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It seems like medals are handed out to bottles of booze at a breakneck pace in the whiskey and spirits world these days. It’s kind of true, a lot of bottles end up with little stickers or neck hangers touting medals from various awards. And hey, that’s great for them. But with so many medals hanging off those bottlenecks, how do you find the true “best” bottles from each competition?
You have to dig into the actual “best in category” bottles to see what truly rose to the top, that’s how. To that end, we were lucky enough to get the exclusive “best of category” winners from this year’s Ascot Awards. And while we love all spirits around here, we’re going to focus on the bourbon and Scotch whisky categories (with the rest of the winners listed below).
Just to quickly clarify, Fred Minnick’s Ascot Awards are the new kids on the block with this year being the second installment. The medals are “honorable mention,” “gold,” “platinum,” and “double platinum” based on a double-blind panel of judges making those calls one dram at a time. For this list, the double-platinum winners all went into the final’s Thunderdome for a best-in-category showdown before Minnick alone picks the “best in show” bottles.
I’m listing all the whiskey winners below with my own tasting notes, using the distiller’s or Ascot Awards judges’ notes where necessary. In the end, hopefully, you’ll be able to find a new whiskey for your own bar cart.
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
- The 50 Best Bourbon Whiskeys Of 2021, Ranked
- Every Winning Bourbon From Our 2021 Taste Tests, Blind Tasted And Re-Ranked
- The 100 Best Whiskeys Our Head Drinks Writer Tasted In 2021
- We Blind Tasted A Whole Bunch Of $30-60 Bourbons To See If Any Could Beat Weller
- The Best Ten-Year-Old Bourbon Whiskeys, Tasted Blind And Ranked
Best Single Malt Scotch Whiskey: Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Batch #3
Average Price: $360
This is Ardbeg’s yearly release of special batches of 19-year-old peaty malt. The whisky is Ardbeg’s signature peated whisky that’s bottled during a “haar.” That’s a thick and briny foggy morning on Islay, which imparts that x-factor into the whisky as it goes into the bottle.
You’re drawn in with a super subtle waft of soft smoke with hints of sour cream, fennel, and cold-smoked salmon on a pine cutting board that’s been washed in the sea. The palate holds onto that briny seaside vibe as it veers towards sea salt-laden dark bricks of fudge bespeckled with dried orange zest and lavender. The end circles back around to a sooty smoke that feels like a warm granite rock that’s been dipped in the sea and then rolled around in the dying embers of a fire.
This is one of those whiskies that some would say “isn’t for everybody.” I reject that. This is a world-class whisky that’s so well (and deeply) layered, that you’re sure to find something that speaks to you in that pour.
Best Single Malt Scotch Up to 12 Years: Glenmorangie Lasanta
Average Price: $50
The 12-year-old expression from Glenmorangie spends most of those years maturing in old bourbon casks. The juice is then transferred to Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez Sherry casks for a final maturation. It’s then proofed with Highland water and bottled.
There’s a subtle spice next to sweet, almost toffee malts with a touch of honey. There’s some nice dried fruit next to a mild nuttiness. This is definitely a sherry cask finish. A touch of spicy orange and dark chocolate comes in late as those sweet malts linger.
This is a classic entry-level Scotch whisky that’s actually pretty good for bourbon stans. Dried fruits, nuts, and toffee all lend themselves nicely to the subtle malts at play in this one.
Best Single Malt Scotch No Age Statement: Ardbeg Uigeadail
Average Price: $102
The mix of peated malts, yeast, and that inky lake water creates a spirit that’s already full of flavors. That hot juice is then aged in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. When the whisky in the barrels is just right, they’re blending into this single malt expression and bottled.
Smoky plums in a Christmas cake mingle with a very distinct sense of dried flowers and a sugary banana. The star of this show is the balance between the sweet fruits and smoky malts as the spices fade in to accentuate, not overpower. The sip slows down when you add a few drops of water and really lets the smoke, spice, and fruit work together. The end is soft with a sense of urgency, driving you towards your next sip.
This is another smoky whisky that’s so much more than just “peaty.” This is a nuanced sipper that deserves a second chance even if you don’t dig that first sip.
NV William Grant & Sons ‘Fior’ 21 Year Old Blended Malt
Average Price: Limited Availability
This is an ultra-rare one-off bottling from William Grant & Sons.
The chances of finding this one are pretty slim outside of very rare whiskey bars and vaults.
Best Craft Bourbon: Starlight Distillery Single Barrel Bourbon
Average Price: $55
These barrel picks from Huber Winery’s Starlight Distillery are starting to light up the craft bourbon scene. The Indiana juice is real craft from a family going back to the mid-1800s on the same farm (this isn’t MGP). Depending on the barrel, the mash here is a unique one with 58 percent corn, 27 percent rye, and 15 percent malted barley. That whiskey is aged for at least four years before it’s considered ready for these barrel picks.
Expect a big nose with vanilla birthday cake, sprinkles, and a scoop of chocolate ice cream next to a touch of peppery spice, old leather, and a hint of soft wood. The palate leans into the pepperiness and layers in orange and lemon oils with cream soda and subtle berries vibes. The end dries out a tad as the black pepper gives way to that vanilla cake with a mild dose of dry wood and black soil.
You’re going to be hearing a lot about Starlight in the coming months and years as their whiskey starts hitting more and more shelves outside of Southern Indiana. And, trust me, that’ll be a good thing. They rock.
Best Straight Bourbon: Bulleit Barrel Strength
Average Price: $92
This is the standard Bulleit but with a little more dialed-in flavor profile that allows the juice to shine on its own. The sourced bourbon is small-batched from hand-selected barrels and bottled at Diageo’s new Bulleit facility without any filtration or cutting down to proof.
Expect sweet woody notes next to oily vanilla and a big note of black pepper. The taste delivers ripe peaches next to more peppery spice and a hint of Christmas spices, with the vanilla taking a backseat and the oak really stepping in to shine. The end is spicy, hot, oaky, and peachy, with a hint of caramel corn.
This isn’t very surprising. This is hard-core classic bourbon. It’s also bold enough to be the perfect base for a killer old fashioned or Manhattan. Or you can just enjoy it low and slow in a rocks glass on its own.
Best Single Barrel Bourbon, Up to 10 Years: Redemption High Rye Single Barrel Select
Average Price: $50
These bottles are the masterwork of chef-turned-master-blender David Carpenter. The juice is hand-selected MGP single barrels that provide a classic bourbon base that then leans a little softer on the palate.
Vanilla wafers with flecks of orange zest open up toward red berries that are slightly tart yet sweet and dusted with cinnamon, clove, and anise. The palate refines those notes toward dried cherries dipped in chocolate next to a black pepper spice with a touch of lemon, a hint of cedar, and some olf glove leather. The finish softens toward a chocolate-mint ice cream pipe tobacco on the very end while the cherry, lemon pepper, and cedar all slowly fade away.
I just tested this in a double-blind today and it was great! It’s not something I often reach for but I think that might change.
Best Special Barrel-Finished Bourbon: Doc Swinson’s Exploratory Cask La Mente
Average Price: $85
For “The Mind,” a whiskey was created to challenge the mind. The five-year-old MGP barrels were batched and refilled into Oloroso sherry casks for a final maturation before bottling.
Tasting Notes (from the blender):
“NOSE – Holiday spice cake, almond paste, orange zest, and wildflower honey. PALATE – Dried apricots, candied citrus peels, roasted nuts, and baking spices. FINISH – An uplifting and fragrant bourbon full of seasonal fruits and citrus peels followed by honey and toasted oak.”
This sounds pretty delicious but more like a holiday sipper than an everyday one.
Best Small Batch Bourbon, Up to 5 Years: The Heart Distillery Small Batch Cask Strength Bourbon
Average Price: Limited Availability
This tiny Windsor, Colorado, distillery is grabbing some attention with this bottle. Beyond the fact that this is three or four years old, not much else is known.
Tasting Notes (from the distiller):
“Inviting aromas of oak, warm vanilla, and decadent caramel swirl with sweet candied orange and rich plums. The delivery is masterful – silky and full, with slight notes of lingering char playing with the complex sweetness and spice. The finish greets you as an old friend, gracefully revisiting all of the flavors and aromas that met you with the first sip.”
This sounds straight-up delicious. I think I might order one today and not wait until the next time I’m in Colorado.
Best Small Batch Bourbon, 6 to 10 Years: Moylan’s Cask Strength Bourbon
Average Price: $47
Moylan’s is crafty bourbon from Stillwater Spirits in Petaluma, California. This four-year-old whiskey is finished in French Chardonnay barrels before it’s bottled at cask strength.
Tasting Notes (from the distiller):
“Aromatics of rich vanilla and fresh toasted coconut conquer the nose with a soft oaky notion. The brilliant golden-amber hue promises a delicious, elegant complexity of faint coffee bean and restrained citrus sweetness.”
This sounds a little young with that coconut note. That said, it’s worth giving a shot given its placement at this whiskey event.
Best Small Batch Bourbon, 11 Years and Older: Cinder & Smoke 16 YEAR
Average Price: Coming Soon
Beyond the fact that this is a sourced bourbon blended by The Bard Distillery in Kentucky, not much else is available about what’s actually in the bottle.
Tasting Notes (from the Ascot Awards):
“Chocolate, vanilla, and graham cracker s’mores! YUM!”
This sounds like a backyard firepit whiskey. We need more of those so I’m in!
Best Wheat Bourbon: W.L. Weller Full Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $400
This expression is Weller in its purest form. There’s no water added. There’s no filtration. There’s no single barrel supplying the juice in the bottle. This is a marrying of the best barrels wherein the whiskey stayed at 114 proof from going into the barrel to coming out of it.
Imagine red Bing cherries soaked in vanilla syrup then dipped in caramel and allowed to harden then sprinkled with a pinch of sea salt and dusted with mild, powdery cinnamon on the nose. The palate holds onto that mild cinnamon and vanilla but then builds this big, layered vanilla cake with a buttery frosting full of caramel and baking spices with a hint of cherry tobacco and soft, dry cedar in the background … kind of like smoked stained wood paneling in an old bakery. The finish lingers and really leans into the buttery vanilla notes and, eventually, you’re left with this velvet warmth and a distant echo of dark chocolate.
I highly doubt anyone is surprised Weller made it to the top of a wheated bourbon award. This stuff is beloved for a reason and really does kind of live up to the hype around it.
Best Blend of Straight Bourbon: Penelope Bourbon Private Select Batch 21
Average Price: $60
This new-ish whiskey from Penelope really helps solidify the brand as a powerhouse in blending. The whiskey in the bottle is a blend of three bourbon mash bills (one is 21 percent rye, another 90 percent corn, and a 45 percent wheated bourbon — all from MGP), which create a four-grain (corn, wheat, rye, and barley) bourbon. Beyond that, this is about masterfully blending of four to five-year-old barrels into something bigger than the individual parts.
You get a sense of dry cornmeal on the nose next to apple crumble, plenty of wintry spice, a hint of mulled wine, wet brown sugar, and a thin layer of wet yet sweet cedar. A hint of brandy-soaked cherries arrives on the palate with a dusting of dark chocolate powder next to more apple pie filling, spice, and buttery crust alongside a sweet, toffee-heavy mid-palate. The end arrives with a dry wicker vibe, cherry tobacco chewiness, and a hint of that dark chocolate.
These always rule. They’re fun, fresh, and deliver on a serious flavor profile that’s never overwhelming. Wins all around.
Best Tennessee Whiskey: Jack Daniel’s 10
Average Price: $400
This new age statement released from Jack Daniel’s feels like a throwback to a bygone era in Tennessee Whiskey. The whiskey is aged for at least ten years. During that time, the barrels spend time in the “Buzzard’s Roost” at the top of the rickhouse. Once they hit the right flavor profile, those barrels are moved to the bottom floors of other warehouses to slow the aging down. Finally, the whiskey is vatted, proofed, and bottled.
This opens with a rich matrix of cherry syrup, apple cores, sticky toffee, vanilla ice cream, and a thin line of wet and sweet wood. The palate opens up towards the dark fruit but dries it out and married it to a sticky and spicy tobacco leaf while toasted cedar soaked in salted caramel vibes with dry corn husks that are just singed. The finish really takes its time as the cherry attaches to an old cinnamon stick and the tobacco takes on a sticky chewiness with a mild savory fruit edge.
This was one of the best overall whiskeys of all of 2021, so it’s no surprise to see it picking up awards this year. If you can find one, grab it. It’ll change how you see Jack Daniel’s.
Winners from Other Categories:
Other Whiskeys Categories:
Best Special Barrel-Finished Rye: Old Scout Rye Port Cask Finish
Best American Whiskey: Old Carter Straight American Whiskey
Best American Whiskey: Single Barrel: 291 Colorado Whiskey Finished with Aspen Staves, Barrel Proof Single Barrel
Best American Rye Whiskey: O.H. Ingram River Aged Straight Rye Whiskey
Best American Rye Whiskey Single Barrel: Middle West Spirits Straight Rye Whiskey – Dark Pumpernickel Cask Strength
Best Light Whiskey: Penelope American Light Whiskey
Best Craft Whiskey: Chattanooga Bottled in Bond Fall 2017 Vintage
Best Special Barrel-Finished Whiskey: Saints Alley Heretic
Best Blend of Straight Rye: Smooth Ambler Contradiction Rye
Best Whiskey Club Barrel Pick: 5280 Whiskey Society – Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel “Thunder Chicken” and Naptown Bourbon Club Pick – Backbone Bourbon Uncut
Best Blend of Straight Whiskies: Bardstown Triple Blended Stave Finish Distillery Exclusive
Best Blended Malt: Lost Lantern American Vatted Malt Edition No. 1
Best American Single Malt: Cloudsplitter Single Malt Whisky and Old Line American Single Malt Sherry Cask Finish
Best Corn Whiskey: Paradigm Spirits Co. 2020 Heritage Collection
Best Wheat Whiskey: Journeyman Distillery Corsets Whips and Whiskey
Best Flavored Whiskey: Tennessee Legend Salted Caramel
Best Moonshine | Flavored: Tennessee Legend Apple Pie Moonshine
Best World Whisky: Archie Rose Distilling Co Single Malt Whisky
Best Light Whiskey: Penelope American Light Whiskey
Best Canadian Whisky: Paradigm 2022 Heritage Collection
Best Blended Irish Whiskey: The Quiet Man Traditional Blend
Best Flavored Vodka: Deep Eddy Lemon
Best Vodka: Deep Eddy Lemon
Best Gin: Wilder Gin
Best Flavored Gin: Tinkerman’s Gin – Sweet Spice
Best Aged Rum: Privateer Rum Distiller’s Drawer – Intrepid
Best Flavored Rum (Spiced): Bohique Spiced Rum
Best Unaged Tequila: Campovaso Blanco Tequila
Best Reposado Tequila: Familia Camarena Reposado Tequlia
Best Anejo Tequila: E. Cuarenta Anejo Tequila
Best Flavored Tequila: Antano Valencia Orange Flavored Tequila
Best Mezcal: Cutwater Spirits Mezcal Joven
Best Sotol: Cazul 100 Sotol Blanco
Best American Agave Spirit: Cutwater Spirits Mezcal Reposado
Best Baijiu: Ming River Sichuan Baijiu
Best Cognac: Flavored: Grand Brulot VSOP Cognac & Café
Best Apple Brandy: Starlight Distillery 10 Year Bottled-In-Bond Estate Apple Brandy
Best Grape Brandy: O’Neill Vintners & Distillers BRANDYLAB
Best Plum Brandy: Yebiga Bela Plum Brandy
Best Liqueur, Herbal/Botanical: Foro Amaro
Best Liqueur, Chocolate: Faretti Biscotti Chocolate
Best Liqueur, Coffee: Granddad Jack’s Barbershop Coffee Liqueur
Best Liqueur, Cream/Dairy: Evan Williams Egg Nog
Liqueurs, Aperitif: Foro Rosso Vermouth di Torino
Best Liqueur, Fruit: PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur and Ferrand Dry Curaçao
Best Liqueur, Nut: Watershed Nocino
Ready to Drink:
Best Ready-to-Drink Seltzer: Deep Eddy Ruby Red Vodka + Soda
Best Ready-to-Drink Cocktail: Cutwater Spirits Tiki Rum Punch
Best Mixers Non-Alcoholic: Betty Buzz Sparkling Lemon Lime
You can check out Fred Minnick’s pick for “Best in Show” live on Friday, May 27th, on his YouTube channel.