The 10 Best Whiskies to Start Your Collection
Twenty years ago, I would have told you that starting a whisky collection was a fairly simple task: Grab some single malts from Scotland’s Highlands region, mix in a couple from Islay—also Scotland—for some smoke and peat, and finish off your collections with two or three good bourbons from the U.S. But this is not 20 years ago, and today starting a good whisky collection is a much different task. That’s because the world of whisky spans the entire globe, with thousands of malts to choose from, from thousands of distilleries, in literally every corner of the world.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been a judge in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. As judges, we taste over 250 spirits over a three-day period (I taste whiskies regularly for my Instagram account, @singlemaltdaily, but nothing that extreme). And, to put it mildly, tasting a few hundred whiskies in 72 hours is an arduous process. But I definitely come out of it for the better. First, all that tasting gives the judges an amazing understanding of the categories we’re tasting through, whether they’re rum, aquavit, vodka, or whisky. Second, each category is broken down into sub-categories; for instance, four- to 12-year-old blended scotch whiskies; ten- to 20-year-old American ryes, 20- to 30-year-old Canadian whiskies; the list goes on. And these days the categories are so much more expansive compared to two decades ago. While Scotland is still the single-malt homeland, malts from Japan have arguably become the world’s most sought after, with America closing the gap at a rapid pace. Other countries make strong cases as well.
So, go forth and start collecting. Here are ten bottles—mostly affordable, as single malts go, but with a couple of splurges—to get you started.
Oban 18 ($110)
This bottle’s younger sibling, the Oban 14, is a staple on almost every bar and restaurant list in America. But I love the distillery’s 18-year-old expression, which provides almost everything in one: sweet notes, mild smoke, delicious oak spice, and a touch of sea salt, all just a touch more subtle than in the 14. Definitely a win at just over $100.
Nikka “From The Barrel” ($75)
This is an absolute stunner. The unique square bottle holds the quintessential Japanese whisky for any collection. It’s without a doubt the best bang for your buck in the Japanese whisky market, and maybe for whisky in general. Both single malt and grain whiskies from Nikka’s two distilleries come together here: Yoichi, whose spirits tend towards smoke and peat, and Miyagikyo, which provides sweeter and more floral notes. The palate has some hints of smoke and peat, then sweet spice hits you beautifully, carried on a wave of salted-toffee sweetness.
Johnnie Walker Green Label ($40)
Want a great bottle for a quarter the price of its higher-end sibling, Blue Label, and arguably better? Look no further. The 15-year-old Johnnie Walker Green Label blended whiskey has a lovely complexity from start to finish. The nose is rich with fresh-cut grass, some mild peat, and honey, with mild spice notes rounding it out. The flavor is sweet at first, then goes into a rye-like heat, with hints of apple pie and toffee. I’d recommend a cigar with this gem.
Balvenie 14 Year Old “Caribbean Cask” ($100)
Not long ago, Balvenie’s impressive 17 Year Rum Cask was replaced by this slightly cheaper, more widely available 14 Year—but the younger sibling more than lives up to the 17 year’s standard. A ton of rum notes on the nose, plus pineapple, coconut, and guava; then the palate offers tongue-coating flavors of mango, rum spices, and vanilla custard. It’s superb. You’d have to go way up in price to Balvenie’s 21 Year Port Wood to even come close to what this offers for $100.
Kavalan Distillery Select No.1 and No.2 ($35)
Taiwan’s Kavalan Distillery has made a big splash in the single malt market in the past five years. It uses the country’s extremely warm climate to mature casks of spirit at essentially twice the rate of colder, damper countries (e.g., Japan and Scotland). Known as the Google of whisky distilleries, Kavalan is probably the most technologically advanced distillery in the world. The one drawback has been that a lot of its bottles sell for steep prices in the U.S., largely due to high import taxes. But that situation has changed with DS1 and DS2, which can be found for about $35. Both these whiskies are quite versatile and ideal for sipping neat or for use in cocktails. Flavor-wise, the DS1 offers more fruity characteristics, while the DS2’s profile is much more floral and herbal.
Michter’s US1 Rye ($30) and 10 Year Old Rye ($150)
I never met a rye I liked until I met Michter’s. A brand that is becoming more mainstream by the day (think Bobby Axelrod’s daily drinker on Billions), Michter’s produces some of the best quality Bourbons, American whiskies, and sour mash around. But for me, the distillery’s ryes are the stars. The core range rye is one has a massive nose of honey and baking spice, while the palate hits you with an abundance of flavors: toasted almonds, black pepper, cinnamon, orange marmalade, and vanilla. The appealing heat here also lingers impressively. The US-1 Rye can be found in some markets for as little as $30. The 10-year, a more grown-up and complex version, can be found for around $150, but act quickly when it’s released (usually twice a year), because seasoned collectors snap it up as fast as it hits the shelves.
Lagavulin 8 Year Old ($65)
This smoke- and peat-bomb is one of my favorite scotch whiskies at the moment. I’ve adored it since it first came out in 2016, but my fondness for it just keeps growing. A younger version of Lagavulin’s classic 16 year, arguably one of the most widely loved scotches in the world, it’s a bit more pungent and powerful—think of a smoky campfire in a glass, but on steroids. This expression started as a limited edition, but it received such high praise that it’s now in Lagavulin’s core range; and it’s an absolute must for any starter whisky collection.
Glendronach 21 Year Old “Parliament” ($200)
Glendronach is known for whiskies that are what connoisseurs like to call sherry bombs. In the distillery’s 21 year old, the massive sweetness of deep, dark fruits and Christmas cake spices feels absolutely heaven-sent, to me at least. It’s one of the best 21s on the market, and while it isn’t inexpensive at $200, it can go head to head (and win) against many whiskies that cost twice as much. If you want a splurge for slow, contemplative sipping, this is it.
Find it: thewhiskyexchange.com
Pinhook Bourbon “War” 4 Year Old ($45)
OK, straightforward description: This stuff is awesome. This fairly new American Bourbon producer has been highly touted (some have even called it the next Pappy Van Winkle, but we’ll see). Like many small producers, Pinhook sources whiskey from the MGP distillery in Indiana, then matures them at another site; in this case, Castle & Key Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. The bourbon itself is terrific, with some tropical notes that hit the palate first, really nice spices coming in next, and a mid-length finish that just leaves you wanting more. At around $45, it’s a steal. And the four-year-old is also the first of nine bottlings, which will eventually range up to 12 years old.
Dalmore “King Alexander III” ($300)
This Dalmore is superior to everything else that the brand offers, up to and including the distillery’s 25 Year Old; and that’s saying a lot, considering how good the Dalmore range is overall. Originally a duty-free exclusive, the King Alexander has one of the most unusual maturations out there, being aged in wine, Madeira, Sherry, Marsala, Bourbon, and Port casks—seemingly a madman’s hodgepodge of oaks, but it somehow works incredibly well. This dram is heavy on winter spice notes, then a range of liqueur flavors from all those casks as the oak sweetness plays out on the palate; and the long, long finish is heavenly. It may be $300, but it’s still a steal.
Find it: reservebar.com