The Best Whiskey of 2021: The Bourbon, Rye, and Scotch to Seek Out
2021 was a banner year for whiskey (and, yes, whisky) These were our favorites.
2021 has been a banner year for whiskey (and, yes, whisky). We saw and sampled an abundance of fabulous bottles, from stunning single malts to righteous bourbons and unbelievable ryes. Old favorites and new frontrunners. Long-awaited releases that were well worth it. New bottlings that floored us.
Cask finishing is a trend that continues to gain steam with makers and consumers. Cognac seemed to be particularly popular in 2021. We noted several new expressions finished in the iconic French brandy casks, some more successfully executed than others.
Unfortunately, as with many luxury goods, retailers marked up special releases and limited editions crept even higher over the last 12 months, in some cases more than 100% over last year. But there were also some excellent new bottlings available for modest sums. You’ll find both on this list.
If the last 12 months are a harbinger of things to come, 2022 should continue to be an exciting time for whiskey drinkers. Without further ado, here is the best whiskey of 2021.
There hasn’t been a 10 year old age statement from Jack for more than a century. A decade in the wood is about twice as much as the brand’s signature Old No. 7 spends in the barrel, and the resulting whiskey is much dryer with deeper and more sumptuous notes of tobacco and leather, balancing out pops of dried fruit and sweet caramel corn. Jack fans will definitely want to give this expression a shot.
The peat’s the thing when it comes to Ardbeg, but there’s so much more to this year’s Ardbeg Committee release. Named after the “definitely-real-and-totally-not-made-up” dragon of Islay, the Scotch is made using massively charred ex-Bourbon American oak casks to create layers of flavors — brine, savory meat, apple, chocolate, and spice. It's an incredible dram
Sophisticated and nuanced, Glenfiddich Grande Couronne is everything Speyside fans could want in a single malt Scotch. The juice does stints in both American and European Oak before a finish in ex-Cognac casks. All told the whisky is aged no less than 26 years. With every sip, there’s a wealth of fruit flavors to be discovered as well as an under current of cocoa, spice, oak, and char, with a lingering finish that make it truly magical.
Oh Birthday, how we love you. Released on September 2nd to celebrate Old Forrest Founder George Garvin Brown's birthday, the limited edition bourbon truly is special. This year, the 21st release, is a blend of 119 barrels aged for 12 years. It's a scrumptious whiskey with a luscious mouthful with flavors for days. There are notes of cherry, sugar and baking crust that for a moment evokes our favorite childhood Pop Tart, but as the spice builds more fruit flavors emerge along with vanilla and caramel. Most of the bottles are long gone, but it’s our sincerest wish that folks can find a glass at a bar for a reasonable price. Seek it out.
The last few Four Roses Limited Editions have been among our favorite bourbons we’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Master distiller Brent Elliot has been, as the kids say, crushing it. The 2021 installment is a beautiful blend of bourbons between 12 and 16 years old and it’s just dynamite in the glass. Waves of fruit and berries flow over a spice, wood, vanilla and a rich tobacco with a floral, minty finish that tickles your taste buds while you saunter off for a refill.
From the good folks at Barrel Bourbon, the Stellum label (they released both a bourbon and a rye this year) has found the mark. They’ve managed to create a high rye (95%) that is both peppery and approachable. Clocking in at 116.24 proof, it can be a little hot for some but certainly has ample flavor to stand up to a dash of water or a cube of ice. Fruity and spicy, Stellum Rye also offers herbal notes, so it’s a lovely sipper, and its reasonable price point makes it an accessible daily drinker or cocktail cornerstone.
Smoke fiends rejoice, Octomore 12.3 is another brilliant bottle from Bruichladdich. This expression is a single vintage, single field, single malt made from barley farmed by James Brown (not that James Brown.) Is it peaty? It certainly is. With juice aged for five years in both ex-bourbon and Ex-Pedro Ximénez casks, the Islay maker has bottled this expression at a beefy 124.2 proof. In other words? You’ll definitely want to add a dash of water — or maybe not, who are we to tell you how to drink your whisky? In any case, through the smoke, you’ll find pulses of raisins and apricots, brown sugar and cereal, and a long sweet finish.
This limited release from Blade and Bow was aged and bottled at the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery. While the current online prices for a bottle is way over the $450 retail, those who have a wad of cash burning a hole in their pocket, or just want to flex for their friends, are in for a treat. Lush with cherry, caramel, vanilla, and oak, as well as subtler notes of clove, mint, and leather, it’s a bottle that truly sings.
Hey kids, look! A single malt aged just long enough to drink itself! All kidding aside, this is another brilliant concoction from Dr. Rachel Barrie, who serves as Master Blender for The GlenDronach, BenRiach, and Glenglassaugh distilleries. This peated Speyside spends more than two decades in bourbon, sherry, virgin oak, and red wine barrels, creating brilliantly layered smoky single malt. Hints of sweet grapes and wine reverberate off notes of apple, oak, caramel, and chocolate all swirling around an elegant current of smoke.
Jefferson’s hasn’t released a rye since 2008. But the wait, while excruciating, has been worthwhile. The rye spice in their new bottle has been softened a touch, thanks to nine-plus months in Cognac barrels. In the mouth it’s full with pops of citrus and peach and a subtle sweetness. This is a whiskey that is both flavorful and easy drinking… so maybe buy two.
So, here’s the thing: you can only get the Old Forester 117 at the distillery and a few select retailers in Kentucky. But If you find yourself within a drive, we’d highly recommend you hit the gas. The bourbon is an exploration in the flavor concentration found in low yield, high angels’ share barrels. For whiskey geeks, the ‘117’ in the name is a nod to Old Foresters’s spot on Whiskey Row on Main Street and it’s also the first Old Forester bottle in the label’s 150 years signed by a woman, Master Taster Jackie Zykan. On first sip, it’s fruity, full of berries, chocolate, and a solid dose of oak and pepper, but it’s also a bit tight. A touch of water unlocks even more fruit and a hint of brown sugar sweetness.
There are only two single malt makers on the Isle of Skye: Talisker, which dates from 1830, and Torabhaig. The latter has only been producing whisky since 2017, and while the distillery is new and their whisky may not have hit a shelf in your town just yet, you’ll want to be on the lookout for their first expression —the Legacy Series 2017. Sure, it’s young for a single malt, but this Torabhaig is a peated single malt aged exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels. The peat smoke serves as a platter offering up notes of rich vanilla custard, caramel, malt, and a lingering herbal brine.
Only available at the Castle and Key distillery, the brand is dropping four different single barrel expressions over four weeks. But the final release is the one we’d hunt down. Barrel number 396 is a flavor monster. We managed a taste and it’s simply marvelous. There’s such a wealth of flavors — chocolate, fruit, clove, cinnamon, marzipan, with a whiff of sweet black licorice. Honestly, it might be time for a road trip.
Drinking the Vertical Series from Pinhook is a bit like watching children grow. They’ve taken 450 MGP rye barrels and release them as they age from four to twelve years, so we can follow the change in flavors over time. The second installment of the rye, now five years old, started out as 95% with 5% malted barley, is rounding out and increasing in complexity. Behind the cinnamon toast, fruit, and oak notes is a more pronounced vanilla sweetness. It’s a great bottle. And if you’ve socked away a bottle of the four year to compare, it’s even better.
This is a cool bottle on two fronts. First it’s an amazing single malt offered in partnership with @Scotch_In_the_City. Laid down in a first-fill American oak sherry puncheon, the juice did an 11 year stint in one of Highland Park’s Orkney island warehouses. It’s bottled at cask strength, around 130 proof, so add a little water to unlock waves of vanilla, citrus fruit, cinnamon spice, and wood. The second reason to pick up one of the 594 bottles of this Highland Park is that some of the proceeds benefit The First Responders Children’s Foundation COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund — a worthy cause and a worthy whisky.
It’s been two long years since Michter’s released its last Barrel Strength Kentucky Straight Rye. Absence, as they say, makes the heart… and palate grow fonder. This expression is spicy and sweet, loaded with vanilla cream, caramel praline and wood with a lingering peppery heat sure to leave you basking in its warm, amorous glow.
Barrell Seagrass Rye is a wonderfully delicious fruit bomb. The brand takes a blend of American and Canadian rye whiskeys, and finishes them in Martinique Rhum Agricole casks, apricot brandy casks, and Madeira barrels. The resulting spirits are blended and bottled at around 118 proof. With every sip the mouth is greeted with a wash of tropical fruit, followed by a flow of vanilla, herbal notes and rye spice.
Still Great: The Best Whiskies From 2020
The year 2020 was, ummm, not great. But in 2020 there were still plenty of new stellar whiskey releases. Here were our picks for the best whiskey of 2020, from long-aged scotches to new expressions of tried-and-true bourbons.
This jaw-dropping bourbon is still available on shelves here and there but you may have to do a bit of searching to find a bottle. Bottled in bond means the whiskey has to be whiskey from a single distiller, barreled in one season, aged at minimum four years and entered the bottle at 100 proof. This vintage did an even longer stint. Seventeen years in the wood helped create a wonderfully complex bourbon. There are notes of vanilla, toffee, and sassafras as well as a punch of oak and a pulsing cherry that this a whiskey to sip slowly and savor.
One of our favorite annual releases, this years is an impressive bottle. Four Roses master distiller Brent Elliot hand selected four batches, two 12 year olds, one 16 year and one 19, from four different bourbon recipes to blend together a brilliant whiskey. It fruity, rich and spicy with subtle oak. This bourbon clocks in around 111.3 proof, so we like it neat, but it can handle a drop or two of water.
To celebrate the brand’s 150th anniversary, the folks at Old Forester created this special edition that knocked our socks off. Master distiller Chris Morris selected 150 barrels and from those master distiller Jackie Zykan created three different batches, each meant to amplify traditional Old Forester flavors. While all three batches are highly sought after, Batch 1 is a fruit bomb that will shock and awe your palate. Loaded up with apple, pear, and apricot, the whiskey finds its balance against a plume of spice and a herbal peppermint. Old Forester founder George Garvin Brown would be proud.
Okay. We lied, this 16 year old Russell’s Reserve 2003 is basically impossible to find*. But master distiller Eddie Russell knocked this limited offering so far out of the park, we had to pay it a little tribute. Sweet sixteen years ensconced in oak gave this bourbon a dark hue and rich layers of smoke. At 89.5 proof, it’s a sweet and spicy mouthful awash in caramel, vanilla, leather and tobacco that’s worth a bit of a quest.
While the folks at Beam-Suntory also dropped a stellar 15 year old Knob Creek as a limited edition this year, the brand’s 12 year grabbed our attention and prominent spot on our bar thanks not only to its depth but also its accessibility and more modest price point. For around $60 this is a bottle with quite a bit of wow factor for your taste buds. Big traditional notes of caramel, vanilla and spice but the extra three years in the barrel compared to the standard bearing nine year, have added enhanced balance and created a deeper more luxuriant mouthful.
A new addition to the Ardbeg core range, Wee Beastie displays a shocking amount of depth for a single malt only aged a short five years. It’s an excellent Islay whisky and currently one of the most affordable to emerge from the island. After a quick stint in both ex-bourbon and Oloroso sherry casks is already loaded up with a deep chocolate flavor, licorice, salt and pepper, a heap of peaty smoke and traditional Islay medicinal notes make Wee Beastie a helluva dram.
Port-finished whisky can be a bit of a sticky wicket. If the spirit sits too long, the wine flavors overpower the whisky. If it doesn’t rest long enough, the experience can be fairly middling. Thankfully, Rachel Barrie and her team at GlenDronach got this one just right. Port Wood takes the brand’s Highland spirit — aged in Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks — and builds more flavors through another maturation cycle in port pipes from the Douro Valley in Portugal. The result is an exquisitely fruity dram, balanced by pungent baking spices and toasty wood.
When we heard the name, we thought this latest drop from Glenmorangie was going to be an overly sweet and cloying marketing gimmick. But second guessing Dr. Bill Lumsden and company is a fool's errand. Glenmorangie Cake is in fact quite divine. A lovely heat gently radiates the palate, while flashes of peanut butter, shortbread, coconut cream pie and a hint of pineapple sparkle through a lingering pear syrup with a weighty toasted nutty finish. It’s just weird enough to make a great whisky.
Islay maker Bruichladdich is probably best known for their wicked peat bombs in the Octomore series, but they do make some un-peated expressions as well, including their delicious house style Classic Laddie and their annual release Black Art. This year’s edition, 08.1 was barreled way back in 1994 and while it’s objectively an expensive bottle, it’s actually not ridiculously priced for a 26 year old single malt. Black Art is a delectably complex whisky, and while it did more than two and a half decades in the barrel, the oak is gentle texture soft and supple. Sweet notes a la vanilla, fruit, and caramel dance around tobacco, spice and dried herbs, making every sip incredibly luxurious.
Given the chance, we think Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye, could quickly become a go to for many rye enthusiasts. While the rye portion of the mash bill is only 51% it’s still packs a good dose of spice. It’s barrel proof, uncut at 112.2 proof, giving it a pleasant intensity and loads of flavors like caramel, fruit, biscuits and mellow saltwater taffy note that lead to a spicy, peppery finish.
One of the most interesting, recent ideas in whiskey, Pinhook’s Vertical Series took 450 MGP rye barrels and is releasing them as they age from four to twelve years, so consumers can track the evolution of flavors with time. The four year rye, concocted by master taster Sean Josephs, is a phenomenal whiskey. It’s a high rye, 95% with 5% malted barley, spirit that after only four short years in wood is already, fruity, spicy, complex and balanced. We can’t wait to see what another year, and the next eight, in the barrels yields.
The Little Book series is, in part, the passion project of Freddie Noe, the eighth in his line to craft whiskey at Beam. Each drop has been extraordinarily successful both in terms of sales and as a quality whiskey. The fourth release, “Lessons Honored” is a tribute to his father master distiller Fred Noe. A blend of a 4-year-old Kentucky Straight Brown Rice Bourbon, 8-year-old Kentucky Straight “high rye” Rye Whiskey and a 7-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, “Lessons Honored” is a robust glass. Clocking in at 122.8 proof, a splash of water mitigates the heat but won’t mitigate the spice that finds balance against lush fruit, caramel, and vanilla.
Michter’s limited releases tend to sell out in short order but we have still seen a few of the 2020 Toasted Barrel Strength Barrel Finish Ryes on the shelf, so if you see one snap it up. The brand uses two different barrels to make this expression, a traditionally charred new American oak variety and then a second more lightly “toasted” one made from 2 year air dried wood. The result is a complex and intense whiskey laden with caramel, cherry, brown butter and of course spice with a finish that will take any rye lover straight to their happy place.
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