Heard in every note of every ancient song belted on Burns Night, raised in loving memory on the distant coasts of Ireland, warming the chest of an isolated fisherman in Canada, rousing memories of yesteryear on a porch in Tennessee, toasting well-earned retirement in a boardroom in Tokyo; whisky is a spirit that has woven itself into life stories, traditions and cultures the world over in thousands of unique instances.
Whisky is a broad church with innumerable denominations prescribed by style or geography; for instance scotch is specific to being distilled in Scotland whereas bourbon is defined by its 51 per cent corn content and maturation in oak barrels.
Scotch has an array of regions that typically identify specific characteristics, perhaps most notably the sophisticated smokiness of Islay whiskies that is owed to the island’s high peat content – peat smoke contains phenol, the amount of this phenol that is absorbed by the malted barley in the kiln is measured in “phenol parts per million” (PPM) to indicate how smoky a whisky will taste.
While scotch whisky varies region to region, other distilling nations have their own characteristics: Japanese whisky usually has much fruitier and floral notes, American whiskies boast more decadent, sweeter flavours and Irish whiskies are silky smooth.
Further to their unmistakable smoothness, the Irish spell it whiskey as opposed to the more universally used spelling of whisky.
With so many styles and regions to choose from, we have rounded up the best whiskies the world has to offer. There are drams for all budgets and palettes, and we recommend drinking each of them neat unless specified otherwise.
Although “scotch on the rocks” may make you feel rather James Bond when you order it, the ice can compromise the quality of your whisky, more complex whiskies with bigger and deeper flavours are incredibly tightly woven on a molecular level, a drop or two of water is advisable to help open up these flavours for better appreciation, a cube of ice will serve to contract these flavours further.
A drop of ice is perfect for some whiskies and of course, different strokes for different folks.
Forest Whisky blend number two, 47%: £59.50, Forest Distillery
Owing it's name to Macclesfield Forest, this a small but celebrated distillery known for consistently churning out the freshest spirits, employing locally foraged ingredients to create clean-as-a-whistle offerings of gin and whisky. Its acclaimed forest gin is the only gin to win two separate double golds at the San Francisco World Spirit Awards and the whisky blend number one sold out within a week – people love its products and it is clear to see why.
Whisky blend number two incorporates a blend of malts all aged at least eight years, this blend is then finished in oloroso sherry casks. Sherry cask aging is a popular method that invites the fruity and spicy character of sherry into the whisky. The nose of this expression is deep and sweet with orchard fruit and caramel, the palette is a pleasing mixture of cereal and spice, moderated by vanilla and smoke with sophisticated oak notes taking the reins and gliding the liquid into a lingering finish of burnt wood and orange.
Nikka Days, 40%: £39.95, The Whisky Exchange
We are longstanding advocates of the Nikka distillery which is at the forefront of Japanese whisky and rightly so, constantly releasing fine whiskies that tastefully combine its admiration of scotch whisky tradition with flavour profiles unique to modern Japanese whisky distilling. The highland influence on Japanese distilling is no secret with many distilleries buying its stills from ancient scotch companies, though the resulting liquid is always fresh and exciting.
Nikka Days is a fabulous blend of some of Nikka’s most revered expressions, including the Yoichi, Miyagikyo and Coffey bottles. The nose is typical of the distillery, busting with fresh apples, barley and citrus. The palette is immensely smooth and carries through the orchard fruit but emphasises a complex alignment of liquorice, citrus, oak and chocolate, the finish is decadently sweet and creamy with a peppering of spice.
Michter’s US*1 original sour mash, 43%: £49.95, The Whisky Exchange
Although in centuries past it was also known as Shenk’s and later Bomberger’s, it’s now known as Michter’s and carriers the title of America’s first whisky company. Surviving prohibition, which can’t have been great for the industry, and bankruptcy, the distillery is still producing whiskies loved the world over and its US*1 sour mash is no exception. Sour mash whiskies traditionally employed a portion of a previous mash to begin the next batch, much like sourdough bread baking.
This bottle is once again a firm favourite following immense popularity in the Seventies, the nose is inviting and comforting, a profile of home baking and summer fruits, the palette is rich, encompassing and fruit forward with a delicate amount of spice to temper the sweetness, the finish is sharp and carries through the yin and yang balance of fruit and spice.
Clynelish 14 year old, 46%: £43.90, Master of Malt
Clynelish is a highland distillery with a reputation to match its ancient history, replacing the Brora distillery opposite in the 1980s, this brand is a highland heavyweight and is hosting this year’s Highland Whisky Festival. The Clynelish 14 year old its flagship expression and a firm favourite for scotch stalwarts.
The nose is almost rakish in nature, thick smoke shrouds delicate notes of orange peel and vanilla. The palette follows through on the vanilla and pairs these notes with a basket of fruit and a whisper of tobacco. The finish is long, satisfying and grows into crisp oakiness.
Amrut Fusion, 50%: £53.95, The Whisky Exchange
Jim Murray’s word is nigh on gospel in the whisky world and in 2010 he named Amrut Fusion the third finest whisky on earth. This bottle’s name is derived from the fusion of both Indian and Scottish barley in the distillation process, distilled and matured in separate American oak casks for at least four years, the malts are then married and matured in a single cask. Although India may not be the first place you think of when you think of the world’s top three whiskies, this distillery has gone from strength to strength since its foundation in 1948 in an India finding its independent feet.
The nose is dominated by a pairing of peat and warming spices with a sweet suggestion of cardamom. The palette is mature and not over complicated, cocoa and roasted coffee beans meet oak by way of a peat introduction, the finish is long and spicy with a whisper of orange.
Spirit of Hven 7 stars no.2 merak, 45%: £94.65, Master of Malt
A distillery with a background that is romantic on an almost Disney scale, Spirit of Hven on the minute island of Hven (3 square miles, 350 people) was founded in 2008 and is Sweden’s third ever pot still distillery. As with many whiskies, the distillery’s landscape is a cornerstone of the flavour profile, with each bottle infused with a whistle of salty sea breeze.
The nose is made up of orchard fruits over a campfire, the palette mingles warm spices with candied orange peel, leading into a peaty and lasting finish. Definitely worth a drop or two of water to coax out more subtle flavours that are buried in soluble peat.
Mackmyra svensk ek, 46.1%: £41.25, Master of Malt
Another Swedish inclusion, this time from the renowned Mackmyra distillery. Blessed by crystal clear water and sun-kissed barley, the distillery’s offerings consistently ooze an organic body that makes each drop more drinkable than the last.
This bottle is all about the barrel and as such is aptly named Swedish oak, with the barrels coopered out of centuries old oak trees, cut and dried for at least a year, meaning the bottle is bursting with character. The overall profile is sweet and peppery, where the nose is dominated by oak and gentle citrus. It’s an ideal opener for a complex palette of nuts, caramel and berries. The finish leans in to the oak, introducing vanilla notes so often found with oak.
Kyro Malt, 47.2%: £39.99, Muazo
The Kyro distillery is bold, brave and brash and is making a lot of noise in the spirit world from its distant base out in Finland, seemingly light years away from the comparatively quaint mothership of the Scottish highlands. Having gained a reputation for a signature freshness in its spirits, be it whisky or gin, this particular bottle is made of 100 per cent malted Finnish whole grain rye.
One thing that sets Kyro apart is its stubborn commitment to rye, not only does this bleed the personality of Finland into the bottle (the country consume three times the European average of rye) but also exemplifies its passion for distillation as whole grain rye is notoriously hard to distil due to its tendency to over boil. This bottle’s nose is big but smooth and buttery, the spiciness you’d expect from a rye bubbles under the surface, the palette forefronts a punchy spiciness alongside dark liquorice and salted caramel, the finish is long and peppery.
Penderyn Portwood finish, 46%: £55.90, Master of Malt
This superlative offering from Welsh distillery Penderyn was awarded gold in the 2016 World Whisky Masters’ European Premium category. With a dry, rich nose full of summer fruits and a palette that is silkily smooth due to its abundance of honey and strings of candied citrus, this is a full bodied whisky worthy of its reputation. The finish is long and soft and balances dry burnt wood with baking spices and a reappearance of honey.
The Balvenie 14 year old Caribbean cask, 43%: £49.90, Master of Malt
The Balvenie is a gigantic name in whisky: a distillery that still grows its own malts with the revered David Stewart (the most experienced malt master in Scotland) at the helm. Stewart was one of the cask finishing pioneers and in 2012 celebrated 50 years with The Balvenie. This bottle is aged 14 years in traditional oak whisky casks before finishing maturation in casks that previously held Caribbean rum. The nose is brimming with fresh fruit and cream, the palette is incredibly smooth and carries through the fruit flavours, vanilla drags these fruits towards the tropics before a gentle and lingering finish that emphasises sweet oak. The use of Caribbean rum casks brings a satisfying spicy sweetness and richness that compliments the smoothness of the whisky.
English Whisky Company, English virgin oak, 46%: £51.95, Master of Malt
Rarity is rather ubiquitous in the whisky world, particularly when it comes to celebrated but youthful distilleries, and this virgin oak expression from the English Whisky Company is limited to 2,689 bottles, a sparse amount for a distillery shipping globally. The Nelstrop family have farmed in England for over 600 years, finally emerging from the chrysalis in 2006 as the first registered English distillery since 1902.
The vitality of adolescent curiosity has afforded the company the ability to experiment with different casks and wood types, with the Virgin Oak cask being the latest single malt added to their small batch range. The nose is thick with treacle and dark chocolate notes, balanced against rejuvenating spices, and cloves coming to the fore. The virgin oak maturation is evident in the palette, the dryness of the oak almost baits out the spices, providing the ideal base to mingle toffee with spicy punches with a long finish where cloves rear their head again.
Teeling Small Batch Whiskey, 46%: £32, Master of Malt
Irish whisky is as smooth as they come. And we mean it is super smooth, like cashmere smooth. In 2015, the Teeling distillery became the first new distillery to open in Dublin in more than 125 years, since then it has been constantly innovating, drawing on old porter recipes and working with a variation of barley blends. The nose is incredibly fresh, invigoratingly so, aromas of vanilla and dark berries are brought to the fore. Vanilla reappears in the palette in a smooth, creamy mash of cinnamon and citrus. The finish is Irish: it is rich, smooth, satisfying and no spicier than it needs to be.
The verdict: World whiskies
With consumer choice at an all-time high in the whisky industry, it has become immensely hard to decide which dram for your dollar. A budding enthusiast as well as a curmudgeonous grandfather may well turn to Scotland, while coffee shop beard hipsters will likely have their heads spun by the mountains of bottles available out of Japan.
In the spirit of pushing you to try something brilliant yet fresh (in every sense of the word) we don’t think you can beat Forest’s Whisky blend number two. Not only does the whisky show signs of distilling maturity well beyond the brand’s youthful years, the bottle itself is a stunning addition to any home, handcrafted by Wade Ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent it features a papercut by artist Georgia Low, glazed in real gold onto the bottle.