okay. Now they have three, having expanded first with Maker's 46, which is a bit better than the standard, and then with the cask strength Maker's Mark which does seem to have some bottle variation, but the best of which are very good. This is one distillery that seems to be going in the right direction.
7. Barton 1792. Sazerac owned Barton 1792's premium brand is 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, a bourbon I find to be chronically overrated. The real feather in their cap, though, was always Very Old Barton 100 proof, a six year old bourbon that delivered great flavor for around $13. The only problem with it is that it's not widely available and that they recently removed the six year age statement. They probably should be tied with Maker's for overall quality, but I bumped them down a peg for removing age statements while Maker's is adding proof.
8. Wild Turkey. Probably the biggest disappointment on the list is the once great Wild Turkey. A decade ago, Wild Turkey would have been near the top of the list with 101 Rye, Russel's Reserve 10 year 101 and American Spirit, but they now seem to be running on fumes. They do put out high proof, aged whiskeys, but they have more heat than flavor, and their recent releases, Forgiven and Diamond Anniversary, have been flops. The Turkey's fall from grace probably saddens me more than anything on this list.
9. Jim Beam. Now we get to the distilleries I just don't like all that much. Of my four least favorite distilleries, Beam at least makes some things I can drink. Baker's is pretty good; Booker's is not bad (though how many variations on it do we really need?); Old Grand-Dad 114 used to be wonderful, but bottles I've had recently have been just okay...and that's about it. Their ryes are terrible and I don't have much use for the rest of their overly sweet lineup.
10. Jack Daniel's. Speaking of overly sweet, hey, it's Jack Daniel's. I know the Single Barrel has its fans, but I just never had a Jack (well, a modern Jack) that I had anything good to say about.
11. Brown Forman. Old Forester and Early Times are swill. I don't even like the Birthday Bourbon which flies off the shelf like kombucha at a hipster convention. Their saving grace used to be that they made the excellent Rittenhouse Rye for Heaven Hill, but Heaven Hill has since taken production back in-house, leaving this distillery with no redeeming qualities.
12. Woodford Reserve. Last place is reserved for the metallic, medicinal pot still whiskey from Brown Forman owned Woodford Reserve. There's a reason that even in a world where Diageo Orphan Barrels are treated as a status symbol, Woodford Reserve Master's Collection bottles seem to have a permanent home on liquor store shelves. It's true, I thought their new rye was decent (though who knows if any of it was actually distilled at Woodford), but the rest of the lineup is so terrible that an okay rye doesn't do much to save them.
Alright, I've had my say, what would your ranking be?