Earlier this fall 11 notable spirits experts entered the Punch Room at the London Edition and blindly tasted through hundreds of liquor brands, broken down by dozens of categories. This wasn’t just some random grouping of industry specialists. It was, in fact, the Global Spirits Masters. And every autumn they assemble like a certain set of Marvel superheroes. Only instead of fighting inter-dimensional villains, they pinpoint the very best booze on shelves at this very moment. Right now we’re going to reveal what they landed on for the best bourbon. Because it’s quite the controversial pick, indeed.
Their final list of medalists from American Whiskey entries included six bottlings. And we’ll get into all of them in a moment. But only one gold medal went out to a bourbon, specifically. It was for Never Say Die Small Batch Bourbon. If you’re from the US, there’s a good chance that you’ve never even heard of this particular brand. That’s because it bills itself as an “English take on the American dream.”
That’s right. “Never Say Die is the first Bourbon to be distilled in Kentucky, shipped via Atlantic Ocean vessel and then matured in England,” according to the company’s website. The Small Batch is its flagship product, consisting of a high-corn mash bill. 75% of that grain, to be exact. Along with 21% rye and 4% malted barley.
The non-age stated liquid must be at least two years old, as it wears the designation, “Kentucky Straight Bourbon,” on its label. But it is matured for an unspecified amount of time at White Peak’s Distillery in Derbyshire, before entering the bottle at 95 proof. In addition to top notes of vanilla and caramel—which are entirely customary for the category—this unusual bourbon flaunts a spicy, somewhat leathery sort of finish. Perhaps it can be attributed to its unorthodox aging process; shipping out across the Atlantic Ocean to end up in the damp and temperate environs of Northern England.
Now, you might be asking yourself how it’s even possible for bourbon, the most American of whiskies, to be aged and bottled beyond the borders of its native land. Well, it’s a funny thing. But in the federal labeling laws for the liquid, the government says the following about what bourbon must be:
“Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.”
We italicized the word above because it’s the obvious crux of the controversy here. “Produced” definitely means “distilled.” But it does not necessarily imply “matured and bottled,” The wording is vague. Indeed, vague enough to sail many barrels of aging bourbon across the ocean.
For scotch and Irish whiskey, the law is more explicit. In order for any spirit to qualify as one of those famed categories it must never leave its country of origin until it hits the bottle. If you bought a cask of scotch, for example, that spent 50 years resting patiently in Speyside, and brought it down to London in that very same aging vessel to show it off to your friends…guess what? It’s not scotch anymore. So, yeah, don’t do that.
But apparently you can do it with bourbon. And there’s even murmurings that one notable brand of ultra-allocated Kentucky liquid on-shelf today was subject to many years of aging—in Germany! That’s a story for a different day.
Back to Never Say Die. The brand launched in 2017. It is fittingly named for a champion racehorse that won against all odds. As legend has it, after nearly dying during birth, the colt in question was saved by a shot of bourbon. A few short years later, in 1954, he won the Epsom Derby as the ultimate long shot, even impressing Queen Elizabeth II along the way. She was in attendance to see it happen.
As for the other five bottlings that hauled home medals at the Global Spirits Masters, incredibly they all hail from ONE distillery: Uncle Nearest. The heralded producer out of Shelbyville, Tennessee is no stranger to accolades. But winning five medals out of six total is wholly unprecedented. The highest award of them all went to its Single Barrel Black Label, which is labeled merely as a “whiskey.” So, we don’t know whether that means, bourbon, rye, Canadian—perhaps a little bit of everything. All we know is that the judges loved it quite a bit.
Their complete list of winners can be found here.