There are only two days left to 2021. A lot of folks are wallowing in the hazy responsibility-free zone that percolates perennially between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. But there’s still serious work to be done, people! Chief among those tasks is an exhaustive rundown of the best whiskies that were tasted over the past twelve months. If you’re a fan of scotch, specifically, you’d have a lot to pore through. I know I did. As a professional in the space, I tasted a smattering of new malts and blends totaling in the triple digits. Here now I present to you (in alphabetical order) the most meritorious of the bunch.
I’m a fierce supporter of an unapologetic sherry bomb. And the latest limited edition release from this Speyside gem is just that. A fruit-forward freak of a dram, it is presented at a cask strength of 56.5% ABV. So elements of berry jam, candied plums and even coconut could hardly be called ‘hints’. They are practically bonking you over the head to make their presence known. Remember, this is the work of a solitary sherry butt; only 612 bottles were retrieved. It will not last long.
For the smoke monsters out there, Bruichladdich’s ongoing Octomore series needs no introduction. For those of you who don’t already know: this annual output of single malt is branded as the world’s most heavily-peated scotch. In October, the Islay distillery unveiled its 12th iteration, including three separate expressions of phenolic fantasy. 12.3 is a notable standout—not just a single malt, but a single vintage, distilled with grain from a single field located several miles outside the stillhouse. Despite the heavy-handed application of peat, the liquid still finds a soft balance thanks, in part, to a portion of it aging within PX sherry casks.
A decidedly elegant expression of peat, this beautiful blended malt might be missing a name, but it certainly isn’t missing any character. We know that it contains some liquid from Laphroaig as well as Bowmore (Compass Box founder John Glaser is a champion of transparency) and you can certainly suss out the maritime characteristics typical of both. Joining the brine, however, is a pleasant bouquet of tropical fruit. Together they combine to form a compelling sipping experience.
More sherry spice to mull over. Although this legendary Highland producer is traditionally accused of pulling hardily from the Spanish bodegas, master distiller Richard Paterson is actually a champion of delicate balance. Here he has combined liquids finished in both American and European oak to introduce a subtle richness, characterized by baking spice, dark chocolate and marzipan. It’s a lot to consider in a bottle so reasonably-priced.
Speaking of good value, if you’re not keeping up with what The GlenAllachie is doing up in Speyside, now’s the time to fix that. Iconic scotch maker Billy Walker took over the facility back in 2017 and he’s been on a tear ever since. This port-finished whopper, awash in fresh flowery goodness, is an ideal introduction. It drinks with a reserved complexity that no 12-year-old malt has business owning. Get ready for more of this magic in the years to come. In 2020 the distillery inked a distribution deal with Impex Beverages which will land more of the liquid on shelves in the years ahead.
Remember what I said about sherry bombs? Well, then I shouldn’t have to go into too much more detail here. This Highland maltmaker is the king of such. And they definitely fall firmly into the category of, “If you know, you know.” If, for some reason, you don’t, let me sum it up for you: This is a 27-year-old, cask strength (53.7%) Oloroso-matured masterpiece. It would be an exceptional value at 3x the cost. There, I said it.
Now, how about an umami bomb? Not quite. But, still, there is a pronounced meatiness to the nose of this year’s annual ode to Islay friendship. On the mouth it reveals nuttiness and a slight edge of barbecue. Sans age statement, we know it spent meaningful time in three separate sorts of cooperage: ex-bourbon, specially-crafted bourbon quarter casks (125-liter capacity) and European PX hogsheads. A unique journey—for the liquid as well as your tastebuds.
Okay, in a year where we saw older scotch releases than ever before it’s only fair that I include one bottle that was born at least before the Reagan administration. Here it is. And it has a particularly fascinating story to share: Talisker’s oldest bottling to date was technically shaped by a 3,200-mile sailing voyage across the Atlantic. While it’s become something of a trend to finish casks of cognac and bourbon on ships that traverse the open ocean, in the category of scotch, the whisky needs to be aged entirely within Scottish borders. So the liquid itself never made the journey, but the staves of the cask that finished it. Perhaps its the power of suggestion, but there is a slight salinity that permeates the resulting malt. Either way, the most compelling component of the dram is a careful combination of smoke, spice, riding the distillery’s trademark waxy mouthfeel.