We are living in the golden age of American whiskey. There is a slight problem, though – most people outside of the USA don’t even know about it. For years, American whiskey, or more specifically bourbon, has been famous mainly in America and Japan, which for some reason had such a massive appetite for it that not only did they get exclusive bottlings made for the Japanese market, but some of the biggest American whiskey brands (Jim Beam, Four Roses) are now Japanese-owned. In fact, Four Roses had disappeared from shelves in the US for a few decades as a straight bourbon, since they were exporting all production to the then rapidly growing markets of Europe and Japan.
This, however, is all in the past. The decline of vodka in the ‘90s as America’s favourite social lubricant led to the resurgence of the national spirit, bourbon, and of rye and American whiskey as well. This gathered momentum in the 2000s, with the resurrection of several long-lost brands, and the craft distillery wave further fuelled this growing frenzy into an outright boom. American single malt is now a category in itself, craft whiskey distilleries are now much sought-after acquisition targets and American whiskeys have been voted the best in the world for the last few years running.
All that means is we now have brands that have never previously been heard of washing up our on shores, travel retail exclusives lining duty-free shelves and generally, more for you to look out for than yet another bottle of single malt on your next trip abroad.
If you are willing to look across the aisle from the Scotch Whisky section, there are a lot of options now available and this wasn’t always the case. Most of these brands or bottling were unknown entities in India even just a year ago, so the star is definitely on the ascendant for lovers of Bourbon & Rye. Aye?
Jack Daniels needs no introduction. It’s the largest selling whiskey brand in the world and has become synonymous with American whiskey. The Single Barrel, however, is in a different league – while it maintains the same mash bill, coming from a single barrel alone lets one experience the variations that exist between barrels carrying the same liquid, and the complexity a master blender faces whilst bringing them together.
Tasting notes: Bottled at 94 proof, each bottle is one-of-a-kind. Expect subtle caramel notes intermingling with bright fruit notes and sweet aromatics, befitting a sipping whiskey. Keep the Coke away from this one.
Rs 7,000 in Delhi, Rs 9,900 in Mumbai and Rs 8,092 in Bengaluru
Back in the day, Michter’s was the first distillery to get a license in America, hence the *1 in the name. The brand has since changed hands multiple times and is now distilled in Kentucky, but the quality remains top class. Typically made in small batches comprising no more than two dozen barrels, this is a nuanced, mellow and earthy bourbon whiskey. Its spicier cousin, the US *1 Rye, has also made it to Indian shelves, while the Sour Mash and American whiskey should hopefully make the trip in the near future.
Tasting notes: Clocking in at an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 45.7 per cent (or 91.4 proof), expect a balancing act of rich caramel and vanilla, apricots and peaches, with a touch of smokiness and the oak wood from the barrel coming through in a nice finish.
Rs 9,650 in Delhi, Rs 17,463 in Mumbai and Rs 8,817 in Bengaluru
The original Templeton Rye Whiskey was notorious during the Prohibition era as crime boss Al Capone’s drink of choice – the brand was revived in 2006 and has tried to keep the recipe and flavour close to its legendary predecessor. Particularly rambunctious rye, it’s high rye content (95 per cent), in spite of the lower proof, makes it a great choice for Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs and Manhattans. With both the 4 Year and 6 Year versions available, this will up your game whether in a cocktail or just on its own.
Tasting notes: Medium amber in colour, the nose has a hint of honey and dry grass, followed by the classic rye flavours of strong baking spices, caramel and creamy butterscotch on the palate, with a smooth, spicy and well-balanced finish.
Templeton 4 years: Rs 4,900 in Delhi, Rs 5,800 in Mumbai and Rs 5,900 in Bengaluru; Templeton 6 years: Rs 9,800 in Mumbai and Rs 9,500 in Bengaluru
There is a lot that is unusual about Makers Mark. First off, it’s one of the few wheated whiskies around, where the rye is substituted by red winter wheat in the mash bill. They also use the Scottish naming convention of Whisky, instead of the more common American version, whiskey. And then there’s the standout squarish bottle with a signature red wax dripping down the neck, encompassing a delightfully smooth, creamy and fruity liquid within.
Tasting notes: The taste of Maker’s Mark is unlike any other whiskey as well. The addition of wheat brings about a subtle nose, with hints of spice and vanilla, followed by a very creamy mouthfeel highlighted by fresh fruits, caramelized butter and brown sugar, rounded off by a medium finish with additional notes of baking spices, laced with a delightful layer of oak.
Rs 4,990 in Delhi, Rs 7,270 in Mumbai and Rs 5,275 in Bengaluru
This is a Canadian whisky (notice the missing ‘e’), not an American one. And while the predominant grain is corn here as well, this is a completely distinct spirit. Canadian whiskies are typically blends of whiskies made from single grains, mainly corn and rye, which are blended before or after ageing in a range of small wood barrels, ranging from new oak to previously used bourbon or wine barrels, for a minimum of three years. The blending process makes it similar to Scotch, while the use of a ‘base’ whisky distilled to a high proof and then matured in used barrels makes it lighter and contributes to its ‘elegance’. There is also a misconception that all Canadian whiskies are 100 per cent rye, but that is not the case – rye whisky is just used interchangeably to refer to Canadian whiskies.
Tasting notes: Soft, smooth and shiny golden in colour, this has a soft, nutty aroma with hints of peppery spice coming from the rye, which really starts to shine through on the palate, with lots of spice complemented by oak and vanilla, along with a pleasant sweetness from the corn. There is more subtle oak on the finish, along with toffee and candied fruits.
Rs 2,000 in Delhi, Rs 2,670 in Mumbai and Rs 3,019 in Bengaluru
It’s no secret that us Indians have taken to the skies like never before, and brands have started to take notice. What was once a calling card of other Asian airports – Limited Edition Duty-Free Exclusive bottlings – are now rubbing shoulders with free bags and strollers in the retail aisles of most of our major international terminals. Not all brands below are Duty-Free Exclusives, though, but when things are limited otherwise, they become exclusive. Capiche?
The Bottled In Bond segment is a rarified area within the American whiskey pantheon. Originally laid out in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 to curb the proliferation of spurious and contaminated spirits, the label guarantees that the whiskey must be the product of one distilling season from one distillery, aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years, and bottled at 100 proof. What that basically means for you is that this is a richer, more flavourful liquid, with a fair amount of alcoholic heat that holds it’s own straight, or on ice or even in a cocktail. Not too many BiB’s are made in America, and far fewer are available outside.
Tasting notes: This rich, bold, 100-proof Tennessee whiskey trades the traditional soft, subtle notes for burnt caramel up front, with baking spices and ripe fruits just beneath the surface. The palate is characterized by intense vanilla and toasted oak flavours, with a full-bodied mouthfeel for a creamy, warm finish.
Very few American whiskey brands are as iconic as Wild Turkey – legendary master distiller Jimmy Russell has been crafting this high-proof, high-rye flavour bomb for more than 60 years himself. A favourite of many previous occupants of the White House, most notably Harry S Truman, who reportedly began most days with a dram of Wild Turkey bourbon and a power walk. Wild Turkey uses the heaviest char on their barrels, which helps create their unique flavour profile and deep colour, and the spirit is distilled at a much lower proof than usual, to help amplify the barrel flavours further by reducing the need for dilution.
Tasting notes: In spite of its high proof, Wild Turkey does a great job of balancing its robust flavours and keeping itself sip-able. The alcohol is evident on the nose, with a blend of sweet notes of caramelized bananas and toffee, and the spice of vanilla and toasted oak. This symphony gets further highlighted on the palate with cinnamon, baking spices and maple syrup joining the party. There is a hint of char as well, which leads to a dry, spicy finish.
Rs 2,485 in Delhi and Rs 2,480 in Bengaluru
Unwittingly, the Duty-Free category has turned into a heavy-duty category, with yet another 100-proof rabble-rouser. Part of Booker Noe’s original Small Batch collection, introduced in 1992, this classic bourbon is named after the creek which ran near Abraham Lincoln’s family farm. A cocktail favourite, with a bold, sweet pre-Prohibition style flavour profile, this comprised of whiskeys aged for at least nine years until 2016, when the age statement was dropped.
Tasting notes: Knob Creek is rather easy to drink neat. It’s smooth, warming and sweet, without a whole lot of burn. There’s lots of deep toffee, burnt sugar and toasted nuts on the nose, which bursts into rye spice, cinnamon, vanilla and fruity oak on the palate, with a long, honeyed finish.
Approximately USD 55 for 700 ml in Delhi (out of stock)
The bourbon boom over the last two decades has had one massive collateral effect – whiskeys which were once languishing on retail shelves in the ‘80s and ‘90s are now causing increasing levels of hysteria with every successive release. All the ones listed here are outstanding, but since they are limited yearly releases, it makes them even more sought after, and the supply-demand gap has resulted in a huge secondary market. Usually distributed through raffle or lottery, they become almost immediately available for resale at anywhere between 5-10X of the retail price. Very few bottles make it to the market every year; even fewer are popped open for drinking, hence we will skip the tasting notes for this bunch.
Three words that will either bring a wide grin to a bourbon lover’s face or make them groan in despair. There are higher odds of finding a unicorn in the wild than a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, their flagship brand. The most cherished name amongst bourbon fans, fence sitters and flippers, this near-devout status has meant that the actual market price might end up costing you a kidney or two. Distilled by The Sazerac/Buffalo Trace Company at their Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, the 15- year old is the most in demand, with a market price ranging at an outrageous 1413 per cent of MSRP.
Another yearly release from Sazerac/Buffalo Trace, the BTAC comes second in the annual hysteria stakes, behind the Van Winkles. Five whiskeys make up the collection every year, with slight nuances in each year’s vintage – George T. Stagg, William LaRue Weller and Eagle Rare 17-Year-Old Bourbons, and Thomas H Handy Sazerac Rye and the Sazerac 18-Year-Old Rye. All of them are regular features on most Whiskey of the Year lists every year.
Booker Noe, the Beam family’s 6th generation Master Distiller, had a larger than life personality, and the story goes that he had originally crafted his namesake bourbon as selections for his own personal consumption and for gifting to close friends and family. Always bottled straight-from-the-barrel at cask strength, he launched his selections as a brand to the general public in 1988. Each barrel of Booker’s was personally hand selected by Noe and aged at the centre of the storehouse, for the most favourable temperature and humidity conditions.
If there was ever a geek-favourite category of bourbon, Four Roses is it. Straddling the line between chemistry and consumerism, Four Roses distils ten distinct and extraordinary bourbon recipes, using two mash bills – a high rye and a low rye one – and five yeast strains, ranging from fruity to spicy to floral. The results of this intermingling are some complex yet harmonious whiskeys, which regularly stake a claim, rightfully, as the best produced each year. For a brand that had disappeared from American shelves for nearly 40 years and only reappeared in 2002, this has been a roaring comeback, not very different from that of the industry it belongs to.