Whisky business: FoodTribe’s 2020 guide to the best whisk(e)y
Whether you're after something affordable and accessible, or a bit more complex and interesting, we've got you covered...
Whisky lovers old and new have never had it so good. Whether you’re after a smoky number for a frosty night, an easy sipper or a budget bourbon for that Old Fashioned, the perfect bottle is out there for you, with plenty of variety to choose from. Whatever you’re into, FoodTribe has put together a list of some of the best bottles to spend your money on.
For starters, whisky from Scotland, Japan or Canada is spelled without an 'e', whereas whiskey from Ireland or the US is with an 'e'.
The best blend one: Nikka from the Barrel whisky
You might not have dipped your toe into Japanese whisky waters yet, but this would be an excellent place to start. For the money, this is best blended whisky going, and it’s won plenty of awards along the way. It’s bursting with flavour, bottled at 51.4% abv, and combines single malt and grain whiskies from the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. They pop all that into a few different casks: bourbon barrels, sherry butts and refill hogsheads to name some. Love. It.
The smoky one: Lagavulin 16 year old whisky
This is the benchmark for Islay whiskies. It’s got that mega-peaty smokiness you expect from an Islay whisky, but a lovely richness too… and some sweetness, saltiness, and spiciness. OK there’s a lot going on. This is a tipple that’s loved by people getting into whisky, and whisky connoisseurs. If you’re looking for a food pairing, it’s recommended you sip it with some salty blue cheese. Is your mouth watering too?
Islay is a Scottish island that’s characterised by peat and bogs. The Lagavulin distillery has been in Lagavulin Bay since 1816. All the water needed to produce the whisky is drawn from the peaty Solan Lochs above the bay – giving it its distinctive peaty note during the 16 year aging process and its production.
The personal treat one: Longrow 18 year old whisky
This is an absolute delight. Just so, so good. It’s not the easiest to get your hands on, as there are only 4,800 bottles produced each year (46% abv). It’s from the Springbank distillery in Campbeltown. So why Longrow, we hear you cry? Well, Longrow started out as an experiment to make a peated whisky in Campbeltown – and then the whiskies were so good, they've grown and grown in popularity. The Longrow 18 is a double-distilled, heavily peated single malt. It’s matured in two types of barrel: 75% sherry casks and 25% bourbon casks. Can’t recommend more highly.
The very northern one: Highland Park 12 year old whisky
Highland Park is the northernmost Scottish distillery, located way up in the Orkney Islands. This 12-year-old whisky remains one of the gold-standard malts for other distillery bottlings to aspire to. It uses sherry maturation, though it never overpowers any of its standard releases with it, and a heathery peat-smoked barley, as well as hard water, to craft its exceptional whiskies. Although rising in price lately, this whisky can still be found at a reasonable price on Amazon. Smooth and accessible to the beginner, this whisky rates highly in our roundup as it also offers a balanced complexity for the whisky enthusiast.
The go-to one: Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky
Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky is a complex blended Scotch that is surprisingly affordable for the taste. Its iconic square bottle makes it one of the world's most recognisable Scotch whiskies. Born in 1909, Black Label is a blend of around 40 whiskies (crazy stuff) with a distinctive mellow smoky note. This blended Scotch bears a 12-year age statement, meaning that the youngest of the many whiskies contributing to this blend must be at least 12 years old. This bottle is a lot of people’s way in to the world of whisky.
The classic choice one: Balvenie DoubleWood
Originally inspired by a whisky produced in the mid-80s by The Balvenie's Malt Master, David Stewart, DoubleWood has since become quite the iconic whisky. The 12-year-old single malt gains its distinctive character from being matured in two wood types. Over the period of maturation, it is aged for around 10 years in bourbon casks and finished for two years in Oloroso sherry butts.
This whisky is perfect for a cool winter evening. It's smooth and mellow, with beautifully combined flavours – nutty sweetness, cinnamon spiciness and a delicately proportioned layer of sherry. The Balvenie distillery is in the Speyside region. ‘Typical’ Speyside whiskies usually go one of two ways… at one end you’ve got light and grassy whiskies, which are often amazingly described as ‘lunchtime whiskies’, and then the richer, sweeter, sherried whiskies, which this Balvenie is.
The can’t decide one(s): Drinks by the Dram Tasting Sets
You might be wondering what this is doing here. Well, the world of whisky is huge, interesting, exciting, varied, and... quite complex. Take Scotch for example. There are six regions: Highlands, Lowland, Speyside, Islands, Campbeltown and Islay. Each of those regions might have a particular character, or set of characters, but the eventual taste of the whisky depends on so many factors. It might depend where the distillery is within a particular region. Then that’s before you’ve even started on the distillery, aging, barrel type, what was in the barrel before, distillation process, blend or single malt… And that’s just one whisky producing area!
If you’re looking to try a range, the tasting sets by Drinks by the Dram are a great way to start. You can find what you like, before committing to buying a full size bottle of anything. Taste five whiskies from one region, try five from five different regions, try five sherried whiskies, five Irish whiskies… whatever you fancy.
The Irish one: Jameson whiskey
The default springboard into the fascinating world of Irish whiskey, Jameson's quality has improved massively in the last 10-15 years. Produced at the Midleton Distillery, Jameson is Ireland's quintessential Irish blend; a classic, we’re sure you will agree. While it is not as smooth as other Irish whiskeys, for the price, reliability, and versatility, that difference is minimal and relatively insignificant.
The triple distilled recipe was created by John Jameson in 1780, and remains the same today. On the palate you’ll find a balance of sweet, nutty flavours from the sherry casks used, as well as toasted wood and vanilla notes from bourbon casks. Now go pour yourself a Jameson and ginger ale.
The ‘perfect for making an Old Fashioned’ one: Woodford Reserve
The go-to for making an Old Fashioned in this house. It’s triple-distilled in copper pot stills (which is unusual for a bourbon) and it has a pretty high rye content (also unusual). It’s made from 72%, 18% and 10% malt, and is matured in charred American oak barrels for at least six years. It’s thick, creamy, with a lovely buttered sweetness and a bit of spice. And it looks great on your booze shelf, if you care about that sort of thing.
The bourbon whiskey one: Maker’s Mark bourbon
Do you even need to read the label for this one? Thought not. When you see red wax dripping down the long neck of a whiskey bottle, you know it's Maker's Mark Bourbon. Good job, really, because each bottle is dipped by hand as opposed to machine, which sounds like a lot of effort to us. The wheated and handcrafted bourbon is made in batches of less than 1,000 gallons (around 19 barrels at a time). Incidentally, no two dippings are alike and sometimes a bottle is over-dipped, which Maker’s Mark fondly refers to as a “slam dunk.”