To add nuanced flavors distillers are increasingly second-aging their whiskies in rum, cognac, wine, sherry and other barrels.
We’ve already covered the best in rye and American single malts for 2021. But of all the branches in the American Whiskey tree currently seeing energetic growth, this just might be the most exciting.
Attributed largely to David Stewart’s work at The Balvenie adding a second aging to his single malts, the concept of “finishes” — complimenting an aged spirit with a second aging in a different wood to affect flavor profiles — has in the last half-decade become the driving force for innovation.
And American whiskies, across categories, have not only embraced the concept but are taking it as far as any other category on the planet. With nearly every label beginning to offer such finishes, we went through dozens to select our favorites.
Whether it’s a gift to a loved one with very good taste, or for yourself to celebrate another successful whirl around the sun, here are our best new American whiskey for 2021: second finishes.
J Henry & Son’s ‘La Flamme’ Armagnac Finished Wisconsin Straight Bourbon
The magic of Joe Henry’s whiskey starts with their chosen grain: an ancient heirloom red corn grown by his grandfather on their small family farm. Once thought extinct, the corn was preserved by UW-Madison and reintroduced to their Dane, Wisconsin soil (they also grow all their own rye and wheat).
This is true farm-to-glass stuff, as their bourbon never leaves their farm until its sold — distilled on premises and aged in their barn — allowing Wisconsin’s rollercoaster climate to lay its hands on the barrels’ aging effects. The family’s 5-Year is the standard brown, but Joe, Liz and sons have branched out to several other editions including a cognac barrel finish and this year their third Anniversary Blend.
But our favorite is J Henry & Son’s brand new La Flamme Reserve expression — a blend of their 5 and 6-year old whiskey then finished 13 months in Armagnac casks they sourced while visiting the famed French region’s La Flamme Festival celebrated every year signifying the end of the grape harvest.
The result of this limited edition offering is an exquisite bourbon with velvety mouthfeel and delicious waves of brown sugar, plums and roasted nuts. $110 / 57.5% ABV
Hillrock Estate “Anthrax XL” Bourbon Finished in Oloroso Sherry Cask
Gotta love it when two great things come together: in this case one of our favorite field-to-glass distilleries Hillrock Estate combining forces with one of the best metal bands of all time, Anthrax.
The second collaboration between the two creative entities, “Anthrax XL” was handpicked with childlike glee by guitarist Scott Ian from the vast stock aging at the Hillrock farm — one single barrel, yielding only 400 hand-numbered bottles, each signed by every member of Anthrax —bottled at cask strength (115 proof).
This particular honey barrel was a Solera-aged bourbon finished for 40 days in a 20-year old Oloroso Sherry cask. We were lucky enough to share a tipple (or five) with the legendary guitarist where Scott illuminated his unique whiskey path — from Maker’s Mark (still a favorite) to digging into the American Whiskey World like a rabid fanatic.
If you’re lucky to find one of 40 limited edition bottles out there, each comes numbered and bearing a literal golden (foil-coated) ticket granting its happy owner admission to an Anthrax headline concert and in-person meet-and-greet during the band’s upcoming 2022 U.S. tour. Who knows, you just might be able to share a tipple yourself. $155 / 57.5% ABV
Rabbit Hole ‘Mizunara Founder’s Collection 15-Year-Old’ Bourbon
Rabbit Hole founder Kaveh Zamanian continues to impress with his seemingly endless drive to experiment and innovate in the world of whiskey. Whether it’s new recipes, unique grains and mashbills or simply out-of-the-box thinking Rabbit Hole not only fearlessly plays with magic tricks but somehow always seems to pull a bunny out of Zamanian’s top hat.
Such is the case with the second offering in their Founder’s Collection —the Louisville distillery’s oldest and now most exquisite offering to date. Rabbit Hole Mizunara Founder’s Collection starts with Kentucky Straight Bourbon aged 15 years in new charred American oak, plucked directly from Zamanian’s own personal collection, and then pours it into one of the rarest aging woods there is, Mizunara, where it rests for another year.
What makes this Japanese oak difficult to work with is not only its rarity but its brittleness — bending the wood and making casks is very difficult, and barrels tends to lose a lot of valuable angel’s share. So Rabbit Hole turned to the Ariake Sangyo cooperage in Shochu Island, the only independent cooperage in Japan, to craft their virgin wood harvested from the Hokkaido forest.
“Creating one-of-a-kind whiskey expressions is my obsession and the latest Founder’s release is a tour de force,” Zamanian tells Maxim. “A tribute to tradition and terroir, this ultimate double-oaked bourbon was crafted for the discerning.”
With whiffs of apple and pear, Mizunara Founder’s Collection offers initial notes of flan, cinnamon and tobacco before developing long luxurious flavors of vanilla frosting (the expensive stuff, not Duncan Hines). Bottled at cask-strength, this rare spirit is worth bagging if you can find it. $1,700 / 51.7% ABV
Woodinville ‘Harvest Release’ Moscatel De Setúbal
With all their grains — corn, rye and barley — grown on the Omlin family farm in Quincy, Washington, Woodinville has blossomed into a coveted whiskey house by those looking for something homegrown & innovative.
In addition to maestros like Westward, Westland, Bainbridge, McCarthy’s, etc Woodinville have helped elevated the Pacific Northwest into one of the best whiskey-crafting regions in the country (world?).
Mashed, distilled and barreled at the Woodinville distillery, their white dog is trucked back over the Cascade Mountains to rick houses where Central Washington’s extreme temperature cycles promote extraction of natural flavors from the wood.
It’s helped Woodinville win Craft Whiskey of the Year, last year nabbing Best Straight Bourbon at the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. For this year’s Harvest Release — which is only sold at the Distillery Tasting Room in Washington — Woodinville takes their fully matured 5-year bourbon & finishes it in 200-gallon Moscatel De Setúbal barrels.
Woodinville is the first American whiskey to finish in this rare fortified wine from Portugal’s Setúbal Peninsula, meaning those whiskey hunters looking for something truly unique will be making this select prey.
If you can find one of the first 500 bottles of Woodinville 2021 Harvest Release: Moscatel Finished Straight Bourbon Whiskey — personally numbered & signed by Founders Brett and Orlin — you might be able to trade it for a car someday. $70 / 50% ABV
Laws Whiskey House ‘Cognac Finished’ Bourbon
The debut of their ‘Special Finish’ series, the Laws Whiskey House’s Cognac Finished Bourbon was first introduced in 2017 as a limited offering. After years of experimentation the southern Colorado distillery settled on a solera process to create this fine gem of an American whiskey.
Laws starts with their core four-grain straight bourbon aged for a minimum of two years in new American oak, selecting the perfect barrels to be finished in 205- and 400-liter cognac casks for secondary aging.
Then the Cognac Finished Bourbon is married together in a 50-year-old 60 hectoliter French oak Cognac foeder, what founder Al Laws considers the perfect vessel for maturation and what enables the solera process to begin with.
Now every year only a portion of their Cognac Finished Bourbon is bottled — only 2,220 for this first release — leaving the rest in the foeder to marry with future blends. This solera process means each annual release will contain liquid and continuity from this first batch in aeternum.
Expect notes of toasted wood, raisin and spiced apple butter. $85 / 47.5% ABV
Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey finished in Madeira Casks
In celebration of Father’s Day, Louisville-based craft distiller Angel’s Envy released a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey finished in Madeira Casks. The limited-run 50% ABV whiskey is the third Cellar Collection release, Angel’s Envy’s special program honoring the late Lincoln Henderson’s pioneering and innovative spirit.
Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer Wes Henderson and his sons went to the remote Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco in 2015, apparently sampling over 30 varieties until they found the perfect casks that “could lend both the dryness of a good sherry and the richness of tawny port to our bourbon,” he explained.
“This release, like all of Angel’s Envy’s whiskeys, was a family effort, so it feels only right to share this bourbon with our fans in celebration of Father’s Day.”
While most Madeira-finished whiskeys spend 3 to 6 months in barrels, Angel’s Envy opts for a full year of finishing to pick up the wine’s famous fruit notes — the longer finishing period adding deeper wood and an extra layer of complexity.
Think notes of caramelized banana, brown sugar, raisins, almonds and faint cherry on the nose, as well as hits of oak, grass, smoke, leather, chocolate and dried cherries on the palate. $500 / 50% ABV
Watershed Distillery ‘6-year Bourbon’ Apple Brandy Finish
Columbus, Ohio’s Watershed Distillery celebrated its 10-year anniversary last year, and added a Bottled in Bond expression to its portfolio over the summer. But our favorite from the Buckeye craft distillery is their brand new limited release 6-year bourbon finished in their own apple brandy (think Calvados) barrels.
Pulling no punches, the single barrel Watershed Distillery bourbon is bottled at 120.8 proof (60.4 ABV) and comes strong at first with apple notes, then apricot, before finishing with spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. $70 / 60.4% ABV
Lucky 7 ‘The Holiday Toast’ 4-Year-Old Double Oak Bourbon
Launched by a pair of bourbon-loving cinephiles, Lucky 7 is named after Warner Brother’s Stage 7 lot — famous for staging so many epic films (e.g. Casablanca, My Fair Lady) it earned the moniker “Lucky Stage 7.”
Having hired Jim Rutledge-acolyte Ashley Barnes as Master Blender, the former Four Roses Assistant Quality Control Manager takes care to curate and source some truly special Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskies.
Among their portfolio the best may be their 4-Year-Old Double Oak “The Holiday Toast” (72% Corn 18% Rye 10% Malted Barley) which is barreled for a second time in a heavy toasted barrel, and the aptly named “The Proprietor” — a 12-Year-Old Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon (72% Corn 18% Rye 10% Malted Barley) bottled at 115.9 Proof. $80 / 58% ABV
Tattersall Port Wine Barreled Straight Rye
Minneapolis’ Tattersall Distilling has carved a name out for themselves crafting quality spirits with local ingredients. Everything from absinthe, aquavit and amaro to blackstrap rum, vodka and orange crema.
With their latest limited-release expression, Port Wine Barreled Straight Rye Whiskey, Tattersall elevated their whiskey game to the next level. Starting with their 100% Minnesota-grown Straight Rye first aged in new charred white oak barrels for two years, the whiskey is then aged for an additional two years in both used tawny and ruby port barrels, and then the two are expertly blended and bottled at 100 proof.
The final spirit offers notes of stone fruit with a touch of tobacco, finishing with a crash of candied orange. $50 / 50% ABV
Ammunition Straight Rye Finished in Pinot Noir Barrels
Sonoma vintners Ammunition Wines, best known for their “The Equalizer” red blend is moving into the spirit world. With the same care they produced their wines, Daylight Wine & Spirits is putting into crafting their whiskies — unsurprisingly their two best offerings utilizing the winemaker’s very own barrels.
With the first founder Andy Wahl starts by marrying their own small batch 2, 3 and 4-year-old bourbon and finishing the blend in French Bordeaux wine barrels that once held Ammunition’s own Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon.
But we lean towards their Ammunition Straight Rye offering that starts with a 2, 3 and 4-year-old rye and finishes the blend in French Burgundy oak barrels that previously housed Ammunition’s award-winning Pinot Noir.
This medium bodied whiskey offers interesting combinations of flavor from the cocoa and butterscotch to the spice of the rye to the black cherry sweetness pulled from the Pinot. The Tasting Panel agrees, scoring the Ammunition Straight Rye 95 points. $45 / 45% ABV
Redemption ‘Pierre Ferrand’ Cognac Cask Finish High Rye Bourbon
Crafted by Redemption Master Blender Dave Carpenter, the noted rye revivalist’s expression starts with Redemption’s pre-Prohibition inspired High Rye Bourbon (60% corn / 36% rye / 4% malted barley) and finishes it for a full year resting in Cognac casks sourced from the esteemed house of Pierre Ferrand.
The wood that aged the cognac — some for over 30 years — plays beautifully with Redemption’s rye-forward whiskey, adding notes of plum, peach preserve and poached pear to the rye’s spice. Further elevating a label that earned ‘Rye Brand of the Year’ at this year’s New York International Spirits Competition, this is one of Carpenter’s best so far in his LTO Specialty Series. $75 / (49.5% ABV)
Coalition ‘Sauternes Barriques finished’ Rye
The brainchild of a trio of veteran spirits industry execs, Coalition jumps out of the gate with the first 100% rye whiskey finished in Bordeaux wine barrels. The juice is already standout, as whiskey made from 100% rye, not balanced with any corn or barley, is expensive and therefore rare in the market.
Crafted at the Kentucky Artisan Distillery in Crestwood in pre-Prohibition Era all-copper pot stills, only local spring water and grains grown one mile from the distillery are used. After maturing the whiskey for five years it is then second aged in one of three hand-picked Bordeaux wine barrels: Margaux, Pauillac, and Sauternes.
Apparently over 150 barrels were inspected just to find the perfect 25 used to finish their rye, and each adds a unique spin to the base whiskey. Of the trio we found the Sauternes Barriques finished Coalition to be the most interesting, with the sweet dessert wine (Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc) adding flavors of dates, raisins and honeycomb to the rye’s inherent spice.
In a nice wrinkle Coalition also bottles their base whiskey at barrel strength, in case you want to do a side-by-side comparison on how each Bordeaux barrel affects the rye. While don’t let packaging make any decisions for us, but the handsomely ridged Art Deco bottles and clean gold label mean the bark is as nice as Coalition’s bite. $75 / 47.1% ABV
Stranahan’s Sherry Cask
While Stranahan’s celebrates its 15th Year Anniversary this year, when they launched their success was hardly preordained — as the first legal distillery to open in Colorado since Prohibition, detractors thought they were nuts.
Of course in the interim many superb distilleries have opened in the Centennial State like Distillery 291, Laws, Leopold Brothers, Blackhat and more gaining worldwide fame — but it all started with Denver’s own Stranahan’s.
This year they released the second batch of their Mountain Angel 10-Year, one of their rarest releases and only the second-ever American Single Malt aged 10 years in new charred American white oak casks. Unfortunately super rare (only 600 bottles made available), we’ll turn your attention to our personal favorite in the lineup: Stranahan’s Sherry Cask.
Pouring their 4-year-old American single malt in Oloroso Sherry barrels that have aged the fortified wine for over 40 years, their small batch whiskey picks up deep sherry notes including blackcurrant, sweet cherry and figs laid upon their single malt base of leather and walnut. $80 / 47% ABV
Balcones Luckenbach American Single Malt Whisky
You’d be hard-pressed at getting more Texas than this offering from Balcones, proud trailblazers of the Texas American Single Malt movement. Start with locally harvested and malted barley, then age it at least three years in new oak barrels and finish it in dessert wine casks sourced from the William Chris Vineyards. Even the name, Luckenbach, is a nod to a ghost town and dance hall near the vineyards.
The latest Luckenbach American Single Malt Whisky offering in Balcones’ ongoing Texas Originals Series—dedicated to ingredients found exclusively in the Lone Star State—is arguably our favorite of a slew of weird and innovative expressions from the Waco distillery (cheeky tip of the cowboy hat to their ‘Tres Hombres’ collaboration with ZZ Top).
The base of Balcones’ delicious single malt lays a foundation upon which sweet notes of peach cobbler and honey are laced, balanced with fragrant potpourri and toasted coconut. $60 / 54.1% ABV
Old Line Double Oak American Single Malt Finished in Port + Madeira Casks
Baltimore distillery Old Line Spirits was born in 2015 when two former EA-6B Prowler-flying Navy pilots took the baton from Golden Distillery, two vets themselves, who passed along both their equipment and knowledge in the craft of whiskey making.
The Maryland distillery’s most interesting product, the Double Oak series, sees Old Line take their already excellent American Single Malt and pour it in special casks for finishing. This year their two limited-edition whiskies were finished in tawny Port and Madeira barrels, the latter offering vanilla and chocolate-covered raisin notes recognizable from the famous fortified wines of the African island.
Both are worth finding at a reasonable pricepoint, but if we had to choose one we’d lean towards the Port, a rich single malt oozing with notes of dark cherries, apricot, cocoa and caramel. $54 / 50% ABV