Photo by cwwycoff1/Flickr CC
I'm not sure Isaiah Berlin ever drank American whiskey, but if he knew anything about the industry, he'd probably agree that just like writers, some distilleries are foxes, who know a lot of things, and others are hedgehogs, who know one big thing. Four Roses and Jim Beam are foxes; Maker's Mark and Jack Daniel's are hedgehogs. Woodford Reserve, with its great flagship bourbon and its awful line of experimental expressions, is a hedgehog that thinks it's a fox.
And then there's Buffalo Trace, which everyone thinks is a hedgehog but is, in fact, a fox. The distillery is best known for its eponymous Buffalo Trace brand, a 90-proof straight bourbon; it's crisp and ice-sheet smooth, making it a fantastic beginner's quaff. It's the one that first hooked my wife and most of my friends.
From a quick trip to the Web site, you'd have no idea they made anything else--you'd think they were, in fact, a hedgehog. But click on the awards page. There 25 different whiskies are listed, everything from the down-market Virginia Gentleman to the very much upmarket Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old. And a lot of critical favorites in between. There's the Antique Collection, an annual release of five elite barrel-strength whiskies, including (in my order of preference) George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Sazerac Rye, Eagle Rare 17 Year Old, and Thomas H. Handy. Depending on the year, Stagg is often considered the best bourbon in America, a real palate pleaser with strong caramel notes and an almost meaty mouthfeel.