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These days, there is so much whiskey to choose from, with countless bottles in all categories from bourbon to scotch to Irish to everything in between. It can be hard to sort through them all, and there are indeed plenty of excellent options to consider for the best whiskey brands. But some do stand out, so we’ve put together this list to help steer you towards some of the best whiskeys to buy in different categories. Happy hunting, and cheers.
Rare Breed is sort of a sleeper whiskey from Wild Turkey, a barrel-proof bourbon that doesn’t get the recognition that many others do. But it is one of the best you can find, a blend of six-, eight- and 12-year-old bourbon that is not cut with water before bottling. The proof varies depending on the batch, but usually falls somewhere between 112 and 120. That’s strong, but not overpoweringly so. This is a wonderful whiskey to sip on, and you can reduce the strength a bit yourself if you’d like by adding some water, although it’s complex enough that you might not want to.
There are so many different bourbons to choose from, and bourbon is being made in practically every state these days, but Four Roses Small Batch Select is one of the very best. What makes this Kentucky distillery stand out is that it produces 10 different recipes using two mashbills and five different yeast strains. For Small Batch Select, six of these recipes are selected, each aged for at least six years, and blended into a bourbon that stands with the very best. This 104-proof whiskey is an excellent choice for sipping or mixing.
In the rye whiskey world, there are currently two popular styles—spicy whiskeys made from a mashbill of 95 percent rye, and the “Kentucky style” made using a mashbill hovering somewhere just above the legally required 51 percent rye. This six-year-old whiskey from Russell’s Reserve, distilled at Wild Turkey, falls into the latter category. It’s fantastic in a Manhattan, with vanilla, oak and caramel notes complemented by a hint of black pepper and baking spices. But don’t be shy about pouring this over a large ice cube and just sipping this whiskey on its own.
Barrel proof means that no water has been added to the whiskey before bottling bring down its ABV, so it’s basically as close to sipping from the barrel as you can get. Elijah Craig is a brand made at Kentucky’s Heaven Hill Distillery, and while the core expression is a dependable and affordable bourbon, this more premium barrel-proof version is worth adding to your bar cart. It comes out in three batches per year, and depending on the casks selected this 12-year-old whiskey ranges in proof from about 118 all the way up to a hefty 136. Add a bit of water or ice if you want to tame it a bit, or just sip it neat and feel the heat.
Barrell Craft Spirits is located in Louisville, and the team there are experts at sourcing barrels of whiskey from Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and beyond, and blending them into batches of bourbon that are released throughout the year. There are also some tasty cask-finished whiskeys in the lineup, meaning the liquid is put into a secondary barrel (sometimes more than one) to pick up extra flavor after its initial maturation. Barrell Vantage is one of the latest, a blend of bourbons that was finished in Japanese mizunara, French oak and toasted American oak, giving it notes of tarragon, nutmeg, plum and peppercorn on the palate.
Irish whiskey has exploded in popularity over the past few years, with blends from well-known brands like Jameson leading the way. But for a superior drinking experience try Redbreast, a single pot still Irish whiskey made at Midleton (the same distillery that produces Jameson). “Single pot still” means the whiskey is made at one distillery in a pot still from a mash bill of malted and unmalted barley. This 15-year-old whiskey was aged in bourbon and sherry casks, imbuing it with rich notes of dried fruit, vanilla, spice and a bit of fruitcake on the palate. It has more complexity than its 12-year-old sister, but it’s a bit easier to sip than the 21-year-old.
This Seattle distillery is making some of the best American single malt you can find, with a range of fantastic expressions. The sixth edition of Garryana, part of the Outpost Range, is named after the native Pacific Northwest oak that is used to make some of the barrels it’s aged in. But that’s not all, because brandy and sherry casks are also used as part of the maturation process for this 100 percent malted barley whiskey. Notes of dark fruit, chocolate and citrus combine, resulting in a bottle that you’ll want to come back to and try again.
Fans of sherry cask-matured single malt scotch whisky are surely familiar with The Macallan, but perhaps less so with the whisky from this storied Highland distillery. The GlenDronach matures its whisky in Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, with a lineup of single malts that is quite exceptional. The older expressions are delightful, as are the limited-edition releases like the annual cask strength whisky. But Revival, the 15-year-old expression, is hard to beat, and makes a pretty mean Rob Roy cocktail if that’s your thing.
BenRiach is another lesser known distillery—at least among the general whisky-drinking public—that deserves a little more attention. Both peated and unpeated whiskies are produced there, and for the second year in a row the distillery has released its Smoke Season expression. The whisky is made from the peated malt that runs through the stills seasonally, and the mashbill is 100 percent peated malt as opposed to the mixture of peated and unpeated that goes into other expressions. After aging in bourbon barrels and virgin oak, Smoke Season lives up to its name and is quite smoky, but not overpoweringly so.
The best whiskey cocktails are often the simple classics, like the Old Fashioned or Manhattan. Of course, you can get as creative as you want when mixing up a batch of drinks, as long as you are using a good whiskey as the base ingredient. Knob Creek Bourbon is a wise choice, because this 100-proof nine-year-old whiskey, part of Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection (celebrating 30 years this year), is flavorful and strong enough to shine through whatever other ingredients you are mixing with.
It can be a lot of fun to splurge on whiskey, but sometimes you just want to find a dependable bottle that won’t put the hurt on your savings account. For those situations, turn to Woodford Reserve. This bourbon falls under the Brown-Forman umbrella, the same company that makes Jack Daniel’s and Old Forester, but this bourbon stands apart from those brands. It’s always flavorful with pronounced notes of stone fruit, vanilla, oak and caramel, and it punches well above its price range.
This 10-year-old single-barrel bourbon from Michter’s is hard to find for less than $400 online, but it’s worth it if you’re looking to treat yourself. A decade in new charred oak has done wonders for the whiskey, resulting in a flavorful palate full of classic notes of chocolate, espresso, vanilla and a healthy dose of oaky tannin that isn’t overpowering (each release will differ, of course, as it is a single barrel whiskey). Yes, there are similarly aged bourbons that are sold for a fraction of the price, but this high-quality whiskey is all about the splurge.
Denmark is better known for its snaps than whisky, but the exceptional quality of Stauning’s single malts might change that. The distillery’s Kaos expression is one of the best, made from locally grown barley and rye that has gone into a blend of malt whiskies–peated, unpeated and rye. It was aged for four to five years in both virgin oak and ex-bourbon barrels, and is unfiltered and non-chill filtered. The flavor is alive with smoke but not overpowering, and supplemented with notes of spice, citrus, vanilla, fresh wood and chocolate. This is a bold whisky that is clear about its intention to make its own mark instead of just mimicking the scotch style.
This Canadian whisky is released by American spirits company The Cooper Spirits Co. It was distilled in copper pot stills from a mash bill of 100 percent rye in 1999, aged in new charred oak barrels and bottled at 111 proof. You get some heat on the palate, and of course there’s a bit of tannic smoky oak, but it’s not a punch in the face. Notes of citrus, pepper, fruit and some vanilla balance it out, making this a very nice sipper.
You’ve probably heard the news—Japanese whisky is very rare and very expensive these days. But age statement bottles from distilleries like Hakushu, one of the Suntory distilleries along with Yamazaki and Chita, are just some of the best in this popular category. The 18-year-old expression from Hakushu, a distillery located in the Japanese Alps, is fantastic with notes of light peat, baking spice, honey, vanilla and oak are delectable. If you’re looking for a reason to splurge, this is a bottle that will not disappoint.
There are many differences between different types of whiskey depending on where it’s made. Overall, whiskey is a distilled spirit made from a mash of fermented grains. Bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn and aged in new charred oak containers (virtually always barrels). Single malt scotch whisky must be made from a mashbill of 100 percent malted barley at one distillery and aged for a minimum of three years (ex-bourbon barrels are frequently used). Irish whiskey must be made on the island of Ireland from a mash of grains and aged for three years. These are just some examples, and there are many other styles to explore.
The short answer is however you like it. There is no wrong or right way to enjoy whiskey. If you prefer cocktails, there are plenty of options and whiskey goes well with other ingredients. But consider trying whiskey on its own as well to explore the flavors. A Glencairn glass is a good way to nose and taste whiskey neat, and some people like to add a splash of water. A tumbler works just fine if you’d like to add some ice. Just remember to drink it in the way that you like best.
We considered different factors when picking these whiskeys, with the emphasis being on taste. Because after all, despite a bottle’s availability or the hype surrounding it, that is the most important thing. Tasting whiskey involves a combination of sensations, including the nose, palate, mouthfeel and finish. And each category has different characteristics, so part of the process is to consider how an individual pick fits into its style overall. The bottles on this list represent the best whiskey brands based on all of these options, providing a good overview of selections you can easily purchase in person or online that are good examples of each individual category.
Jonah Flicker has been writing about whiskey and other spirits for nearly a decade, visiting distilleries around the world to meet the people behind the bottles and find out more about their stories. He is a judge for the John Barleycorn Awards, and his work has appeared in many national other lifestyle outlets besides Robb Report, including Esquire, Food & Wine, CNN, USA Today and more.