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?


Steffen said...

I could almost have made an identical list. I wouls place BT above HH, which you also considered. The only real disagreement (which is quite small as it's a swop between 6 and 8) is that I would swop Wild Turkey and Maker's Mark. I haven't tasted Maker's Mark Cask Strength so tht could be it :-)


sku said...

It's funny, my first draft actually had BT at 2 and HH at 3 and I went back and forth. In the end, what did it for me is I thought about if I went to a liquor store today, what would I rather buy based on the products that were actually on the shelf, and HH won out on that measure, plus I love Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, which is a bit hard to find, but not as bad as BT's better stuff.

Steffen said...

I do like KNob Creek Bourbons. To me they are more similar to Wild Turkey than the other JB products. I really do like the 120 proof version is labeled both single barrel and small batch


Steffen said...

It's a bit random what you can find on shelves in liqor stores these day I think


Canniballs33 said...

No argument against Four Roses. What continues to set them apart for me is a true single barrel program. There's no dilution and you get what you picked. Can also give a nod to Old Scout from MGP. If I am not mistaken all other single barrel programs proof down their offerings, and most are NAS (AE, RR, HMc,OWA, BT, etc.)

Alex said...

Great list! I mostly agree. I would bump Beam above Maker's Mark, but I know you're not a fan of Beam. I just don't like Makers 46; although there's no doubt it's a quality product, too much hot cinnamon for me. However I recommend standard Maker's Mark to all beginners and the cask strength is great.

I would also bump down Wild Turkey to below Jack Daniel's.

Regarding Barton, in theory I would also bump them down for keeping the "6" on the bottle even though it's not an age statement anymore. But I agree with their ultimate placement on this list.

Anonymous said...

My list is very similar, though I'd put Jack Daniels at the absolute bottom and I'd make BT #2.....but my palette couldn't agree more with yours, Sku. Four Roses is the Head Bourbon In Charge at the moment.


tanstaafl2 said...

I am curious why you choose not to include, or at least make reference to, the chameleon that is MGP. I think it would be fair to say it is a major distillery at least in terms of volume and while they don't have their own label (the primary distinction to not being included in this list?) you can't walk through a whiskey aisle and not see a wide selection of their output!

tanstaafl2 said...

My apologies! I blew right past MGP in reading the article.

Mark said...

I personally would put Beam ahead of Turkey anymore, which saddens me as well. Beam has some widely available tasty stuff - I like Knob Creek Single Barrel quite a bit (and quite a bit more than the normal KC), OGD 114 is very good especially given the price, and while there's a fair bit of variation I've found with Booker's the good ones are fantastic.

There's not much that excites me more than dusty Wild Turkey. There's also not a lot that disappoints more than current Wild Turkey. A few of their single barrel offerings can be good, but they're hardly as consistent as the Four Roses offerings.

AaronWF said...

Have you tasted any of the new products Beam has put out like their Signature Craft line, 1B or BiB? Like others, I have less use for Turkey than I do for Beam. I have found recent OGD 114 to be very good and I'm a big fan of Booker's 25th, though not of the regular Booker's releases.

I agree with putting HH in front of BT. Though the Parker's Heritage line has indeed declined, I just prefer the HH house flavor to BT and there are more opportunities to taste it at 100° and above.

Funky Tape said...

MGP is clearly #1. FR makes 3 products and MGP alone makes 5 different bourbon mashes among about 20 total alcohol products. Take all the MGP-sourced booze off the shelves of your local big box retailer and people will really think something is up with bourbon. It would be world wide trending topic: #helpsavethebourbonz

Also, how is Willett going to sell $40 bottles of finished rye for $150-200 or Angels Envy for $85 or Doug P for $200 without all that as-far-from-craft juice available by the tanker car?

But that's largely irrelevant because the market clearly has chosen BT as it's bourbon prom queen. I mean, they're clearly the best cause they have more dead guys on their labels and use wheat a lot. More wheaters, more better. And the shortages; oh the horror! Can't. Find. Anywhere.

Anonymous said...

Two comments: (1) I like Bookers so much that I would've ranked Jim Beam higher than number nine; (2) something really wrong has happened with resend bottlings of Eagle Rare 10, to the point where I would knock Buffalo Trace down a notch or two.

Anonymous said...

excellent list.
i would put jack daniel's at the bottom, though.
what do you suppose is happening with wild turkey? one would think that with jimmy and edie russel at the helm they would be competing with four roses for the top position, but they're not. i don't quite understand it as WT101 is a fantastic product. as a big fan of wild turkey i am very disappointed at what seems to be a "resting on our laurels" kind of approach. it just won't do anymore. also, on another note: evan williams single barrel 2005 is absolutely fantastic. the 03 was excellent, the 04 not so much. the 05 is the best one yet.
great post, and excellent comments.

Sam Komlenic said...

What about Bowman? I'd rank A. Smith Bowman number three right now, and they don't even exist on this list? They may not necessarily be "major" but they aren't "minor" either, and they've been around long enough to count. John J. Bowman is extraordinary and their Abraham Bowman special finishes are as creative as anyone's, if not moreso, and can be superb.

As for the rest, I might move both Wild Turkey and Brown-Forman up a notch. I think Old Forester is highly underrated.

Great subject, Sku...thanks!

Marduk said...

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit and Rare Breed were a bit of a let down last year for me.

sku said...

Thanks to everyone for the great comments.

Sam K., excellent point about Bowman. I didn't include it both because it's a bit small to be considered major, but also because given that their whiskeys are all distilled first at BT, I also considered them more part of BT than an independent operation.

Sam Komlenic said...

True enough, but their whiskeys couldn't be more different, which has always fascinated me...

Sam Komlenic said...

And hey, Buffalo Trace owns Barton, too!

Anonymous said...

" a world where Diageo Orphan Barrels are treated as a status symbol,"
You must have access to other worlds. Please enlighten us.

sku said...

Anon, not a day goes by that I don't see someone proudly posting their Orphan Barrel collection on Facebook.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Sku's first and last place rankings. I am in the minority that would knock BT down a few places and raise Beam and WT a couple of notches.

hashamaka said...

Sku, love your blog. I check in at least once a week.

I got the Four Rosess small batch limited edition this year at a lottery, and have two bottles of OESF and one of OBSV, along with their standard lineup. Love what Four Roses is putting out.

I agree with most of the rest of your rankings but...

I don't drink/ can't find old Barton 100 enough to bump 1792 distillery that high.

I love Russell's Reserve single barrel, Wild Turkey Rare Breed (I bought four bottles of the 108.2 proof, the 112.8 is garbage), and Wild Turkey 101. I agree that they have had some flops recently, but I would put them higher on the list because those are some of my go to bourbons.

Thanks for the time and expertise you put into this blog and LAWS Sku.