Love a strong libation? We do, too. Luckily, it’s whiskey season and here at Swig, we are all about selecting the best spirits for your palate. Whiskey is a broad category so we are going to break it up for you by region and style, making this the perfect guide for a beginner or someone who wants to learn a little more about whiskey.
In America, bourbon is king! It’s the only spirit created in America and to truly be a bourbon it needs to be made here as well. Bourbon is classified as being at least a 51 percent corn mash bill with the remaining percent including other grains, and has to be aged in new, charred oak containers. That being said, there is no age requirement, however, if it’s aged less than 4 years, it will be labeled as such. Aging adds complexity as well as yummy vanilla and smoky notes to the bourbon, so for many people older is better. And bourbon can get very old. Pappy Van Winkle produces a fabled 23 year old bourbon! Released once a year, in incredibly small batches, it is considered the crème de la crème of bourbons. At retail stores and online it can cost upwards of $3,000! A pretty penny for a bottle of bourbon for sure but you certainly don’t have to spend that much to get good stuff. Here are some recommendations for some top notch bourbon at more affordable price ranges.
Benchmark Bourbon: This easy drinking, smooth bourbon is a great introduction to bourbon. At around $10 a bottle, it’s a steal!
Eagle Rare Bourbon, 10 year old: Vanilla, caramel and deliciousness on the nose and palate. This bourbon is a great value at even $50 bucks but you can find it floating around for $30 in some markets. Expect this bourbon to get you hooked!
Booker’s Bourbon: Named after Booker Noe, the 6th generation Jim Beam master distiller, this bourbon is huge. Uncut and unfiltered, it’s a high octane bourbon that will remind you of tobacco smoke and caramel. The coolest part about it? Every batch is different and handcrafted by the master distiller at the time!
Scotch whiskey or scotch for short is very different from bourbon. While bourbon gets a sweet taste from the corn and vanilla and caramel notes from the oak, scotch gets lots of smoky notes from the malting of the barley. Malting is the heating of the barley to break down it so that it can be used in a mash. A big amount of the smoky flavor comes from peat, a natural resource found in bogs that is burned as fuel. Peat also adds a salty, oceanic quality to some scotches and to some, a medicine-like, grassy profile. Scotches are the longest aged of the whiskeys and many producers’ standard bottles are aged at least 10 years. You can find some scotches that are aged for much longer. The legendary scotch blend, Johnnie Walker Blue Label, has a very small percentage of 100 year old scotch that is available. This blend requires a century of the booze sitting in a barrel and then it’s scooped up and integrated into the big blend known as Blue Label; a true work of art! For scotch, the region plays a big part as to what kind of scotch you should expect. Islay produces super peaty, smoky scotches. Highland tends to produce more smoke-focused scotches. Speyside and the other regions tend to be grab bags but the most iconic Speyside producer, Macallan, makes a lot of non smoky scotch. Try different styles and producers because I believe there is a scotch out there for everyone and if you don’t like scotch, you just haven’t found the right one yet!
Macallan 12 year: A surprisingly easy drinking scotch! Not very smoky at all with soft citrus fruit notes, vanilla and caramel notes. A really iconic bottle of scotch from the Speyside.
Ardbeg 10 year: The Ardbeg 10 year is an Islay masterpiece. Cigar smoke, peat and ocean come together to form a beautiful whiskey! If there is one scotch to try from Islay, this is it.
Oban 14 year: Oban is a great distillery in the Highland area of scotch. Their 14 year old scotch has a balance of malty notes with a gentle touch of smoke. Excellent stuff!
I’m not listing any prices for the Scotch because they differ dramatically from place to place. However, most of these should be in the $50 to $70 price range for our readers from the United States.
Irish Whiskey is the hardest to describe. Most of it is super easy drinking, light and “sweet” tasting. For starters, it’s usually made with barley but unlike Scotch, it’s typically not malted with peat meaning that it doesn’t pick up any smoky notes. The flavor of the malt shines through in these whiskeys, making them taste almost sweet. The history of Irish Whiskey is just like the history of Ireland itself, very erratic. Between the Reformation and Prohibition periods in the United States, these events did damage to the Irish whiskey industry. At one point, there were only two distilleries operational in the whole of Ireland. Now, with the resurgence of whiskey’s popularity in the United States and some clever advertising by many of the brands, Irish whiskey is once again popular. Jameson is now a household name and for good reason, it’s really yummy!
Paddy’s: A great bottle of Irish Whiskey, normally at a great price as well. Delicious, round and malty with some fruit and ginger notes to it as well. A liter of Paddy’s will set you back about $40 in most places.
Middleton: Middleton is at the top of the Irish whiskey food chain and for good reason. Their distillery produces some of the smoothest whiskeys in the world. Liquid butter in a tumbler! If you can afford their entry level bottle at $150 bucks usually, why drink anything else?
Jameson Gold Reserve: The Jameson label is probably the brand people think about the most when it comes to Irish whiskey. Great advertising aside, they also make delicious whiskey. One of their stand out products, Jameson Gold Reserve, is a blended whiskey with a complex palate of fruit, spice, malty goodness and vanilla. This whiskey is normally around $75 and worth every penny.
Of course, we could talk about whiskey for days as it such an interesting topic with many different facets but we will have to get to that next time. For now, start trying some of our suggestions and leave us some comments about your favorite whiskeys. Cheers!