It’s easy for whisky (or whiskey) fans to get in a rut, especially once they find something they like. But it’s a great big world of wonderful whiskies out there, so I’ve compiled this list of ten standouts in various categories, including bourbon, rye, single malts, and blends from all over the world, all are well worth trying. There’s something for every taste here, and I’ve intentionally chosen whiskies that are actually available – while some are made in limited quantities, none are special one-time releases or attainable only at auction.
Auchentoshan American Oak, Scotch Whisky: The best known of the generally overlooked Lowland distilleries, Auchentoshan is the only Scottish distillery exclusively making triple distilled whisky, with a resulting reputation for being “light.” But this recent family addition is the first aged in American Oak first-fill former bourbon barrels (the distillery’s parent also owns Jim Beam, Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark). While still on the lighter side – as in very smooth – it has plenty of flavor, sweet notes of vanilla and caramelized sugar, with a tiny bit of spiciness and a rich bright gold color. It combines drinkability, flavor and value, and I loved this whisky ($40).
Hibiki 12 & 17, Japanese Blended Whisky: Here at Forbes.com a couple of years back I called Japanese fine whiskies “The Next Big Thing,” and I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. They have become increasingly available, increasingly desirable, and just keep racking up global awards in competition – including world’s best whisky. But I think Japan is even more standout for its blends than its more famous single malts, and as a longtime Scotch lover, I have to say I am as surprised as anyone that I prefer the Hibiki to rivals Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker and the rest of the bunch. To put it simply, I’ve never had a better blend, and I’ve yet to try the super-premium 21 year old. It also comes in a much cooler bottle, but it’s more expensive than its Scottish peers, $60 for the 12 and around $150 for the 17, which by the way is the whisky Bill Murray drinks constantly in the American Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo in the film Lost in Translation, where he plays a Suntory spokesman (which owns Hibiki).
George Dickel Rye Whiskey: George Dickel is the main competitor to Jack Daniels in the very limited world of Tennessee whiskey, which differs from very similar bourbon because of one extra step, charcoal filtering to remove taste impurities. To me the regular Dickel whiskey has always been just okay, but I love the newer rye, and it is arguably the best value in the whisky world, as good as ryes costing twice the price. Made from 95% Indiana-grown rye, it’s ultra-smooth without even a hint of a single unpleasant note, and I like it neat ($25).
Bowmore Small Batch Single Malt, Scotch Whisky: Bowmore is one of Scotland’s most iconic distilleries, and like Islay neighbors Laphroaig and Ardbeg, has long been associated with everything strong and seaside in single malts: peat, smoke, iodine. The distillery is actually built into coastal walls protecting the village from the sea. But this is a slightly kinder and gentler Bowmore, a bridge for Macallan and Balvenie fans (like me) into the more full-bodied world of seaside malts. It gives a preview of the traditional Islay character, without overpowering the palate, adds sweet tropical fruit flavors and an almost rum-like note, and is different from almost anything on the market ($40).
Green Spot, Irish Single Pot: Long rare and prized in its homeland, the Green Spot has only been available in limited quantities on these shores for the past two years – I remember not so long ago hand carrying a bottle back from across the pond. For the past century, almost all Irish whiskies have been blends, but the Midleton Distillery in County Cork has been aggressively returning to the older roots of Irish whiskey making with several single pot still labels. These are similar to single malts, but instead of simply being the product of one distillery they come from one still. While most distilling today is done in huge commercial continuous stills, the Green Spot uses a smaller, older traditional copper pot still, the kind required by law when making Cognac. The Green Spot sold here is one of three versions in Ireland, the non-age statement (the others are 7 and 9 years old), 25% sherry casked, and just delicious ($50).
Midleton Very Rare, Irish Blend: As I just mentioned, most Irish whiskies are blends, and this is the top of the pecking order, the Irish equivalent of Johnnie Walker Blue or Chivas Royal Salute. It blends only triple distilled whiskies aged in bourbon casks that are between 12 and 15 years old, hand-picked by the Master Distiller. It won the highest possible Double Gold at the vaunted San Francisco International Spirits competition and many other accolades. Renowned Irish Whiskey expert Heidi Donelon was the one who hooked me on this when she told me it was “One of the smoothest whiskeys money can buy.” She was right. It comes packaged in a beautiful heavy wooden gift box, and every bottle is individually numbered and signed ($150).
Balblair, Single Malt Scotch Whisky: As the only Scottish distillery making nothing but vintage whiskies, all Balblair releases maintain its core flavor profile, but each is unique due to how many years it spends in casks, and the casks themselves. John MacDonald, Balblair’s Distillery Manager, handpicks each vintage for release when he thinks it is at the peak of perfection, and from every vintage I’ve tried, it seems he is excellent at his job. A very smooth yet very rich and full bodied Highland whisky, it compares very favorably with my number one, Macallan, and Balblair is one of my all-time favorites – and perhaps the greatest hidden gem in the world of Scotch. There are typically 8-10 vintages on the market at any given time, and you can fairly easily find labels from 1965-2002 and many in the $60-$120 range, extremely reasonable for the quality.
WhistlePig Rye: Super-premium rye is likely the hottest spirits category in America, a comeback for our nation’s pre-Prohibition favorite. But among this increasingly crowded field, WhistlePig is arguably the very best, almost too good on its own for classic cocktails like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned. It was introduced in mid-2010 and immediately made a huge splash and can be found in better bars (and liquor stores) everywhere. Longtime Maker’s Mark Master Distiller Dave Pickerell traveled and taste tested whiskies in a quest to find the best rye possible, and discovered this standout pure Canadian version, made from 100% rye, a rarity (law requires just 51%). Pickerell and WhistlePig’s founder purchased the rye whiskey in bulk, and brought it to the company’s Vermont facility where it is hand bottled, causing many confused consumers to believe it is made in Vermont. That hardly matters, because it blew critics away with rave reviews, garnering a stunning 96 points form Wine Enthusiast, and it blew me away with its taste. Like I said, there’s probably no better rye ($65).
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Straight Kentucky Bourbon: The top tier offering from the folks behind the better known Wild Turkey brand is about as close to drinking out of the barrel as you can get. It is sold at a significantly less diluted than normal strength of 110 proof, causing Wine Enthusiast, which gave it 90 points, to write “A word of warning: don’t drink this straight. Don’t even try.” You will definitely want to add a healthy splash of water. It is also not chill-filtered, a common process in the production of whiskies where the liquid is cooled to below 32 degrees and then filtered to remove fatty acids and proteins which makes the finished product “clearer.” Russell’s purist approach keeps all the flavors of the distillation and aging process in the bottle with an unusually dark, deep color. This is helped by the fact that it is aged in the darkest of the distillery’s charred white oak barrels, each hand selected by the father/son distillation team of Jimmy and Eddie Russell ($50).
Macallan Rare Cask: If there is royalty in the whisky world, it belongs to Scotland, and if there is a king of Scotch whisky, it’s The Macallan. I couldn’t leave my favorite distillery out of this list, but wanted to choose something most whiskey lovers might not know – that’s The Macallan Rare Cask. Before this, all regular Macallan (there are also some every old and special limited collector editions) was age labeled, 12, 18, 25, and 30 years old, from $60 – $2,500. But last year the company broke with tradition and introduced a whisky chosen for taste, not age, saying that “For too long, age has been seen as THE ONLY indicator of guaranteed quality, and we know that this simply isn’t correct. The age statement ONLY tells you the age of the whisky when it was bottled.” The Rare is made exclusively from sherry soaked oak casks handpicked out of thousands by Master Distiller Bob Dalgarno, and it is positioned above both the regular 12 and 18 years old at a hefty $300. I got to taste a sample, and it is excellent, and in keeping with the house style, quite smooth, rich and distinctly not peaty or smoky. It’s a little bit more full bodied, spicier and less sweet than the most popular younger Macallan labels