It’s a big, wide, wonderful world of whisk(e)y out there, and it’s being made in all sorts of interesting ways—an increasing number, some might argue. The most current lineup of recent launches shows that distilleries are emphasizing two things lately.
Some, like Waterford in Ireland and Denmark’s Stauning, are talking terroir and placing the emphasis on the ingredients in the whiskey. Where do they come from? How are they cultivated? How much of that provenance can remain after those ingredients are mashed and fermented and distilled and bottled? Quite a lot, as these bottles show.
Meanwhile, others, such as Amrut in India or Israel’s Milk & Honey with its Apex series, are putting their focus on cask-finishing, asking “What kind of crazy barrels can we finish this stuff in, and how will that affect the flavor of the finished product?”
And for good measure, a new old-school-styled Canadian classic goes to show your grandparents drank some pretty nifty booze as well.
These are six of the past year’s most notable—and delicious—new bottles from around the world.
Just when you think there are no mountains left to climb in the realm of cask-aging, someone comes up with something new. India’s best-known whisky distillery has made a unique barrel from four different kinds of stave: new American oak with a level 3 char, lightly toasted French oak, ex-oloroso sherry, and ex-PX sherry. Spectrum 004 is finished in this Frankenstein-type cask for an undisclosed amount of time after aging primarily in ex-bourbon barrels. The finished product is a fascinating hybrid, with lots of spice and vanilla from the American oak and gobs of dark fruit and light citrus notes from the sherry casks. A deep, reddish-amber color complements the big, brawny flavor profile. Limited to fewer than 6,000 bottles worldwide, Spectrum 004 is a fun gimmick, but much more importantly, it’s a very tasty whisky.
The trickle of innovative and exciting whiskies coming out of Canada has become a steady stream in the last decade or so, while the mainstays like Canadian Club and Black Velvet keep chugging along. Crown Royal, the best-selling Canadian brand, has straddled the line, keeping a foot in both camps. Its classic light-and-smooth expressions remain its bread and butter, but noteworthy experiments like Northern Harvest Rye and the Noble Collection have wowed the whisky cognoscenti. Its new 18-year-old release harkens back to old-school Crown Royal, with notes of vanilla, caramel, and dark fruit, but the extra aging gives it more “oomph.” It’s easy to drink and immensely enjoyable, a terrific (if pricey) reminder why Canadian blends were the most popular whiskies in America for decades.
Mizunara-cask-finished whiskeys aren’t quite as rare as they were just a few years ago, but they’re certainly far from common. Mizunara oak is famed for being a tough wood to work with: Its shape doesn’t easily lend itself to barrel staves, and the barrels that are made tend to be brittle and leak easily. But the distinctive flavor and aroma that results make the trouble worthwhile. The first few mizunara-cask-finished whiskeys were priced astronomically high, but now you can get this, the first-ever Irish whiskey finished in mizunara, for a single Benjamin—not cheap, but not bust-the-bank pricey either. And what you get is quite unlike the typical light-and-sweet Irish fare. Instead, after an opening salvo of honey and gingerbread, savory shiitake mushroom notes come to the fore, along with some cinnamon spice on the finish. Is Irish umami a thing? It is now.
Israel is a great place to make whisky in the same way as India and Taiwan: The hot climate means a faster aging process, which means mature whiskies can come to market in a fraction of the time it would take them to come to fruition in perpetually chilly Scotland. Milk & Honey, Israel’s first whisky distillery, is focusing on cask finishing with its limited-edition Apex series, featuring single malts finished in casks that have formerly held everything from sherry to pomegranate wine. Its cognac-cask-finished expression, bottled at a hefty 58.8% ABV, lets the grape notes of the cognac come to the fore, along with honey, nuts, and spicy oak. For the more dainty of palate, a little water tones down the spice and brings up the sweeter flavors.
Founded in 2005 and recently launched in the U.S., Stauning is made entirely from locally sourced ingredients—we’re talking within a few miles of the distillery. Stauning is named after Thorvald Stauining, the first socialist prime minister in Denmark’s history, and the Kaos name comes from his campaign slogan, “Stauning Or Chaos.” Pretty cool, right? The whisky is pretty cool as well. Stauning makes a rye and a peated single malt, and Kaos is a blend of the two. Weirdly enough, the hybrid tastes of oatmeal, with sweet vanilla and butterscotch joining it up front before smoke and spice take over on the back of the palate; this is a breakfast-in-a-glass we can get behind. It’s a distinctive and fascinating whisky.
What makes Waterford stand out from the Irish whiskey pack? Founder Mark Reynier’s burning desire to show that, yes, terroir can exist in distilled spirits as well as wine. Waterford went on to prove it in various interesting ways over the last couple of years, and now it has come out with this, its first expression using biodynamically farmed grain. What exactly does that mean? It’s complicated—it involves everything from planting during certain phases of the moon to using dung to stimulate roots—but in this case, certainly, it produces a delightful whiskey. Light and floral, with delicate notes of peach and melon, Luna 1:1 is aged a little over three years in four different kinds of cask, but the harshness that afflicts so many younger whiskeys is noticeably absent here.