Whisky! Whiskey! Whiskeh! It’s what to give, it’s what to get, it’s what to drink (and sometimes this time of year, it’s what’s for dinner).* Do you need more of a spiel? Didn’t think so. So let’s pour some drams and get to the Whisk(e)ys of 2017!
Cool Casks Galore!
One of the biggest trends that transcends every category is cask finishes, and this has been a very trendy year indeed.
Using sherry casks for a final touch is somewhat of an old trick, especially in Scotland, but it takes quite a bit of finesse to keep from overpowering the liquid and still allow the whisky-ness to shine through. Some American blenders have done a bangup job with these of late.
Stranahan’s Sherry Cask Finish – This structured and satisfying whiskey is made from their four year old single malt that spends some additional time in Oloroso sherry casks. The finish adds a subtle nuts and berries flavor that allows the original Colorado whiskey to shine through. 47% ABV, $89
Limestone Branch Minor Case Straight Rye – It’s named for Minor Case “M.C.” Beam, one of the original early 19th century owners of this brand with a storied Kentucky lineage. Rye is a tricky one for cask finishes as it gets rather thirsty and can absorb too much of the cask influence. This one is timed just right to give the two year old whiskey a nuanced tang. 45% ABV, $49
Or Perhaps a Festive Taste of Port?
High West Midwinter Night’s Dram Act 5, Scene 2 – this release changes every year and for 2017 it’s a blend of their Rendezvous Straight Rye whiskeys and finished in French oak Port barrels. It tastes just like the name suggests – a soothing, calming sip to cuddle up when the weather outside is frightful, even if you’re current conditions are missing that delightful fire. 49.3% ABV, $80
Other Cool Casks
Producers around the globe are looking beyond fortified wine casks for their wood experiments, whether using barrels previously used for other spirits or building casks from unique tree species or simply using fresh wood to breathe new life into the liquid.
Ohishi Whisky Brandy Cask: You can almost always trust a whisky made at a distillery close to the source of a river, in this case Japan’s Kuma River on the island of Kyushu. It’s made not with barley but with rice (a partially malted blend of mochi and gohyakumanishi) and aged in a series of brandy casks. The result is a spirit with a solid backbone from the higher proof that manages to also be delicately floral, subtly spicy and pleasantly fruity (like sugar plums!). Recommended for that true whisky nerd on your list. 41.6% ABV, $75
Tullamore D.E.W. Cider Cask Finish: This whiskey is special not only because of the original idea – the first commercially produced whiskey finished in bourbon casks that had been used to ferment fresh-pressed cider – it was also only previously available in Ireland and travel retail/duty free. Global Brand Ambassador John Quinn explains the process: “As the cider ferments, the tart yet sweet notes infuse the bourbon casks, creating a layered complexity of nose and taste in the finished whiskey.” 40% ABV, $40
Sagamore Spirit Reserve (Double Oak): Four year old Maryland rye whiskey from the 2017 NY International Spirits Competition Maryland Distillery of the Year is placed in a new oak barrel for a bit of rejuvenation prior to bottling. It’s a neat trick that pumps some freshness into the spirit that gives it a refreshing tingle. 48.3% ABV, $60
Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition: One of the most popular Boilermaker combos – Jameson Irish Whiskey with Irish stout now in one convenient dram! The whiskey is finished in stout seasoned barrels, lending a toffee-chocolatey finish. 40% ABV, $37
Mmmmm Scotchy Scotch Scotch
Laphroaig 27 Year Old: Here’s one for that lux gift list or if you’re lucky enough to be buying on an expense account. It is made from Laphroaig that was previously matured in refill hogshead casks, then transferred to first-fill ex-bourbon casks and refill quarter casks before a final maturation. The result is one of the archetypical and lushest expressions of Laphroaig in recent years – with all that delicious sipping-whisky-near-an-oceanside-bonfire-fueled-by-burning-medicine-cabinet flavor true Laphroaig fans know and love. 41.7% ABV, $750
New releases from The Macallan and Highland Park showcase Edrington Group’s focus on cask selection rather than age statement. The Macallan Classic Cut’s comes from casks seasoned with sherry and HP Full Volume is whisky distilled in 1999 that’s been matured 100% in ex-bourbon casks, bottled in 2017 (named thusly because it was created to showcase the similarity between balancing whisky flavors and making music). Good choices for recipients who like to stay on trend, are thirsty for new releases and appreciate cool packaging. Classic Cut: 58.4% ABV, $90 for Full Volume: 47.2% ABV $110
Old Pulteney 17: No limited editions, no gimmicky cask finishes, just great whisky. OP 17 is a perennial favorite from this maritime-themed distillery based in Wick in the north of Scotland. It’s not quite as peaty as an Islay style like Laphroaig, but a wee bit of sweet smokiness (think pipe tobacco) curls through its honeyed fresh fruit and milk chocolate notes with a hint of sea salt. I’m always happy to have a bottle of this beauty any time, and so should that Scotch fan in your life. 46% ABV, $150
Compass Box Phenomenology: Ever pushing the boundaries of whisky blending, Master Blender John Glaser set out to create a product that would perplex the drinker (according to CB the word means: “An approach that concentrates on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience”) and elicit a range of reactions based on subjective response. Here he sets to prove it’s not about the whats (the pedigree, the distillery sources) of Scotch, it’s the whys (how individual parts make up a whole). Personally, I love how the nose smells temptingly of toasted scones spread with marmalade, but it gets spicier and more warming on the tongue with a cheeky burst of heat on the finish. 46% ABV, $180
It’s Been a Good Year For New Irish Whiskey
Prizefight: This whiskey is a collaboration between Flor Pendergrast and Steven Grasse, combining a blend of 10 year-old malt and 4 year-old grain Irish whiskeys from West Cork, aged in ex-rye casks from Tamworth Distilling in the US. It’s named for the famous 1853 fight between John Morrissey and Yankee Sullivan. However, the whiskey itself is far from aggressive, delivering harmonious fruity-spicy flavors that are a knockout on the rocks or in cocktails. 43% ABV, $45
Tipperary Watershed: This is a sourced single malt whiskey (for now, the distillery’s own whiskey made from home farmed barley is in the works) matured in first-fill bourbon casks that primarily comes from West Cork Distillers, cut with water from Ballindoney farm in Tipperary. It’s rare to find an Irish whiskey with such exotic spice notes like ginger, clove and cardamom, and with such viscosity, but that all makes for a fine cold weather dram. 47% ABV, $65
Just Good Whisky
Three Ships Bourbon Cask: This 2017 double gold NY International Spirits Competition winner is a three year-old blended whiskey (single malt and single grain) from South Africa’s historic 19th century James Sedgewick Distillery that’s finished for 6 months in first-fill bourbon casks. The grain whisky component lends a toffee, cake-like flavor that’s well balanced from the maltiness of the other whiskies in the blend and the char of the bourbon cask. 43% ABV, can be hard to find in the states but if there’s time, find it online.
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Cherry Wood Smoked Barley: Experimental casks? Experimental grain? How about experimental fuel? The 12th release in the limited MC series is a bourbon with 30% barley smoked with cherry wood as part of its mash bill. Bourbon-osity (I just gifted you that word) meets sweet smokiness. 45.2% ABV, $100
Suntory Whisky Toki: A great whisky highball is always a festive treat, and this is one of the best whiskies out there for the task (its blend of three delectable Japanese whiskies – Hakushu, Yamazaki and Chita – are a swingin’ trio that make it a delight neat or on the rocks too). For a limited time and in select markets, snag one artfully wrapped in furoshiki (a traditional, ornate Japanese cloth) from Minibar. 43% ABV, $40
Parker’s Heritage 2017: This is a whiskey gift that gives back, with $10 of each bottle sold benefitting charities for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the disease which earlier this year took the life of beloved and revered Heaven Hill Master Distiller Parker Beam. This year’s release is a sturdy, delicious 11 year-old single barrel bourbon from Beam’s tenure, bottled cask strength at 61% ABV. $130
Little Book (Jim Beam): A more elaborate review was written a couple of months ago here about this formidable first outing from Freddie Noe, son of Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe. Since it’s a family legacy whiskey, here’s the perfect one to pass along and enjoy between family members at the holidays. But best with a large rock of ice as it’s quite the bruiser too at 64.1% ABV. $80
Nooku Bourbon Cream: Festive treat – check. Made with high quality ingredients (high malt content bourbon from Fort Collins, CO’s Old Elk Distillery and premium dairy cream) – check. Cute bunny wearing a scarf on the label – check. Cool thing to bring to a holiday party everyone will rave about – check and check! (Oh, and it won gold in the 2017 NYISC). 17% ABV, $30
We wish you and yours a merry whisky! Cheers!
*Note: Alcohol Professor does not suggest you actually have whisky for dinner. Please drink responsibly.
Amanda Schuster is the Senior Editor in Chief of Alcohol Professor and the author of NEW YORK COCKTAILs available from Cider Mill Press. Certified sommelier, former retail spirits and wine buyer - she likes to think of herself as "bi-spiritual." Please don't ever offer her a Pickleback. Complete bio here.