6 Best Whiskeys, According to a Spirits Expert
We rounded up the best single-malt, Japanese, sipping whiskeys and more for novice drinkers to newcomers.
There is a wide world of whiskey out there, and it can be hard to know the best place to start out exploring.
To start, it’s important to know the key features that define the category. Whiskies are always made from distilled fermented grain and must be aged in oak containers. Drilling down into specific categories and you’ll see that some whiskies are a blend of corn, rye and other grains, while others are made exclusively from barley. Furthermore, the type of aging vessel can vary from brand-new and freshly charred barrels that impart strong flavors to the spirits, to many-times-recycled used oak vessels that let the underlying flavors of the spirit shine through.
The main whiskey producing regions of the world are North America, Ireland, Scotland and Japan, but you can find whiskey from almost anywhere these days: Australia, Taiwan and even South Africa has an award-winning distillery. North American whiskies, in general, tend to be made predominantly from grains like corn, rye and wheat, while whiskies from Japan, Ireland and Scotland are mostly barley-based. A language note: Ireland and the United States use the spelling “whiskey,” while Japan, Scotland and Canada call it “whisky.” For the sake of simplicity, this article will use the spelling “whiskey” when referring to the overall category, while respecting the “e”-less spelling for those countries that have that tradition.
In addition to being diverse, whiskey is also an extremely versatile spirit. Whiskey is the base for iconic and primordial cocktails such as the whiskey sour, highball and old fashioned, but most whiskies can serve as a standalone beverage, served “neat” without any additions or with a splash of water or ice.
Given that whiskey is such a broad and diverse category, it’s tough to distill things down to a few simple “bests.” That said, if you’re a relative newcomer to the wide world of whiskey, here are a few top picks to help you along in your journey through this fascinating and richly rewarding realm.
"Uncle Nearest" was the nickname for Nathan Green, an enslaved person who was a founding figure of Tennessee whiskey. Tennessee whiskey, like bourbon, is made primarily from corn and aged in new charred oak but sees an extra step: charcoal filtration before aging, giving it a softer overall expression. This whiskey is quite versatile — it makes a fantastic whiskey sour but is also wonderful on the rocks, where the whiskey’s luxurious apricot-and-caramel notes really shine through.
Compass Box is an iconoclastic Scotch whisky blender based in London. This expression was their first release, and it remains some of their best liquid. It’s made from a blend of "grain" whiskies, which are lighter than those used to make single malts. Hedonism is an unsurprisingly luxurious drinking experience with an ethereal fruitiness and wonderful mouthfeel. This is one to pour neat and sip slowly.
"Single Malt" refers to a whisky that’s made at a single distillery from 100% malted barley. This results in a more idiosyncratic expression when compared to a blend, which can be more consistent year after year. Lagavulin is located on the Scottish island of Islay, known for producing intensely smoky and peaty whiskies. This special release is true to style, with powerful smoke on the nose and gently sweet citrus and pear elements on the palate. Best to sip this with a small splash of water to open everything up.
I know what you’re thinking — "Why would anyone bother with a non-alcoholic spirit?" Hear me out. Not everyone drinks alcohol. Whether they’re taking a break or never touch the stuff, lifestyles that exclude alcohol are increasingly normal. And even for those that do drink alcohol, it’s essential to have a non-alcoholic yet flavorful option when making lower-proof cocktails. Spiritless Kentucky 74 is made similarly to other whiskies: by aging a high-proof spirit in oak barrels. The alcohol is then removed via distillation and the resulting liquid is then blended and bottled. This will never be a replacement for traditional whiskey, but when incorporated with other ingredients in cocktails, it’s a worthy stand-in for the higher-octane stuff.
Whisky might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Wales, but this whisky is one of my all-time favorites. It’s made in a single malt style and finished in casks that were previously used to make Madeira, a fortified wine from the Portuguese island of Madeira. This elegant whiskey gives rich floral-buttery notes with a plush texture on the palate. You’ll want to sip this neat or incorporate into an exceedingly elegant old fashioned.
It’s been nearly a century since Japan learned whisky production from the Scots, and now they make some of the best in the world. The Yamazaki distillery is located on the outskirts of Kyoto and this expression is aged in Japanese, American and Spanish oak, imparting a rich complexity that’s hard to match. While this bottle may be a bit pricey and hard to track down, it’s well worth it. Drink this neat or in a classic Japanese highball.
John deBary is the author of Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails; CEO and Founder of Proteau, a zero-proof drinks company; and is also the Co-Founder and Board President of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation.