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In the big world of whiskeys, there's a bottle out there for every taste, price point and preference. Nowadays, you can find whiskey made in every corner of America—indeed, every corner of the world—each with its own specific character and identity. Whether you’re looking for the perfect whiskey to pair with a cocktail, something really smoky and assertive, or a smooth sipper, we’ve got you covered.
Here are some of the best whiskeys you can get your hands on now.
Best Overall: Four Roses Single Barrel
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Plum, Cherry, Vanilla.
Four Roses is a Kentucky bourbon that ticks all the right boxes—it’s affordable, has a variety of different expressions to choose from, and it tastes great on its own or mixed in a cocktail. Mike Vacheresse, the owner of Travel Bar in Brooklyn, N.Y. (which features more than 450 different whiskeys), is a fan of the Single Barrel expression. “Four Roses Single Barrel is the benchmark for me for all other bourbons in terms of proof, flavor, and cost,” he says. “Its high rye mash bill gives [it] a pleasant spicy note, and it has a big mouthfeel and an incredibly smooth finish.”
Master Distiller Brent Elliott uses two mash bills and five yeast strains to create a total of 10 different recipes to make this flagship bourbon, while each Single Barrel release uses just one recipe to highlight a unique building block of the whiskey.
Best Irish: Redbreast 12 Year Old
Region: Ireland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Sherry, Spiced apple, Cream.
While there are cheaper Irish whiskey blends available, Redbreast is worth the extra splurge. There's no blend here—instead, it’s a single pot still Irish whiskey, meaning it's made from a mash bill of malted and unmalted barley and produced at one distillery in copper pot stills. The whiskey is aged for 12 years in a combination of ex-sherry and bourbon casks, imbuing it with rich red berry, spice and sweet vanilla flavors. “Redbreast is the pot still showcase,” says Vacheresse. He considers it an excellent whiskey teaching tool and the perfect introduction to the Irish pot still category.
Best Japanese: Hakushu 12 Year Old
Region: Japan | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Green apple, Citrus, Smoke.
Japanese whiskey, particularly from Suntory, can be very costly and hard to get, but this bottle from the Hakushu distillery in the Japanese Alps is phenomenal. It features crisp notes of unripe melon and apple, along with just a hint of smoke. This 12-year-old whiskey makes a delicious (if expensive) highball, although you might want to save this to sip. Lynnette Marrero, bar director for Llama Inn and Llama San NYC, calls it “delicious, grassy, a little smokier than other Japanese whiskeys.”
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Best Rye: Pikesville Straight Rye
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 55% | Tasting Notes: Cinnamon, Vanilla, Oak.
Two styles of rye whiskey dominate the whiskey market these days: rye made from a 95% to 100% rye mash bill; and the Kentucky-style mash bill that usually contains just above 50% rye, the minimum legally required to be classified as rye whiskey. Pikesville, which falls into the latter category, was originally made in Maryland and is now distilled in Kentucky by Heaven Hill. “Pikesville is my favorite rye because it provides a great symphony of flavors from the rye spice, baking spices, the high proof (110) and maturation from the six years in the barrel,” says Paul Gonzalez, head bartender for the Allegory Bar at D.C.’s Eaton Hotel. “The strong taste of cherries, vanilla and baking spices gives it a really fun take on a cherry Coke.” Try this in a classic cocktail like the Manhattan.
Best Scotch: The Balvenie DoubleWood
Region: Speyside, Scotland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Raisin, Vanilla, Spice.
Among an abundance of single malt scotch to choose from, with various regions showcasing different styles and flavors, The Balvenie stands out as one of the best. The distillery was an early adopter of cask finishes with its DoubleWood 12, which is matured in ex-bourbon barrels and finished in sherry casks. “The beauty of this bottle really shines in the notes that explode from the second aging in Oloroso sherry barrels,” says Pamela Wiznitzer, a consulting bartender. “That rich, round finish gives this scotch a bit more chewiness and lasting linger that I love with every sip.”
Best Peated Scotch: Bowmore 12 Year Old
Region: Islay, Scotland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Peat, Chocolate, Cherry.
Bowmore is mildly peated compared to some other Islay whiskies, but the smoke is distinctly present all the same. But in this 12-year-old expression, the peatiness is balanced out by a rich array of fruit and spice flavors, along with notes of honey and vanilla. The distillery is the first recorded to be in operation on Islay, and this long, storied history is present in this approachable yet pleasantly smoky single malt.
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Best Sherry Cask Scotch: The GlenDronach Allardice
Region: Highlands, Scotland | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Dark chocolate, Walnut, Spice.
For at least part of the aging process, many Scottish distilleries use sherry casks in addition to ex-bourbon barrels to add bold, dried fruit and spice flavors to the whiskey. But some distilleries exclusively age their whiskey in these seasoned barrels, like The GlenDronach. “The 18-year-old Allardice may not be the most famous single malt in the world, but it is perhaps one of the most perfect,” says Daniel Burns, lead bartender at Elixir Saloon in San Francisco. “Its deep sherry notes and flavors of toasted nuts and jammy fruit last seemingly forever on the palate.” The 18-year-old whiskey is matured entirely in Spanish Oloroso sherry butts, no color is added, and it delivers one of the best full-flavored sipping experiences.
Best Bourbon: Elijah Craig
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 47% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Char, Cinnamon.
Elijah Craig is made by Heaven Hill, a distillery that makes other great bourbons and rye whiskeys as well. The liquid in this bottle is aged between eight and 12 years, and it really has everything you are looking for in an affordable but high-quality bourbon. Strong notes of vanilla and oak, and a higher proof of 94, make this a great sipping whiskey, as well as an excellent cocktail component to consider when making an Old Fashioned or Boulevardier.
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Best Barrel-Proof: Stagg Jr. Bourbon
Region: Kentucky | ABV: Varies per batch | Tasting Notes: Brown sugar, Cocoa, Baking spices.
Barrel-proof means that the whiskey has not been cut with water to reduce the alcohol content, often down to 40% ABV, before bottling (legally it can up to 1% lower, though). This is as close to drinking straight from the barrel as most people can get, with an ABV often exceeding 60%. The higher proof offers an unadulterated whiskey drinking experience with an amplified range of flavors—and of course, you can proof it down yourself with some water, if you like. Stagg Jr. is the younger brother to George T. Stagg bourbon, also made by Buffalo Trace, but it’s easier to obtain and usually just as good. “Stagg Jr. is so unfairly under the radar,” says Vacheresse. “Whiskey drinkers are blown away when they are introduced to a few different batches side by side.”
Best Canadian: Lot No. 40 Whisky
Region: Canada | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Raisin, Coffee.
When you think of Canadian whisky, the purple velvet-draped Crown Royal might be the first thing that comes to mind. There are some decent expressions to be found from that popular brand, but there is a whole world of lesser-known Canadian whiskies to sip out there. One highly regarded bottle is Lot No. 40, a 100% rye whisky that is distilled at Hiram Walker in Windsor, Ontario. Look for a little bit of spice here, but overall this is a smooth sipper with notes of cocoa and caramel that pop in the palate.
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Best for Sipping: Aberlour A'Bunadh
Region: Speyside, Scotland | ABV: Varies by batch | Tasting Notes: Sherry, Spice, Vanilla.
This scotch has something of a cult following, and with good reason: it's a high-proof, sherry cask single malt that is consistently delicious. “This is a rare example of a single expression being recognized and sought after by consumers, while the rest of the brand lineup is mostly [underrecognized],” says Vacheresse. Add a bit of water or drink it neat—however you prefer, Aberlour A’Bunadh does not disappoint. Take your time with this as you sip to unveil layer after layer of flavor.
Best Under $50: Buffalo Trace Bourbon
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Anise, Oak.
Buffalo Trace’s eponymous bourbon really stands out from the pack in terms of flavor and price. If you’re looking for a dependable bourbon (or any whiskey really) for less than $50, give this one a try. It’s unpretentious and flavorful, with an ABV that makes it stand up to being used in any cocktail. There are so many good bourbons from the distillery that are expensive and hard to find, and that’s great for collectors. But for the average drinker, stick with this workhorse that is vibrant and bold.
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Best for Old Fashioneds: Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45.2% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Marzipan, Chocolate.
Woodford Reserve launched its Double Oaked expression in 2012. After initial aging, this bourbon is further matured in barrels that are lightly toasted and then heavily charred. This gives the whiskey a full, almost smoky flavor that brings a cocktail to another level. “It's a full-bodied whiskey with loads of vanilla, caramel, fruit and spice notes, all of which are enhanced by their inclusion in the classic Old Fashioned,” says Burns. “Double Oaked also has a nice rich, creamy mouthfeel that works super well with a muddled sugar cube, well soaked with bitters.”
Most Innovative: Bruichladdich Islay Barley
Region: Islay, Scotland | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Citrus, Vanilla.
Scotland’s Bruichladdich distillery is always experimenting with new innovations. Experiments in the concept of terroir in whisky, aging its annual Octomore series in different barrel types, and often making some of the most heavily peated whisky you can find are just some examples. “Their philosophy on whiskey is simple but effective: they care about what they do, and it comes through in their product,” says Brendan Bartley, beverage director of Bathtub Gin and The 18th Room. Wiznitzer agrees, noting, “This distillery (in my opinion) turns out some of the most innovative consumer bottlings in all of Islay.” The Islay Barley 2011 release is a true experiment in terroir. It’s an unpeated whisky distilled from a mash bill of barley grown on six Islay farms in 2010, highlighting the flavors of stone fruit, green apple and citrus zest that the climate and soil bring to the grain.
Best Tennessee Whiskey: Chattanooga Whiskey 111
Region: Tennessee | ABV: 55.5% | Tasting Notes: Malted chocolate, Vanilla, Cinnamon.
There are some really innovative smaller distilleries that have popped up throughout Tennessee in recent years, including Chattanooga Whiskey. This whiskey does not undergo the Lincoln County process, a defining characteristic of Tennessee whiskey in which the new make spirit is filtered through maple charcoal before barreling. So instead of being called “Tennessee whiskey,” it’s labeled as Tennessee High Malt. The whiskey is made from a four-grain mash bill with a large percentage of malted barley, and comes in 91 and 111 proof versions. The latter is the most full-flavored, and sips like a whiskey much older than its two years of barrel aging.
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Four Roses Single Barrel is the best overall whiskey to try. Though it will vary depending on the barrels, the strong flavors of oak and vanilla, and higher proof, make this an excellent sipping or mixing bourbon (view it at Drizly).
How is whiskey made?
Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from a mash bill of grain. Depending on the country, this can mean single grains or a combination of barley (malted or unmalted), corn, rye, oats or others. After distillation, the spirit is typically put into oak barrels to age for a period of time. Again, this depends on the country, but it could be anywhere from six months (or fewer) to 60 years.
What are the different types of whiskey?
Different types of whiskey are made in different countries; in fact, some can legally only be made in a particular country. In the U.S., whiskeys include bourbon (at least 51% corn), rye (at least 51% rye), and single malt (barley). Single malt scotch is made in Scotland from a mash bill of 100% malted barley. Single pot still is made in Ireland from a mash bill of malted and unmalted barley. Other countries typically (but not exclusively) make whiskey (or whisky) from malted barley, like Japan and India.
What's the best way to drink it?
However you like it! There’s no wrong way to drink whiskey, whether it’s on ice or in a cocktail. But experts recommend trying it neat first, perhaps with a few drops of water to bring out the flavor and lower the proof, if you like.
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries to taste and discover for years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets, covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac and all things distilled.
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