Sip Your Way Through Our Favorite Whiskies of 2021
With just days left to go in 2021, it's time we look back and take stock of what came our way over the past 12 months. In the world of whiskey, at least, there were plenty of highlights. An unveiling of new expressions, across all subcategories of the spirit, was a seemingly weekly occurrence. Poring through the pouring notes, I am reminded of dozens of noteworthy examples with price tags ranging from $20 to over two million. Yes…Really.
While the cost of rare malts continued to soar into the stratosphere, this year also saw the release of the oldest scotch ever. Ultimately, however, I was equally as enthralled by several "everyday" bourbons and ryes as I was by any of these six-figure fantasy drams. All this is to say, whittling the entries down into a succinct list of the year's finest was no easy task. Though I wanted to ensure that procuring most of them would be. So out of more than 100 contenders, I leave you with an elite 8 — the majority of which are neither tightly-allocated nor priced on par with a high-performance sports car. Nevertheless, the best of 2021 will rev the engine of any whiskey enthusiast just the same.
Maker's Mark Wood Finishing Series 2021 Release: FAE-01 — $70
For more than 50 years, Maker's Mark was defined by its lone, red wax-dipped flagship. Suddenly though, the legendary bourbon brand out of Loretto, Kentucky is all about innovation. The Wood Finishing Series is a prime example. Launched in 2019, it consists of fully-matured whiskies that are subsequently shaped through a special combination of charred and toasted oak staves inserted into the heart of the casks. This release dials in the flavor with even more specificity, relying on virgin American oak staves that were toasted on one side and raw on the other. Hardly some sort of elaborate gimmick, they affect everything from the mouthfeel to the finish of the resulting liquid: a cask strength powerhouse that's creamy on the palate and brimming with red fruit resplendence.
Frey Ranch Bottled In Bond Rye — $60
Since entering the scene last year, Frey Ranch has positioned Fallon, Nevada squarely on the map of awesome American whiskey. Husband and wife co-owners, Colby and Ashley Frey consider themselves farmers first and distillers second. As such, they've never sourced any liquid for their bottles; everything you taste here was grown and crafted here. And virtually all of it is sublime. This year they introduced a bold, bottled-in-bond rye that tempers the assertiveness of the namesake grain with buttery edges of burnt caramel and baking spice. Already a hit with connoisseurs, it's only a matter of time before Frey Ranch becomes a household name.
Old Charter Oak French Oak Finished Bourbon— $700
Although bourbon is required by federal law to be aged in new, charred oak barrels, the provenance of that wood is never specified. Since 2018, Buffalo Trace distillery has been leveraging that "loophole" to produce some notably unique liquids under its Old Charter Oak label. This one takes the same mystical mashbill responsible for Eagle Rare and George T. Stagg and enters it into tight-grain timber from the forests of France. What emerges is an elegant 92-proof sipper splitting the difference between vanilla-like sweetness and tannin-rich dryness. As with most things from Buffalo Trace these days, this one is under tight allocation. So if you see it at retail, don't hesitate to haul it home.
Paul John Christmas Edition 2021 — $80
Out of Goa, India comes this annual peated single malt meant to make spirits bright. It balances out the campfire smoke at its core with a dollop of tropical fruit and candied nuts. You can attribute these unlikely layers to a battery of finishing barrels formerly committed to Madeira wine as well as tawny port. When tied together they also impart a slightly oxidative element on the whisky, tugging the tongue in several compelling directions all at once. Don't be led astray by the seasonal theme, this is a complex curiosity to be enjoyed throughout the calendar year.
Old Forester Single Barrel Rye Barrel Strength — $80
If you're a fan of full-throated rye, look no further. Master Taster Jackie Zykan has here assembled a whiskey that's meant to mimic what the juice tastes like as it exits the barrel. She shopped from just 75 casks in total, with each exhibiting its own unfiltered idiosyncrasies. I sampled from one that was bottled at 127 proof and I could still discern a full spice rack on my palate minutes after the sip. Awash in anise, caraway, cinnamon, and dill it is an experience I eagerly anticipate re-creating as soon as the next batch hits shelves in 2022. If you don't feel like waiting that long, the limited supply from the first release is circulating for around $400 online.
Highland Park 15 Year Old Viking Heart — $100
The scotch from this iconic Orkney Island producer is distinguished by several key components: a whisper of smoke, owed to the presence of heather-forward peat; a dark fruit finish, courtesy of predominantly ex-sherry aging; a Norse ethos, nodding to the region's cultural lineage. For the latest addition to its core range, Highland Park has leaned heavy on each of these elements. The peat emerges fast in an incense-ey aroma. The sweetness of the cooperage links a plum note with the creaminess of creme brûlée. And a beautiful embossed ceramic package evokes Nordic mystique. But a more lasting aura is delivered through its lengthy full-flavored finish.
Teeling 30 Year Old — $3,000
And now for some stuff that is markedly less attainable. Originally distilled in 1991, this Irish single malt spent over two decades in ex-bourbon barrels before a final nine years maturing in Sauternes wine casks. The combination of that particular cooperage brings with it a study in contrast. In the nose there's an enveloping dessert-like presence: spongecake and Creme Patissiere. But the tongue tells a different tale: Leather and tobacco across a lingering reveal. Sadly, the bottle itself won't last long at all. Only 4,000 were produced globally. The oldest release from the Dublin distillery's Vintage Reserve series, it heads stateside in early January.
The Dalmore 30 — $5,500
The Dalmore is among the most collected brands of whisky on earth. To that point, this year the Highland distillery unveiled a five-bottle collection entitled Decades that sold out instantaneously…At a suggested retail price of $275,000. Thankfully, for those with a more modest budget, the brand also introduced a new 30-year expression which will act as an annual showcase of evolving vintages. It debuted with a soulful 42.8% sipper sculpted through a finish in super rare 30-year-old Tawny Port pipes plucked from the verdant hills of Portugal. There is a pronounced nuttiness to the mouthfeel, echoed through marzipan and mulled fruit on the palate. Suspended in the fold is an ineffable thread of rancio — something more common to an incredibly old Cognac. Precious tasting notes, to be sure. But ones that come at a precious premium.