Today’s whisky lovers are spoiled for choice. Whether you’re a fan of peaty, smoky single malt Scotch, classic Kentucky bourbons, peppery rye or delicate Japanese drams, there’s a whisky style to suit every taste.
How to choose a whisky
Choosing the ‘best’ whisky is a subjective exercise, as it depends on preference.
A distiller can win all the gold medals at every international spirits competition for their spicy rye whiskey; but if you aren’t a fan of rye styles you’re unlikely to buy it.
So the ‘best’ isn’t necessarily the most awarded, the most expensive or even the rarest bottling – though all of these factors are a good indication of quality.
Instead the best whisky is the one that suits your palate, your budget and the way you like to enjoy drinking.
How to serve whisky
As well as thinking about the style of whisky, it’s worth considering how you will drink it.
Will you be enjoying it neat, or on the rocks? Those would be especially great serves for cask finished whiskies and single malts.
Or would you rather serve in a cocktail? As Laura Foster says in her guide to the best whiskies for cocktails: ‘The canon of cocktails made using whisky is vast and varied, running from ice-cold, short, stirred-down and brown to warm, long and comforting, with all sorts of fruity and refreshing options in between.’
Foster recommends using products from the same country as the cocktail originates – so bourbons and ryes for the American cocktails, for example.
It’s also important to note that the list of top whiskies is in constant flux. Yes, there are bottles that reliably win gold medals year after year; but there are also scores of fabulous new releases every year wanting to grab a slice of the action.
Take a look at this article in 12 months time and you will no doubt find new names and exciting new bottlings that have made it into our current list of favourites.
Chosen by Decanter’s whisky experts, these 10 bottles are a great guide to the wonderful world of whisky, whiskey and bourbon.
The experts: Laura Foster (LF), Richard Woodard (RW), Sylvia Wu (SW)
Ballantine’s 17 Year Old
Blendophobes who can only drink single malts should try this, and think again. A superlative evocation of the art of blending – even after seeing its strength cut from 43% – combining fleshy fruit and an unctuously creamy, vanilla-accented and honeyed palate. Silky, smooth and utterly seductive. RW Alc 40%
Best Single Malt
Highland Park 18 Year Old Viking Pride
What makes a whisky great? Complexity, character, balance. Longevity too – more than 20 years after its launch, this remains exceptional thanks to its restrained smoke, wonderful fragrance of fruit and flowers, and sumptuous combination of heather honey and vanilla fudge. Tasting it again is like a warm hug from an old friend. RW Alc 43%
Compass Box Great King Street Artist’s Blend
This modern blend aims to recapture the character of the great 19th-century pioneers of the art of blending, with a malt-heavy mix that majors on waxy Clynelish. It’s wonderfully fruity – tangerine and candied strawberry strengthening into more mature, dried fruits – with great weight and spice from some well-chosen casks. Great for mixing. RW Alc 43%
John Walker & Sons Celebratory Blend
Johnnie Walker celebrated ‘his’ 200th birthday in 2020 (look out for a film and a splendid book on the subject) and this is one of the new releases marking the occasion. A worthy tribute to 19th-century blending pioneers, it offers a kaleidoscope of fruit, gentle smoke, baking spices and chocolate ganache – all underpinned by the seamless sweetness of well-chosen grain whiskies. RW Alc 51%
Best for Investment
Black Bowmore DB5 1964
In 1993, Black Bowmore cost less than £100 a bottle. A medium-peated Islay single malt, matured in a Williams & Humbert Walnut Brown oloroso Sherry butt, its remarkable power, complexity and subtlety made it a legend, and this might be its apogee: matured for 31 years, limited to 25 bottles with über-luxurious packaging in association with Aston Martin. At £50,000, it shows how far high-end Scotch has come. RW Alc 49.6%
Carsebridge 48 Year Old
Aged grain whisky can be a little sweet and one-dimensional – the cask overshadowing the distillate. So when this single grain from closed Carsebridge emerged among Diageo’s Special Releases in 2018, it was mindblowing (and, admittedly, mindblowingly expensive). Richly vinous, crème de cassis, old polished wood and slightly dusty tannins from the cask. Glorious. RW Alc 43.2%
Wild Turkey 101, US
A gorgeous rye-heavy Bourbon bottled at a higher than regular strength and showing all the punch that you’d expect: spice, black banana, sawmill scents and coconut, but underscored by a refined note of wax furniture polish and darker, dried fruit. There’s also a lighter touch of cereal and Sugar Puffs. Certainly not shy. RW Alc 50.5%
Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky
The Hibiki brand was first launched in 1989 to commemorate Suntory’s 90th anniversary. The ‘Japanese Harmony’ version of Hibiki is a blend of malt whiskies from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries and aged in a blend of casks including American white oak, Sherry barrels and the native Mizunara oak. A perfumed nose of potpourri, candied citrus fruits, sweet vanilla and raisins, sweet and smooth, with honey, butterscotch, cigar box bitterness and white pepper on the palate, complex and long. SW Alc 43%
Best Irish Whisky
Redbreast Dream Cask Ruby Port Edition
Long revered by insiders as the epitome of Ireland’s unique pot still style, Redbreast is now getting the global recognition it richly deserves. Nearly 7,500 people signed up online for a chance to buy one of only 900 bottles of this third Dream Cask bottling: a richly fruited, tangy whiskey of real depth and power thanks to 28 years and more of ageing. RW Alc 51.5%
Best for cocktails
Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Made at the Jim Beam distillery, this small batch bourbon has a high proportion of rye in its ‘mash bill’, or recipe of the different cereals. A nose of orange and lemon peel, pine boards, sawdust and eucalyptus leads onto an elegant yet spicy palate, with black pepper, chilli flake, 70% dark chocolate and rye bread. This makes a particularly mean Manhattan. LF Alc 40%