Issue Four Maggie Kimberl

Judging and distilling

A stint in the judge’s seat helps Maggie see beyond Kentucky 

For the second year in a row I have had the privilege of judging the World Whiskies Awards in Washington, D.C., held at the venerable Jack Rose Dining Saloon. Multiple teams judge round after round of different categories, from ryes to single malts, and everything in between. As you might imagine, Bourbon has been our largest category for quite some time in the American Whiskey portion of the competition. As we worked our way through what seemed like dozens of samples of Bourbon, it became immediately clear that there are some craft distilleries out there really coming into their own. Bourbons that don’t exemplify the typical Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey genre are often times quite interesting, and it gives this writer a great deal of admiration for those willing to put in the tremendous effort it takes to go up against the larger legacy distillers. Not that I knew what I was judging at any point in time, mind you, the judging is completely blind. However, reading through the results has helped me to realize I need to be paying closer attention to the up-and-comers of the whiskey world.

This year’s Best Bourbon in the World honor went to Barton 1792 Full Proof. If you haven’t had a chance to try it yet, I highly recommend picking up a bottle when you see one – with its skyrocketing popularity it is getting harder to find.

One of the biggest surprises for me was the sweeping victory for Balcones, the Texas craft distillery in Waco known for using heirloom corn which has only been around for a decade. Balcones Texas Blue Corn Bourbon took the honor of Best non-Kentucky Bourbon, Balcones True Blue 100 took the honor of Best American Corn Whiskey, and Balcones Texas Single Malt Single Barrel took the honor of Best American Single Cask Single Malt.

Entering blind contests is a great way for craft distillers to get noticed, because there is no room for preconceptions or bias. The products really get to speak for themselves.

“Bourbon has been our largest category for quite some time”

After the judging was over I headed out to Alexandria, Virginia to visit my friend Steve Bashore at Mount Vernon Distillery and Gristmill. He was elbow-deep in the first Bourbon run, particularly noteworthy because of the historic documentation he found to support making Bourbon at George Washington’s distillery. There was no Bourbon in Washington’s time as we understand the term today. Rather, back then they made what was known as ‘common whiskey,’ which means it is made with whatever grains are most plentiful and available, or whatever needs to be preserved. 

During my visit I spent most of the day in the distillery, which is a fabulous experience. They close it down to the public two months out of the year while they make spirits, because the precarious nature of mashing and distilling in period-accurate facilities and on period-accurate equipment does not lend itself well to having tourists traipsing through hour after hour. Not only was I privy to an experience that most people never get to have, but I also had the opportunity to participate in the process.

Rowing mash is hard work, arguably one of the hardest jobs in George Washington’s distillery aside from chopping wood. After watching Steve row tub after tub of mash I decided I needed to get in on the action. 

This was a great way to cap off the year’s whiskey adventures. I started the year on the Bourbon Classic’s main stage for the Whiskey Experts panel, followed by The New Orleans Bourbon Festival, where I led the Bourbon and cigar pairing seminars. Then I found myself in Minneapolis for the Whiskey on Ice Festival, before which I visited the
J. Carver Distillery and Dampfwerk distilleries. Next was a trip to New York, where I visited six cigar and whiskey bars as well as Widow Jane and Kings County distilleries, followed by six distilleries in three days in Virginia and a weekend at Treaty Oak Distillery in Texas after that. All this came before my final trip of the year to the World Whiskies Awards and Mount Vernon.

In 2019 I am looking forward to more trips outside of Kentucky to meet the people building the craft distilling industry. We have a great thing going here in Kentucky and the innovation coming from the craft distilleries outside is going to make us all stronger.


Maggie Kimberl is a spirits journalist focusing on whiskey culture in the United States, though she considers herself to be 'geographically blessed' to live in the epicenter of the bourbon world, Louisville, Kentucky. When she's not covering the bourbon beat you can find her browsing through vintage vinyl with her kids or tending to her homegrown tomatoes. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and check out her blog.

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