The best bourbons of 2022 reflect an industry-wide embrace of experimentation within the style. In a year where I found rye and other domestic whiskey styles (such as American single malts) making strong statements, bourbon was quietly trying new things.
Distillers and blenders started discussing barrel location in warehouses, terroir and even where their water was sourced. Exceptional bourbons were released outside the usual sweet spot of 8-12 years of aging (both on the younger and older sides). Wood experiments became the norm. And Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana bourbons learned to live together (blends were a big thing, too).
My only wish for 2023 is to find more great affordable bourbon that’s easily available nationwide — most of my picks below are limited edition and even more limited in distribution (at least at a fair price).
A few notes here: Most but not all of these were released during the 2022 calendar year, with one or two exceptions (if they were new to me and not well known by the general drinking public, they got consideration — this isn’t the Grammys). I included some Tennessee whiskeys because technically, they could be bourbon. And I’m certain I missed a few great bottles — that’s no slight to those craftspeople, there’s just too much whiskey.
The top 12, in no particular order:
A beguiling blend of straight bourbon whiskeys (5, 6, 7 and 10-year-old barrels) distilled and aged in TN, KY and IN, and bottled at cask strength (115.34 proof). Somehow, you’ll get everything from cherry to ginger to wasabi to brown butter, with a hint of grassiness. A typically exceptional release from a whiskey brand that’s redefined the art of blending.
Hardin’s Creek is and will be an ongoing series of annual releases, featuring “some of James B. Beam Distilling Co.’s rarest and most unique liquids.” Of the first two releases, we gravitated toward Jacob’s Well (108 proof), a blend of two ultra-aged expressions: one 16-year-old traditional bourbon and one 15-year-old high-rye bourbon. If you like extra-aged bourbons with a lot of wood character and the right amount of rye spice, this is excellent.
This is the fourth bottle in the distillery’s 117 Series (launched last year) — this one in particular honors the 7th anniversary of the fire on Whiskey Row that nearly destroyed the historic Louisville block. The bourbon comes from barrels that the Louisville Fire Department chose in 2020. There’s an unrelated bit of heat on this release, which nicely balances caramel, oak, coconut and dark fruits.
Wheel Horse whiskeys are distilled at the Green River Distillery (Owensboro Distilling Co.) in Owensboro, KY, aka the westernmost stop along the famed Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Besides racking up accolades, Wheel Horse also wins on price (roughly $35/bottle). Their 101-proof bourbon, with a mashbill of 70% corn, 21% rye and 9% malted barley, might only be aged 3-4 years, but it offers a nice mix of tropical, oak and caramel notes, with plenty of rye and wood spice (and it’s unique almost ginger-like on the finish).
The distillery’s Wood Finishing Series is a series of limited-edition bottles that emphasize various elements in the bourbon production process. BRT-01 focuses on barrel rotation within the distillery’s warehouses, with an emphasis on the flavor profiles found at the warmer top of the rickhouse — a lot of oak, plus notes of caramel popcorn, dark fruit, a hint of anise and a toasty warm finish.
After releasing a collaboration with Irish Whiskey Bonder Louise McGuane last year called the St. Patrick’s Edition, Kentucky Owl decided to make the team-ups an annual release. For its second limited-edition bourbon, they worked with Nagahama, the smallest distillery in Japan, headed up by Master Blender Yahisa Yusuke. There is a lot of fruit and citrus in this 100-proof release. I picked up cherry, apple and pear during my tasting, both on the nose and palate. While sweet up front, this bourbon has a balanced and rich mouthfeel and just enough of a spicy kick from the rye to leave an impression, but not overpower the exceptional balance at work here.
Booker’s only releases barrel-strength, uncut and unfiltered bourbon and puts as much emphasis on the location of the barrels in their warehouses as anything else. The whiskey is overseen by seventh-generation Master Distiller Fred Noe (Jim Beam’s grandson). Ronnie’s Batch features an age statement of six years, 11 months and 22 days. Coming in at 124.3 proof, it’s dark amber in color. Baking spices, caramel and vanilla dominate, though a little dark fruit sneaks in at the finish, particularly if you add a drop or two of water. Overall, nice and burly…and not for the everyday drinker.
Sweetens Cove is a whiskey brand named after a famous nine-hole golf course in Tennessee and co-owned by Peyton Manning, Andy Roddick, Tom Nolan, Rob Collins, Mark Rivers, Skip Bronson and Drew Holcomb. Their latest release, Kennessee, is a 110.7 proof bourbon — no mashbill or age statement has been disclosed. You’ll find graham cracker and orange on the nose, with pecan pie, cinnamon, caramel and even a bit of raspberry jam on the palate. The oak spice really shines through on the finish. Overall, this has a wonderfully round and creamy texture.
With their Aged at Sea releases, matured bourbon (usually about 6-8 years old) is placed in small barrels and loaded onto special cargo ships; from there, the whiskey sails around the globe through different seasons, extreme temperature fluctuations and with a lot of agitation from the ocean. This one adds an extra element: It’s proofed down with water from New York. The one threadline throughout the Aged at Sea series is a note of “salty caramel popcorn” (in flavor, nose and mouthfeel), and that’s thankfully still present here. But there is also an enhanced minerality at play. The rye in the mashbill is a bit more tempered, and you’ll pick up notes of leather and tobacco.
The annual Four Roses LE Small Batch is a non-chill-filtered and barrel-strength release. Bottled at 109 proof, you’ll get a lot of vanilla and butterscotch on the nose, while the palette brings out cloves, apricot, cocoa, berries and brown sugar. It’s rich and almost dessert-like in mouthfeel, while still balanced and complex enough to let in other flavors; I got more oak, cinnamon and even a hint of mint on subsequent sips.
Bonded uses the same mashbill of Old No. 7 — it’s 80% corn, 12% malted barley and 8% rye, but now at 100 proof. The barrels were selected with an emphasis on whiskey that featured darker, deeper color; this leads to an expression that’s more oak-forward and spicier (both in a cinnamon/baking spices kind of way, but also with the rye standing out more than usual) than the Jack Daniel’s flagship whiskey.
Can the location of a barrel truly influence what you’re drinking? Definitely, as proven by the latest limited-edition release from Russell’s Reserve, the brainchild of Master Distiller Eddie Russell (who created the eponymous Kentucky brand in homage to his father, Master Distiller Jimmy Russell). Here, the whiskey is taken from barrels of a recently decommissioned rickhouse that was originally built in 1946. The end result is a non-chill filtered bourbon aged for over 10 years and bottled at 112.4 barrel proof, with thick, rich notes of toffee, coconut and vanilla, rounded out by a long, silky finish.
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