Fall is winding down, which means that for most of the country, the change in seasons will mean more time indoors and, hopefully, more time to cozy up next to a crackling, wood-burning fireplace with a glass of scotch or bourbon.
Yet with so many new whiskeys on the market—particularly from so-called “small batch” distilleries that are very purposely positioned for the upper-premium market—it’s not an easy decision to figure out which ones should make it into your home bar, where oftentimes shelf space is at a premium. Worth reviewed over 75 of the leading whiskeys—from Scotland and Australia to the Tennessee Whiskey Trail and beyond—in search of 15 unique selections that can transform your home bar from boring to positively baronial this winter.
It’s an exciting time in the world of usquebaugh and its global derivatives; not only is there a recent trend in small-batch blends, but several new, alcohol-free (or nearly alcohol-free) versions that have all the flavor and depth that one might see in its more potent cousins are making a big splash in the marketplace. Also, somewhat new to the market are the so-called whiskey and bourbon “experiences” which, although made somewhat more difficult with the onset of the global pandemic, bring together libating, swirling, sniffing and sipping with an immersive in-person brand experience. More on that below.
The Four Roses Lawrenceburg, Kentucky distillery has become a mecca for whiskey lovers in recent years. It’s part of a larger trend sweeping across the industry, blending tasting with immersive experiences. Photo courtesy of Four Roses
Whiskey 101: The Differences Between Scotch, Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, etc.
If you are already a seasoned whiskey imbiber, adept at understanding the major differences among the various types of whiskey, you know that at a basic level, what separates a scotch from a bourbon basically comes down to domicile (hence the pesky spelling differences of ‘whisky’ versus “whiskey”), the mix of underlying grains used in the mash and distinct distilling and aging processes.
The name bourbon—like other famous regions in the wine and spirits world, such as Champagne, France and Tequila, Mexico—is a geographic denomination linked to Bourbon County, Kentucky; for a whiskey to label itself as bourbon, its mash—the mixture of grains from which the product is distilled—must be at least 51 percent maize.
Tennessee whiskey follows essentially the same production process as Kentucky bourbon with one exception: before it goes into an oak barrel for aging, it is subjected to something called the Lincoln County Process, a filtration technique perfected by Jack Daniel’s in which fresh distillate is run through maple charcoal chips or “ricks.”
Scotch, on the other hand, is—you guessed it—from Scotland and is made mostly from malted barley. Irish whiskey (yes, with an “e” like the Americans spell it) is somewhat similar, yet its use of unmalted barley gives it a distinct, smooth flavor that has made it quite popular across the world.
And all of that is just the sip of the iceberg; Canada and Japan (both whisky sans ‘e’ producers), as well as Australia, Finland and Germany also have their own variations on the drink.
Spiritless cofounders (L-R) Lexie Larsen, Abbey Ferguson and Lauren Chitwood, identified whitespace in the bourbon market for non-alcoholic alternatives. Kentucky 74 is their first product offering. Photo by Amy Campbell for Spiritless
In creating this list of 15 must-have whiskeys, we came to the realization that, broadly speaking, when it comes to scotches and bourbons, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who don’t understand whiskey, and those who only think they do. We began our research for this article as card-carrying members of the former and are now most certainly proud denizens of the latter; to really understand how these age-old traditions are colliding with modern technology, the latest in gustatory and palate trends and the exacting demands of urbane sophistication requires years of hands-on experience. Nonetheless, the list we have compiled is an assortment of recommended selections—some of which are not necessarily readily available everywhere but can certainly be acquired by those willing to put in a wee bit of effort.
With a few notable exceptions, most of the labels reviewed here are not brands that would be considered mass-market, and their price points will generally reflect their relative scarcity. In some cases, we chose brands that, in addition to having the requisite appeal in nose, flavor and texture, have the bonus feature of having a tremendous backstory—one with which you can enthrall your drinking partners as you pour them a double.
Finally, a word of caution. This is not a list that should be misconstrued as a ranking. It would neither be fair nor just to attempt to compare an Australian Scotch whiskey aged in red wine barrels with a Kentucky bourbon that purposely sloshes around for years at sea aboard a marine expedition vessel. Just think of this as a cheat-sheet of sorts as you begin stocking up your bar for the winter entertaining season ahead; no need to spend time scavenging across the country looking for the good stuff.
1. The Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Personal Collection Program
Retail Price: $10,000 a barrel
The Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Personal Collection Program combines history, taste-testing and the chance to select your own particular blend. Photo courtesy of Jack Daniel’s
Nothing says you know your bourbon more than having your very own, personalized barrel of Jack Daniel’s, calibrated to your particular gustatory predilections. The legendary Lynchburg, Tennessee distillery offers a high-end experience that should make it onto every sophisticated sybarite’s bucket list. For the fully immersive ‘Jack Daniel’s Personal Collection’ experience you will have to make your way to the company’s main distillery in Lynchburg, where you will be greeted by master distiller Chris Fletcher for a bespoke tasting and selection, although a COVID-friendly virtual tasting option via Zoom is also possible. The affable Fletcher will take you on an hour-long journey through the history of Jack Daniel’s, including how Frank Sinatra propelled the brand into international prominence back in the 1950s.
Depending on a particular blend’s age and its “angel’s share”—the percentage of a barrel of liquid whiskey that magically “disappears” into the heavens during the aging process, transforming an almost undrinkable, high-proof moonshine into a smooth, clean-finished spirit—each barrel can render between 200 to 240 standard 750 mL bottles. Each of the bottles, shipped to a location of your choice, comes habilimented with a bespoke Jack Daniel’s silver medallion necklace that lists the barrel number, rick location, selection date and can include your name, a company logo or even a family crest—making it a far more conversational dinner party lagniappe than a random Rioja that you grabbed from your cellar on your way out the door. Jack Daniel’s will even ship you the original emptied barrel with a personalized barrelhead as a decorative piece for your home bar if you so desire. Perhaps more importantly, your taste buds will live on in perpetuity with your personal recognition plate in the Jack Daniel’s Personal Selection Room in Lynchburg.
2. Hilhaven Lodge Whiskey
Retail Price: $60/ 750mL
While Hilhaven Lodge has seen many owners throughout the years, its rather recent status as whiskey distiller will bestow upon you Hollywood-level conversational equity at your next social gathering. Photo courtesy of Diageo
This is a whiskey that oozes Hollywood.
For those not inebriated with Tinseltown lore, the Hilhaven Lodge is something of an institution among the entertainment industry’s elite. Conceived originally as a remote recreational retreat on the outskirts of Hollywood, the Lodge’s former owners have included Ingrid Bergman and producer Allan Carr. The current proprietor is embattled director and producer Brett Ratner, best known for the Rush Hour film franchise. And much like the Rush Hour flicks, Hilhaven Lodge Whiskey is great proof that not all whiskeys needs to have complexity or intricate backstories to be enjoyed.
Produced by mixing a Tennessee whiskey from the ‘90s, a rye whiskey from ‘80s and a bourbon from mid-aughts, the Hilhaven Lodge Whiskey could have easily become the liquid version of a box office flop, yet it surprises. Uncorking a bottle of Hilhaven is a most uneventful endeavor—as its nose is somewhat difficult to detect, but after a pour, spritzes of caramel and fruit make a cameo in the olfactory. As it hits the tongue, hints of cinnamon and light pepper take over, providing a satisfying third act. This is a very simple drinking whiskey that is a fantastic starting point for beginners who want a taste of something with a backstory. This is not a whiskey that should be imbibed neat; we recommend drinking it with a cube of ice or a splash of water.
3. Kentucky 74
Retail Price: $36 / 750mL
The Spiritless Kentucky 74 supports conscientious cocktailers—those who want to live fully but drink differently. Photo by Amy Campbell for Spiritless
Looking for a 100-calorie old fashioned? Enter Kentucky 74 by Spiritless, a wonderfully distilled non-alcoholic spirit substitute for just about any bourbon cocktail. Targeting millennial and Gen Z cocktailers, this upstart brand took its name after becoming the 74th distiller to be licensed in the state of Kentucky. Intentionally developed for mixed drinks and with only trace amounts of alcohol, this nearly booze-free alternative is extremely nimble: Go halfsies on your next mint julep by pairing it 1:1 with your favorite bourbon whiskey—Spiritless CEO Lauren Chitwood recommends mixing it with a Woodford Reserve. Those wanting to savor the taste of their high ball but have a next-day early wake-up call can opt to go completely ‘full monty’ by replacing the alcohol portion entirely. Either way, Kentucky 74 delivers a high-quality, smooth finish, underpinned by familiar notes of caramel, vanilla and oak.
4. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Retail Price: $46 / 750mL
The Woodford Reserve Double Oaked distinctive taste is the result of an unorthodox aging process. Photo courtesy of Woodford Reserve
The Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon is matured to perfection in two separate handcrafted oak barrels sourced directly from Woodford Reserve’s cooperage. Their unorthodox aging process is a key component to its unforgettable taste: The first barrel is seasoned outdoors for nine months, then toasted and charred on the inside; the second barrel is toasted for more than twice as long as the first and then very lightly charred. The custom crafted barrels allow for a heavier toast, highlighting flavors of honey, cream and vanilla.
Woodford Reserve’s Double Oaked delivers a full-bodied mix of vanilla with a hint of spice. Dark caramel jumps out at you immediately, followed slowly with hints of hazelnut and spiced fruit. By adding a dash of spring water or an ice cube, the flavor profile truly flourishes, with rushes of chocolate and sharp honey now at the forefront. You can’t go wrong with this Versailles, Kentucky-distilled masterpiece.
5. Hudson Whiskey
Retail Price: $54 / 750mL
Hudson Whiskey’s Bright Lights, Big Bourbon: From the foothills of the Shawangunk Mountains, in the heart of the Hudson Valley, to cobblestone streets of Tribeca, to the top shelf in your bar. Photo courtesy of Hudson Whiskey NY
The Hudson Valley is not a place you would normally associate with whiskey distilleries—at least not in the post-Prohibition era; but all of that is changing, and we have New Yorker Ralph Erenzo to thanks for it. Erenzo, who is making the first legally-produced whiskey in the state since Prohibition, selected the centuries-old Tuthilltown Gristmill, situated on the banks of the Wallkill River, to bring back rye whiskey and bourbon to the Empire State.
The Hudson Whiskey bourbon we sampled, marketed as “Bright Lights, Big Bourbon,” impressed. With strains of vanilla and lightly salted caramel, it deploys considerable flavor on the palate—so much to think that you might be in Appalachia and not a few hours outside of Manhattan.
Hudson Whiskey uses small barrels for the maturation process. The industry standard is a 53-gallon cask, but Erenzo took the term ‘small-batch’ quite literally—using petite 3-gallon barrels to age his bourbon over three months. The result is a rich, slightly sweet caramel-colored liquid with a touch of burn. This a one bourbon you will want to showcase at your next social event.
6. Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea
Retail Price: $80 / 750mL
Jefferson’s “Very Small Batch” Ocean is aged at sea aboard a marine exploration vessel. Photo courtesy of Jefferson’s Ocean
Since its inception in 1997, Jefferson’s Bourbon has earned a reputation as something of a wild child in the world of whisky for its unorthodox methods of maturation, from aging in unexpected environments to developing experimental casks. Jefferson’s founder, chief strategist and master blender Trey Zoeller, constantly looks for ways to push the boundaries of the bourbon category while paying respect to the history and integrity of the spirit.
To make Jefferson’s Ocean, Zoeller takes an eight-year-old bourbon and ages it an additional five to 10 months at sea aboard a marine exploration vessel that crosses the equator several times, making ports of call in up to five continents on a typical voyage. You can watch a short video on this bourbon’s fascinating backstory here. Every pour gives you an excuse to tell the fascinating journey of how this maverick brand sailed the seven seas and is now anchoring the whiskey category in your home bar.
Ocean dispatches a complex flavor profile that has hints of salted caramel popcorn—a result of the liquid constantly sloshing around at high sea, its exposure to salty air and the notable temperature fluctuations it will endure during its voyage. Ocean is somewhat hard to find in stock but definitely worth it when you do.
7. Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Retail Price: $45 / 750mL
Four Roses’ small batch bourbon hits above its weight, providing a modern twist on traditional Kentucky-based bourbon making. Its 10-year maturing process for their single malt rye is among the best of the best values for small batch whiskies. Photo courtesy of Four Roses
The Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky is a site to behold; its Old Spanish Mission-style architecture is listed and protected on the National Registry of Historic Places and is an excellent immersive experience for anyone interested in sampling the company’s 10 unique recipes. The Four Roses tradition rests upon 125 years of obsessive care and dedication to the craft of bourbon making. Seven years ago, Four Roses released a special anniversary edition of their Small Batch Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, and the 111-proof batch special bottling enjoyed so much demand that it had to be released through a public lottery in Kentucky.
What’s behind all this success? Many would argue that its Four Roses’ sui generis approach to its mash making; the distillery uses more rye in its mash bills than most bourbons, which gives them their signature spiciness. If you want to nerd out on the science behind bourbon-making, there is no better a place to take a deep-dive than here on the Four Roses website.
Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon should be a staple in any home wet bar. Nurtured through a 10-year aging process, the smokey and spicey dram contains hints of pear and vanilla and is easy on the palette without being forgettable. It is a perfect starting point for newcomers and is likely among the most mix-friendly drinks on this list. Whether you are planning to impress the neighbors with your family’s treasured old fashioned recipe, or are preparing yourself for your relatives’ Thanksgiving lecture on how Mountain Dew was originally made as a whiskey chaser, Four Roses Single Barrel has you covered.
8. WhistlePig Boss Hog VII: Magellan’s Atlantic
Retail Price: $520 / 750mL
WhistlePig’s Boss Hog VII: Magellan’s Atlantic was inspired by the first recorded circumnavigation of the globe. Photo courtesy of WhistlePig
The WhistlePig Boss Hog whiskey (no, not that Boss Hogg) has become a much anticipated annual release—think new iPhone for whiskey connoisseurs. Here, the rules of supply and demand are in full effect, with some editions fetching well over $2,000 for a 750 mL bottle—a testament to the company’s enduring quest to create the finest and most interesting rye whiskey.
This latest version—The Boss Hog VII—takes its customers on a spirited pursuit to the very edges of the earth. Inspired by the first recorded circumnavigation of the globe, The Boss Hog VII: Magellan’s Atlantic is a New England straight rye whiskey with an uncharted cask journey that stretches across continents. After 17 years of slumber in American Oak, it first encounters new Spanish staves from the mountainous forests of northern Spain, a cask nearly impossible to tame yet well worth the effort. Crossing the Atlantic the whiskey finds its finish in fragrant South American teakwood. This rare and outstandingly complex whiskey has formidable barrel strength, bottled between 105.1 and 107.8 proof. This is a powerful, yet still potable, whiskey you will want to have on hand for your most discerning guests.
9. Breckenridge Bourbon-Rye Whisky
Retail Price: $60 / 750mL
Breckenridge is as at home in the mountains as it is in your home bar. Photo courtesy of Breckenridge
It’s a fact that General Washington gave his frozen troops whiskey at Valley Forge during the Revolution to keep their spirits high. If you need a similar pick-me-up this winter, consider grabbing a bottle of Breckenridge Bourbon. Hailing from the Boulder State, the company was founded in 2008 and dubbed itself as the “World’s Highest Distillery,” producing an array of liquor genres. What makes their brew stand out is, unlike some of the other American whiskeys on this list, Breckeridge sticks to the more classic distilling and aging methodologies than its non-Kentuckian cousins. No finishing casks or anything of the like; Breckenridge’s high-rye mash is aged in American oak barrels for three to five years. The award-winning Breckenridge Bourbon will warm your stomach and soul with hints of vanilla, butterscotch, candied orange, apple, dry cacao and brown sugar. A bottle Breckenridge is an apropos addition to any winter bar.
10. Lagavulin Distiller’s Feis Ile 2020 20-Year-Old
Price: $496 / 750mL
With a color of 18-carat gold, the smooth texture offers scents of bonfire smoke with powerful sweetness. Photo courtesy of Lagavulin
Since 1816, on a tiny island off the coast of Scotland, the Lagavulin Distillery has been producing some of the greatest bottles of whisky (note no ‘e’) the world has ever tasted. Unlike in the States, Lagavulin uses pear-shaped stills instead of round barrels for their aging process, and their signature use of peat-fueled fires during the distilling process gives the whisky a smoky flavor. The process is slow, but nothing perfect ever came about in haste.
The first bottling is a powerful, smoothly sweet-smoky and delicious Lagavulin 20-year-old, from casks combined to enhance its spicy richness while keeping the keynote distillery character aromas and tastes. Pouring a glass is an experience in and of itself, so make sure you’re conscious of the moment when you take a sip of a whisky legend.
11. Starward Nova Single Malt Australian Whiskey
Retail Price: $45 / 750mL
This whiskey will feel equally at home in your wine cellar and on your top shelf. Photo courtesy of Starward
Starward Nova Single Malt comes to us from Melbourne, Australia, and boy are we glad it made the trip. This whiskey adopts the vibrancy of “big red” wines from southeastern Australia, maturing in barrels from local wineries that previously held Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. The maturation in red wine barrels creates a light and fruity whiskey that finishes with a bit of a kick.
Is it worth adding to your personal stash? The answer is yes, and the hardware is there to prove it; Starward Nova took home a pair of gold medals at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition for both the “World’s Best Craft Distilled Whisky” and the “Best Australian Single Malt Whisky,” although, admittedly, we’re not sure if the latter is a particularly heated competition. Most recently, Starward brought home a gold medal at the 2020 awards for “Two-Fold Double Grain Whiskey.” The distiller was also recently named “Best Australian Whiskey Innovator” from Icons of Whisky and crowned “Best Australian Single Malt” by the World Whiskies Awards in 2016 and 2017.
12. The High West Silver Whiskey Western Oat
Retail Price: $59 / 750mL
The pride of Utah: High West Whiskey will have you pining for campfires, dusty trails and a star-dusted skies. Photo by Arick Wierson for Worth
The High West Whiskey team based in Park City, Utah have on their hands a beautifully realized suite of high-octane whiskey concoctions, but our favorite player in their lineup, hands down, is their take on unaged oat-based whiskey. Tequila and rum both have their Blancos and Añejos, so why can’t whiskey have its own clear version as well? The name High West Silver Whiskey Western Oat is not only a reference to the liquid’s pellucid coloring, but an homage to Park City’s famed history as one of the Old West’s richest silver mining towns.
Most spirits are born clear and turn brown only after an aging process in a barrel. This High West Silver spends all of five minutes in a barrel to minimize its influence on the taste of the native spirit. Though this clear spirit may look like the moonshine of old, the High West Silver Western Oat is actually 80-proof and comprised from a mash of 85 percent oats and 15 percent malted barley. It is smooth, but reminds you more of a high-end tequila; its rather unwhiskey-like in the traditional sense, but that is exactly why you will want to have this on hand for sipping neat or even shots.
13. BenRiach Authenticus 30 Year Single Malt
Retail Price: $580 / 750mL
This BenRiach has waited 30 years for you to experience its peat-smoked flavor. Photo courtesy of BenRiach
Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine the Northeast of Scotland, where ancient trees dot the wetlands and fog-damp peat covers the ground. Smell the spongy peat collecting on the soles of your shoes as you traverse the fogged land. For over four decades, BenRiach has been using that very peat to mature their spirits within traditional earthen-floored dunnage warehouses. A quick history lesson though: In the early 1970s, the distillery returned to the whisky distilling methods of the 19th century, using malted barley smoked with Highland peat. Research indicated that BenRiach was the first distillery within Speyside to reintroduce this method, which leads many to believe that the distillery holds the oldest maturing peated whiskies in the region.
The 30-year-old BenRiach Authenticus hits you with its distinguished profile and delights with the perfect mix of ripe, developed sweetness and aromatic peat smoke. The medley is matured in bourbon casks before being decanted into virgin oak Pedro Ximénez casks. This is a complex whiskey and will only be appreciated by those with the most discerning of palates.
14. The GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 8
Retail Price: $95 / 750mL
GlenDronach is aged in sherry casks giving it a full bodied, rich flavoring. Photo courtesy of GlenDronach
The GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 8 is the golden ticket into the prestigious Highland distillery’s signature style and mastery of sherry cask maturation. This single malt Scotch whisky is gently matured for 10 years in Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks and bottled at cask strength to deliver optimal character and depth. The whisky sports notes of dark chocolate, caramel and mocha which are accompanied by hints of cherry, raisins and plum. The GlenDronach’s signature is its long and richly satisfying finish; its taste lingers on your tongue, offering an array of sensory delights highlighted by sumptuous fruits, warm spices and intense dark chocolate.
15. Ritual Zero Proof’s Whiskey Alternative
Retail Price: $27 / 750mL
Ritual Zero Proof’s Whiskey alternative aims to be a one-to-one substitute for liquor and was designed with cocktails in mind. Photo courtesy of Ritual’s Zero Proof
We don’t recommend drinking Ritual Zero Proof’s Whiskey Alternative on the rocks, but for a Manhattan, where you want to feel the burn but not the buzz, hell yeah. Ritual Zero Proof is the first American spirit alternative that echoes the taste, the smell and the burn of liquor without the alcohol or calories. The growing popularity of Dry January (although coming off of a 2020 that many people would just as soon forget, this trend might be temporarily at risk) is just one of many signs that teetotaling is on an upswing, and large beverage companies are looking to cash in on the trend. If you sample, as we did, many of the different zero proof or near-zero proof whiskey and bourbon alternatives out there, you will find that Ritual ranks near the top for mixed drinks. We tried it neat, and although it wasn’t undrinkable, we definitely think that it’s best suited for mocktails.
Bonus Suggestion: Cutwater’s Devil’s Share California Whiskey
Retail Price: $80 / 750mL
For those lucky enough to get their hands on a bottle, what you will encounter is a silky-smooth whiskey. Photo courtesy of Cutwater’s Devil’s Share California Whiskey
California-based Cutwater’s founder and master distiller Yuseff Cherney believes that the only true evil is compromise, and it is precisely this thinking that permeates the entire experience—from uncorking to swallowing—when you approach a bottle of Devil’s Share American Whiskey. We made this a bonus entry on our list because a) who doesn’t love getting a bonus? and b) this particular entry is quite hard to find in retail shops.
But for those lucky enough to get their hands on a bottle, what you will encounter is a silky-smooth whiskey. Distilled in small batches to ensure precise control over purity, each barrel of Devil’s Share is then aged in virgin, heavily charred American oak barrels. The result is a distinctly sweet whiskey, bathed in woody caramel and vanilla notes and accentuated by hints of cinnamon, cardamom and licorice.
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