As 2019 comes to a close, it’s time to take a look back at the most enticing drams of the year. Finding a winner is never easy because each pour seems just as good – if not better – than the last. Alas, someone has to do the difficult work.
While tasting whiskey is subjective work, we know someone who can help.
Jim Murray (love him or hate him, he’s still had 20,000 drams) just published the 2020 whiskey bible, which includes what he thinks is the best tasting whiskey in the whole world.
Mr. Murray is just one man with an opinion, but frankly, he’s got taste. We whittled his guide down to our favorites.
1. Glen Grant Aged 18 Years Rare Edition
The Glen Grant 18-year-old won the top Scotch whiskey in 2019, and the Rare Edition took home the top Scotch prize in 2020.
Frankly, you have to try it to believe it, and you’re probably not going to get to try it unless you make your way to the distillery in Rothes, Scotland, and beg.
Glen Grant’s tasting notes are as follows:
The aroma is rich and floral and boasts oaky overtones and just a hint of baking spices. On the tongue, the taste is a malty caramel with vanilla and dried raisins. The finish is long and sweet, with some of the spice you picked up on the nose.
Now, the Glen Grant 18-year-old isn’t the most inventive whiskey in Scotland. However, if you were to conjure up a perfect dram – the mythical kind you could serve to absolutely anybody and the type you’d describe in a guide to tasting whiskey – then this would be it.
2. Redbreast 12-Year-Old Cask Strength
The Redbreast 12-year-old is a firm favorite, and in 2020, there’s a new batch. Redbreast comes from Ireland, and it’s one of the country’s single pot still offerings.
If you heard single pot still Irish whiskey and balked, we don’t blame you. But this one will reignite any passion you once had and remind you that the Scots’ neighbors are fierce contenders for the whiskey crown.
What made these Redbreast bottlings exceptional (and award-winning) was the boldness of it. These are as rich as they are sweet, and they’re boldly complex: you get cinnamon, pear, apple, oak, biscuits, and stewed fruit.
Fruit and spice come from the tasting notes. On the tongue, you’ll get the stewed apples and cinnamon before the oak hits you.
Add a dash of water to this dram to open it up and take the complexity to a new level.
3. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Aged 12 Years
The Elijah Craig Barrell Proof (12-year-old) is getting the kind of attention it deserves, despite being released back in 2013.
The mash is heavy on the corn, but don’t let that stop you from diving in even if corn mashes aren’t your thing.
Given it’s a Kentucky bourbon, you’ll get the caramel notes right up front. They even mask the high proof and add some brightness to it.
On the palate, you’ll get the oak with some floral notes and cherries. Like the Redbreast, it benefits from some water, which brings out the chocolate.
We love the Elijah Craig because it’s not only a supremely well-rounded drink given its proof, but it’s one of the few buzzy whiskeys that doesn’t command a shocking price. (We’re looking at you, Major Grant.)
4. Nikka Takesuru Pure Malt 25-Years-Old
Japanese whiskey is taking the world by storm, and frankly, we’re delighted. And the Nikka Takesuru Pure Malt (25-year-old) is winning awards left, right, and center.
The tasting notes on this are lovely. It’s complex layered and incredibly aromatic. It sights lightly on the palate with plenty of fruit and floral notes with some spice and toasted oak.
Some describe it as classy, but frankly, you’ll never know. The best Japanese whiskeys are notoriously hard to get. A combination of limited bottlings and an enthusiastic domestic market means few (as in 200 or fewer) bottles ever make it out of Japan. Those that do go to auction for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Off to Japan it is, then!
5. Glendalough 7-Year-Old Single Malt
Here’s a whiskey you didn’t expect: the Glendalough 7-year-old single malt and a second appearance from the Irish whiskey scene.
Glendalough is a very new name in whiskey, but that’s because Irish whiskey sort of bottomed-out and is only recently making a comeback. The Glendalough Distillery is one of the first craft outfits in the country and isn’t owned by a vast conglomerate.
The 7-year-old has a unique history that reflects the distillery’s excellent location in the Wicklow Mountains. Seven is a nod to the number of years Ireland’s St Kevin spent roaming the wilderness. It also recognizes Glendalough – the City of Seven Churches – as an ancient monastic center.
Glendalough finished its whiskey in some of Black Pitts Brewery’s ex-porter casks for a real Irish feel.
The nose of the whiskey is sweet: think vanilla ice cream and toffee apples. On the palate, it’s smooth and warm with toffee, cocoa, dark chocolate, and orange. It also comes with a peppery spice kick. The finish is long, and it’s the first time you’ll get the toasted oak of the barrel.
6. Virginia Distillery Port Case Finished Virginia-Highland Whiskey
Our last choice is the Virginia Distillery Port Case Finished Virginia-Highland Whiskey. It’s a hybrid of the highly regulated (and revered) single malt scotch combined with a year old single malt whiskey from Virginia. The blend is finished in a port cask.
Listen, we know what you’re thinking. Why would you ruin a single malt scotch by adding a single (?) year old whiskey? Is a single-year-old spirit even whiskey? Who has the audacity? Virginia Distillery does, and it works.
The nose is a malty experience with a bit of cinnamon, hay, and vanilla frosting sweetness. On the palate, you get a single malt scotch experience with cocoa, hay, honey, spice, and a seemingly herbal quality. The finish is medium to long and still malty and spicy.
No, it’s not a Scotch. But it’s not the abomination Scotch lovers might think either. It’s a real American whiskey – in the best sense of the word.
What’s the Best Tasting Whiskey in the World?
Finding the best tasting whiskey is a difficult challenge. The differences between Scotch, Irish, Japanese, European, American, and Canadian whiskeys are vast. But it is a journey worth undertaking.
What did you think of our whiskey choices? Agree or hard pass? Sound off in the comments below.