Editor's Picks: Whisky 2018
Our Editor-in-Chief’s recommendations for people who love a good bottle.
“What’s your favorite whisky?” I get this question a lot when people find out what I do. I understand it’s asked with very good intentions, but I must say the notion of “favorite whisky” drives me bonkers. I tend to take a few deep breaths and respond with, “It depends on all sorts of things—the weather, the kind of day I had, where it’s being sipped, and of course, what is available in front of me.” An easier question to answer, given all those factors, is what kind of whisky would I want someone to give me? That last factor is important. We’ve already published a gift guide with some fabulous choices in the American Whiskey spectrum. Besides those, what else do I want in front of me (or that I’d want my friends to have in front of them when I visit)? Here ya go.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Scotch whisky is that all of it is smoky. Once you taste a few different expressions from different regions and distilleries, that perception melts away, but some people just can’t fan that smoky memory out of their head. I guarantee these lovely drams will change their mind, but more importantly, seasoned Scotch drinkers will truly appreciate them.
Aberlour Casg Annamh 48% ABV, $65: The name in Gaelic translates to “rare cask”, referring to the library casks selected by Master Distiller Graeme Cruickshank. Whiskies from three types of casks—Oloroso sherry, large hogshead and American oak—comprise this gorgeously balanced single malt with a hit of sherry-figgy nuttiness. If you can’t find this limited release, I highly recommend Aberlour’s 16 Year (a relative bargain at $85) or if you prefer a more intense, whopping sherryliciousness, the exquisite A’bunadh (cask strength varies, $100).
Speyburn 15 Year 46% ABV, $70: Single malt matured a minimum of 15 years in American oak and Spanish oak is the backbone of this chocolatey, satisfying beauty. It’s tough to find a whisky at this level of maturity that’s of such high quality at this price point.
Glenfarclas 17 and 25 Years both 43%, $115/$180: This year the Speyside distillery celebrates 175 years of Scotch production. There’s nothing flashy to these single malts, but as unpeated Scotch goes, these are some of the most dependably restorative, silky and pleasurable to sip as they come. Both are aged exclusively in ex-Oloroso sherry casks, with the older expression perhaps a bit more chatty in the glass than the younger fella.
Glen Grant Five Decades, 46% ABV $160: A friend at WhiskyFest NYC recommended I taste this Speyside beauty, and so glad she did. It celebrates former Master Distiller Dennis Malcolm’s 50 years at the distillery, marrying casks matured during each of those decades starting in the 1960s. Amazing complexity, and that price?
The Glendronach 15 Year Old Revival, 46% ABV, $90: Having been off the market for three years, this age statement expression from the Highlands distillery blended by renown Master Blender Rachel Barrie (who was just inducted into the Whisky Hall of Fame), makes a triumphant return, using a combination of ex-Oloroso and Pedro Ximinez sherry casks. It’s all the good things about a Cadbury Fruit & Nut Bar in a glass.
Compass Box The Story of the Spaniard, 43% ABV, $80: So many reasons I personally love this whisky. It’s based on a limited edition blend created for one of my favorite New York bars, the Spaniard. This version is named for a character Master Blender John Glaser met on his travels who waxed poetic about the all the nuances of sherry varieties. This new addition to the CB permanent collection contains whiskies aged in various sherry casks, but there’s also a bit (25%) of Spanish red wine cask-aged magic in there too. Sipping it is just so fun and enjoyable, much like meeting those sorts of memorable characters in life.
Ok, bring on the peat!
Laphroaig Cairdeas Fino Cask 2018 51.8% ABV, $90: It’s got all of that “who threw my first aid kit into the beach bonfire?” deliciousness the Islay distillery is known for, accented with salty almonds from the finish in dry sherry cask. The name in Gaelic refers to friendship, as these releases are meant to celebrate fans of the distillery.
Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2010 50% ABV,$60 : Here’s another delight from WhiskyFest week, distilled from Optic and Oxbridge variety barley grown across several farms on the distillery’s home island, all harvested in 2010, then matured in ex-Bourbon and French wine (Rivesaltes, Jurançon and Banyuls) casks. Though technically not that peaty at all, there is a hit of comforting smokiness mingled with flavors akin to a really well made oatmeal raisin cookie. (Note: there is also a peatier, delicious Port Charlotte Islay Barley variant harvested in 2011, which will roll into most markets soon.) For those wanting a real clobber of peatiness, Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte 10 Year is the way to go, 50% ABV, $70.
Old Pulteney 12 Year 43% ABV, $50. To me, this is the whisky equivalent of a favorite sandwich—always glad I ordered it, never disappoints. Produced in Wick way up in the Highlands, this maritime stunner is a seaside vacation in a glass. A consistent top medal winner in the NY International Spirits Competition.
Caol Isla 35 Year 58.1% ABV, price varies from around $700: Alcohol Professor founder Adam Levy reminded me at WhiskyFest that I’d be remiss in not mentioning his favorite of the 2018 Diageo Special Releases. We both agree that at this level of maturity, it still drinks with a smoky, fruity complexity that makes it worth the scratch if you got it (or spending someone else’s who does).
Balcones Peated Texas Single Malt 63% ABV, $90: Wait. What. Huh? I know. When I tasted this limited release at WhiskyFest from the Waco, Texas distillery known for its wacky, renegade approaches I was surprised too. I had to be sure, but gotta tell ya, each sip made me smile. The burn is the right kind, one that begs the embers to stay lit, and the finish is chewy and rich. (Hard to find, but worth the hunt). If not to be found, I’m also a fan of their Fr.Oak (French oak) release, 60% ABV, $80.
Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye 43% ABV, $35: So many special things about this whiskey: It’s the first to be entirely distilled at the new Kilbeggan distillery since its 2010 restoration. It’s the only Irish whiskey with a high rye mash bill (30%—a throwback to recipes of yesteryear). One of the stills used to produce is claimed to be the oldest working working copper pot still in the world. That said, it’s seriously delicious. Neat, Irish coffee, a Manhattan, you kind of can’t go wrong here.
Egan’s Fortitude and Legacy Reserve 15 Year single malts, both 46% ABV, $50/$200: Fortitude is aged exclusively in Pedro Ximinez sherry casks for strength of character, though there are elements to it that come off as refreshingly light and sumptuous. For a luxurious gift Irish whiskey gift, the Legacy, aged 15 years in ex-bourbon casks, is limited to 1,000 bottles and comes in a beautiful, etched decanter. Oh, and it’s quite a lovely drop too, with honeyed fruits and a spicy kick
Tipperary Knockmealdowns, 47% ABV, $80: This friendly single malt from a small family upstart is named for the mountain range near Waterford. It comprises whiskies aged 10 years in ex-bourbon casks that have been proofed with water sourced from the Ballindoney farm in Tipperary. Sounds like a gimmick, but just taste this lovely dram that has a hint of green tea and clove in the finish.
Bushmills 16 Year Single Malt, 40% ABV, $100: While known mostly for its blends, Old Bushmills distillery also happens to excel at producing single malts. A combination of well matured ex-Oloroso sherry and bourbon casks is aged an additional several months in ex-port. Sounds a bit busy, but all these flavors compliment each other well, hitting all the right sweet, earthy and spicy notes. Try this with a square or two of dark chocolate.
Nikka From the Barrel, 51.4% ABV, $70: For a long time one could only find this powerful stunner that’s a favorite among whisky connoisseurs outside the US in 500 mL bottles. Although it still might take a little hunting, one can now find it stateside in 750 mL. The name refers to the many barrel selections of varying degrees of maturation used for the blend, which are then married together for a few months before bottling.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony Gift Pack, 43% ABV, $100: Who wouldn’t want an exquisite whisky with a gorgeous etched pattern on the bottle? This special release celebrates the 30th anniversary of the brand with tabane-noshi, a traditional Japanese symbol of celebration that represents luxury.
Pike Creek 10 Year Rum Barrel Finish, 42% ABV, $40: I loves me a rum barrel finished whisky, well, as long as it doesn’t end up tasting too candy-like. The Windsor, Ontario distillery’s signature whisky is matured in first-fill bourbon barrels and then transferred to rum barrels for about 7 months. Clearly the combination of the temperature fluctuations and careful cask monitoring pay off, with just the right amount of butterscotch sweetness rounding out the cereal notes of the whisky.
In addition to those mentioned in our American Whiskey Gift Guide, these releases are a treat.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed, 58.4% ABV, $40: You know, sometimes I just want bourbon. Because so much of it comes my way (booze writer problems, I know), when I sit down with a glass, I really want to make it count. Here you have a cask strength sipper with no fussy cask finishes, no gimmick, just good bourbon for bourbon’s sake.
Basil Hayden’s 10 Year Old Bourbon, 40% ABV, $60: With so many beloved 10 and 12 year age statement bourbons becoming scarce, it’s nice to see a new one of such quality make an appearance, if for a limited time. Having always been a fan of Basil Hayden’s straight bourbon, this one takes that flavor profile and expands on its apple pie and peppery notes with a silky finish.
Blackened American Whiskey, 45% ABV, $50: It was a noteworthy release from the offset—the band Metallica released a whiskey with legendary Master Distiller Dave Pickerell! Sadly, Pickerell passed suddenly in early November, and this is one of the last collaborations we will get to sip that showcases his expertise. The blend is a bourbon, rye and American whiskey—emphasis on the rye. The blend was rested in the unusual choice of black brandy casks. Well, “rested” is perhaps not the right word since Metallica’s music is played to the barrels during the final maturation process they refer to as BLACK NOISE, making sure all that flavor seeps into the whiskey.
Charbay Doubled and Twisted Lot No. 1, 45% ABV, $50: This whiskey represents tradition—a blend of Alembic pot stilled whiskeys from different categories and techniques (3 year single malt, 7 year whiskey made from stout beer, 3 year whiskey made from aged Pilsner)—all matured together in French and American oak. The result is a bold, spicy and rejuvenating (as in coffee-like) spirit that just exudes magnetic charm.
Here’s to days of good will, cold weather and warm hearts! Cheers!