It’s whiskey time, people.

Wondering what bottle of brown is worth reaching for this spring? Our panel of expert spirit authors, educators, and journalists evaluated a river whiskey. And after another incredible competition filled with extraordinary quality, sleeper hits, and tremendous bargains, we are proud to present the Barleycorn Awards Best Of Spring 2023.

Best Bourbon

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof B523

Bardstown, Kentucky
Vitals: 124.2 Proof (62.1% ABV); $70
High score: 95/100 Points

Some Elijah Craig enthusiasts got slightly nervous when the 12-Year age statement was removed. But indeed, their fears will be set aside upon sipping this stunning expression, which clocked in just shy of 12 years at 11 Years, 5 Months. Our judges were blown away by the bourbon’s “leathery, oak, and rancio aromas,” mingling with “roasted nuts and brown sugar.” But the palate catapulted this “fantastic whiskey” to the top bourbon spot this spring, with a “full-bodied palate of coffee bean, leather, tea leaf, and deep spices.”

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Best Single Barrel Whiskey Bourbon/ Tennessee Whiskey

Rock Town Column Still Collection Single Barrel Straight Bourbon

Little Rock, Arkansas
Vitals: 121.8 Proof (60.9% ABV); $42
High Score: 95/100 Points

This outstanding single-barrel offering by Rock Town is born of necessity. Just as the pandemic hit in 2020, Rock Town Founder Phil Brandon sought a production partner to keep up with demand for his growing whiskey company. Brandon teamed up with Bardstown Bourbon Company to make this Column Still Collection. But whatever it took to create this full-proof, non-chill filtered “ass kicker” is OK by us. Our judging panel was blown away by the “complex nose” featuring “licorice, brown sugar, and caramel,” leading to a “fantastic and bold” sip featuring “beautiful notes of vanilla and caramel with honey and dark spices at the finish.”

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Best American Single Malt

Cedar Ridge The QuintEssential First Fill Sherry Cask

Swisher, Iowa
Vitals: 112.6 Proof (56.3% ABV); $90
High Score: 96/100 Points

This is the second year concurrently Cedar Ridge scored top honors in the American Single Malt Category with The QuintEssential. This time it’s the First Fill Sherry Cask expression that turned our judging panel’s collective heads. Made from 100% malted barley and matured in Cedar Ridge ex-bourbon barrels, this whiskey was finished in a 132-gallon, first-fill Sherry butt from Jerez, Spain. It was the “nice, fruity nose” and a glorious palate of “honey and orange mingling with hints of char” that won our judging panel over, capped by a “lingering finish of oak and peppery spice.”

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Best Rye Whiskey

Sagamore Spirit 8-Year-Old Rye

Baltimore, Maryland
Vitals: 111.4 Proof (55.7% ABV); $75
High Score: 97/100 Points

Sagamore Spirit 8-Year-Old is back! This latest Reserve Series release, designed to honor the rich history of Maryland rye, was first launched in 2021 as a super-limited expression. But this 2023 version is more widely available, and we are certainly thankful for that. Noted as a “fine cigar dram,” the nose features “welcoming notes of oak and caramel.” The palate is endlessly entertaining with a full spectrum of “fruit and spice-packed flavors backed up with honey, warm nuts, and old oak. The “all season sipper” whiskey lands with a “complex finish that melts into pralines and cream.”

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Best Single Barrel Rye

Rabbit Hole Boxergrail Kentucky Straight Rye Single Barrel Cask Strength

Louisville, Kentucky
Vitals: 107.2 Proof (53.6% ABV); $141
High Score: 100/100 Points

Boxergrail is Rabbit Hole’s 95% Rye, 5% malted Barley recipe, which is traditionally aged in toasted, #3 char oak barrels and bottled non-chill-filtered. Hand-picked by founder Kaveh Zamanian, this single-barrel expression represents the finest whiskeys of these Boxergrail casks. Our judges agreed that the “organic aromas of straw and earth” meeting “ripe berries, honey, and fresh oak” makes this rye special. But we suspect the “caramelized banana note on the palate” really sealed the deal on Best Single Barrel Rye this spring. “Yum!”

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Best American Whiskey

High Bank Whiskey War Barrel Select – Double Double Pinot Noir

Columbus, Ohio
Vitals: 115.5 Proof (57.75% ABV); $110
High Score: 92/100

Since its inception in 2017, High Bank Distilling has been sourcing and blending award-winning whiskeys as part of its Whiskey War Series. But master blender and distiller Mike Smith considers his Pinot Nor cask finished whiskeys among his finest creations, and this Batch #11, “Double, Double” expression proves his point. Smith first finished his American whiskey blend in a secondary oak barrel before recasting the liquid in a 2nd-fill Pinot Noir cask, totaling six years of aging. “Dark and mysterious,” this whiskey is “surprisingly gentle for its high proof, which is kept in check by the lovely Pinot Noir influence.”

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Best Irish Whiskey

Redbreast 12-Year-Old Cask Strength Series

County Cork, Ireland
Vitals: 116.2 Proof (58.1% ABV); $85
High Score: 100/100 Points

For anyone who wants to determine the quality of a single pot Irish, Redbreast 12-Year-Old is the standard to measure against. And this cask strength expression of the classic is level up. To create this “deliciously soft and sweet” whiskey, master distiller Kevin O’Gorman, and the Midleton team distill a combo of malted and unmalted barley before aging the distillate a dozen years in ex-bourbon barrels and sherry casks. The result is a “gorgeously buttery caramel nose with flan, Crème brûlée, and fresh donuts” on the palate, capped by a “yeasty lightness on the finish that lasts forever.”

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Best World Whiskey

Abasolo El Whisky De Mexico

Jilotepec de Molina Enríquez, Mexico
Vitals: 86 Proof (43% ABV); $40
High Score: 100/100 Points

From the ancient Cacahuazintle (pronounced kaka-wha-SINT-lay) corn in the mash to Abasolo’s 4,000-year-old nixtamalization cooking technique, Master Distiller Iván Saldaña’s unique whiskey speaks to the terroir and traditions of Mexico. But in a blind competition, it’s the flavor that counts, and this “tangy corn whiskey” with “lovely cornbread flavors” and a “refreshing, rich” finish delivered big time. So if you are in the mood for something completely different yet “refreshing and yummy,” this Abasolo El Whisky De Mexico is, according to one judge, a “perfect pour.”

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Best World Single Malt

Rampur Indian Single Malt Asava

Uttar Pradesh, India
Vitals: 90 Proof (45% SBV); $80
High Score: 93/100 Points

Indian whisky can no longer be considered an afterthought as finely tuned single malts are giving Scotland, Ireland, and Japan a run for their money on the competition circuit. Case-in-point is Asava by Rampur. This double-casked single malt is matured in ex-bourbon barrels before finishing in Indian Cabernet Sauvignon casks. But aside from the pleasant nose of sweet malt and deep fruit,” the beauty of this whisky lies in its “flawless balance” of “light and luscious creamy chocolate notes mingling with dark fruits,” concluding with a “coconut and herbal finish.”

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Best Tennessee Whiskey

Jack Daniel’s 12-Year-Old Tennessee Whiskey

Lynchburg, Tennessee
Vitals: 107 Proof (53.5% ABV); $80
High Score: 96/100

“Not sure how it gets any better; I’ll be enjoying a cigar with this one later.” Just like Old No. 7, this JD-12 is made from a standard mash of 80% Corn, 12% Rye, and 8% malted barley. But it’s the time inside the barrel and careful blending that procured this “complex” expression, awash in aromas of “baking spice, clove, and warm bread.” The palate “carries those same notes with the addition of currents and other dried fruit,” capped by an “assertive finish” to complete this “impressive and delicious” Tennessee whiskey.

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Best Wheat Whiskey

Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey

Bardstown, Kentucky
Vitals: 90 Proof (45% ABV); $30
High Score: 93/100 Points

While the popularity of wheated bourbons such as Pappy Van Winkle, Weller, Makers Mark, and Larceny continues to rage, wheat whiskey is barely a blip on the whiskey spectrum. But if there is one wheat whiskey that can lure bourbon lovers to this category, it’s Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight. Thanks to the whaeater’s high corn content (38%), this 7-year age stated, “soft, smooth, and quirky” sipper is a no-brainer for anyone interested in exploring this endlessly approachable whiskey style.

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Best Canadian Whisky

Black Velvet Reserve

Alberta, Canada
Vitals: 80 Proof (40% ABV); $15
High Score: 85/100 Points

Who says an inexpensive whisky can’t be delicious? This 8-year-old Canadian from Alberta is the upscale version of Black Velvet’s three-year-old flagship, which is an absolute bargain for budget-conscious drinkers on the hunt for an affordable, well-aged sipper. Our judges were impressed with Black Velvet Reserve’s “vanilla taffy, brown sugar, and lemon peel” aromas, leading to a “black tea earthiness balanced by maple and corn,” flecked with “tobacco and leather.”

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Best Flavored Whiskey

King’s Chocolate Whiskey

Sevierville, TN
Vitals: 61 Proof (30.5% ABV); $40
High Score: 88/100 Points

Made with King’s family distilled whiskey, natural cane sugar, and chocolate, this “dessert in a glass” has decadence written all over it. From the “rich nose” to the “nostalgic” flavors of “devil’s food flour cake,” our judging panel indulged in the whiskey’s “delightful flavors,” one judge going so far as to pour it over ice cream, a move that is highly recommended. “Would surely taste great in an after-dinner coffee as well.”

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Spirits writers, marketers and designers are among the most influential forces in the spirits industry. Their opinions, ideas and creative talents inform and influence consumer perceptions and buying decisions. The John Barleycorn Society was started by a group of spirits journalists seeking to honor excellence in all facets of the industry. The journalists spent several years creating a comprehensive competition that became the John Barleycorn Awards. An elite team of authoritative and influential spirits journalists was selected to administer the flagship component of the Awards, a blind tasting competition destined to become the preeminent arbitrator of spirits taste, quality and character.