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The Mount Rushmore of Bourbon, According to 7 Whiskey Experts

Picking the best bourbon of all time is objectively impossible. Ask five bourbon fans, and you’ll get dozens of answers, along with enough footnotes and asterisks to rival the King James Bible.

But narrowing it down to a handful is a more accessible task. Us whiskey nerds have a much easier time picking our favorites than a singular pour. Ask someone what’s on their Mount Rushmore of bourbon, for example, and after deliberation, they’ll likely come back with something parsable.

So I asked seven of American whiskey’s most experienced sippers and whiskey pros for their personal Mount Rushmores. And if I may be so bold, I also included my own.

But first, some ground rules to set the stage:

Each whiskey has to be either a distinct bottling or a bottling within a specified range of years.
The whiskey must be a bourbon. The inclusion of rye would undoubtedly change these lists dramatically, particularly given some rare but epic bottlings over the past 40 years.
Finally, interviewees could only choose bourbons they’ve personally sampled. No secondhand tasting notes allowed. While taste is subjective, as Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell once posited, quality is not.

With those bumper lanes in place, the answers rolled in. The spread is a testament to both bourbon’s diverse history and the fact that even the highest rollers can’t taste everything under the rickhouse. The chosen bourbons range in bottling years from 1905 to 2023. Interestingly, only two of the lists overlapped by two picks, and none overlapped with three or more.

Note: Some quotes have been edited for clarity.

Frank Dobbins

Spirits Writer, Reviewer, and Judge

Michter’s Sour Mash Celebration (Undisclosed sources, blended and bottled by Michter’s):Michter’s Sour Mash Celebration is the pinnacle of luxury bourbon blending. Showcasing whiskey as old as 30+ years, it’s painstakingly mingled to create what might be the premier premium product currently on the market.”

Very, Very Old Fitzgerald (Stitzel-Weller): “Vaunted for being perhaps the finest expression of Stitzel-Weller wheated distillate ever bottled, Very, Very Old Fitzgerald was most commonly released at 12 years of age and 100 proof. However, there were also much-harder-to-find versions that featured 14, 15, and 16 year age statements. Most notable of all is the 18 year, 121 proof single barrel edition bottled for the Wirtz family in Chicago, known as the Blackhawk.”

Wild Turkey Master Distiller Selection 14 Year Export (Wild Turkey): “Fun fact: During the ‘glut era’ when the domestic sales of American whiskey were waning, the overseas demand for bourbon kept many distilleries afloat, including Wild Turkey. Due to bourbon’s popularity in places like Japan, Wild Turkey released several export-only expressions catered to that market’s particular taste, bottles that are now among the most heralded in their history. When it comes to one-offs there are few, if any, that can hold a candle to the Wild Turkey Master Distiller Selection.”

A.H. Hirsch 16 Year Gold Foil, Distilled in 1974 (Pennco): “Not many bottles have nicknames, but A.H. Hirsch’s 16 Year Gold Foil is otherwise known as ‘the best bourbon you’ll never taste.’ With a book bearing that title devoted to the bottle’s lore, it comes with an intriguing backstory that is only outdone by its superlative taste. Legends in American whiskey are a dime a dozen, but liquid that stands the test of time is much harder to come by. A.H. Hirsch 16 Year Gold Foil is one of the few exceptional American whiskeys that can lay claim to both.”

Zev Glesta

Whiskey Specialist at Sotheby’s

Willett Family Estate, 21 Year Old, 98 proof, barrel 3283 (Undisclosed source, bottled by Willett): “We were lucky enough to try this with a consignor who poured this for a group of his friends. This bottle was hand selected by Liquor Barn, 2012 Holiday Release, barrel #3283. A legendary bottle that was most likely old Heaven Hill distillate. Dried fruits, s’mores, pipe tobacco, and a touch of herbal funk. Just shy of 100 proof, this was a banger!”

Wild Turkey 12 Year Old “Cuvee Lafayette” (Wild Turkey): “Bottled in 1989 (my birth year), this bottle [has] everything I want: dusty funky sweetness that lasts forever.”

Michter’s 20 Year Old (Undisclosed source, bottled by Michter’s): “I never met a Michter’s 20 I didn’t love. Consistently delicious, and throughout the years it has to be my overall favorite, although it’s getting harder and harder to get.”

Mammoth Cave 19 Year Old 100 Proof, 1905 bottling (​​W. G. Coldewey & Co.): “When we cracked this bad boy open, most of us were so surprised how fresh it drank. This bottle held so much history we all thought being 100-plus years old would be a bust, but no! Fresh, citrusy, honeysuckle and molasses sweetness, this pretty much had the texture of a lemon meringue pie and the finish was not too far away, either.”

Bill Thomas

Owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon, The Imperial, and Premier Drams

Johnny Drum Private Stock 15 Year (Undisclosed source, blended and bottled by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers): “A dessert whiskey with notes of rich dark vanilla and citrus. It’s been years since they removed the age statement from this whiskey. But this was once my daily drinker I used to buy by the case. I wish I had bought more back then.”

President’s Choice, 1950s-’60s era bottling (Brown-Forman): “Brown sugar, vanilla, and oak notes — a perfect dram.”

Very Very Old Fitzgerald 15 Year (Stitzel-Weller): “A ‘fine bourbon’ that literally transports you back to bourbon’s first golden era.”

Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond, 1970s-era bottling (National Distillers): “These old bottles are why we hunted for old whiskey. Caramel, fruit, and spice makes this a legendary dram.”

Susan Reigler

Restaurant and spirits critic, author, former President of the Bourbon Women Association

Maker’s Mark, 1982 bottling (Maker’s Mark): “Amazingly smooth, rich, and complex. An ice cream sundae in a glass.”

Michter’s 20-Year-Old (Undisclosed source, bottled by Michter’s): “Rich and balanced with equal parts dark fruit and citrus, nutmeg and cinnamon, graham cracker, and honeycomb.”

Old Forester Private Barrel Selection Barrel Proof (Brown-Forman): “The rich toffee note was accompanied by a smoky, savory bacon flavor. Breakfast bourbon!”

George T. Stagg, unspecified year, though over 140 proof (Buffalo Trace): “With a small splash of water: Nutty with oak and cinnamon along with layer after layer of fruit — dates, apricots, orange peel, dark cherries — embedded in a rich base of crème brûlée and honey.”

Maggie Kimberl

Spirits writer, judge, editor, former President of the Bourbon Women Association

Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year “Green Glass” late 1990s bottling (Distilled by Boone, bottled by Julian Van Winkle): “Bill Thomas poured for us at Jack Rose after the first time I judged the World Whiskies Awards about eight years ago. That was the Pappy that put Pappy on the map, and it was made by Old Boone, bought from Wild Turkey, and it had rye in the recipe instead of wheat. It was a taste of history and it’s partly responsible for igniting the bourbon boom.”

Booker’s 25th Anniversary (Jim Beam): “Some of the last whiskey distilled by Booker Noe before he died, and which made whiskey enthusiasts finally start paying attention to the quality of whiskey coming from Jim Beam.”

Four Roses Al Young 50th Anniversary (Four Roses): “Al was a great friend to many and never stopped spreading the good word about bourbon, and that bottle was some of the best bourbon I’ve ever had from Four Roses.”

Wild card: “The fourth is whatever is in your glass as you read this, because that’s what’s responsible for the wonderful community that has grown from a shared love for America’s native spirit.”

Gavin Linde

Spirits influencer

Michter’s 25 Year Old, 2023 release (Undisclosed source, bottled by Michter’s): “This is perfection, untouchable, and superior in every way.”

Willett Family Estate, 24 Year Old, barrel 2007/23, 100 proof (Undisclosed source, bottled by Willett): “Distilled in 1982, and if your life was ending tomorrow, this is the one you want to go out on, just mind-blowing flavor and depth.”

A.H. Hirsch 16 Year Gold Foil, Distilled in 1974 (Pennco): “It’s like a cream soda vanilla milkshake.”

Very Very Old Fitzgerald 15 Year, 1971 bottling (Stitzel-Weller): “It’s a molasses party and almost like a rich bourbon dessert that you want more and more of.”

David Thomas Tao

Spirits writer, judge, producer

Michter’s 25 Year Old, 2023 release (Undisclosed source, bottled by Michter’s): “The addition to my personal Mount Rushmore is the latest bottling of Michter’s famed 25 year old bourbon. (I also reviewed this for VinePair.) It’s an extraordinarily complex, rich bourbon that hits virtually every aspect of the American whiskey flavor wheel. The bourbon tasted both unique and familiar, reminding me of some of the finest discontinued releases from famed distilleries pre-1990.”

Willett Family Estate, 27 Year Old Cask Strength, barrel 2877 (Undisclosed source, bottled by Willett): “I may have had pours roughly on par with this bourbon, but I doubt I’ve had better. One of a handful of 27-plus-year-old single barrel bottlings from Willett, this 2017 release exhibited the longest finish of any whiskey I’ve ever enjoyed. It felt like it stuck in my mouth for days — in the best possible way.”

Wild Turkey Master Distiller Selection 14 Year Export (Wild Turkey): “I’m in alignment with Frank Dobbins on this one, perhaps partly because we both enjoyed this from a bottle he graciously opened at my home. This encapsulated old Wild Turkey’s famed ‘Turkey Funk’ while also leaning into both sweet and savory elements. I tasted totally new flavors every time I sipped from the glass.”

Racquet Club Bottled-in-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 1942 (Bernheim): “Comparable to liquified brown sugar that somehow, against the odds, never tasted too sweet. At 7 years old and 100 proof, this hit every sector of my mouth with rich honey, molasses, and caramel. While it didn’t exhibit a huge variety of flavor categories, this bonded expression helped convince me that even a one- or two-trick pony can be worthy of consideration amongst the best. They certainly don’t make them like this anymore.”

The article The Mount Rushmore of Bourbon, According to 7 Whiskey Experts appeared first on VinePair.

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