Whiskey, has been and always will be, cool. Period. It’s been enjoyed beside campfires on the American frontier, in Irish dives and at the trendiest cocktail bars in the greatest cities in the world. Whiskey has been the alcohol connoisseurs drink of choice for a few good reasons: it has a totally unique taste, it can be enjoyed in a variety of ways and it warms you up inside. We decided to join the long list of proclaimed whiskey lovers and write about the best whiskey brands according to our tastes.
Whiskey and bourbon have deep roots in American history, so it’s hardly a surprise this spirit is many people’s go-to liquor.
But whether you’re a seasoned pro who drinks his whiskey neat or someone who’s just getting into the world of craft bourbon cocktails, how do you choose the right bottle to pour? How can you tell which are the best whiskey brands and which are swill? Because whiskey has so many incarnations produced by so many distilleries all over the world, the flavors can vary drastically
In this post we’ll break down the different types of whiskey and then cover some of our favorite whiskey brands. So keep reading and get ready to enjoy some of the world’s best whiskey.
What Are the Different Types of Whiskey?
If you’re unfamiliar with the different kinds of whiskey, there are really six that you have to know: Irish whiskey, Scotch, bourbon, Tennessee, rye and Japanese whisky. Each has a unique origin, distilling process, taste and even way of spelling the liquor. The Irish use the “e” along with American distillers while Scots, Canadians and Japanese distillers all leave it out. The main difference between the different types of whiskey is geography, where it’s made, but there are also key taste differentiators that a seasoned palate can pick up on.
Irish whiskey has a smoother, more caramel taste.
Scotch whisky (aka Scotch) is whisky made in Scotland which has very strict laws in place for distillers in terms of how it’s made. All batches must age in barrels for at least three years and have an age statement that notes the youngest aged whiskey used in any given blend. It makes an excellent evening, after-dinner drink.
Japanese whisky adopted many of its distillation methods from Scotland and thus has a very similar taste and finish. It’s best in a mixed drink with a splash of something bubbly.
Canadian whisky is also aged at least three years in a barrel but has a lighter taste and feel due to the high percentage of corn used in its production.
Bourbon whiskey, aka American whiskey, is also made with corn, at least 51% corn to be exact, aged in a new oak barrel and served at least 80 proof.
Tennessee whiskey is technically classified as bourbon to the disdain of many distillers in the state. What makes it different? All Tennessee whiskey distillers are required by a state law to produce their whiskey in state and take a filtering step known as Lincoln County Process before aging.
Rye whiskey is a type of American whiskey that’s made with at least 51% rye, with corn and barley also thrown into the mix as other ingredients. It follows a similar distillation process as bourbon and tends to have a spicier flavor. Rye that’s been aged for two years or more and hasn’t been blended is known as “straight rye whiskey.”
Blended whiskey is great for cocktails as it’s a mixture of different blends of whiskey along with coloring, flavoring and other grains. This process maintains the flavor but allows it to go for a lower price point.
Single Malt whiskey simple means it’s a single batch of scotch from one distillery. It’s also been aged for three or more years in an oak barrel before bottling.
Below are the best whiskeys to try in each category. Most range from $20 to $40 a bottle, but we’ve got a few premium options for special occasions as well. Whether you like your whiskey mixed up in a cocktail or prefer is straight in a whiskey glass, we’ve gathered the best whiskey brands for you to try below.
1. Buffalo Trace Bourbon Whiskey
Bourbon is one of the most loved whiskeys around, especially in the States. Although you can spend hundreds on a fancy bottle, you really don’t have to. Case in point: this celebrated, mass-produced bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon. Distilled in charred oak barrels (as all bourbon should be), it boasts a mellow taste with the balance of sweet and smoky that you want in a true American bourbon and that makes this one of the best whiskey brands. Sip it slowly while you unwind (it’s 90 proof), or use it in an old fashioned cocktail that will make your guests come begging for a refill. This whiskey bottle will also make a great gift for whiskey lovers.
2. Jameson Caskmates Whiskey
BEST IRISH WHISKEY
As you might have guessed, Irish whiskey is made exclusively in Eire (Republic of Ireland) or in Northern Ireland using yeast-fermented grain mash or a mash of malted cereals. Although this bottle of Jameson Caskmates has an unusual distilling process, connoisseurs agree that it’s one of the best Irish whiskey brands out there — especially for the price. The whiskey is finished in casks that have been used for brewing beer, upgrading the classic Irish taste with a note of fruity malt. Even though it’s shaken hands with a stout beer, you’ll still get to experience a real Irish whiskey.
3. Old Overholt Rye Whiskey
BEST RYE WHISKEY
Made in North America using a rye-heavy mash, rye whiskey produces a slightly spicy flavor that makes it especially good in cocktails. You don’t have to spend a lot to get a great rye, so we recommend this affordable Old Overholt. It’s been around since 1810, and for a while after prohibition, it was the most popular spirit in America. It’s tasty and easy to drink on its own but really shines in a Manhattan or Old Fashioned cocktail.
4. Suntory Toki Whisky
BEST JAPANESE WHISKY
Japanese whiskys (they spell it without the ‘e’) have blown-up fairly recently in North America, although they can still be hard to find and expensive. Luckily, one great Japanese whisky — Suntory Toki — has worked its way into the mainstream, coming recommended by multiple publications and whisky connoisseurs. It’s made from a blend of Hakushu white oak cask malt, Chita grain whisky, Yamazaki white oak cask and Spanish oak cask whisky. These whiskys come from different time periods, which gives the bottle its name, Toki, meaning “time” in Japanese.
It has a light taste with hints of fruit, honey and citrus, making it ideal in a highball cocktail, although it’s also great on the rocks.
5. George Dickel Barrel Select Whiskey
BEST TENNESSEE WHISKEY
This George Dickel is first steeped in charcoal (making it a Tennessee whiskey) before being aged 10-12 years and subsequently hand-selected by Master Distiller John Lunn. It’s one of the best whiskey brands from Tennessee available. Its silky, velvety taste delivers notes of vanilla and spice that make it highly drinkable, even if you’re new to whiskey. Still not convinced? Check the scoreboard. This bottle has won awards including multiple medals from the Beverage Testing Institute, as well as second place at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge.
6. High West Campfire Whiskey
BEST AMERICAN WHISKEY
Some American-made whiskeys don’t fall into the category of bourbon, rye or Tennessee, making them simply American whiskey. This High West Campfire is one of the best American whiskeys, with a blend of bourbon, rye and Scotch whiskeys that no one else can claim. The taste is equal parts unusual, distinctive and delicious, with hints of sweet honey from the bourbon, fruity spice from the rye and smokiness from the Scotch. Although it can be mixed, it’s best enjoyed straight while catching up with a group of friends.
7. Glenfiddich 15 Year Whisky
BEST SCOTCH WHISKY
Scotch has an earthy, smoky flavor that comes imported exclusively from (you guessed it) Scotland. The high-class liquor is aged in oak casks and typically made from grain or malted barley, and the name drops the ‘e,’ spelling it ‘whisky’ like the Japanese. We highly recommend this Glenfiddich 15 year as a go-to bottle for special occasions or a treat at the end of the day. Its warming feel, notes of honey and flavors of cinnamon and toffee have earned it a gold medal with Whisky Masters, as well as a silver medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition.
8. Fighting Cock Six Year Old Bourbon Whiskey
Whiskey drinking can put a dent in your wallet — but it doesn’t have to. There are a handful of affordable, craft whiskeys that outdo their low price tags. One such whiskey is this Fighting Cock bourbon. It’s aged six years, which is quite a long time for something that comes in at less than $20. It’s got some kick to match the label with a slightly rowdy 51.5% ABV and 103 proof, ensuring some impressive bang-for-your-buck in terms of fun. It’s one of the best whiskey brands you can get on a budget. However, don’t let the label fool you; a dash of rye keeps the bourbon balanced and smooth for easy sipping.
9. Four Roses Small Batch Whiskey
BEST FOR COCKTAILS
Balance and a low-key flavor profile are key when it comes to great cocktail whiskeys. This Four Roses small batch bourbon nails both while upping the quality of your whiskey sours, old fashioned’s or high balls. The bottle features a blend of four bourbons that mingle to create a mellow, classic flavor.
10. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Whiskey
BEST HIGH PROOF
Every whiskey connoisseur should try a high proof whiskey (or keep a bottle in your bar to impress guests). Our choice is this Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, which boasts a professional-level 67.1% ABV and 135 proof. Reviewers rank it among their favorite high-alcohol whiskeys (a burgeoning market) thanks to big bold flavors that wrestle the strong ABV into something that’s actually very enjoyable to drink.
11. Pike Creek 10 Year Whisky
Canadian whiskeys are subject to fewer restrictions on production than Irish, Scottish or American whiskey, and are typically distilled with a more adventurous spirit. This 10-year whiskey from Pike Creek is a prime example. The whiskey spends its 10 years in white oak barrels that are not placed in climate-controlled warehouses. This means the whiskey is exposed to Canada’s dramatic temperature swings, increasing the interaction of wood and alcohol. What you get is a unique, woody whiskey with hints of molasses and brown sugar. It’s one of the best whiskey brands we can find from our North American neighbor.
12. Paul John Single Malt Brilliance Whiskey
Unbeknownst to most, whiskey is big in India. Like Canada, India has little to no restrictions on production, meaning you can get adventurous with some very unique bottles. Our favorite Indian whiskey is this Paul John Brilliance out of party-capital Goa, which is crafted from Himalayan barley and aged just 3-5 years. Due to the tropical climate in Goa, the whiskey evaporates faster while it sits, translating to a better taste at a younger age. Flavor highlights include juicy barley, bitter fruit, caramel and lingering orange.
13. Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost & Rare Whiskey
THE GOOD STUFF
Every guy should try some top-shelf whiskey at least once in their lifetime. Luxury whiskeys are usually aged around 20-25 years and come in fancy packaging like crystal bottles and wood boxes. One of the best luxury whiskeys (that you can actually get your hands on) is this Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost & Rare. Blue Label is JW’s high-end, celebration-level line of whiskey. Ghost & Rare is, like the name suggests, an even fancier edition of Blue Label. It’s a blend of rare whiskeys collected and mixed by one master distiller, Dr. Jim Beveridge, to produce a flavor that’s, well, really really good.
14. Lagavulin 16 Year Old Whisky
BEST SMOKEY WHISKY
This whisky is sure to set a campfire in your taste buds as it’s incredibly smokey with a smoother finish so it’s challenging while also comforting. It’s perfect for a night playing cards or a late-night talk on the back porch. It’s deep, dry and the most pungent of all Islay malts from Scotland. It’s not exactly for the faint of heart but has garnered many loyal followers of those who can handle the heat.
15. Bulleit Bourbon Whiskey
Bulleit is a bourbon staple in the American-made whiskey repertoire for a reason. It’s fancy but not too fancy, and made with high-quality ingredients that pull from the whiskey and bourbon mixes that have been working for over 150 years. They’ve got a truly unique blend of rye, corn, barley malt, strains of yeast and Kentucky limestone filtered through water.
It’s got that classic medium amber color you want in a whiskey along with a spicy and sweet oak aroma, tones of maple and nutmeg, and a light toffee flavor.
16. Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey
OLDEST AMERICAN DISTILLERY
Bourbon making in the US first took place at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Kentucky in 1812. It has since become a National Historic Landmark for its contributions to perfecting the distillation art form. Their bourbon whiskey is comprised of more than 200 different delectable flavors ranging from grainy to woody, sweet and aromatic to spicy and has some fruity floral notes as well. Pay honor to the whiskey that’s come before you by having a bottle of this on your bar cart.
17. Wild Turkey Longbranch Whiskey
BEST CELEBRITY WHISKEY BRAND
Matthew McConaughey teamed up with the world’s longest-tenured master distiller, Jimmy Russell, and his son, Eddie Russell, to make a bourbon whiskey like he used to enjoy with his father growing up in Texas. It combines the mastery of Kentucky whiskey with Texas barbecue by adding mesquite charcoals to the refining process alongside oak barrels. It’s made in small batches and is a delicious sipping whiskey with subtle hints of the smokey sweetness. McConaughey prefers it neat, for the record and it’s one of the best whiskey brands available out there made in collaboration with a celebrity.
Some FAQs About Whiskey
Whiskey is a type of distilled alcohol made from various malted grains that give it its signature amber brown color. It can be enjoyed mixed with a cocktail or straight over ice and has at least 40% alcohol by volume. There are many different varieties from countries all over the world including America, Ireland, Scotland, England, Japan and even Taiwan.
The process of making whiskey differs slightly depending on where it's being produced, but overall it involves a rough 4-step process of malting, mashing, fermentation and distillation. Raw barley grain is partially sprouted or allowed or germinate and secretes an enzyme that converts its starches to sugars. Then the sugars are extracted from the barley through a process called mashing, and then the sugars are combined with yeast during fermentation. The yeast eats up the sugars and converts them to alcohol, all of which takes place in giant vats. Start to finish the process can take anywhere from 48-96 hours.
Then, the liquid is distilled in either pot stills or column stills to increase the alcohol content. The whiskey is then aged in wooden (usually oak) barrel (this is where the phrase "barrel-aged" comes from). American bourbon, rye and other whiskey must be aged in charred oak barrels, while varieties from other countries are less rigid.
You may be surprised to know that both of these spellings of whiskey are correct — whiskey refers to spirits distilled in Ireland and the US, whereas whisky is how the drink is spelled in Scotland, Canada and Japan. The various spirits may differ in taste and appearance due to differing rules about how the liquor is made. In Scotland, for example, the spirit is distilled only twice whereas in Ireland it's distilled three times.