Whiskeys of the (Half) Year

Who doesn’t love a good list? (Apparently you do since you clicked on the link to this article.)  I don’t resort to lists for articles too often, but we are about midway through 2021 and that seems like a good time to share my five favorite whiskeys from the first half of the year (alphabetical by distillery name). I realize that some of the whiskeys here you may not be able to easily find.  But, maybe this gives you something different (than Blanton’s and Weller) to search for while “Bourbon hunting”.  

Buzzard’s Roost Sippin’ Whiskeys: Toasted Barrel

Buzzard’s Roost and its co-founder, Jason Brauner, is very transparent about what they are doing.  Their whiskey is three-year-old rye sourced from MGP in Lawrenceburg, IN.  While that is good whiskey, by itself it is not really that special – certainly not worth including in a whiskey of the year conversation.  The magic happens when Buzzard’s Roost puts that whiskey to rest in proprietary barrels Jason designed in conjunction with Independent Stave Company.  Over the last couple of years, Buzzard’s Roost has produced small batch, single barrel, barrel strength, and peated barrel expressions of their rye.  My favorite of the Buzzard’s Roost offerings (and one of my favorite whiskeys of 2021) is the Toasted Barrel.

Chris Zaborowski, co-owner of Westport Whiskey & Wine in Louisville, says that the nose of a great whiskey should “seduce you”.  The aroma of this Toasted Barrel definitely has seductive powers and that is one of the things I love about it.  I get notes of citrus, cherry, mint, vanilla, and caramel on the nose of this whiskey and the palate offers much of the same.  You can find more information on this whiskey in my article here.

Right now Buzzard’s Roost is only available in Kentucky and Massachusetts.  However, they are looking to branch out into five more states in 2021 and even more next year.  So, be on the lookout for Buzzard’s Roost in your area. 

Kentucky Peerless Distilling: “Burnt Ends” Bourbon

When Corky Taylor revived the Kentucky Peerless Distillery it was their rye that first brought the brand back to the whiskey world. A couple of years later Peerless introduced its Bourbon, which I actually prefer over the rye for both flavor and price point.

One Peerless private-selection bourbon that I have particularly enjoyed this year is a pick from Justins’ House of Bourbon called “Burnt Ends”.  It is brisket in a bottle: smoky and fat with flavor.  Drink it neat and drink it with discipline.  One could easily follow one pour with another while sitting on one’s deck on a summer evening.  Not that this would be something I know from personal experience or anything.

Caleb Kilburn (master distiller) has elevated the Peerless Bourbon into great form as evidenced by being named 2021 “Best Kentucky Bourbon” by the World Whiskey Awards.  While this specific bottle may not be available to you, John Waddell, single barrel curator at Peerless, has the private selection program on a roll.  So, look for a single barrel selection in a store or bar near you.

Limestone Branch: Yellowstone Single Barrels

One thing that I’ve found to be completely reliable in 2021 is Yellowstone single barrels.  I have owned a few bottles and I’ve sampled a few others.  As sure as you’ll hear “Freebird” at a Skynyrd concert, you can count on these Yellowstone single barrels to be fantastic. 

The ones I have tried all hit similar spots on a flavor wheel, but each bottle is still unique (which we should expect to be the nature of a single barrel).  One may be fruitier.  The next might be sweeter.  Another might have more baking spice.  I enjoy them all, but it’s the subtle differences from bottle to bottle that make each interesting on its own.  Master Distiller Stephen Beam is certainly producing some of the best whiskey in the state of Kentucky right now and Stephen Fante, the distillery’s charismatic and passionate brand ambassador, is carrying the “good news” of Limestone Branch to the Bourbon masses. 

These single barrels are available as private selections in bars or liquor stores and in the Limestone Branch gift shop.  Buy with confidence when you get the opportunity to do so.  I am certain you’ll be impressed.

Spirits of French Lick: Lee W. Sinclair 4-Grain Bourbon (Iconoclast release)

I had dubbed this distillery-only “Iconoclast” release as “Whiskey of the Year” when I first tried it…in January.  While the first month of the year may be a bit early to hand out such titles, that’s just how much I loved it.  I’ve tasted a wide variety of whiskey since then – big distillery labels, craft whiskeys and brands in between – and none of them has knocked Iconoclast off that mountain, yet. 

The Iconoclast release is a three-barrel “off profile” batch of Lee W. Sinclair at barrel proof.  This Bourbon brings flavors of cherry, French toast, vanilla and cream.  It is decadent.  You can find more about what has been going with lead distiller Alan Bishop and Spirits of French Lick in this article here.

Iconoclast may have come and gone, but “The Alchemist”, as Bishop is called, is a man who burns with a restless flame and that means there is always something innovative and delicious in the works.  If distribution of SOFL hasn’t reached your market yet, be sure to check out Seelbach’s as they carry many of their products.

Stumpy’s Spirits: Old Monroe Small Batch Bourbon

Adam Stumpf is a genius. 

He also happens to be the maker of outstanding whiskeys.  The “genius” part certainly plays into the “outstanding whiskeys” part as he has some unique mashbills, methodologies and machinery involved in his distillation processes.  Adam is also not afraid to shake things up even if that means taking a good thing and changing it to make something better.

Case in point is adding small batch offerings to the Stumpy’s lineup this year.   Previously, all whiskey releases were single barrels.  Some “Single Barrel Select” at 90 proof and some “Distiller’s Select” at barrel strength.  Both “select” offerings were very popular, so why change anything at all?  Well, Adam saw an opportunity to improve the overall lineup at Stumpy’s and make a good thing even better.

It comes as no surprise that the Stumpy’s small batch products are stellar.  I’ve had the opportunity to try a few of these and they are all up to the level of quality that Stumpy’s fans have come to expect.  My favorite is batch #21C1.  It has an excellent balance of fresh baked bread, vanilla and caramel corn.  There is also a touch of smoked malt in the mashbill and that smolders in late on the palate. 

Finding Stumpy’s will start to become easier as their distribution is set to expand to several more states beyond Illinois and Missouri.  Of course, a trip to visit Adam and his team in the St. Louis suburb of Columbia, IL is always a great way to find the latest selections available.  

Overall, it’s been a good first six months of 2021 for whiskey.  The Lee W. Sinclair Iconoclast is still my “Whiskey of the (Half) Year”, but each Bourbon or rye I’ve listed is special and worthy of your interest.  The last half of the year will surely bring some fantastic bottles, too.  I’ll look forward to seeing how this list changes by the end of the year.

Buzzard’s Roost: Soaring Higher

When Jason Brauner, owner of the iconic Bourbons Bistro restaurant in Louisville, decided to start his own whiskey brand his goal was to create a “sippable” rye.  Jason was never much of a fan of rye whiskey, so he saw this as a true challenge.  The acceptance of this challenge was when Buzzard’s Roost Sippin’ Whiskeys first took flight.  (More on the formation of Buzzard’s Roost and their earlier releases can be found in an article I wrote for the ABV Network here).

In only a couple of years, Buzzard’s Roost had developed a reputation of creating some very unique flavor profiles out of three-year old MGP rye.  That has not happened by happy accident, but by careful consideration and research that Jason has done in concert with famed cooperage, Independent Stave Company.  “Through experimentation and chemical analysis of the barrels we can determine what flavor profiles we are likely to get from each barrel type”, Jason explained. 

The first several releases of Buzzard’s Roost were all from barrels with a #1 char and varying degrees of toast.  That all changed, however, with the introduction of the Toasted Barrel and Peated Barrel expressions.

Buzzard’s Roost Toasted Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey

The toasted barrel rye, bottled at 105-proof, was released in late 2020/early 2021.  It is a three-year rye sourced from MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana with a mash bill of 95% rye and 5% malted barley.  Once in the hands of Buzzard’s Roost, the whiskey is placed for six to ten weeks in a toasted barrel without char.  Forgoing the char allows the rye to have more interaction with the toast of the barrel without having to filter through that layer of char.

Nose: The nose on this whiskey is fascinating.  To me, it comes in waves.  One moment it is citrus and cherry.  The next it is mint and vanilla.  Then caramel and the rye grain.  Then a combination of cherry or vanilla or caramel or…you get the idea.  Spend some time enjoying the aromas on this one.  I love a whiskey that requires discipline to take the first sip because the nose on it is so good.  It is difficult to believe all this started from a 3-year-old MGP rye. 

Taste: Many of the same notes from the nose are present on the palate: rye grain, caramel, cherry and mint.  Some pepper and oak are introduced here, too.

Finish: This has a nice oily finish that settles in for a spell.  The pepper and oak along with lingering caramel are the most prominent notes on the finish.

We are in a whiskey world that chases trends and one of the current trends is toasted barrel releases.  Many distilleries are rushing out toasted barrel products as quickly as they can.  I find some of them to be very clumsy efforts that make the toasted barrel offering feel more like a gimmick than a worthwhile new expression of their whiskey.  Not so here with Buzzard’s Roost.  Jason and his team have brought us a toasted barrel rye with thoughtfulness and finesse.  This rye has earned Buzzard’s Roost a well-deserved double gold award from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.   Unfortunately, it is rapidly disappearing from shelves now.  So, grab one if you see it. Take heart, however. Jason says a new toasted barrel release will be available this fall.

Buzzard’s Roost Peated Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey

At first glance, one thing I appreciate about the peated barrel bottle is the new and improved Buzzard’s Roost label.  The label includes a batch number (this is optimistically numbered batch “0001”) and a bottle count (I have bottle 618 of 800).  This is a great improvement as it was impossible to tell the difference between the single barrel or very small batch bottles from 2019 or 2020.  So, thank you for that label enhancement, Buzzard’s Roost.

Like previous Buzzard’s Roost whiskeys (other than barrel strength) the peated barrel is at 105-proof.  Unlike previous Buzzard’s Roost whiskeys, this one uses four-year MGP rye.  Another difference – obvious by the name – is the use of peat.  Imported from Scotland, the peat is smoked into lightly-charred and toasted barrels by Buzzard’s Roost.  The whiskey is then aged in those peated barrels for several weeks producing what Jason calls “a Scotch drinker’s rye”.

Nose: This is earthy, musty and leathery on the nose.  It has some vanilla, but it is almost vanilla with an attitude in the way it mingles with the other aromas.  The dill that is common to many young MGP ryes is also subtly present.

Taste: Bacon fat and smokehouse smokiness (which reminds me of the 113.4-proof barrel strength Buzzard’s Roost from last year) are delicious first impressions on the palate.  There’s some butterscotch in there for something sweet.  And there is, of course, the smoke from the peat.  The peat influence is not obnoxious by any means (as some Scotches are to me).  Rather, it is a fun complement to the smokehouse smokiness. 

Finish: There is a nice blend of smokes (smokehouse and peat), along with pepper, oak and that bacon fat keeps your attention, too.

When Jason first mentioned to me Buzzard’s Roost was doing a peated barrel rye, I was both surprised and skeptical.  Surprised, because I knew Jason was not a big fan of Scotch.  Skeptical, because I’m not a big fan of Scotch, either!  

What Buzzard’s Roost has managed to do, in my opinion, is marry an “American” version of smoke (smokehouse) with traditional Scotch smoke (peat).  It is a very unique and flavorful whiskey that has cured me from any skepticism of future ambitious endeavors by Buzzard’s Roost. If Jason and Judith Hollis Jones, Buzzard’s Roost CEO, say they are going to do something, then I’ll believe they can make it happen and will anxiously wait to try the result of what they’ve envisioned.

Speaking of future ambitious endeavors…in addition to periodic barrel strength, single barrel and even private selection releases, the next big project for Buzzard’s Roost is a tobacco-smoked barrel rye.  I’ll look forward to what cigar Mike Veach suggests pairing with a tobacco-smoked rye!

Buzzard’s Roost is available in Kentucky and, of all places, Massachusetts.  Jason says some distributors there got a bottle and fell in love with it and have started getting it in stores.  The goal for the brand is to add five more states by the end of 2021.

“We will also be looking to bring in more investors later in 2021 to help us move more quickly to the next level”, Jason said.  So, if you are interested in that kind of investment opportunity, Judith and Jason are ready to talk.

If you just want to stay current on all that’s going on at Buzzard’s Roost, follow them on Facebook or sign-up for their newsletter at their website

You can also see Jason live on My Whiskey Den on Monday, June 21 at 9:00 PM eastern time.  (Click here to access the show on YouTube.)  It is certain to be a great time as Patrick, Mike and Ben ask questions like a whiskey fan would and interact with their audience non-stop through the live chat. Plus, Jason, is very knowledgeable and is one of the best storytellers in the whiskey community. If you are intrigued at all about Buzzard’s Roost, make plans to tune in.