Looking back at the long list of exciting bottles that graced my liquor cabinet in 2013, I find myself torn between which bottle was my favorite. Every year, I set aside two ounces of each special bottle that I open so I can revisit them around the holidays to determine my favorite, but never before have there been so many contenders.
Last year, I felt that the Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18 Year was incredibly balanced and uncommonly vivid in the profile and finish. To me, it was the best pour of the year. The runner up was the Parker’s Heritage Blend of Mashbills (139 proof), which was everything I loved about the wheated 10 year Parker’s, with just a bit more depth in the back end from the rye mashbill bourbon.
This year, there are way more than two in the running. Early on in the year, the Jefferson’s 21 Year was a big let down for the huge price, but in the same month, Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig Barrel Proof blew me away.
The spring release of the Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel (LESiB) at 120 proof was my favorite LESiB since 2010, and dare I say even better than the Limited Edition Small Batch (LESmB) which won the big kahuna award from Malt Advocate. These two Four Roses releases vaulted Jim Rutledge’s distillery to the top of the class.
The big surprise was the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, which would be my “Comeback Bourbon of the Year” if there was such a thing. Previous years had been bitter, sharp, and simple, but the 2013 came with depth, balance and a huge profile that went way above and beyond the $35 I payed for it.
The BTAC was OK. The Stagg returned to solid A grade status while only having a proof in the 120’s. The Weller was a bit soft for my taste, but with plenty of prolific wheated character, and the Handy was one of the best ryes I had all year. The Saz 18 was the same as every Saz 18 for the better part of a decade, and the Eagle Rare 17 was a nice, soft, sweet, oaky bourbon, but no better or worse than any year in recent memory. No disappointments across the board, but none set the bar for their respective brands.
Pappy was Pappy. Overhyped, but very enjoyable in the glass. This was a static year for the brand, with no real changes from last year’s releases in lineage or profile.
The biggest disappointment for some was the lackluster statistics on the 2013 Parker’s Heritage. A 10 year single barrel bourbon at 96 proof is not uncommon, but the idea of raising $250,000 for a worthy cause in about six months by selling 100 hand selected barrels of bourbon is easily the most exciting thing to happen all year. After the loss of Truman Cox, Lincoln Henderson, and Elmer T. Lee, Parker Beam’s ALS diagnosis is a deep wound in the bourbon community that everyone seemed eager to support.
It really didn’t matter what they put in the 2013 PHC bottle because I was going to buy it anyway, but it just so happened that the bourbon was damn good, and well worth the $90 price tag.
Sitting down and tasting my way through all of these world class bottles is a burden I must suffer through, but in the end, only one will be chosen as my favorite pour of the year. Odds are, you have a different bottle as your #1, or maybe you agree, but the truth of the matter is, the only opinion that matters is yours. The RW&B P.O.T.Y is simply a way to reflect on 2013.
Missing from contention: I did not have the Angel’s Envy Cask Strength, Van Winkle Rye, Jefferson’s 21 year rye, 25 year bourbon, 25 year rye, or 30 year bourbon.
RW&B Pour of the Year
This bottle cost me all of $44 with tax, which is an incredible price for such a high quality bourbon. It took me a lot of work to get, and it doesn’t look to be getting any easier to come by at the moment, but that was literally the only thing I found wrong with the ECBP. It is a quarterly release, so the distribution stranglehold that on-premise (bars, restaurants) has on ECBP should loosen in 2014. Hopefully that will result in more and more bottles on store shelves instead of tucked away behind bars.
The bourbon itself was nearly flawless, with a thick texture, big round sweetness of dark candies, fudge and toffee, with a big back end full of spices, cinnamon candy and exquisite oak that rivals some of the best years of George T. Stagg. The idea of a bourbon this good selling for $44 every three months is mind-blowing, not to mention how much better ECBP is than the standard Elijah Craig 12.
The affordable price, the jaw-dropping profile are notable by themselves, but the most astounding aspect of the ECBP is the fact that the Stagg-esque proof almost disappeared in the big, dark sweetness and long, robust finish. Essentially, the proof only lent strength to the flavor, not burn in the back.
When you start naming the cask strength releases that drank like a standard proofed bottle, legendary names like the two barrels of cask strength A. Bowman rye, the cask strength wheated Parker’s, and the 2005-2008 Stagg offerings come to mind, which puts the ECBP in epic company. The three proofs that have been released so far (134, 137, 133) have all been within the margin of error for consistency, but the first release (134 proof) kept pace with some of the best cask strength bourbon of the last three or four years.
The Parker’s Heritage line has been the flag bearer for Heaven Hill for some time now, but the ECBP release showed that Heaven Hill has a few tricks up their sleeve.
In the end, the 134 proof Elijah Craig Barrel Proof was the one release that I thought altered the market. Proving that high age, nor high price are necessary to create a buzz-worthy bourbon. The quarterly release and low price also takes some of the sexiness away from those that only crave possessing the rarest bottles. Releasing cask strength versions of standard brands is a dream many have had for a long time, and ECBP proved to other distilleries that it may be a worthwhile endeavor. Now if only they would release a cask strength Old Fitzgerald or Larceny so we could have another chance at Heaven Hill’s cask strength wheated stock!
Runner Up: The Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel (3-3J, 120 proof) was probably the second best all around bourbon I had all year after ECBP. Four Roses bourbon tend to be shy on the dark sugars I like due to the modest ages (8-11 years), but the 2013 LESiB (13 years) had an incredible balance of subtle sweetness, with the best of the Four Roses’ iconic spice and fruit. Obviously, the Limited Edition Small Batch is a crowd favorite, but this year’s LESiB elevated above the LESmB in my eyes.