As the bourbon boom continues, the trajectory isn’t just up but outward as distillers and blenders seek novel ways to innovate. From rare, limited-edition bourbons (with prices approaching that of exclusive Scotch), to cask-finished bourbons, one-and-done blends, and collaborative partnerships, here are several recent highlights.
Angel’s Envy 2020 Cask Strength
In 2012, hall-of-fame master distiller and Angel’s Envy co-founder Lincoln Henderson, son and co-founder Wes Henderson, and grandson Kyle Henderson selected and set aside several barrels of exceptional bourbon from their stocks. They crafted a flavor-forward blend and finished the whiskey in Portuguese port wine casks, as are all Angel’s Envy bourbons. For this family project, however, they bottled it at cask strength. Lincoln Henderson passed away in 2013, but Wes Henderson and his sons carry on the annual tradition with this year’s release, bottled at 120.4 proof and redolent with “juicy Bing cherries” and “notes of salted chocolate, orange peel, and some cedar.” This year is also the first time Angel’s Envy Cask Strength is available nationwide, with a total of about 17,400 bottles.
Kentucky Owl Dry State
Samuel Dixon Dedman resurrected his great-great grandfather’s historic bourbon brand, Kentucky Owl, in 2014. Working from stocks of sourced whiskey, as well as whiskey distilled and aged under his direction, the master blender selects and mingles exemplary barrels into harmonious expressions. Dedman had been watching several particular barrels for years, he says, waiting for the right occasion. The timing was right earlier this year, when he spent months perfecting a blend to mark the 100th anniversary of federal Prohibition taking effect (which is what shuttered the original Kentucky Owl Distillery along with many others). Dubbed Dry State, the resulting bourbon includes whiskies aged from 12 to 17 years. Rich, oaky undertones layered with a bright, honey-like sweetness and a touch of spice make for a sip that moves seamlessly from one flavor to another as it washes over the palate, with a lingering finish. Bottled at 100 proof with 2,000 total bottles available and a suggested price of $1,000, Dry State is meant as a collector’s item that highlights the blender’s art. “This is not a Tuesday whiskey,” Dedman says.
Thomas S. Moore Barrel-Finished Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskies
The Bardstown, Kentucky–based Barton 1792 distillery continues its experiments with cask-finished bourbons (bourbons “finished” in another barrel after their initial maturation) with a new premium brand called Thomas S. Moore, named after the man who built the original distillery in 1889. The initial trio of releases includes mature, high-rye bourbons aged an additional one to three years in barrels previously used to make port, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The extended finishes—much longer than most in the industry—are meant to enhance and complement the bourbon’s aroma and flavor, as well as add complexity. The distillery intends to introduce more cask-finished bourbons, including a Cognac finish, with annual releases each fall.
Blue Run Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Jim Rutledge, the former Four Roses’ master distiller who shepherded the brand back to prominence in the ’90s, and partners have launched a new brand focused on creating spirits for modern palates. Called Blue Run Spirits, its first release is a 13-year-old Kentucky straight bourbon personally selected by Rutledge, with a limited release of about 2,600 bottles in Kentucky and Georgia. Rutledge notes that since this bourbon is bottled at 113 proof, higher than many extra-aged whiskies, more of its velvety character and complex flavors shine through. The sleek bottle also makes a statement: It’s designed by Devon McKinney, a Blue Run partner who also designed Nike’s Air Force 1 sneakers.
Booker’s Bourbon “Pigskin” Batch
The late Booker Noe, Jim Beam’s grandson, was one of bourbon’s original innovators. As the story goes, Noe would personally select several exceptional barrels each year, blend them together, and bottle the bourbon unfiltered and at barrel strength to give as Christmas gifts to friends and family. Noe released Booker’s Bourbon to the wider world in 1988, coining the term “small batch” bourbon as well as introducing one of the first bourbons bottled at barrel proof, and the tradition continues with the seasonal release of unique batches of Booker’s. The third and final release in 2020 weighs in at 127.3 proof and is dubbed “Pigskin” for Noe’s love of football.
Barrell Bourbon New Year 2021
An independent blender of sourced whiskies and rums, all bottled at cask strength, the Louisville-based Barrell Craft Spirits has garnered numerous accolades since its launch in 2013. Each bourbon in its series of limited-edition releases explores different distillation techniques, aging environments, and blending methods. Released in December, Barrell Bourbon New Year 2021 is like a road-tripping tour of America’s bourbon hotspots. Comprised of a blend of straight bourbon whiskies distilled in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, New York, Wyoming, and Colorado, and ranging in age from 5 to 11 years old, the 113.9 proof bourbon is layered with fresh, fruity flavors atop a “creamy base of horchata and toasted nuts.”