Our Favorite Whiskey of the Year Brought the Fire

How a Tucson-based distillery captured our hearts with a smoky single malt

December 28, 2021 6:16 am
The smoke from Whiskey Del Bac comes from a "mesquited" process
The smoke from Whiskey Del Bac comes from a "mesquited" process
Whiskey Del Bac

Turns out you don’t need a lot of time to make a great whiskey.

Whiskey Del Bac is a “mesquited” American single malt. That unique process, carried out at a Tucson, Arizona, distillery led by the father-daughter team of Stephen and Amanda Paul, leads to a range of whiskeys that have aged as little as 11 to 15 months.

Which hasn’t prevented the distillery from creating the most interesting and memorable whiskey we tried in 2021. Their Dorado release, while light on the nose, is creamy, smoky, sweet and even juicy — it’s sort of like dessert campfire.

Whiskey Del Bac actually represents a few trends I’ve really started to love this year: American single malts, smoky American whiskeys and distilleries that have teamed up with curators and blenders to create unique expressions (see below).

Anyway, a few other notable whisk(e)y honors for 2021 (and read here for our whiskey distillery of the year):

Best distiller/blender: Marianne Eaves of Eaves Blind/Sweetens Cove

Formerly of Castle & Key and the blender behind the Peyton Manning and friends bourbon Sweetens Cove, Marianne Eaves has struck out on her own to create a uniquely curated whiskey tasting experience called Eaves Blind. Her company’s tasting kits feature matte-black glencairns — to further shield you from assumptions related to appearance before you try — filled with special releases Eaves has overseen alongside the finest craft bourbon distilleries across the country.

Interestingly, none of her first set collaborative bottlings featured anything from Kentucky. Consider Eaves Blind an excellent way to find unique expressions from distilleries you’ve never heard of (and very few people will ever have access to).

You can buy these one-off collaborative bottlings here, and memberships to Eaves Blind will start up again in 2023. We tasted all of them this month; all great, but that bottle from Stumpy’s (in Illinois) is definitely worth your time and $150.

Note: Lost Lantern does something similar (crafting unique bottles with under-recognized and regional distilleries) with equally excellent results; they’re how I discovered Whiskey Del Bac.

A bottle of Jack Daniel's Coy Hill
Jack Daniel’s Coy Hill
Jack Daniel’s

Most surprisingly successful experiment: Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel 2021 Special Release, Coy Hill High Proof

The Coy Hill release is aged on the top ricks of the oldest barrel houses on Coy Hill, the highest hill on the Jack Daniel Distillery property in Lynchburg, Tennessee. The special release features proof points ranging from 137.4 up to a whopping 148.3. I really didn’t believe Jack Daniel’s or any whiskey could really work at that ridiculous level of ABV. I was, thankfully, wrong.

Hudson Whiskey The X Series Cider Cask Rye
Hudson Whiskey
Hudson Whiskey The X Series Cider Cask Rye

Favorite whiskey trend: Pairing ryes with unique secondary maturations

Hudson Whiskey The X Series Cider Cask Rye, a limited release from the upstate New York distillery that put their signature rye through a secondary maturation in apple cider casks, was the most crowd-pleasing whiskey I tried in 2021, and it speaks to the versatility of rye — sometimes a more acquired whiskey taste — when it gets another set of aging in wine, spirit or cider/beer barrels.

A still at Great Jones Distilling Co.
Great Jones Distilling Co.
Great Jones Distilling Co.

Best new distillery (building edition): Great Jones Distilling Co.

I’m gonna be a homer here and pick something local. Great Jones is the first distillery in Manhattan since before Prohibition, and it’s an architectural marvel that should and probably is a must-visit destination in the city (and their whiskey is good, too!).

Redwood Empire Grizzly Beast
Redwood Empire
Redwood Empire Grizzly Beast

Best surprise: Redwood Empire Whiskey

This was such an arbitrary find, but I’m glad I tried it. Hailing from Sonoma County, each release from this California distillery is named after an iconic tree in the Redwood Empire region. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the distillery just released its first two bottled-in-bond releases, the Rocket Top Straight Rye and a Grizzly Beast Straight Bourbon. The latter features some delicious fruity notes (raspberry, orange zest) along with the more expected nutty, caramel and brown sugar notes. 

A barrel from Glenglassaugh
Definitely not the 50-year old Glenglassaugh

Best whisky (guest edition): Glenglassaugh 

We asked Ian Buxton, author of the recently updated 101 Craft and World Whiskies to Try Before You Die, to name his favorite whisky of the year. As he notes: “The most memorable single dram was a 50-year old Glenglassaugh which, by the inflated standards of these extremely old and rare whiskies, was something of a bargain — I use the term relatively.” For more on Glenglassaugh, go here.

five bottles of Penderyn
Penderyn, an excellent whisky from Wales

And a few more winners — click the links to get a full review of each expression:

Best Canadian whisky: Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye

Best Japanse whisky: IWAI 45

Best Irish whiskey: Waterford Single Farm Origin Irish Whisky

Best Scotch: Glenglassaugh Torfa

Best “new world” whisky: Penderyn Distillery Gold Range Madeira Finish (Wales)

Best bourbon: Black Bourbon Society’s Maker’s Mark Private Selection: Recipe 2


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