14 best American whiskies
Looking for a pour from across the pond? We've found the Stateside spirits you need to be sipping
The vastness of America, both in terms of geography and its taste for whiskey, means that there is a great, diverse array of spirits available. So, first things first: let’s get through some jargon.
Bourbon is a whiskey made up of at least 51 per cent corn, rye whiskey must have at least 51 per cent rye, and a wheat whiskey needs to clock up at 51 per cent of – you guessed it – wheat. A corn whiskey, however, needs be at least 80 per cent corn. Most Tennessee whiskies fit the bourbon bill, but a key difference is filtration through sugar maple charcoal.
Bourbon is the most prevalent style throughout the States, and that dominance is reflected in our list. American whiskies are typically sweeter than their scotch counterparts, frequently drawing on candied notes such as cinnamon, whereas whiskies from Scotland are typically more heavily peated and smoky.
That was easy, wasn’t it? So what is all the fuss about? We went on the hunt for the best bottles from across the pond, and in the process we’ve found the best whiskies to sip on your porch in Tennessee, or to steady your nerves in a backroom card game in Kentucky.
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Stagg Jr, 64.9%: £78.70, Master of Malt
This bourbon is a more affordable edition of the popular George T Stagg bourbon, which can cost up to £1,000 these days. But it’s not for the faint of heart, with a mighty 64.9% ABV. Coming out of the formidable Buffalo Trace distillery of Kentucky, this bottle has a lot to live up to, and it certainly does so. The nose is a sultry, chocolaty mess, punctuated by peppery punches and oaky notes that make it incredibly hard to withdraw your nose for long enough to sip it. The palate follows through with the pepperiness and is underpinned by a soft cocoa. The finish is long, satisfying and spiced.
Old Forester Statesman, 47.5%: £45.25, The Whisky Exchange
Released last year in conjunction with the film Kingsman: The Golden Circle, this pour is made up of different casks of Old Forester’s popular Kentucky Bourbon. The nose is intense and full of spice and the smells of a log fire, with a touch of sweetness in the background. The palate is dominated by a smooth leather, moderated by a bouquet of sweet spices, with cinnamon taking the foreground. The finish is long and emphasises the spice. This is an impressively well-rounded and complex bourbon.
Bernheim Original, 45%: £60.55, The Whisky Exchange
The first wheat whiskey in the round-up, hailing from Kentucky, was also the first straight wheat whiskey to be launched on the US market. A straight wheat whiskey must be aged at least two years in new charred oak barrels – this expression is bottled at seven-years-old. The nose on the Bernheim is full of baking spices and dark fruits. The palate delivers on the baking spices and adds a touch of marzipan. The finish is long and spicy.
Jefferson’s Reserve Very Old Bourbon, 45.1%: £54.95, The Whisky Exchange
The Reserve edition of the hugely popular Jefferson’s Bourbon packs more of a punch in terms of ABV (45.1%) and is full of sweet, complex flavours. The nose takes you to a mild summer’s evening with its burnt citrus and vanilla notes, dominating hints of a freshly cut meadow. The palate is smooth, creamy and characterised by caramel and popcorn, which is incredibly moreish. The finish is long, sweet and underpinned by cinnamon.
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye, 45%: £50, Drink Supermarket
Jack Daniel’s is one of the most instantly recognisable names in whiskey, and with such an array of expressions on offer it was hard to single one out. The Single Barrel Rye is a major departure from traditional Jack recipes and its first new grain recipe in 150 years. The nose is nutty and sweet with notes of marzipan, the palate introduces citrus fruits with a dash of smoked oak, while the finish is long and peppery.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon, 56.4%: £47, Drink Supermarket
Wild Turkey boasts the world’s only active father-son distilling partnership, with Eddie and Jimmy Russell churning out bourbon from Lawrenceburg, in the heart of Kentucky. This whiskey has a tremendously fruity nose, full of berries and complemented by a subtle spiciness. The palate has a buttery sweetness to it, which is joined by a host of spices and a suggestion of ginger. The finish isn’t too lingering and introduces touches of caramel.
Ragtime Rye Whiskey, 45.2%: £46, Master of Malt
This New York distillery has been a favourite of mixologists all over The Big Apple for a number of years and its eagerly anticipated rye doesn’t disappoint. The nose is incredibly complex; cherries, berries, vanilla, butter and spices all find room without stepping on each other’s toes. The palate draws on dark fruits that are matched with a thick cinnamon, which is supported by vanilla notes. The finish is long and packed full of citrus fruits. A very impressive whiskey.
Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon, 43.2%: £30, 31Dover
The near-ubiquitous Woodford Reserve is odd in that it is triple-distilled and has a high rye content, at 18 per cent – but, despite these quirks, it is a solid bourbon. The nose is indulgent: the whiff of campfires and toasted marshmallows drizzled in caramel fill your sinuses. The palate is complex, crashing together marzipan and cloves with great success, and they are joined by notes of coffee and smoke. The finish is lingering and satisfying, full of burned oak.
Balcones Baby Blue, 46%: £68.55, The Whisky Exchange
Balcones’ first ever expression is packed with fun facts: it was both the first Texan whiskey on the market post-Prohibition and the first whiskey made of blue corn. The nose is full of sumptuous vanilla and burned citrus, which come together to give a smooth, creamy aroma. The palate is incredibly rich, drawing on strong caramel and cinnamon flavours before a sweet and spicy finish.
Reservoir Wheat, 50%: £69, Master of Malt
This intimidatingly dark-looking whiskey was born in Richmond, Virginia and is made up of 100 per cent wheat. The nose is a bouquet of dark summer fruits, popcorn and has some almost syrupy suggestions. The palate has a citrusy tang coupled with nutty notes and a hit of honey. The finish follows through with the citrus and adds a touch of cocoa.
Bulleit Rye, 45%: £31, Master of Malt
Bulleit is immensely popular for its bourbon. This bottle, made up of 95 per cent rye, won a double gold in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition back in 2013, so you know it’s a special bottle. The nose is dominated by cherry and vanilla with a touch of smokiness in the background. The palate is characterised by full-throttle spice and pepper, kept in check by citrus notes. The finish is smoky, sweet and long.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, 55.8%: £70, Master of Malt
The guys over at Maker’s Mark really know their way around whiskey, with this 46 edition a real triumph. This is something with a bit more oomph, bottled at cask strength and coming in at 55.8% ABV. The nose has a distinct creaminess that is peppered with berries and cinnamon. The palate draws on summer fruits and a suggestion of nuts with a hint of smokiness. The finish consists of winter spices and smokes.
Eagle Rare 10 Year Old, 45%: £37.55, The Whisky Exchange
This is a great-value bourbon offering deep and complex flavours way above its pay grade, but that is what we’ve come to expect from the guys over at the Buffalo Trace distillery. The nose will delight those familiar with burned citrus notes and blends these with a syrupy sweetness. The palate is full of honey and nuts with a nod to summer berries. The finish is creamy, with vanilla taking the forefront ahead of oak.
Michter’s US 1* Sour Mash, 43%: £54, The Whisky Exchange
Seemingly back from the dead after a dip in popularity since this expression’s heyday in the Seventies and Eighties, this resurgent whiskey is bold and satisfying. The nose is deep and dark, a maelstrom of cherries, pepper and spices, tempered by vanilla. The palate is aggressive and introduces caramel popcorn flavours to the spices from the nose. The finish is creamy and medium long.
In our opinion, you can’t do much better than the Stagg Jr., with its chocolate-y flavours sophisticatedly balanced by the pepper, making it the perfect way to transport yourself to a saloon in the Deep South, glass in hand, Kris Kristofferson’s dulcet tones floating from the jukebox and a 10-gallon hat staring at you funny.
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