I spent the back half of 2016 living with a couple of women in Flagstaff. They’re huge whiskey fans, so I decided to focus my powers on them for a couple weeks to gather whiskies from around the world.
Of course, none of us really understood how refined this power had gotten over the past few months, so when I sent out feelers to find the best whiskies in the world, I wasn’t disappointed.
What I ended up gifting my roommates with is the largest collection of whiskey in their city, if not the entire state. Here are a few pics of it.
We spent a couple days sipping as many as possible to understand what’s actually good and what’s just hype. Some are overrated (looking at you Johnnie Walker Blue Label), and some are hidden gems.
This article will be updated as more whiskies and scotches come in. We’re still missing a few Japanese bottles and some from Kentucky and Tennessee I have high hopes for. But we have to get this published in time, so we’re going with what we have.
First things first – how to enjoy whiskey.
How to Drink Whiskey
There are two popular ways to drink whiskey: on the rocks or neat. This means pouring whiskey over ice or simply enjoying it straight from the glass with no ice. It’s also acceptable to put a few drops of water in with your neat whiskey to dull the flavor a little.
Whiskey can also be used to make a variety of cocktails, many of which we’ll cover in separate holiday and seasonal cocktail guides throughout the rest of this season and 2017.
Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Sazerac, Whiskey Sour, Mint Julep, Hot Toddy, and Whiskey & Coke are popular whiskey drinks. I would highly recommend using well whiskies for these drinks, although if you have the money, throw in a top 10.
Here’s another great YouTube video on how to taste whiskey like a sir…
There are also plenty of flavored whiskies produced, mostly cinnamon or vanilla, but with the occasional oddball thrown in like mint chocolate chip or coconut.
Real whiskey drinkers won’t touch these – it’s just a marketing gimmick to 21-year-old white girls who like pumpkin pie, whipped cream, and cake flavored vodkas.
Differences Between Whiskey, Bourbon, and Scotch
Whiskey is essentially any booze distilled from fermented grain mash. It’s a generic term, and it’s mostly broken down into geographic region. Scotch is whiskey (spelled whisky) made in Scotland. Bourbon is whiskey made in the United States (mainly Kentucky).
The rest of the Irish, American, Japanese, and other worldwide whiskies are simply called whiskey.
To qualify as scotch, malted barley is used as one of the grains in the mash. It also must be aged in oak casks for no less than three years.
Just like how New Yorkers hate bagels and pizza crust everywhere else, fans of scotch love the distinct flavor Scotland’s water brings, which is why you can’t call whiskey scotch unless it’s 100% made in Scotland.
Bourbon must be made in the United States and contain a mixture of at least 51% corn to be labeled as bourbon. Also the age of the bourbon must be the age of the youngest whiskey in the mix.
Tennessee distilleries such as Jack Daniels prefer to call their bourbons whiskey, even though they’re essentially the same.
Rye whiskey in the U.S. must have at least 51% rye mash to be labeled as such, but Canadian rye whiskey has no such restrictions. As such, Canadian rye whiskey may taste similar to Kentucky bourbon because more corn is used than rye.
Japanese whiskies are especially treasured by western whiskey drinkers because they’ll often eschew traditional American and European distilling and blending techniques to create some very rare (and quite tasty) whiskies.
Typically only limited quantities of bottles are released outside of Japan, so serious whiskey collectors really push for these. Since my roommate has worked in management for the local bar scene for years, she’s seen the kind of collections these liquor reps have and understands the system.
Japanese whiskies came up as a request from both her and a few whiskey fans I grew up with. So I went out of my way to obtain a few of those. Keep in mind every one of these bottles was given to me for free by the PR companies and marketing departments of the distilleries.
Beyond the water and grain differences and different woods used for fermentation, most whiskies are relatively similar, regardless of where they’re produced.
What was for me just a way to create a quick project that would get my roommates a cool whiskey collection turned into a Pokemon Go style game to see how impressive of a collection I could seriously manage to gather.
In doing so, I got a lot of information, spec sheets, and more boxes of whiskey than I ever thought I’d see, much less in a two-week time span.
Changing Flavors of Whiskey
Aside from the water source, the type of grain used also changes the taste of whiskey. Single malt whiskey is not necessarily made from a single grain, but rather from the grains of a single distillery. Single barrel and small batch whiskies will use just the one (or a small handful) of barrels for fermentation.
Blended whiskies take barrels produced by different distilleries and blend them. While blended whiskies can be low-end, there are several high-end blended whiskies that are rather unique and favored by collectors.
It’s also important to understand that nearly every whiskey is blended in some way. Not every barrel produces the same flavors, and multiple barrels are often blended together even in single malt, small batch, and other whiskies.
Which whiskey you prefer is a matter of taste, which, as stated before, depends on the grain and water used, along with the wood type used for the barrels.
Although our collection is mostly American whiskey and bourbon, we did get a few whiskies from other regions and have a few rare ones already (with more on the way).
In all fairness, at the time of this writing, we weren’t yet able to taste every whiskey, so there may be a few changes to the lists below, but for now, here’s how the collection stands after tasting 30 bottles with a local bar manager and whiskey enthusiast.
I’m posting it so that I can provide these marketing departments with what’s essentially a status update to gather competing bottles and help turn what’s already the best free whiskey collection we’ve ever seen into an actually impressive collection.
To show you how serious I am, I took my silver sharpie out and signed some bottles during the photo shoot. I’m not only keeping them, but I want more…
Top 10 Whiskies from the Collection
10.Bastille 1789 Single Malt French Whisky (BastilleWhisky.com)
This french whisky is promoted as a luxury spirit and produced from wheat and barley grown in northeast France. The French are known for winemaking skills and natural spring water, both of which feature prominently in Bastille Single Malt with a sweet and smoky flavor.
9. I.W. Harper 15yr Kentucky Straight Bourbon (IWHarper.com)
I.W. Harper’s 15yr bourbon is not only delicious, but comes in an iconic bottle that’s reminiscent of a crystal whiskey decanter. The sweeter taste of this bourbon includes notes of oak, raisin, and caramel, among others. It’s a smooth taste for refined whiskey palettes.
8. Redbreast 12yr Cask Strength Irish Still Whiskey (Caskers.com)
Redbreast cask strength is a bit stronger than the typical Resbreast, with fruity flavors you’d expect from an Irish whiskey. This distinct flavor is likely to be love it or hate it for whiskey lovers.
7. Sazerac 6yr Straight Rye Whiskey (Buffalotracedistillery.com)
My roommate’s personal favorite (and one I admittedly love as well), Sazerac Rye is largely considered one of the best whiskies in the world and comes from New Orleans, Louisiana of all places. The liquor that started the cocktail, this is a must-have in any whiskey collection.
6. Midleton Dair Ghaelach Irish Whiskey (Jamesonwhiskey.com)
Midleton has some great Irish whiskies, and Dair Ghaelach, which is finished in virgin Irish Oak Hogsheads, is the most delicious. It tastes much like you’d expect a pot still, but with hints of spices, chocolate, and apple.
5. Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Bourbon (Fourrosesbourbon.com)
Another of my personal favorites, Four Roses Small Batch is pleasantly smooth and while it heats up your throat, there’s no real burn on either the front nor back end. Both smooth and flavorful, Four Roses is another great whiskey to have in any collection.
4. WhistlePig Old World Cask Finish 12yr Rye (Whistlepigwhiskey.com)
Of all the whiskies we tasted, WhistlePig’s Old World Cask Finish is the one we were most excited about. Their 10yr whiskey is delicious, and this 12yr rye whiskey blend was finished in port, French Sauternes, and Madeira casks. It has a bold flavor that can easily stand up to the scotches on this list.
3. Virginia Distillery Co. Port Finished Virginia Highland Malt Whisky (Virginiadistillery.com)
Another whiskey that can surprisingly stand up to most scotches on our list, this malt whiskey is imported from the Scottish highland, giving it a scotch-like taste that’s almost worthy of the name (though it’ll never earn it since it’s aged in port wine barrels in Virginia). It’s a whiskey for scotch lovers.
2. George Dickel Barrel Select Tennessee Whisky (Georgedickel.com)
Although Jack Daniels has better marketing, it’s George Dickel’s Tennessee whiskey we local Americans think of coming from that state. Dickel’s blends are every bit as good as JD, and Barrel Select is no different, with that charcoal-mellowed taste unique to the region.
1. Angel’s Envy Port Finish Kentucky Straight Bourbon (Angelsenvy.com)
The best whiskey in our collection, however, goes to Angel’s Envy, which has both an amazing bottle and liquor inside. This uniquely flavored bourbon stood out among the crowd as flavorful, bold, and smooth, the perfect trifecta for a great whiskey. This particular bottle is $125 and exclusive to InterContinental Los Angeles Century City’s Copper Lounge.
Top 10 Scotches from the Collection
10. Laphroaig Lore (Laphroaig.com)
A somewhat expensive scotch, look to spend in the range of $100 for a bottle of Laphroaig Lore. Still, it’s worth the coin, as the peaty taste you expect from scotch is very much present, along with a spicy bite that’ll hold your tastebuds long after you’re done.
9. Ardbeg Uigeadail (Ardbeg.com)
A cask-strength scotch, Ardbeg is smokier than your typical scotch, but still has that tang from the loch. Ardbeg is an acquired taste, but if you have acquired it, Uigeadail is one of the best flavors from the distillery.
8. The Dalmore 12yr Single Malt Scotch (Thedalmore.com)
The Dalmore is a 12yr scotch that somewhat resembles American whiskey in its flavor profile, with a smooth finish and much less kick than your typical scotch. Look for hints of vanilla, raisins, nutmeg, and dark chocolate in this beautiful bottle.
7. Glenfiddich Bourbon Barrel Reserve 14yr (Glenfiddich.com)
Glenfiddich 14 year is a scotch made specifically for American audiences and is likely the most expensive scotch you’ve seen in your typical grocery store’s liquor collection. The brightness in this bottle is what makes it stand out, and there’s very little burn.
6. Benromach 10yr Scotch Whisky (Benromach.com)
With a smoky, almost peppery taste, Benromach does have its own unique flavor. It’s a strong blend of spices and fruity undertones that warms on the way down without ever burning. It’s surprisingly smooth with a mild aftertaste.
5. Glenmorangie 10yr Original Scotch Whisky (Glenmorangie.com)
Glenmorangie is another scotch with very bright, almost fruity flavors. There’s a certain sweetness to it like a creamy honey, yet it still retains the spiciness and tang you expect from a good scotch. A friend of mine told me this is his go-to scotch, and I can definitely see why.
4. Tomatin Dualchas (Tomatin.com)
Probably the cheapest bottle on this list, Tomatin Dualchas is still a great-tasting scotch that’s worth having in your collection. Hints of vanilla and toasted marshmallow mixed with citrus make this a clean and refreshing sipper to get the evening started.
3. Monkey Shoulder Triple Malt Blended Scotch (Monkeyshoulder.com)
A blend of Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and Kininvie, Monkey Shoulder goes down smooth and is much cheaper than some of the other whiskies and scotches on this list. Definitely a scotch for whiskey lovers and a nice drinking bottle.
2. The Macallan Edition No 2 (Themacallan.com)
A collaboration between whikymaker Bob Dalgarno and restauranteers the Roca brothers, the Macallan Edition 2 has hints of sherry, ginger, and toffee and will definitely warm your insides. Macallan scotches are among the best, and this is no exception.
1. The Glenlivet Archive 21yr Single Malt Scotch (Theglenlivet.com)
Easily the most impressive bottle we tasted was the Glenlivet 21 from the Glenlivet archive. This bottle was bright, flavorful, and bold while still maintaining that smoothness on the way down. I’ve never had a sip of a better whiskey in my life, and Glenlivet 21 earns its place at the top of this list.
Whiskey Favorites Not in the Top 10
Yamazakura 963 21-year (Dekanta.com)
This rare, $400 whisky is imported from Japan in limited quantities and only available at Dekanta.com. While we weren’t able to get a full bottle, there was plenty enough in the jar for three of us to taste this and find that it’s actually a pretty good whiskey. With an almost sweetness to it, it does have a bit of a burn and aftertaste that keeps it from replacing our top 10, but does earn it a place of recognition.
Mars Distillery Komagatake Rindo (Tokiwaimports.com)
Another Japanese whiskey, Komagatake Rindo is a single malt blend from the Mars Distillery in Japan with only 2000 bottles released each season. This is the first in the series that blends single malts from the 80s, 90s, and 2011 from varying casks to create a citrusy, spicy flavor that has hints of tobacco and a smoky finish.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label (Johnniewalker.com)
Johnnie Walker Blue Label is one of the bottles we po folks think of when we imagine expensive liquor. It’s also the bottle I was most interested to taste. Unfortunately, while not bad, the flavor fell flat. I feel like I’ll be doing JW a favor pouring this in a decanter and filling the bottle with Red Label.
Crown Royal XO (Crownroyal.com)
You’re either a fan of Crown Royal or you’re not, and I’ve always been a fan. We haven’t been able to get a bottle of XR, but the XO is a great blend that brings a crown and coke to new levels of hood rich.
Hudson Maple Cask Rye (Hudsonwhiskey.com)
Some of my favorite whiskies were those aged in different wood types that gave them a distinct flavor. This whiskey out of New York was aged in maple casks, earning it a spot in my personal collection.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength (Makersmark.com)
Maker’s Mark is one of the best bourbon makers in this country, and, while I’m a fan of their low-end, I was excited to try some other bottles. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is definitely a bottle worth having and should replace JW Blue on your shortlist.
Maker’s 46 (Makersmark.com)
If you can’t afford the high-end Maker’s Mark, Maker’s 46 is a step up from the entry-level and still a respectable bottle in its own right.
Jameson Caskmates (Jamesonwhiskey.com)
Every Irish friend I know loves Jameson in one way or another, and so I’ve had my share of the stuff throughout my 20s. The Caskmates does have its own distinct flavor, but remains a Jameson like any other.
Chivas Regal 18yr (Chivas.com)
Initially I didn’t know what to think of Chivas Regal 18. However, it does have a decent flavor that would make for some great cocktails. As a sipping whiskey, it’s definitely an acquired taste and overshadowed by too many bottles in this collection.
W.L. Weller Special Reserve (Buffalotracedistillery.com)
W.L. Weller’s special reserve is another bottle from Buffalo Trace Distillery that is great to sip on. It has a smooth finish and is a good intro to whiskey for noobs.
Tullamore D.E.W. 18yr (Tullamoredew.com)
The 18 yr from Tullamore D.E.W. is a great scotch that I have to recommend to anyone looking to try the best. It’s certainly not on the level of the Glenlivet 21, but it does have a great flavor.