It’s hard to come up with a more potent image of relaxed grace and understated cool than someone sipping a glass of whiskey. Neat, on the rocks, with a couple of those cool whiskey stones in them, after work, or even on a weekday afternoon, a good sipping whiskey is a great treat. And once you find your particular whiskey, it can be a lifelong relationship. A glass of whiskey can take the edge off, cap off a terrific evening, or act as a bonding agent between two people. Perhaps the Irish put it best in an old proverb: “What whiskey cannot cure, there is no cure for.” Preach. When we talk about whiskey, we’re talking about sipping whiskey—the good stuff. A good whiskey has no place at a frat party mixed in a Solo cup with some Diet Dr. Pepper. But even with truly great whiskey, there are so many that, to the uninitiated, a trip to even a small liquor store can be an overwhelming outing. Here are our picks for the best sipping whiskeys—first the list, and then some information about each one follows.
Westland Peated Whiskey
When whiskey is peated, the smoke from the peat fires used to dry the malted barley infused that barley. Depending on the peat itself and how long the barley was exposed will affect the taste of the whiskey. Westland Peated Whiskey uses peated malt and several other kinds of malt to create this whiskey, which then gets aged for at least three years in oak casks and brings a 46% ABV. When you sip this one, you’ll get some smokey flavors before some hints of coffee, and the finish brings up so distinctly chocolate notes. But the smoke from the peated malt makes this one special.
Buffalo Trace Bourbon
When you buy a blue-chip stock or an album made later in Elton John’s career, you’re not going to get anything that will blow your socks off, but you’ll definitely get something that will turn in a solid performance. That’s Buffalo Trace Bourbon in a nutshell. Is it the most spectacular bourbon of all time? No. But it’s delicious, and you can’t go wrong with it as a sipping whiskey. Aged for nine years at a Kentucky distillery that’s been making this bourbon for more than 200 years, Buffalo Trace Bourbon shows off a delightful mix of flavors, including butterscotch, cinnamon, and caramel, among others. Sip it over ice or neat, but it also does a bang-up job when used in an Old Fashioned.
Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye
A bit different from bourbon, rye whiskey uses a rye mash rather than the 51% corn mash of bourbon. Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye comes from the Buffalo Trace brewery. The rye mash makes for a spicier whiskey than bourbon.Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye comes in at 100 proof is listed as Bottled in Bond, which means it was produced in one season at one distillery and aged at least four years. This whiskey is a bit more expensive than some others on this list, but there’s a lot of bang for the buck for rye drinkers.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon
This 12-year-old bourbon comes from the mind of an 18th-century Baptist preacher whose name the spirit bears. Bourbon aficionados love this stuff, and the hand-labeled bottles add a nice touch.At over 120 proof, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon is a strong one, but the manufacturer touts the fact that the whiskey contains no water at all, so at this high proof, adding a few ice cubes doesn’t dilute it to an undrinkable point. Expect a hint of vanilla in this very delicious bourbon.
Laphroaig Quarter Cask
While it’s tough to find a definitive amount of time that Laphroaig ages Quarter Cask single malt Scotch whisky performs best over a rock or two, letting the spirit speak for itself. Aged for probably six years or so, Laphroaig Quarter Cask takes its name from the size of the cask in which it spends about seven months of that time. A quarter cask is one-fourth the size of a butt, the 500-liter cask many whiskey distillers use for aging. The smaller cask means more of the liquid comes into contact with the wood of the cask, which affects the flavor favorably. This 48% ABV Scotch is non-chill filtered— a quality many whiskey drinkers prize—and has a good deal of sweetness and just a touch of heat. You’ll get some smoky and woody flavors, as well.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon
At nine years old, Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon comes from the Jim Beam Distillery and brings a rich and warm collection of many different flavors. As a single barrel bourbon, it’s a higher proof than some others (120), so you may want to add a few drops of water to it.Those uninterested in cutting the heat of the alcohol, though, will be delighted with a glass of Knob Creek neat.
Yamazaki 12 Year Old Whisky
A single-malt Japanese whisky like Yamazaki 12 Year Old Whisky brings a few more exotic flavors to the glass than does some Kentucky bourbon, and that’s not a bad thing for those who love it. You’ll find ginger, coconut, even a bit of pineapple as you sip this one. Yamazaki distills it with a 100% malted barley mash and ages it in casks of oak— some American, some Spanish, and, aptly, some Japanese. These casks help give it its distinctive taste. Its price has risen substantially of late, and some whisky drinkers have mistakenly thought it has been discontinued (it hasn’t) because it has gotten difficult to find.But if you can find a bottle and can pay for it, you won’t be disappointed by this 43% ABV, gold-colored whisky.
Augustus Bulleit started distilling what would become today’s Bulleit Bourbon when American presidents still numbered in the teens. Its mash has a high rye content, so this ends up being a little spicier than your average bourbon. It’s light, but the hint of bitterness makes it perfect for sipping, not shooting. Over the years, there’s been some controversy about who actually makes Bulleit and where, but that doesn’t have anything to do with how it tastes. Like Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Bulleit isn’t the best bourbon ever made, but it’s delicious neat, over rocks, or as part of a cocktail.
High West Campfire Whiskey
A blend of rye, bourbon, and Scotch, High West Campfire Whiskey is a non-chill filtered concoction, and nothing in it is younger than four years. The label has a rambling, charming story of the whiskey’s origins, but what’s inside the bottle counts for more— lots of smoke and pepper permeate this one. Exactly how much of each whiskey (and whisky) High West Campfire contains seems to be something of a trade secret. It leans a little toward the pricier side, but it’s surprisingly good. Mixing different spirits may seem like an odd choice for something called whiskey, but this 92-proof liquor works. It works really well.
Rittenhouse Straight Rye
Another bottled-in-bond entry on our list, Rittenhouse Straight Rye, brings the spiciness you expect from a 100 proof rye whiskey. It comes to us from Kentucky, where it’s aged four years. Rittenhouse is among the more affordable whiskeys, but that in no way means it’s inferior. Expect the pepper of a rye, but there are some fruity notes here, too. Take it neat, or to enhance some of the milder flavors, add a couple of drops of water. It works well over rocks, too, but neat whiskey is in a class by itself, a fact we can all agree on.
Woodford Reserve Bourbon
Where else to wrap this up but in Kentucky (again)? A 90-proof bottle of Woodford Reserve Bourbon is triple-distilled and aged in two different barrels. It’s a bit lower in ABV than some others, so you won’t want to add too many rocks to it, and you’ll probably get the best results from drinking it neat. Chocolate and other darker flavors abound here. If you’re new to bourbon, this is a great place to start. That doesn’t mean it’s beginner bourbon and that veterans will turn their noses up at it. Woodford Reserve gives us a solid, delicious bourbon that appeals to many whiskey enthusiasts.