We get to drink a lot of whisk(e)y around these parts. Between the live tastings, Zoom tastings, blind tastings, rankings, and the fact that 2020 was a year that required a fair few “personal” tastings, we ended up sampling a boatload of bottles. Hundreds of expression across a range of styles — bourbon, scotch, rye, Irish, American, Tennesse, limited editions, and even a few flavored drams.
With all that drinking you’d think it’d be easy to pick the “best” whiskey we tasted in 2020. Spoiler alert: It’s wasn’t.
We went back and forth on a lot of expressions this year. And by year’s end, we had to revisit many of them to make sure they were as good or mediocre or even bad as we remembered. Sometimes our opinions shifted, creating a domino effect across the rankings. It’s also interesting how a list like this changes when you put various styles up against each other, instead of simply judging a bourbon versus other bourbons, etc. Suddenly, bottles you cited for being “smooth” or “balanced” fail to shine when facing a completely different category of juice.
In the end, the overall quantifier for this list was the taste, but price definitely played a role. We didn’t want a list of whiskeys that all cost $100 or more. That feels snobby. So we made sure to consider standouts in the $20-60 range, even if they don’t reach the nuanced heights of some of the pricier entries. The final rankings represent whiskeys costing anywhere from $20 to $900.
The 20 whiskeys highlighted below are the sips we can’t wait to try again. The list isn’t comprehensive by any stretch, but it’s a start. And even with 20 entries, there are serious gems that didn’t make the cut.
Special shout outs go to Balcones Lineage Texas Single Malt, Johnnie Walker Green Label, Tullamore D.E.W. Caribbean Cask, Eagle Rare 17, Barrell Dovetail, Pinhook Bohemian Bourbon, Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey, Michter’s 10-Year Bourbon, Method & Madness Single Pot Still, and Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake … plus so, so many more.
20. Old Tub Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
JIM BEAMABV: 50% Average Price: $22
The Whiskey: Old Tub is the original name of Jim Beam, back before Prohibition change almost everything about booze. This particular bottle used to only be available at the Louisville Distillery in half-bottles. As of this year, it’s available nationwide for the first time and in full-sized bottles. Yes, the price is eye-catching, but this isn’t a charity pick. The juice in the bottle really does shine as an unfiltered and higher ABV version of classic Jim Beam, giving you a sterling example of the quality of Beam’s whiskey.
Tasting Notes: The sip draws you in with hints of milled cornmeal, freshly sawed wood, honeycomb, and plenty of vanilla. The taste has caramel popcorn mingling with more vanilla, notes of oak, and a hint of spicy stewed apples with a touch of brown sugar sweetness. The end is long and has a very distant hint of orange oil and minerality.
Bottom Line: This has no business only costing $20. This is a real workhorse whiskey that you can use as an on the rocks sipper to a highball to a cocktail. Again, this is only $20 … there are $40 bourbons that don’t taste this good. Lots of them.
19. Basil Hayden’s 10-year Bourbon
JIM BEAMABV: 40% Average Price: $74
The Whiskey: Every year around this time, Jim Beam drops their Basil Hayden’s 10-year Bourbon just in time for the holidays. This bourbon is the same juice as Old-Grandad. It’s simply aged longer. That makes this a very high-rye bourbon with a mash bill of only 63 percent corn next to 27 percent rye and ten percent malted barley. Tasting Notes: Musty oak, oily vanilla pods, and surprisingly subtle spice greet you. The taste leans into the old oak with a toasted nature, while hints of leather, sharp pepper, and creamy vanilla mingle on the tongue. The long finish touches on a caramel and syrup sweetness next to all that musty wood, counterpointed by bitter dark chocolate when water is added. Bottom Line: If you like Old Grand-Dad, then this is the bottle for you. Moreover, this yearly release seems to be getting better with each passing year.
18. Virginia Distillery Courage & Conviction American Single Malt
VIRGINIA DISTILLERY CO. ABV: 46% Average Price: $74
The Whiskey: This was a big swing for American Single Malts. The juice from Virginia is made from 100 percent local malted barley. The whiskey is then rested in three casks. 50 percent go into ex-bourbon casks with 25 percent going into both French cuvée and Spanish sherry casks for four years.
Tasting Notes: This is subtle yet enticing. The nose is full of caramel, vanilla, oak, and fruit (think tropical). That fruit has a floral edge that almost reminds you of a hazy New England IPA. The sip has a nice dose of caramel malts with plenty of oakiness, nuttiness, and sweetness to hold your attention. The end is just the right length, with hints of spice and bitter cacao attaching to the wood, fruit, florals, and sweetness.
Bottom Line: This is just the beginning of Virginia Distillery’s work in American single malts and it’s very promising (and tasty). We’re looking forward to the next set of releases next year.
17. Jameson Black Barrel Irish Whiskey
JAMESONABV: 40% Average Price: $39
The Whiskey: This whiskey takes Jameson to the next level. The juice is standard Jameson that’s aged in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. Those whiskeys are blended and then transferred to a finishing barrel — a deeply re-charred bourbon cask. The whiskey spends a long spell mellowing in that before it’s proofed and bottled.
Tasting Notes: Dark cacao nibs next to toasted oak, bourbon vanilla, and rich toffee draw you in. The taste delivers on those promises while adding a Christmas cake matrix of fatty nuts, candied fruits, cakey malts, and plenty of spice next to that charred wood. The finish is medium-length and highlights the spice, sweets, and wood.
Bottom Line: This is another bottle that has no business being this cheap. It’s also a fantastic mixing whiskey for any cocktail. No, it’s not a new release but it’s a bottle we kept going back to again and again this year so we had to give it love.
16. Baker’s Single Barrel 7 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
JIM BEAMABV: 53.5% Average Price: $59
The Whiskey: This new release from Beam’s premium Baker’s line is moving the brand out of small-batch and into the single barrel market. The bourbon is hand-selected juice from barrels that hit just the right mark in the Beam warehouses. The whiskey has aged a minimum of seven years before going in the bottle at high proof.
Tasting Notes: This year’s release had big notes of spice, vanilla, caramel, and musty oak that really embraced “classic” bourbon nostalgia. The taste relishes in all that vanilla, spice, and oak while adding hints of savory herbs, light and sweet fruitiness, and a distant wisp of pipe tobacco smoke. The end is just long enough with plenty of spicy warmth, bourbon vanilla, old oak, and light syrup sweetness.
Bottom Line: This has a hefty new bottle and look to match the powerful taste. The price is also great for a single barrel expression, making this a great gift for 2020.
15. Woodford Reserve Straight Malt Whiskey
BROWN-FORMANABV: 45.2% Average Price: $38
The Whiskey: This is an outlier in the whiskey world. The mash bill is 51 percent malted barley with 47 percent corn and only two percent rye. It’s kind of like a bridge between the world of malt whiskeys and bourbon whiskeys and it’s goddamn fascinating.
Tasting Notes: Creamy vanilla with Christmas spices mingles with oak and a hint of caramel malts. There’s a corn muffin with butter body that marries to the sharper spice and oak as flavors of dark chocolate cut with fresh mint arrive. The end lasts as all that creamy vanilla, spice, oak, and maltiness combine for a fine finish.
Bottom Line: This was released in 2018, but it was this year’s batch that finally clicked for us. It’s an interesting sip of whiskey that stood out, tasted good, and didn’t break the bank. Use it cocktails, sip it on the rocks, throw it in a highball … it’s all good.
14. Westward American Single Malt Stout Cask Finish
WESTWARD WHISKEYABV: 46% Average Price: $95
The Whiskey: This small distillery in Portland, OR, is making some damn fine single malts. This expression takes their fully matured single malt and transfers it into stout-seasoned barrels that held beer from local craft breweries Bent Shovel Brewing, Breakside Brewing, Culmination Brewing, Ex-Novo Brewing, Fort George Brewery, Migration Brewing, Sky High Brewing, and more. The whiskey spends a whole year soaking in all those stout-y flavors before proofing and bottling.
Tasting Notes: The sip opens with a mix of dark cherries next to orange oils, Christmas spices, and a hint of banana in brown sugar and butter. The taste carries on that path while adding salted caramel and dark chocolate bitterness, especially with the addition of a little water. The stout really starts to shine after that water, as the chocolate gets darker and a hint of espresso bean bitterness marries to the vanilla, oak, spice, and dark fruits on the long-simmering end. Bottom Line: This year this whiskey got an upgraded bottle and the juice in that bottle seems to be more refined. It’s a fine whiskey that seems to have truly benefitted from the beer-barrel finish, all of which helped it stand out in 2020.
13. Powers John’s Lane Irish Whiskey
POWERSABV: 46% Average Price: $69 The Whiskey: This single pot still Irish whiskey uses the classic mash bill of unmalted and malted barley that’s triple distilled in old pot stills. The hot juice is then transferred to a majority of ex-bourbon and a minority of ex-sherry casks where it rests for 12 long years. The whiskeys are then married, proofed, and bottled with no filtration.
Tasting Notes: Bright and sweet orchard fruits meet worn leather, oak, caramel malts, and a note of soft stone. The fruits become dried and candied as creamy vanilla pudding, dark spices, and a choco-coffee bitterness lead back toward that oak and leather. The vanilla kicks back in late but the dram remains oaky, spicy, and fruity on the fade.
Bottom Line: This is a shockingly easy-sipping whiskey. The new bottle design — reminiscent of a pot still — and the box also make this whiskey a great gift for anyone looking to get into higher-end Irish whiskey without breaking the bank.
12. Benriach The Twenty One Single Malt Whisky
BENRIACHABV: 46% Average Price: $166
The Whiskey: Legendary Master Blender Dr. Rachel Barrie has taken an old scotch and brought it into the 21st century. This Speyside single malt marries four unpeated whiskies aged in ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, ex-red wine, and new American oak casks for 21 long years. The end result was one of the biggest surprises of 2020 for us.
Tasting Notes: Mild oak greets you alongside a very refined sense of freshly plucked orchard fruits, red berries off the vine, and honey fresh from the hive. The fruits lean into pears and candied cherries as subtle spice kicks in with hints of smoked almonds dipped in honey and a distant note of malty dark chocolate. The end isn’t too long and really lets the sweet fruit, oak, and spice shine as a final whisper of sweet, almost plummy smoke closes the sip out.
Bottom Line: This is the sort of sip that puts a smile on your face from the moment it hits your olfactory system. We’d argue you don’t even need water to drink this, but a little water will certainly let to bloom nicely.
11. Midleton Very Rare 2020 Irish Whiskey
IRISH DISTILLERSABV: 40% Average Price: $190
The Whiskey: This was the final release of Irish Distiller’s Master Distiller Brian Nation. The 37th installment of the much-beloved Very Rare series out of Midleton. Basically, Nation spent a year tasting single pot still and single grain whiskeys aged 13 to 35 years in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry. The final bottling is his swan song to his decades at Midleton and last seven years as their Master Distiller.
Tasting Notes: There’s a real sense of the bourbon vanilla next to black pepper, freshly ground nutmeg, dark chocolate, and dark yet sweet fruits, all surrounded by a mild sense of old oak. That oak carries on and is joined by hints of pear, orange oils, chili peppers, and a clear hint of soft cedar. The end fades at just the right pace, leaving you with the oak, spice, fruit, and that sense of being in a room walled with only cedar.
Bottom Line: This is going to be hard to find and expensive when you do find it. Still, this is a collector’s item heralding the end of an era and also happens to be a very fine sip of whiskey. If you see it, try to get a sip.
10. Aberlour 18 Single Malt Whisky
ABERLOURABV: 43% Average Price: $144
The Whiskey: This quiet Speyside distillery is one of those distilleries that many don’t know even about. Those who do know, know that Aberlour makes some seriously good whisky, year after year. This year’s 18-year Double Cask release is another testament to that. The juice is left alone in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks for 18 long years before it’s brought down to proof with soft Scottish spring water and bottled.
Tasting Notes: Bruised peaches mingle with buttery toffee, butterscotch candy wrappers, rich vanilla, and orange oils. That peach is drowned in heavy cream and honey, with plenty of leathery oak and sharp Christmas spices as an orange marmalade note counterpoints the whole sip. The round finish rolls through your senses while highlighting the spice, creaminess, fruit, oak, and vanilla on the slow fade.
Bottom Line: This is one of those sips that keeps popping back into our mind. It’s just really, really good on its own, though it blooms nicely with a little water. This really was a revelation this year that’ll be a mainstay on our shelves for years to come.
9. Sazerac 18 (Antique Collection) Straight Rye Whiskey
BUFFALO TRACE ABV: 45% Average Price: $899 (MSRP: $99)
The Whiskey: This year’s release from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is an 18-year-old rye made with Minnesota rye. The juice spent 18 years aging in heavily charred barrels in a specific spot in one warehouse, where it lost 76.9 percent to the angels. The remaining juice was proofed and bottled as-is, leaving an amazingly accessible sip of whiskey.
Tasting Notes: Imagine freshly picked apples packed in bales of straw next to a mild spice warmth and lots of oakiness. The palate embraces the dryness of the straw while adding in more distinct rye spiciness with charred oak bitterness, dark cacao, and a spicy stewed sweet apple body. The end is like an old barn full of hay, orchard fruit, and rusting tools. It’s not too long, but fully satisfying.
Bottom Line: The beauty of this dram was a big surprise this year. This is one of those ryes that we may never get again. It’s so unique yet still amazingly easy to drink.
8. Redbreast 15 Irish Whiskey
REDBREASTABV: 46% Average Price: $104
The Whiskey: This single pot still triple-distilled whiskey from Irish Distillers in Midleton is hard to beat. The juice is a marrying of whiskey aged for 15 long years in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks before masterful blending, proofing, and bottling. The end result is something truly special from the Emerald Isle.
Tasting Notes: Orange oils, dry straw, vanilla pudding covered in candied cherries, dark spices, and a hint of bananas fried in butter and brown sugar greet you. The spices really take on a Christmas edge as the creaminess of the vanilla hints at eggnog-spiked bitter coffee. The end is just the right length as hints of old oak, those creamy spices, the orange, and dry straw all merge into a warm embrace.
Bottom Line: This isn’t a new whiskey. It’s just a really f*cking good whiskey we got back into this year. Every single year, this expression continues to shine brightly and we can’t look away.
7. Aberfeldy 18 Exceptional Cask Single Malt Whisky
ABERFELDYABV: 43% Average Price: $169
The Whiskey: Dewar’s Master Blender and Master of Malt, Stephanie MacLeod, really hit on something special with this release. The whisky is hand-selected by MacLeod from juice that’s spent 18 years resting in ex-bourbon casks in Aberfeldy’s warehouses. The juice is then transferred to first-fill Pauillac wine casks from Bordeaux (also hand-selected by MacLeod) for a final rest before proofing and bottling.
Tasting Notes: That Aberfeldy honey mingles with sweet red berries, mildly spicy tobacco, vanilla pods, old and leathery oak, and a real sense of soft cedar. Those berries and honey offer the perfect counter to the leather, tobacco, and cedar as the honey creates a bridge between the two poles — with a whisper of citrus oils. The end is long, full of cedar, honey, and spicy tobacco, and very fulfilling.
Bottom Line: This is one of those drams we can’t stop thinking about and wish we had a barrel of to call our own.
6. Woodinville Bourbon Whiskey Port Cask
WOODINVILLEABV: 45% Average Price: $52
The Whiskey: This Seattle craft bourbon is a great example of the power of the small craft distillery. This juice is the award-winning Woodinville 5-Year Bourbon that’s finished for six to 12 months in port casks, adding a serious depth to the already solid whiskey.
Tasting Notes: Bourbon vanilla dances with plummy fruits, fatty nuts, and mild spice next to oak. The sip feels like a Christmas cake brimming with candied fruits, dark spices, dried fruit, nuts, and creamy vanilla. The slow end holds onto all of those notes while also embracing a bit of oak and bitter char as it fades.
Bottom Line: This is one of those sips that are perfect on a little ice but also work wonders as a cocktail base, especially for a Manhattan.
5. Uncle Nearest 1820 Tennessee Whiskey
UNCLE NEARESTABV: 56.55% Average Price: $105
The Whiskey: This Tennessee whiskey from newly minted shingle Uncle Nearest celebrates the history of Tennessee whiskey while embracing diversity in the industry, all while also creating a damn fine line of booze. Their 1820 is made from hand-selected barrels that have aged for a minimum of eleven years. Master Blender Victoria Eady-Butler sources the barrels for their exactness and ability to convey the beauty of Tennesse whiskey before marrying them and bottling at high proof.
Tasting Notes: There’s a lot going on that just works. The nose is full of orange oils, vanilla pods, dark chocolate, Christmas cakes with nuts and fruit and spice, and plenty of oak. The body is creamy yet refined, with sweet notes of maple syrup next to dark chocolate covered cherries next to worn leather and more oak. The end is long and full of all those Christmas cake notes while adding a hint of salty buttered popcorn before ending on a wisp of smoke.
Bottom Line: You can tell immediately why Uncle Nearest continues to sweep up awards in 2020. This is a damn tasty dram of whiskey that we’re very excited to drink more of every single chance we get.
4. Mortlach 21 (Rare by Nature Collection) Single Malt Whisky
DIAGEOABV: 56.9% Average Price: $750
The Whiskey: This Dufftown distillery is a real classic (it’s the oldest one in town). It’s also one of those shingles that only hardcore scotch fans seem to know exists. This special one-off release is small-batched after aging for 21 long years and then finished in Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks, adding a subtly refined finishing touch to the dram.
Tasting Notes: There’s a really welcoming nose that leans towards subtle hints of dark spices, candied fruits, and oakiness with the feel of a flaky, buttered biscuit. The body of the dram has a dark chocolate orange base that then takes a turn into fresh chili territory with a savory fruit depth. It kind of feels like what all those chili-spiked chocolate craft stouts wish they were. The dark and sweet fruits stick around the long end as old oak and rich malts slowly fade through your senses, leaving you smiling.
Bottom Line: This is one of those whiskies that’s grown on us immensely as we’ve re-tasted it. It’s gone from, “this is fine” to “wow, this really is something special, isn’t it?” to “where has this been all of my life???” Though that means, “goodbye savings account!” if we choose to scratch that itch.
3. Michter’s 10-Year Rye Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
MICHTERS DISTILLERYABV: 46.4% Average Price: $199
The Whiskey: This limited edition release from Michter’s this year created a big stir over the summer for being delicious. The 10-year old hand-selected single barrel expression is a much sought after whiskey that we’d argue lives up to the hype.
Tasting Notes: Butter rich toffee meets marzipan cut with rose water next to peppery spice and clear oakiness. Bespoke Red Hots mingle with orange oils, more oakiness, vanilla pods, and a rush of fresh spicy/sweet chili peppers. The almond edge loses some of its marzipan sweetness as the oak, spice, vanilla, and orange slowly fade away, leaving you warmed with plenty of rye spice.
Bottom Line: This is another expression we almost forgot about until we tasted it again and… wow, this is really f*cking tasty. This is a hell of a rye in every way. It’s also great if you want to make $50 Manhattans with a really solid sweet vermouth and more orange oils.
2. William Larue Weller (Antique Collection) Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
BUFFALO TRACE ABV: 67.25 Average Price: $799 (MSRP: $99)
The Whiskey: This wheated whiskey was made in 2008 from a mash bill that replaced Minnesota rye with North Dakota wheat. The hot juice was barreled and stored in two warehouses on specific floors where 73 percent of the whiskey was lost to evaporation over the past 12 years.
Tasting Notes: This is the sort of nose that says, “Hello! Welcome. Make yourself at home.” with mild notes of creamy bourbon vanilla, rich caramel, slight oak, and a clear nutty edge. The taste adds to that with choco-coffee bitterness next to bright red cherries swimming in creamy vanilla and spicy tobacco leaves. That chocolate/cherry/oak matrix marries to the velvet body as it slowly fades away, leaving you warm and happy.
Bottom Line: This is a bottle that also grew on us. We just kept thinking about, going back to it, dreaming about it. We get that it’s very hard to find and crazy expensive. But… this really is a masterpiece and moved between one, two, and three on this list about 50 times.
1. Talisker 8 Year (Rare by Nature Collection) Single Malt Whisky
DIAGEOABV: 57.9% Average Price: $115
The Whiskey: This release from Diageo’s Rare By Nature Collection is a special one-off whisky that you can actually find and hopefully afford. The whisky is a rare Talisker expression that’s aged for eight years and then finished Caribbean rum casks. The idea is to blend the salty, seaside nature of a Talisker with the sweet, seaside nature of a pot still Caribbean rum. The results are something new and very enticing.
Tasting Notes: The sip starts off like a classic Talisker with hints of briny sea spray, sweet pears, and beach campfire smoke. Then a hint of molasses peeks in. The palate continues on that path and starts building in notes of fatty, smoky whole hog or brisket smokers with burnt sugars, red spices, and smoked salts and fats. It sounds heavy, but it’s somehow still light and easy-sipping. The end really embraces the taste as the fat, smoke, sea, orchard fruits, and sugars fade out at an even pace.
Bottom Line: This has been a hell of a year for BBQ. We want to take this bottle to South Carolina or Texas’ Hill Country, sit down next to a smoker, and order everything on the menu. Then we want to eat it all while drinking a bottle of this stuff. This is the whisky that surprised us the most, drew us back the most, and really feels like 2020 in a bottle. Cheers to the Talisker team on the Isle of Skye!