During the 2021 bourbon hunting season, I haven’t hunted. And I feel great!
At the time of this posting, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday 2021 have all just come to pass. This year I stood in no lines at dawn, gathered for no raffles, and did not hover over my keyboard with fingers poised. I did no unicorn hunting whatsoever, as I also have not done this entire Autumn bourbon hunting season—save a momentary detour for the 2021 Four Roses L.E. at a local grocery store where I’d found the 2020 last year. (It wasn’t there.) And yet I’m perfectly delighted with all the special bottles that I’ve nevertheless come into, not just in these past few months but this entire year.
By not spending any attention, time or money hunting the typical unicorns from the likes of Buffalo Trace or Heaven Hill, but rather keeping my eyes and ears open for other serendipitous surprises, I’ve actually come into quite a range of interesting whiskeys, some rare for one reason or another, some merely a-typical, some even common.
The Van Winkles and BTACs and Parker’s Heritages all taste great. But once you’ve had them you know what you’re in for. They never really taste $$$ and certainly not $$$$ or $$$$$, and anyway they are exponentially harder to get with each passing season. For me, the effort has come to outweigh the reward. As a result, not only have I spent less money in 2021, I’ve also encountered unusual and unexpected flavor profiles I may not have done otherwise, bringing into question what the term “unicorn” can actually mean beyond overpriced and hard-to-find.
So today I’m sharing a dozen bottles I picked up this past year that for one reason or another were as special in their own unique way as I would hope from any of the more typical unicorns. There are others I could mention as well, but these twelve stood out most in my memory. Each of them are pretty much FOMO free, perhaps with a few exceptions. But even those are not getting hunted to be flipped at quintuple prices on the secondary pirate market.
So, pour yourself a glass of your own favorite under-the-radar unicorn and enjoy!
31N50 BARREL 6
I’ve written about previous barrels of 31n50 (here and here) and proper notes on this Barrel 6 are already scheduled for posting a few weeks after this post. Here I’ll just note that 31n50 is easily more difficult to come by than any Buffalo Trace unicorn. Only twelve barrels exist, each yielding under 100 bottles on average, and each only released after the previous barrel has sold out. For details about why it takes so long for each barrel to sell out, despite the limited number of bottles produced, I refer you to my interview with the bourbon’s maker, Cris Steller. What makes this bourbon a special unicorn for me, personally, is not only its rarity, but its caramel atomic bomb flavor profile, and the fact that it’s made in my home county. So there’s a very personal connection, in addition to a good story behind it courtesy of Cris Steller’s own very personal relationship to the brand, making it particularly enjoyable to share with friends.
Wood Finishing Series
Easily the best Maker’s Mark product I’ve had to date. Wasn’t difficult to find. A great price at $65 on average. A flavor profile featuring fresh vanilla custard, lemon zest and lemon custard tart, baked peaches in cream, doughy breakfast pastries with cinnamon, and a warm lingering finish. A lovely, balanced whiskey with cream and fruit aspects complimented by nicely restrained floral and herbal notes. The FAE-01 got some attention on social media. But given Maker’s Mark is such an ol’ standby—arguably to the point of cliché—I suspect that’s why the diehard FOMO hord don’t (yet!) give the Wood Finishing Series the frenzied attention this particular outing warranted.
MIXED BLOOD BLENDED WHISKEY
I first heard about Du Nord Craft Spirits (now renamed Du Nord Social Spirits) due to unfortunate circumstances—the protests that erupted in Minneapolis, MN, in response to the May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd. The Du Nord facilities were damaged by fires set during the protests. In response, Chris and Shanelle Montana, the couple who founded and own Du Nord, put the still functioning areas of their facility to use as a food bank to support their devastated neighborhood. The Montanas are committed to promoting change in the world through the craft spirits community. Du Nord openly belies the notion that whiskey is not political. Where a distillery buys its grains, who it hires, how it names and packages its products, all of their choices connect to sociopolitical matters relating people, capitalism, history, and the imagined future. As for Mixed Blood Blended Whiskey itself, despite its low proof it is abundantly flavorful, with fresh baked breads, fresh and dried apricots, milled corn, brown sugar, a medley of dried herbs, salt, and a dusting of cracked black pepper corns. It accomplishes a lot with ease. It’s not the event itself. It’s the welcome to the event. It’s the host of the party whom you don’t realize is so generously, quietly, and deftly organizing things such that you’re able to fully relax and feel free to be yourself. A very easy to sip whiskey, made by good people doing things right on every level.
HULING STATION BOURBON
SiB Selected by Seelbach’s
I loved this bourbon. Simple as that. Bright cinnamon, dried mint leaf, creamy vanilla sauce, caramel dipped apple, fresh breakfast pastry like a cinnamon roll, black pepper notes, chocolate, oak. It’s the real deal, created by Old Dominick’s master distiller, Alex Castle, herself the real deal. Castle’s Huling Station bourbon upsets the expectations of Tennessee whiskey established by Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. It feels very 21st Century to me—distinctly contemporary, yet somehow old fashioned, at once anachronistic and delightfully fresh, like an old-style candy store revived. This cask strength pick from Seelbach’s delighted me from first pour to last.
OLD MALT CASK
17-YEAR SINGLE MALT
from “An Orkney Distillery”
(aka Highland Park)
The joys of secondary bottlers like Scotland’s Hunter Laing & Company are exemplified by this exceptional cask strength, single barrel release of Highland Park—referred to only as “an Orkney distillery” on the bottle, per contractual agreements. Sweet, creamy, floral, fruity, and delicately peated, this delightful single malt whiskey cost only $87 tax and all—an unheard of deal among name brand scotch whiskies in 2021. Every time I sipped this one, I smacked my forehead anew at how utterly delicious it was. This was a whisky experience that made me wish I’d broken my commitment to bunker less and nabbed another bottle, if not two!
REMUS REPEAL RESERVE
Full notes on this one are coming up here on the blog a few days after this posting. For now I’ll note a few key particulars—a blend of MGP bourbons aged 13 to 16 years and bottled by MGP itself rather than sourced by someone else; Offered at a solid 100 proof; Nifty art-deco packaging; Priced at a very respectful $90 on average; Not impossible to find; Tastes great! Now how often does that combination of specs come together in one bottle these days? About once a year. Batches IV and III were also excellent. I did break my no-bunkering rule with this Batch V. And I’m looking forward to VI already…!
Madam Whiskey & Purpose Rye
Released to commemorate the triple glass ceiling shatter that was Kamala Harris coming into the office of U.S. Vice President, Madam Whiskey and the “I’m Speaking” edition of Purpose Rye are the most clear-eyed expressions to date from Republic Restoratives, the Washington D.C. distillery, bar and event space. Women owned and crowd funded, Republic Restoratives seeks to welcome those who haven’t and still don’t often feel welcomed by the predominantly masculinized and White world of whisk(e)y. Their motto, printed on every bottle, puts it simply: “Outspoken. Disruptive. American.” One can’t deny the innately bipartisan nature of the motto’s three descriptors—though some might anyway, given the leftward leanings of Republic Restoratives. Their spirits taste lively and refreshing, and truly embody the sense of joy with which the company seems to go about everything it does.
RUSSELL’S RESERVE SiB
Barrel 18-0303 selected by
Jamie Boatner & Mike Levin
Every Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel release is in a way a limited edition. If one tries several, one finds they are fairly consistent from barrel to barrel. But sometimes a barrel stands out for one reason or another. This 2018 pick was exceptionally old fashioned, rustic, oaky, and antique. Classic Wild Turkey bourbon flavors like cherry, baking spices, and caramel were there, along with chocolate fudge, cinnamon roll and a range of fine dry oak notes. The tendency of Wild Turkey products toward consistency means they seldom surprise. Yet they are inevitably surprisingly good. One can find innumerable whiskey commentators singing their praises, often ranking these Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel outings right up there alongside the higher-end Wild Turkey Master’s Keep series or other of their special releases. For the price, most any Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel is a steal of a deal.
SAGAMORE SPIRIT 8-YEAR RYE
A few years ago I paid $$$ for a 2014 bottle of Willett 8-Year rye, sourced from MGP and bottled at cask strength. It was exquisite. But oh so pricy! Then this past Fall, Sagamore Spirit came out with this 8-year cask strength rye release, also sourced from MGP, but for $80! At first sip it immediately brought sense-memories of that 2014 Willett rushing back to me. Wonderfully fresh rye herbs and spices, a sprig of fresh buttery dill, juicy bright caramel, wild honey, dark orchard fruits, with a nice balance of sweet and dry elements. (Proper notes to come in a post scheduled a few weeks from this posting.) Like that Orkney single malt noted above, this Sagamore release also had me tempted to break my self-imposed ban on bunkering! Such a great rye experience, at a price that puts to shame quite a lot of bottlings with similar specs.
SOLOMON SCOTT RYE
SiB selected by Seelbach’s
This Seelbach’s single barrel pick of Spirits of French Lick’s rye release was true to its maker’s motto, “Respect the grain.” The nose led with fresh clean grains, then bright stone fruits like apricot and peach and baked nectarines, raspberries and dried goji berries, subtle creamy caramel, faint oak and black pepper, oolong tea, all very vibrant and refreshing and relaxed. The taste was then very true to the nose, the fruit elements now juicier and richer, with a syrupy viscous quality to it all. All Spirits of French Lick whiskeys have a homemade, fresh-baked quality to them and this rye was no exception. Craft distilleries making their own stuff and offering unusual, truly distinct, flavor profiles are not ubiquitous. This Solomon Scott reaffirmed my faith in that rambunctious grain, rye. It was a special bottle that I miss every time I think back on it.
WESTWARD SINGLE MALT
Tempranillo Cask Finished
Something Westward founder Christian Krogstad said when I interviewed him that really stuck with me was that, when he picks a wine cask to finish Westward’s single malt, he’s looking for a cask that will not add anything new to the whiskey, but rather bring out more of what’s already there. This Tempranillo Cask Finished release was a perfect example. The spicy Tempranillo remnants pulled forward the fruitiness of the barley, and added incredible depth and range to the oak spices imparted from the original barrel. The result was an American single malt that was dark and easygoing, warm and comfortable, lively and flavorful and relaxing like a warm Autumn day outside or cozy indoor Winter afternoon. Every time I sipped this one I just shook my head at how enlivening and flavorful it was. It surprised me anew with each pour. And it was only 90 proof! The flavor punch it offered had the kind of intensity and complexity I associate with cask strength whiskeys.
2021 HARVEST RELEASE
Moscatel Cask Finished
This! Proper notes to come a few weeks from this posting. But here I’ll just say that upon first nosing this bourbon, “Woah!” was the first, second and third thing I said. A strong wave of savory herbal and exotic tea notes hit my nose first. Then came cherry, black pepper, caramel, cream and custard. The taste was very true to the nose—the dried herb/tea medley, the fruit notes now amped up with a rich syrupy apricot aspect added to the mix. The finish lingered long with the fruit notes, creamy caramel, and oak… When I tried it again a week and two weeks later, all those notes hit me anew. They’re hitting me now as I write this! The unique mélange of herbal, spice, tea and fruit notes arising between Woodinville’s bourbon and the rare Portuguese Moscatel de Setúbal pipes it was finished in is a special experience. Mike Steine, Woodinville’s head distiller, had mentioned this one to me when I interviewed him about a month before this bourbon was released. He seemed particularly excited about it. I’m so glad I was able to experience why!
There were other stellar whiskeys that made it to my shelf this past year—such as the exquisite Old Carter Bourbon Batch 9 and the unique, and uniquely rare, Old Potrero Hotaling 18 Year. But the Old Carter would arguably be counted in the widely recognized neo-unicorn pasture, and that old Old Potrero was priced way over the top. So I didn’t include them here.
In another example, the Sam Houston 15 Year was excellent, somewhat sought after nationally, justifiably considered “limited,” yet neither quite up to flip-happy unicorn status nor so uncommonly mind blowing a tasting experience. So it didn’t make this list either, despite being perfectly great.
I could give other examples. But I hope by now the point is made: The experience itself that a whiskey offers can be “unicorn,” without the bottle or brand being deemed so by the online FOMO market. And these are the species of unicorn I will continue to keep my eyes and ears open for in 2022. They’re not aggravating to hunt because, really, I don’t hunt for them. I just wait, patiently—less worried yapping dog and more Venus fly trap, open to what happens to cross my path.
And the payoff? Less stress, less spending, and a greater variety of unusual and unexpected flavor profiles, as well as that indie sense of experiencing something truly uncommon. Because come on now, all things Buffalo Trace haven’t really been uncommon for years, despite being hard to get. They’re known to the point of cliché and are actually quite easily found—if you’re willing to pay the pirates their fee!
Cheers, and happy not hunting!