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While limited-release bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle or deeply aged single malts like Macallan 25 are hyper-scarce and expensive, you can still find a brilliant whiskey (or whisky, for those made anywhere other than America or Ireland) at your local shop and online for more modest sums.
“A great whisky is simply one that tastes incredible,” says Brendan McCarron, Master Distiller at Distell. “The whiskies I love most always have balance—lots of different flavors and aromas playing off each other. You need to be able to taste the distillery character and the influence of the wood for a whisky to be truly great.“
If you’re looking for a delicious whiskey to enjoy, here are top-notch bottles across a variety of styles to try.
Best Tennessee Whiskey: Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey
If you aren’t familiar with the story of Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, you should be. He is believed to have perfected the proprietary Lincoln County Process for making Tennessee whiskey, which includes a maple charcoal filter that sets it apart from other methods of production.
After chronicling Green’s contribution to the history of American whiskey-making, Fawn Weaver created the brand in celebration of his legacy, and the label 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey is a treat. A blend of whiskeys between 8 and 14 years, sumptuous caramel, dried fruit, and a hint of cinnamon make 1856 a must-have for your bar.
ABV: 100 Proof | Age: 8 Years | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best Sipping Whisky: Glenmorangie Signet Single Malt Whisky
For the men and (now) women of Tain, making Glenmorangie Signet is a labor of love. Over one week a year in the Scottish highlands, the company distills the chocolate malt barley into spirit—a more difficult feat than processing the core variety—before being laid to bed in a woody slumber.
After an unspecified length of aging, Glenmorangie mingles it with some of its oldest stocks. The result is a beautiful dram that's perfect for sipping fireside with friends, rich with notes of bitter chocolate, a sherried sweetness, and a punch of spice.
ABV: 92 Proof | Age: No Age Statement | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best Irish Whiskey: Redbreast 12 Cask Strength
Redbreast uses both malted and un-malted barley to create its 12-year-old Cask Strength Whiskey, which whisky critic Jim Murray included in his 2020 Whisky Bible as Irish Whiskey of the Year. The brand takes the pot-distilled spirit and ages it in both ex-bourbon barrels and Oloroso sherry butts. The typical Redbreast 12-year-old is bottled at 80 proof, while the Cask Strength clocks in at a substantially higher 111.6 proof, which gives the juice more intense flavors and aromas. It’s a fruity dram, rich with big spicy notes, a pop of vanilla, and a strong and long finish.
ABV: 111.6 Proof | Age: 12 Years | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best Japanese Whisky: Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt Whisky
In recent years, the world has fallen hard for Japanese whisky; there simply isn’t enough to go around, so it can be a bit tricky to get your hands on a bottle. The great thing about Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt is that you can still find it on shelves. It’s a brilliant drink—light and full of subtle complexity.
Named for Masataka Taketsuru, the father of Japanese whisky and the label’s founder, this expression is blended for balance. Malt plays off notes of apple and butterscotch, while a spicy note flickers across the palate. It’s no wonder Jim Murray named it the best Japan has to offer.
ABV: 86 Proof | Age: No Age Statement | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best Rye Whiskey: Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Cornerstone Rye
Cornerstone Rye is Wild Turkey’s fourth release in its limited-edition Master’s Keep Series, and to be quite frank, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t all been snapped up yet. Master distiller Eddie Russell concocted this expression using a secret stash of 9- to 11-year-old ryes.
Sure, it’s a bit on the pricey side, but a bottle is well worth the splurge. Big notes of vanilla, apple, honey, pepper, and oak make it a decadent mouthful. It has a substantial feel as it swirls around the tastebuds as well as a long, sweet, spicy finish.
ABV: 109 | Age: 9 Years | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best Bourbon Whiskey: Booker’s Bourbon
Originally hand-bottled by then-Jim Beam master distiller Booker Noe as gifts for his closest friends, the brand started selling a small amount to the public back in 1992. Today, the folks at Beam put out four limited releases of Booker’s Bourbon every year, and they are consistently brilliant. The current release is called “Granny’s Batch,” named in honor of current master distiller Fred Noe’s grandmother Margaret Beam Noe, who was the youngest child of Jim Beam and mother of Booker Noe.
Fred Noe used barrels from two different production dates, aged in six spots in four rack houses to blend this edition that clocks in at a boozy 126.1 proof. It hits all the right notes, with vanilla at the forefront, with a swirl of cocoa, a hint of peanut butter, and a few pops of baking spice along the way.
ABV: 126.1 | Age: 6 Years | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best Scotch Whisky: Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Year Old Whisky
Scotch whiskies made on the island of Islay are famous for their robust smoky profile imbued from the peat-fueled fire used to roast the barley. Ardbeg embraces that tradition and makes some of the finest bottlings for those who love a big mouthful of smoke. Traigh Bhan 19 is no exception.
This single malt is rich and smoky, but what elevates it to the next level is that through that peaty layer explodes a shimmering and intense pineapple note that radiates on your tastebuds and will forever alter the way you experience single malt Scotch.
ABV: 92.4 Proof | Age: 19 Years | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best Cheap: Four Roses Bourbon
Previously known as Four Roses Yellow Label, this iconic bourbon is a steal at around $20. It’s one of those bottles that is often relegated to the bottom of the whiskey aisle shelf, but as Garth Brooks might croon, it’s good to have friends in "low places."
Four Roses uses two different mash bills and five strains of yeast to create spirits which, in the case of this bourbon, are then aged at least five years. The result is a quite approachable glass of bourbon—soft in the mouth and impactful in nearly any cocktail.
ABV: 80 Proof | Age: 5 Years | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best Canadian Whisky: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
When Jim Murray “crowned” Northern Harvest Rye 2016 World Whisky of the Year in his Whisky Bible, a great number of whisky aficionados were shocked and some even bit dismayed. But it is delicious.
Every bottle is 90 percent rye (Crown Royal doesn’t say what makes up the other 10 percent of the mash bill), so it’s rye forward but not quite as spicy as you’d expect. Big notes of apple and cherry ride an undercurrent of clove and lemon. It’s an explosive drink with a lovely, long, and creamy finish. Plus it makes a killer Manhattan.
ABV: 90 Proof | Age: 3 Years | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best for Old Fashioneds: High West Bourye
"To be or not to be" is certainly the Bard’s most famous query. But "bourbon or rye" is the bartender’s most common interrogative on taking an old fashioned order.
But why choose? The Utah label High West’s Bourye takes a pair of straight bourbons plus a rye and blends them into sheer magic. Bottled at 92 proof, it’s a wonderfully complex whiskey with notes of gingerbread, nuts, caramel, cinnamon, clove, mint, and tea. That rich melange integrates well with traditional Angostura aromatics but could inspire a bolder selection of bitters in your next old fashioned.
ABV: 92 Proof | Age: 10 years | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best Under $150: GlenDronach 15 Revival Single Malt Whisky
Best in Show Whiskey at the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, GlenDronach Revival 15 Year Old is a stunning single malt. Discontinued in 2015, This Highland whisky’s return has been much heralded.
Aged in Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks, Revival spends at least a decade and a half asleep in the Spanish wood. When it’s finally time to wake the whisky, the lengthy nap has created a beautiful, dark dram, full of splendid fruity flavors as well as dark chocolate, honey, and a touch of mint. For single malt lovers, this bottle is an absolute must-buy, especially at the price point.
ABV: 92 Proof | Age: 15 Years | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best Honey Whiskey: Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey
Sure, serious whiskey drinkers might scoff at the idea of a honey-flavored whiskey, but if you’re making a hot toddy or a whiskey-based cocktail for someone who likes drinks on the sweeter side, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey could be the ticket.
Technically, it’s a whiskey liqueur, as it’s honey liqueur blended with the iconic brand’s famed Old No. 7 Tennessee whiskey and bottled at 70 proof. The addition of honey gives it a natural sweetness that’s both tasty and versatile. Mix it over ice it with some ginger beer and some citrus for a refreshing Tennessee Buck.
ABV: 70 Proof | Age: No Age Statement | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best for Beginners: Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon Whiskey
Because of the high alcohol content, Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon might seem like an aggressive choice for a novice whiskey drinker, but beginners typically start with ice, which substantially shuts down the flavors.
Wild Turkey 101 and its high rye mash aged in white American oak easily stands its ground against even the largest cube. Plus, it’s a classic whiskey with archetypical bourbon flavors like caramel, cinnamon, and char. As whiskey newbies level up their ability to enjoy more intensity, they can reduce the amount of ice or water they add and suss out new and more subtle notes along the way.
ABV: 101 Proof | Age: Between 6-8 years | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best Flavored: Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon Whiskey
Flavored whiskey can be a bit tricky. Some of it can hardly be called whiskey at all, but Knob Creek Maple is made with all the craft and care of the label’s original expression with a hint of maple sweetness that complements the traditional bourbon flavors of caramel, vanilla, and oak.
A pleasant dose of smoke helps give this whiskey balance and prevent the sugary quality from becoming cloying. It’s a lovely addition to enhance your cocktail repertoire, and if you are keen on living a bit dangerously, it makes a fun adult ice cream topping.
ABV: 90 Proof | Age: No Age Statement | Volume: 750 milliliters
Best Texas Whiskey: Balcones Single Malt Whiskey
When you think of single malts, chances are you think of Scotland. But a number of distilleries in the USA kick out some seriously tasty single malt whiskeys. Texas maker Balcones offers one of the best. The label gets its name from the geological fault zone near the Waco distillery, and its single malt, like the ones made in Scotland, is distilled from 100 percent malted barley.
But unlike the Scotch, who use casks that previously held other booze to age their spirit, Balcones uses new charred American oak. The result is extraordinarily robust, big, bold, dark whiskey. Bottled at 106 proof, it boasts both heat and complexity. A succulent fruity sweetness plays off malt and wood for a truly unique taste of Texas.
ABV: 106 proof | Age: No Age Statement | Volume: 750 milliliters
What to Look for in Whiskies
First and foremost, you'll want to take note of the style of whiskey. Bourbons and ryes are vastly different from single malt Scotch and Japanese whiskies. The uninitiated should feel free to order different styles out at a bar and experiment to dial in their preferences.
Those in the market for whiskey will also want to consider the mash bill (the grains used in the distillation process). Whiskey can be made using malted barley, corn, rye, wheat, and even rice.
You'll also want to take note of how the spirit was aged and for how long. Some styles are not required to indicate age, which is what "No Age Statement" means. Makers offer whiskies aged in all types of wood barrels and different variations impart different flavor profiles. Of course, detecting and discerning the notes from bottling to bottling is half the fun of drinking whisk(e)y.
What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey?
Whisk(e)y is a general term for spirits distilled from fermented grains. Bourbon, on the other hand, is a specific category of whiskey that must be distilled from at least 51 percent corn, aged in new-charred oak barrels, and bottled without artificial colorings or flavorings.
Does whiskey age in the bottle?
Whiskey does not age in the bottle. The aging process occurs in wooden barrels that impart flavors to the spirit.
How long will an open bottle of whiskey last?
While an unopened bottle of whiskey can theoretically last forever, if cared for properly, an opened bottle has a shelf life of between one to two years thanks to oxidation. To preserve your whiskies you’ll want to minimize exposure to sunlight, keep them at a stable, cool temperature, and store them upright.
How is whiskey made?
All whiskies are made by distilling fermented grain and most are then aged in a wooden barrel. Makers use grains ranging from malted barley, corn, rye, wheat, and even rice, a wide variety of yeast strains, water sources, and woods to yield different flavors and create styles of whiskies.
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
Nicholas McClelland is a passionate whisk(e)y drinker who has written about spirits for Men’s Journal, Fatherly, and Inside Hook. His bar is deep with rare single malts, hard-to-find bourbons, and ryes, but he doesn't believe there's anything too precious to share with friends. He interviewed Brendan McCarron, Master Distiller at Distell (formerly Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks, The Glenmorangie Company) for additional research for this roundup.