Our expert judging panel of the most influential spirits journalists on the planet have swirled, sniffed and sipped hundreds of spirits in pursuit of perfection.

And here comes the cream-of-the crop in this Spring 2021 Barleycorn International Spirits Competition.

Best Bourbon

Larceny Barrel Proof A121
Louisville, Kentucky
Vitals: 114.8 Proof (57.4); Non-Age-Stated; $50

This is the first release of Heaven Hill’s Larceny Barrel Proof in 2021, a high-octane version of the original wheated bourbon that’s aged between six to eight years and bottled uncut and non-chill-filtered. This whiskey is born of a “high wheat” mash bill of 68% Corn, 20% Wheat, 12% Malted Barley, imparting a soft profile that provides a beautiful counterpoint to the high alcohol content.

What The Judges Say

“Now here’s a great wheated bourbon. Aromas of toast, dried strawberries, and newly mown hay give way to a silky mouthfeel and bright orange and blueberry flavors on the palate. The finish is elegant with piquant fruit and what seems like the entire kitchen spice rack. Yum!”


Best Scotch Whisky

Port Charlotte Heavily Peated Port Charlotte 10
Islay, Scotland
Vitals: 100 Proof (50% ABV); Age Stated 10 Years; $60

Port Charlotte 10-Year-Old is the cornerstone of Bruichladdich’s heavily peated Islay single malt range. Made from 100% Scottish barley and aged in a combination of bourbon and French oak ex-wine casks, this signature single malt is the first permanent release of age-stated whisky from Scotland’s Islay-based distillery.

What The Judges Say

“Aromas of grassy, stewed pears and faint smoke leads to a palate of intense fruit and campfire smoke. This is a lively whisky with a solid structure that’s beautifully proofed and balanced.”


Best American Whiskey

Barrell Dovetail American Whiskey
Louisville, Kentucky
103.2 Proof (62.35% ABV), $80

It wasn’t long ago that American whiskey was a polite term for “bottom shelf.” But things have changed radically in the whiskey universe. Case-in-point is Barrell Dovetail, an outstanding blend of whiskeys finished in a combo ex-bourbon and Dunn Cabernet casks plus toasted French oak, port pipes, and blackstrap molasses barrels. The result is a beautifully balanced and exceptionally complex whiskey that simply blew our judges away.

What The Judges Say

“This is an absolutely delicious whiskey. Even at its intense ABV, thanks to the mitigating special barrel influences blend magically with the whiskey. Seriously easy sipping, this sh%t could get me in trouble.”


Best Tennessee Whiskey

Uncle Nearest 1820 Premium Single Barrel Whiskey
Lynchburg, Tennessee
Vitals: 117.1 Proof (58.55% ABV); Age Stated 11 Years; $120

Topping the charts of Best Tennessee Whiskey is another feather in the cap of Uncle Nearest, the fastest-growing independent American whiskey brand in U.S. history. Qualifying as a single barrel at Uncle Nearest requires a whiskey to be at least 11 years old, sit above 108 proof, and pass rigorous testing by company founders, master blender Victoria Eady Butler, and a panel of whiskey professionals. All the fuss paid off, as our judging panel unanimously voted this not only their favorite Tennessee Whiskey, but best single barrel as well.

What The Judges Say

“Earthy yet beautifully bold—this makes me think of some of the best Old Forester Birthday Bourbons I’ve ever tasted—might even be their recipe. If so, it’s a gorgeous execution of the best they have to offer.”


Best Rye Whiskey

291 Colorado Rye Whiskey Finished With Aspen Wood Staves, Small Batch
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Vitals: 127.3 Proof (63.65% ABV); NAS; $75

Top honors in the Best Rye category belongs to Distillery 291’s small batch offering, 291 Colorado Rye Whiskey Finished With Aspen Wood Staves. This Colorado-made juice is distilled in copper pots, aged in white heavily charred American oak, and finished (as advertised) with locally sourced, toasted Aspen wood staves. This cask strength rye adds its 2021 Barleycorn best-in-class medaling to a growing list of accolades, including a double-gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

What The Judges Say

“Here comes a badass. The nose is sweet, herbal, and oaky with a complex palate filled with dried chile, apricot, and nutmeg. Alcohol level is a nicely integrated asset. Overall a ‘cozy’ whiskey with an edge.”


Best Japanese Whiskey

Suntory Toki Whisky
Vitals: Non age stated; 43%ABV (86 Proof); $49

House Of Suntory’s Toki is a cocktail-friendly high ball vehicle launched in the States in 2016, marking the first modern Japanese whisky priced for cocktails. To produce Toki, master blender Shinji Fukuyo begins with a “dashi” (broth) of equal parts Chita grain and gently peated Hakushu single malt that’s rounded out with Yamazaki.

What The Judges Say

“Inviting malty aromas open the show. Vanilla, butter cookie and barley mingle with gentle smoke on the palate while lovely tobacco spice lingers on the bright finish.”


Best American Single Malt

Cedar Ridge American Single Malt: The QuintEssential
Swisher, Iowa
Vitals: 92 Proof; Non-age Stated; $60

American single malt producers are relentless in their pursuit of world-class quality as the emerging category pushes for recognition on the world stage. And its products like Cedar Ridge distillery’s The QuintEssential, a beautiful Iowan whiskey that gives single malt from the United States a good name. Quintessential is a solera whiskey aged in American Oak and finished in various casks by master distiller Murphy Quint.

What The Judges Say

“Really nice American single malt with a chocolatey nose and excellent balance between the malt’s fruitiness and nut flavors. Silky and balanced, I’m totally impressed by the pepper finish.”


Best Canadian Whisky

Black Velvet Reserve; $14
Alberta, Canada
Vitals: 80 Proof (40% ABV); Aged 8 Years; $13

Black Velvet Reserve is an extra-aged, elevated version of the original black label bottling, first released by Gilbey Brother’s in 1951 and today the second largest selling Canadian whiskey. Following a classic Canadian style, Black Velvet is a corn forward whisky that’s “spiced up” with rye until smooth and flavorful, all of which is aged in ex-bourbon barrels. PS: the $13 price tag is not a typo, making Black Velvet Reserve the best value on the list.

What The Judges Say

“Great balance of flavor and texture here. Delicate and light, this whiskey glides over the tongue with flavors of melon and pepper and a delicious honey and citrus finish.”


Flavored Whiskey

Ole Smoky Salty Caramel Whiskey
Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Vitals: 60 Proof (30 ABV); $25

Nestled in the foothills of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains is Ole Smoky Holler, the most visited distillery in the world. Ole Smoky Distilleries welcomed over 4 million visitors last year. This moonshine company has a long line of flavored moonshines and whiskeys, but sweet and saline Ole Smoky Salty Caramel took best-of-category in this spring’s blind taste competition. Judges cited the whiskey’s natural caramel flavors and impressive finish as its most vital attributes, a crowd-pleasing guilty pleasure.

What The Judges Say

“Peanut brittle aroma with cashews and honey. Natural caramel flavors are balanced nicely with the alcohol and rounded out creamy, salty, and pleasant on the finish.”


Best Rum

Barrell Private Release Rum B646 Finished In A Ruby Port Barrel
Louisville, Kentucky
Vitals: 130.24 Proof (65.12% ABV); Non-Age-Stated; $109

Each Private Release Rum from Barrell Craft Spirits comprises rums from Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, and Rhum Agricôle from Martinique. Once blended, these rums are married in a variety of finishing casks and bottled as single barrels. Taking the “Best Rum” honors this spring is Barrell’s B646, a Barbados rum-based expression, finished in a sweet Ruby Port Barrel and bottled in all of its cask strength glory.

What The Judges Say

“A bright, rich rum with a hint of funk meandering through the palate and finish. It’s bold, well structured, and nuanced despite the heady proof.”


Best Tequila

De-Nada Tequila Reposado
Jalisco, Mexico
Vitals: 80 Proof (40% ABV); Aged Up To 1 Year; $39

De-Nada is a new addition to the tequila scene, whose founders Adam Millman and Danny Neeson pride themselves on presenting only the cleanest and most sustainable products. Produced at the Vivanco Estate in the Tequila region highlands, this lovely reposado is born of Blue Weber estate grown brick-oven roasted agave, fermented with natural yeast, and aged in ex-bourbon casks before being bottled sans additives or coloring.

What The Judges Say

“Toasted fruit aromas open the show. The fragrant and warming palate is a nice balance of oak, earthiness, and sweet cooked agave. Yet, with all that going on, it still retains great minerality. This is one tasty reposado.”


Best Mezcal

Cutwater Mezcal
Durango, Mexico
Vitals: 90 Proof (45% ABV); $60

While most mezcal is made with Espadin agave, it’s Cutwater’s Durango grown Maguey Cenizo (AKA Agave Durangensis) that separates this spirit’s flavors from the rest of the pack. Creating this now award-winning mezcal begins with ripe agave roasted in traditional volcanic rock pit ovens and fermented with wild yeasts, distilled and gently aged to balance, and bottled at an aggressive 90 proof.

What The Judges Say

“Oh, yeah! Pure agave blast on the nose is laden with dry minerality, slate, and clay. Crazy pop of lime zest, roasted root vegetables, and epazote on the palate. The finish is smoked pineapple and cooked aloe, long and slow.”


Best Gin

Wire Works Gin
Boston, Massachussettes
Vitals: 90 Proof (45% ABV); $32

Wire Works Gin is the flagship product of Grand Ten Distilling, a South Boston-based craft spirit company founded by Matthew Nuernberger and Spencer McMinn. Versatile and well balanced, judges wondered aloud how nicely this might taste in a martini or over ice with a lemon twist, and this David sized company outperformed quite a few Goliaths in this spring’s Barleycorn competition to earn top honors.

What The Judges Say

“Fresh, floral, tangy, and rich with a really herbaceous nose and a citrus finish that continues to open on its way down.”


Best Vodka

Pinnacle Original Vodka
France/Clermont, Kentucky
Vitals: 80 Proof (40% ABV); $13

Who says you need to be expensive to taste great? Pinnacle Original Vodka was initially launched by the White Rock Distillery in Lewiston before being acquired by Beam Suntory in 2012. Today, Pinnacle is multi-column distilled in France from locally sourced wheat, resulting in a smooth and effortless vodka that turned Barleycorn’s judging panel’s collective heads.

What The Judges Say

“Solid gold corn vodka with nice body and bright light citrus flavor. Classic, neutral and clean.”


Best Flavored Vodka

Deep Eddy Ruby Red Grapefruit Vodka
Austin, Texas
Vitals: 70 Proof (35% ABV); $18

Heaven Hill’s Deep Eddy Ruby Red Grapefruit accepts its latest accolade as Best Flavored Vodka, and it’s easy to see why. This natural tasting, summery cocktail vehicle is created from a base of Deep Eddy’s signature vodka, infused with real Ruby Red Grapefruit juice and balanced with legit cane sugar, not corn syrup.

What The Judges Say

“Natural bittersweet grapefruit nose stays bright on the palate with a hint of habanero honey. Delivers all the way through…excellent.”


Best Brandy

Five Stories Peach Brandy
Cincinnati, Ohio
Vitals: 80 Proof (40% ABV); Non-Age-Stated; $32

Cincinnati’s Northern Row Brewery is relatively new to the distilling game. But in short order, head distiller Josh Quattlebaum has assembled an impressive portfolio of spirits under the Five Stories label, including vodka, rum, and a collection of gin expressions. But Barleycorn judges were blown back by Five Stories’ Peach Brandy, a clean and fresh cocktail darling made from ripe Georgia peaches juiced on an antique fruit press before distilling.

What The Judges Say

“Funky, fruity, and tasty, the aroma is rich and ester-y with subtle, piquant orchard fruit. Flavors of stewed peaches and delicate currants galore on the palate, concluding light but long with herbs and anise.”


Best Liqueur

Hecate Coffee Liqueur
Minden, Nevada
Vitals: 46 Proof (23% ABV); $30 (.375)

If you are not hip to Nevada’s Bently Heritage Estate Distillery, it’s time to put this soon-to-be-famous grain-to-glass ranch, malt house, and distillery on your radar. Made from a base of Bently’s signature Source One Vodka, Hecate Coffee Liqueur is created with Magpie Roaster’s Pica Pica coffee extract, organic sugar, and like any proper espresso, a twist of lemon.

What The Judges Say

“Outstanding roaster shop nose. Aromas of fresh dark roasted coffee beans carry through on the palate with a curious and welcome touch of nutmeg and citrus. The finish is incredible: rich, complex, nuanced. This is the closest to drinking coffee I’d want in a liqueur.”


Best Ready To Drink Cocktail

Cutwater Spicy Bloody Mary
San Diego, California
Vitals: 20 Proof (10% ABV); $13

Ready-to-drink beverages have taken the United States by storm over the past couple of years, and seemingly overnight, canned cocktails of every stripe are being pumped out to varying degrees of success. But Cutwater’s peppery, citrus-forward, “brunch-in-a-can” Spicy Bloody Mary rose above the rest at Barleycorn this spring, with judges sighting its fresh flavors and balance of citrus, spice, and alcohol as the reasons for its top honor in the category.

What The Judges Say

“Punchy spice and complex, I’d never know this came from a can. Brunch anyone”?


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.