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.

Iconoclast in the Limelight

The year 2020 will be chiseled in our memories for many things; few of them good.  It was a year marked by a worldwide pandemic, economic upheaval, riots in American cities and extraordinary political divisiveness.  But on that good side…2020 was the Year of Spirits of French Lick.

The Year of Spirits of French Lick

It seems that everyone had plans, hopes and dreams that were delayed, down-sized or otherwise destroyed last year.  While head distiller / head alchemist Alan Bishop and the team at Spirits of French Lick didn’t get to do everything they had in the works when 2020 started, they still had a remarkably successful year.

Single Barrel Program

Despite not being able to have groups in to the distillery to do barrel picks, the single barrel program thrived at Spirits of French Lick during 2020.  “We expected single barrel sales to dry up when the pandemic hit”, said SoFL marketing director, Jolee Kasprzak.  “Instead, they tripled!”.  Single barrel offerings have primarily consisted of Lee W. Sinclair 4-Grain Bourbon and The Mattie Gladden high-rye Bourbon.  Bottles from single barrels have been released through various liquor stores scattered across the country and through on-line retailer, Seelbach’s

Label Re-Design

The heart of Spirits of French Lick is the energetic, copper-haired Jolee.  The native Californian says, “My grandparents were immigrants and they always made art a focus in our family growing up”.  She studied English, Art History and Communications in college and took a job working for Wolf Creek Brewing, a Southern California restaurant and microbrewery.  It was at Wolf Creek that she “learned how to taste”. 

Jolee and her handiwork.

After getting married, Jolee journeyed from the left coast to the Hoosier state.  Her time in Indiana saw her gaining design expertise as the director of operations for a sign company and experience in the hospitality industry through restaurant management.  From the microbrewery to the sign company to the restaurant, all of this experience shaped Jolee into the perfect fit for her role as Director of Marketing Operations at Spirits of French Lick, which she started in 2018.

Jolee’s design experience was especially useful as she led one of the biggest undertakings of 2020 for SoFL which was the complete re-design of their labels.  With several new product offerings in the pipeline, it became a priority to freshen up the appearance and feel of the brand.   “There are unique details to each label depending on the spirit in the bottle”, Jolee explained, “but the feel, the scrollwork and the font are very similar.  This gives the Spirits of French Lick lineup a distinctive look on the shelf”. 

The new labels will be submitted to design competitions this year.  Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do very well in competition as they are some of the most attractive labels on the market today.

Unpretenious

“This is, in fact, the most ‘dickish’ things I’ve done in the industry and I couldn’t be prouder of it”.  This is how Alan Bishop unveiled Unpretentious; a two-year, high-rye bourbon finished in port casks.  Alan hates the marketing behind barrel finished Bourbon, especially port finishes.  So, with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, Alan made the most pretentious whiskey he could and called it “Unpretentious”.  He also made it taste pretty darn good.  It was released in the gift shop in mid-June and sold out by early August, so the public was extremely receptive to it.  Social media buzz and Bourbon award season also showed there is a place in the market for Alan’s sense of humor, especially when it is accompanied by a great whiskey. 

Bottled-in-Bond

July saw Spirits of French Lick reach a major milestone when their first bottled-in-bond Bourbons were released.  Younger versions of Lee W. Sinclair 4-Grain Bourbon had been out for a few seasons, but in mid-July it hit the shelves as a four-year, bottled-in-bond offering.  This spirit’s name-sake, Lee Sinclair, was a successful southern Indiana businessman who bought (and rebuilt after a fire) the West Baden Springs Hotel.  Most of the whiskeys created at Spirits of French Lick are named after characters or places of historical significance to the region.  

Cast in this unlikely role of being named after a high-rye Bourbon is Mattie Gladden.  Mattie Gladden, the woman, was the local madam who is infamous for many reasons including having once been mistress to P.T. Barnum.  The Mattie Gladden, the whiskey, was released at the end of July as the second bottled-in-bond Bourbon in the SoFL line-up.  It is a high-rye Bourbon that Alan jokingly remarks “has a whore-forward profile”.  I’m not sure what that means and I’m not sure that I want to know.  What I do know is…it is fantastic and was one of my favorite Bourbons from 2020. 

Alan Bishop Day

A shocker of an event occurred on October 20.  That is the day when on the ABV Network’s The Bourbon Daily podcast, Steve Akley randomly declared that day to be Alan Bishop Day.  In a classic “If You Know, You Know” fashion, this took on a chaotic life of its own inspiring a flurry of social media posts some of which might actually be suitable for sharing.

Fascination Street

“Oh, it’s opening time down on Fascination Street” is the first line to the Cure song that this barrel-aged absinthe was named after.  An absinthe comprised of 13 different botanicals aged for two years in a number 2 char new American oak barrel produces a unique and flavorful spirit.  Fascination Street was released in October and is available in short supply at the distillery.

Awards

As 2020 was coming to a merciful close for all of society, it was also a celebratory close for Spirits of French Lick.  Indiana Bourbon started things off by naming The Mattie Gladden as the Bourbon of the Year for 2020.  Whiskey media guy, Fred Minnick, selected Unpretentious as the second best barrel-finished whiskey for 2020 and Lee W. Sinclair as the best non-Kentucky Bourbon of 2020. 

When Steve Akley and the ABV Network announced winners of their 2020 awards, much of the hardware (if there was actual hardware) was taken by Spirits of French Lick with Alan Bishop being crowned Craft Distiller of the Year and The Mattie Gladden being anointed Best New Whiskey and Best Bourbon. 

In their year-end awards show, My Whiskey Den (Patrick Belongia, Mike Lisac and Benjamin Eaves) unanimously named their Distiller/ Distillery of the Year as Alan Bishop and Spirits of French Lick. 

Finally, Lee W. Sinclair bottled-in-bond was included in Minnick’s year-end blind tasting for his 2020 Whiskey of the Year.  LWS made a deep run and ended up remaining until the final six and beat out some of “Big Bourbon’s” biggest boys along the way. 

Iconoclast

“Several years ago a friend told me that I approached distillation like an iconoclast”, Alan recalled.  “I liked the word and it has stuck in the back of my head all this time and it seemed like a good name for this special series of whiskey”.  To save you a few clicks, an iconoclast is one who opposes settled beliefs, institutions and traditions.  If you spend much time with Alan you’ll see very quickly that he is against the run of the mill and swimming against the stream.  The moniker “iconoclast” fits him and it fits the whiskey he makes.

Spirits of French Lick christened 2021 with the maiden voyage of the Iconoclast Series (yes, there will be others).  This first release is a three-barrel batch of Lee W. Sinclair at barrel proof.  Alan explains, “These three barrels simply did not fit the Lee profile at all.  I decided to try them in a stand-alone batch and it could not have worked better.  I’ve not never put anything in a barrel I like more than this first Iconoclast release”. 

Iconoclast is a distillery-only release and when they’re gone…they’re gone.  This four-year Bourbon carries a proof of 107.9 with prominent flavors of cherry, French toast, vanilla and cream.  It is truly delicious and should not be missed. 

2021 and Beyond: Anything Can Happen

The release of Iconoclast is a strong indication that Spirits of French Lick intends to extend their “Year of…” past 2020 and into 2021.  Alan and Jolee have shared with me some of their plans for the rest of the year.  Each of these deserves being termed as “the highly-anticipated release”.

  • Valentine’s weekend: The Right Way is a rye aged in absinthe barrels.  It is available in the distillery gift shop starting Saturday, February 13.  What better way to say I love you?
  • May: April showers bring May flowers, but this May brings The Morning Glory.  This is a kasha (buckwheat) Bourbon. Respect the grain, indeed.
Rational responses / Force a change of plans / Anything can happen

  • May: This month also is the scheduled release of William Dalton.  This is a bottled-in-bond wheated Bourbon and will replace The Wheater in Spirits of French Lick’s catalog.  Dalton was the longest-serving master distiller in Indiana history, holding this role for 55 years at the Spring Mill distillery.  The Wheater was a blend of SoFL wheated Bourbon and sourced wheated Bourbon.  It was my least favorite of their whiskies, so I am looking forward to this change.  The William Dalton will be 100% Spirits of French Lick bourbon. I have tried a sample and it is quite excellent and is a much better fit in their lineup.
  • Summer: It’s hard to say “now this sounds really different” when I’ve already listed a rye aged in absinthe barrels and a kasha bourbon, but…this does sound really different.  Further evidence that anything can happen: an apple brandy aged in tequila barrels. 
  • Fall: A perfect fit for the fall months will be the release of a bottled-in-bond apple brandy.
  • Fall: A bottled-in-bond rye will hit store shelves.  It will be called Solomon Scott. Scott was a regarded distiller, bootlegger and moonshiner in pre-prohibition southern Indiana.

An overnight success thirty some-odd years in the making, the accolades of 2020 have Alan Bishop living in the limelight, so to speak.  With that attention from the Bourbon public come expectations.  The things Spirits of French Lick have in store for 2021 is quite an encore to 2020 as Alan and his team makes a tradition of defying traditions.

Raise a Glass to Neil Peart

There are drummers and then there is Neil Peart.  In many ways he broke the stereotypes for drummers and established new standards for drums in rock music.  Drummers are typically thought to be the ones in the band who blew things up (Keith Moon) or blew themselves up (if we are to believe Spinal Tap).  Peart’s personality, however, was one of an introvert who actively shunned the limelight.  Drummers are not usually thought of as being the intellectual in the group (though Levon Helm of The Band and Steve Gorman of The Black Crowes immediately come to mind as drummers who certainly were).  However, Peart defied “the norm” further by being the chief lyricist for his band, Rush, penning challenging and thought-provoking songs for more than 40 years.

A year ago today, Neil Peart died.  He had fought against an aggressive form of brain cancer for the last three of his sixty-seven years.  With his death we knew we had lost a unique mind and talent; a true one-of-a-kind. 

To remember Neil Peart today, I’ve put together three groupings of Rush songs that I think represent some of the major themes he wrote and played about over his career.  Even though Peart was a Macallan drinker, I’ve paired each grouping with a bourbon you can raise a glass of in his honor.

If you are a fan of Peart and Rush, you might agree or disagree with my list and that’s OK.  You have freewill. If you don’t like Rush, it’s an excuse to have a few pours (pass an evening with a drink and a friend) and maybe enjoy their music a little more given another chance.

Philosophy of Life / Introspection

The first theme I’m going with revolves around songs that explore philosophy of life and delve into who we are as people over time.  I’m pairing these three songs with Old Grand Dad (bottled-in-bond or 114…your call).  Being at the age of a grandfather (which I am) certainly brings a pause to reflect back on the life that’s been lived and how to best live the life that still remains. 

Time Stand Still (Hold Your Fire album): “Summer’s going fast, Nights growing colder / Children growing up, Old friends growing older / Freeze this moment a little bit longer / Make each sensation a little bit stronger.”

Dreamline (Roll the Bones): “We are young / Wandering the face of the earth / Wondering what our dreams might be worth / Learning that we’re only immortal for a limited time”

“Time is a gypsy caravan steals away in the night / To leave you stranded in dreamland / Distance is a long-range filter / Memory a flickering light / Left behind in the heartland”

Resist (Test for Echo): “I can learn to resist anything but temptation / I can learn to co-exist with anything but pain”

“You can surrender without a prayer / But never really pray / Pray without surrender”

Creativity and Growth

Much of Rush’s music and Peart’s lyrics exemplified creativity.  They also wrote and sang about being creative, exploration of ideas and growth.  For this grouping of songs I am pairing Lee W. Sinclair 4-Grain Bourbon from Spirits of French Lick.  Much of what they are doing at Spirits of French Lick under head distiller Alan Bishop embodies exploring the world of distillation and pushing the boundaries of the industry and of their own imaginations. This philosophy seems to fit much of what Rush has done especially within these themes.

One Little Victory (Vapor Trails): “The measure of the moment / In a difference of degree / Just one little victory / A spirit breaking free”

Between Sun and Moon (Counterparts): “There is a lake between sun and moon / Not too many know about / In the silence between whisper and shout / The space between wonder and doubt”

New World Man (Signals): “He’s not concerned with yesterday / He knows constant change is here today”

Boldness and Individualism

There is much of Rush’s music that can fit these themes.  The 2112 album is about an individual resisting collective thought.  I’m using Booker’s to pair with this theme.  The bourbon (select the batch of your choice) is bold and unique and the man who made it (Booker Noe) certainly was, too. 

Freewill (Permanent Waves): “You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill /
I will choose a path that’s clear, I will choose Freewill”

Headlong Flight (Clockwork Angels): “All the journeys of this great adventure / It didn’t always feel that way / I wouldn’t trade them because I made them / The best I could, and that’s enough to say”

Marathon (Power Windows): “You can do a lot in a lifetime / If you don’t burn out too fast / You can make the most of the distance / First you need endurance / First you’ve got to last”

“More than just survival / More than just a flash / More than just a dotted line / More than just a dash”.

Encore

Any show must have an encore and a Rush concert is not complete without Tom Sawyer.  And since “your mind is not for rent / to any blog or government”, as you enjoy this classic song, select the whiskey of your choice.  Your options are limitless (Maybe as his skies are wide).

Cheers to Neil: his life, his words and his music.

The treasure of a life
Is a measure of love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give / In the fullness of time
Is the only return that you expect / The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen…It’s a measure of a life

The Garden (Clockwork Angels), Neil Peart

For a Spotify playlist of the Rush songs included in this article…click here.