There isn’t much about 2020 that isn’t downright terrible. But I’m thrilled to finally be able to report some good news: liquor companies are releasing a wide variety of special whiskies this fall, including bourbons, ryes and single malts. Pick up these limited-editions bottlings before they disappear.
Beam Suntory for one has just released a number of noteworthy special editions. Laphroaig has already started selling its annual Cairdeas bottling ($100) and this time it’s been aged in port and wine casks.
The regularly scheduled releases of Booker’s Bourbon were interrupted after the release of #2020-02, the “Boston Batch,” in April ($90). The next release is scheduled for November.
Beam Suntory also published Little Book: Chapter 4 “Lessons Honored” ($125), another in this series of blended American straight whiskies. The blender is Freddie Noe, the most recent of Jim Beam’s descendants to work for the company.
COVID-19 couldn’t stop the return of proper nine-year-old Knob Creek ($35) to store shelves, or the addition of 12-year-old Knob ($60) to the regular line-up, both of which happened on-time in April. Two months later the brand added a limited release of a 15-year-old Knob Creek ($100), an unusually old bourbon for Beam Suntory.
But the biggest Beam Suntory release for me and other rye whiskey fans was delayed...just a little. The release of the “new” unfiltered Old Overholt was unofficially delayed by the virus. The rye whiskey sports the longest continual branding of any American whiskey, dating back to the early 1800s, but it had seen no promotional support in decades. Look out for the limited release (in Pennsylvania and Ohio only) of this 11-year-old at 92.6 proof.
Heaven Hill is doing things a bit more ad lib. According to Susan Wahl, Heaven Hill Distillery group product director, the company focused on “supplying distributors with our core products in order to meet the needs of consumers at home during that time.” So there were delays in bringing out some of the more limited-edition products, like its acclaimed Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond Spring 2020 edition, a 9-year-old bourbon that’s probably sold out by now. But the fall edition, a 14-year-old, ships in mid-October ($90).
Two of Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig roll-outs were a bit delayed, but the special rye is now on the shelves in the Carolinas, Georgia and Oregon ($30), and the Toasted Barrel release is just out nationally ($50). The most eagerly awaited Heaven Hill annual, Parker’s Heritage (a 10-year-old “Heavy Char” bourbon this year), ships in mid-October ($120).
Wild Turkey just dropped a very special Russell’s Reserve release for us to enjoy. The 2003 Vintage is a 16 year old drawn from a parcel of barrels that were among the last to be filled with spirit at 107 proof; this “entry proof” has since been raised. Does that make “better” bourbon? This bottling shows it definitely makes different bourbon, full of caramel, spice and stone fruit notes. It is bottled at a cask strength of 44.75 percent ABV, and there are about 3,600 bottles available. ($250)
Old Forester released its annual edition of Birthday Bourbon right on time in early September to celebrate the birth of the company’s founder, George Garvin Brown. This year’s release is 10 years old, and the 95 barrels it’s made up of represent the entire production of June 5, 2010. But that’s not all! October brings the release of the Old Forester 150th Anniversary bottling, celebrating 150 years of Old Forester as the first bourbon exclusively sold in bottles. There are three different batches of the 150th Anniversary bottling, each with a different character, but with a strength right around 63 percent ABV (and a price respectively of $150).
Angel’s Envy continues a tradition with the ninth release of its Cask Strength limited bottling. This one comes in at 60.2 percent ABV, and is finished in port barrels, in that signature Angel’s Envy way. It’s packed with fruit notes and baking spices. Available on November 1 in all 50 states, you can also find it at the distillery on Main Street in Louisville. ($199)
WhistlePig is releasing the 7th edition of its Boss Hog collection: Magellan’s Atlantic ($500). For all the hype about “rare,” “innovative” and “unique” whiskies, this one is truly like no other. After maturing for 17 years in American white oak, this Boss Hog is finished in new, lightly charred Spanish oak barrels for three weeks and then spends a mere three days in barrels made of South American teakwood. The woods enhance and expand the spice of the rye whiskey, for something new under the sun.
American craft distillers are pushing boundaries in other directions as well, one of them being the traditional province of Scotland: single malt whiskies. Stranahan’s has been at it for a relatively long time. That’s why it’s able to offer the first American 10-year-old single malt: Mountain Angel. The “mile high and dry” climate in Denver led to unusually high “angel’s share” evaporation losses, leaving as little as 20 percent of the initial fill of whiskey in some of the barrels. Less than 500 bottle’s worth remained, but it is rich with the intense flavor of the new charred oak Stranahan’s uses to make its American malt whisky. ($130)
Westland continues to forge ahead with new explorations of American terroir in its single malts. It’s gone beyond its Core Range with a new Outpost Range, looking at uniquely American, uniquely Pacific Northwest ways of creating whiskey flavor. The Garryana Edition 5 bottling raises to 36 percent the amount of peated spirit in the blend aged in Garry oak, giving signature smoked chocolate and barbecue aromas to the 100-proof whiskey. It launches in November ($150). Colere Single Malt celebrates the flavor of a non-commodity barley strain, Alba, by deliberately aging the spirit in used barrels to let the spirit character shine through. That’s launching in the spring of 2021 ($150). On the horizon is Solum, smoked with Washington State peat...but that’s not due out till 2023.
Of course, if you’re looking for special single malts made in Scotland, they’re out there, too. One eagerly anticipated set of bottles will be out soon, though a firm date hasn’t been set yet. That’s Diageo’s Special Releases, the annual release of older or rarer Scotch whiskies; keeping in mind that “rarer” can simply mean “surprise, you never saw this before.” This year’s whiskies have been announced, and one definitely falls in that category for me: a quite young 8-year-old Talisker finished in Caribbean rum casks. I’m also interested in trying the Cragganmore 20-year-old; not terribly old, but I do like me a Cragganmore.
While the lineup of eight whiskies was actually announced relatively early, in late May, as of quite recently, Diageo still had not confirmed a release date. The official word on the release is “late Fall.” Keep your credit cards warm; you can be sure that prices haven’t gone down.
Diageo is also behind the so-called Orphan Barrel releases of limited editions of old and rare whiskies. There’s one dropping now: Muckety-Muck! It’s named for a champion pig that was kept at the Port Dundas distillery in Scotland. Muckety-Muck ($225) is a very limited, 24-year-old example of something you don’t often see in the States, a single grain Scotch. These rich, mellow whiskies are quite different from single malts.
If single grain Scotches are unusual, blended grain Scotch whiskies are even more so...but that’s what whisky blender Compass Box has chosen to release to commemorate it 20th anniversary in business. Hedonism Felicitas ($175) is hitting the shelves right now, a blend of three grain whiskies, each distilled in a different decade. It is powerful for the style at 53 percent ABV to deliver the full flavor profile of a properly aged single grain whisky.
Highland Park is launching a new annual series, the Cask Strength bottlings. Whisky maker Gordon Motion selects dozens of casks of whisky, blends them at full strength with only “gentle” filtering (at this strength, there’s no need for chill-filtering), and creates a big whisky—the No. 1 Release is at 63.3 percent ABV—with classic Highland Park sherried smokiness. ($90)
Of course, if you simply cannot get enough smoke in your whisky, your time of year has come: it’s the annual release of Bruichladdich’s Octomore whiskies. Octomore is made from heavily-smoked malt, and generally aged only five years to deliver the full charge of smoldering peat “reek.” This year there are four releases, each slightly different—different casks, a batch from a single farm’s barley—and the fourth is a full 10 years old, distilled from malt smoked to a staggering 208 parts per million (ppm) of phenols, the compounds that create those smoky aromas. Keep in mind “normal” peaty whiskies have in the neighborhood of 20 to 60 ppm. (Prices go from $200 to $260.)
If you prefer a sweet, smooth, non-smoky Scotch whisky, Glenmorangie has just the thing: A Tale Of Cake ($99). Cask-enhancement innovator Dr. Bill Lumsden finished bourbon barrel-aged Glenmorangie in casks used to age tokaji wines. The sweet, honeyed character of the wine blends with the fruit and chocolate notes of the malt whisky to create something complex and delicious. A slice of fruitcake you can drink.
I mentioned this next whiskey in my list of favorite things I drank in 2019, and hoped that the cask I sampled would be released to the public. Dreams do come true: Bushmills has bottled this delicious 28-year-old single malt that they aged 11 years in bourbon and sherry casks, and then finished for 17 years in Cognac casks. There are fewer than 500 bottles, and they’re not cheap. But the whiskey, packed with apple and pear notes and framed in noble oak, drinks like golden sunlight. ($500, U.S. exclusive)
Finally, you’ve waited this long, read through the whole piece: here’s your reward. I got in touch with Amy Preske at Sazerac and asked her if the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection release or the fall release of Pappy Van Winkle would be delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Here’s what she had to say: “Nope, nothing has changed on our end, everything is still on schedule!”
So 2020 isn’t all bad, right?