- For people new to drinking whiskey, it might seem overwhelming to know where to start and how to understand the differences between popular whiskey brands.
- But expert Heather Greene said that “there are no hard rules” when it comes to enjoying the age-old spirit.
- You can drink whiskey any way you want, whether neat, on the rocks, or elevated in a classic cocktail like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan.
- If you prefer a smokey alcohol, you might try a peated Scotch or a spicy rye; if you want something on the sweeter side, go for an American bourbon with more citrus and vanilla notes.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Many people may associate whiskey with men in old movies, who usually drink the liquor straight up. Today’s top whiskey experts, however, are a far cry from that stereotype, and are working to make whiskey drinking less intimidating and more available for beginners.
“I would love to tell you there are hard fast rules, but there aren’t anymore. There’s no ‘all Scotch tastes like this’ anymore,” whiskey expert Heather Greene told Business Insider. “If I had to make one big generalization — and it’s risky to say this — as to what differentiates American whiskey, it’s that since American whiskey must be aged in new oak wood casks, it has a bigger vibrant and robust wood flavor that’s slightly maple and sweet.”
In contrast, Scotch, Irish, and Japanese whiskies are typically aged in old oak casks (often those first used by American whiskey makers), which Greene said can make them “more seasoned, subtle, and mellowed out. Think of it as the second or third dunk of a tea bag, whereas American whiskey is like the first dunk.”
In American whiskey, bourbon (made from mash that is at least 51% corn) tends to be more sweet with hints of caramel, rye (made from mash that is at least 51% rye) is more spicy and herbal, and whiskies with a higher wheat or barley content are more earthy and nutty.
Beyond that, there are an endless options for specific ways to make and mature whiskey, and even more freedom in how to enjoy them.
Greene has been in the whiskey industry for nearly 20 years and is the author of “Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life.” She first worked in Scotland as an ambassador for the iconic Glenfiddich Distillery, and later studied regional whiskey-making in Japan. After moving to New York, Greene lent her expertise to half a dozen whiskey-centric bars including Angel’s Share, Milk & Honey, and Death & Co, and was the sommelier at the Flatiron Room in New York. She is currently the CEO of Milam & Greene, a whiskey distillery in Blanco, Texas.
Susan Reigler is a world-renowned bourbon expert, life-long Kentuckian, and former president of the Bourbon Women Association. She worked as a restaurant critic and had a weekly spirits column in the Louisville Courier Journal through the bourbon renaissance of the 1990s — “before bourbon became really cool again,” she said. Reigler has written multiple books on bourbon essentials and the history of whiskey in the US, and continues to give talks and hold private tastings. Her upcoming release, coauthored with fellow connoisseur Peggy Noe Stevens and called “Which Fork do I Use with My Bourbon?” is all food pairings and bourbon-centric parties.
In no particular order, these are their top 13 picks.
1. Old Forester Rye Whiskey
Kentucky distillery Old Forester makes both rye and bourbon whiskey. The original Old Forester is one of Reigler’s favorites for making cocktails. “They started making this in 1870, and it’s very characteristic,” Reigler told Business Insider, “It has caramel notes, and fruity hints of banana and citrus.”
Reigler also recommends the 1910 expression, a newer release, which she explained is “aged in a second barrel that is charred to the point that it would fall apart, if not for the iron bands. It’s really smokey, with a lovely chocolate note.”
2. Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye
Another distillery that Reigler recommends for rye is Catoctin Creek, located in Virginia.
“Rye is generally a bit spicier and more herbal than bourbon,” Reigler explained. “Think of the scent of rye grass or caraway seeds. They have a peppery character, and some also have a lot of caramel.”
3. Colkegan American Single Malt
Colkagen American Single Malt is produced by Santa Fe Spirits in New Mexico. “It’s a single malt whiskey that’s made from a 100% barley mash, and is smoked using mesquite wood,” Reiger said, which gives it a smooth, nutty flavor profile.
4. Westland Peated Single Malt
Westland Distillery in Seattle, Washington, also makes a single malt whiskey that Reigler recommends. It’s a unique five-malt barley mix consisting of Westland’s original Washington Select Pale Malt, Munich Malt, Extra Special Malt, Pale Chocolate Malt, and Brown Malt.
This Single Malt is also a peated whiskey, meaning the malt is dried and smoked over a peat fire. It’s flavor profile is described by the distillery as “smoldering moss, flamed orange peel, roasted plantains, campfire, iodine, roasted pistachios, and green herbs.”
5. Johnny Drum Private Stock
This is a small batch, straight (i.e., aged a minimum of three years) bourbon from Willett Distillery. “It’s 101 proof, has a strong brown sugar note, very smooth drinking, and makes a fabulous Old Fashioned,” said Reigler. Willett Distillery also describes this bourbon as having hints of “sour apple, vanilla, and oak.”
6. E.H. Taylor Single Barrel Bottled in Bond Bourbon
E.H. Taylor Bottled in Bond can be “hard to find outside of Kentucky,” Reigler said. She recommends the Single Barrel for people who prefer a more light-bodied whiskey. The most prominent flavors are maple, honey, and wood, with a touch of darker, peppery spices.
“Bourbon is generally on the sweeter side of whiskies, just as corn is sweeter than rye. Think about corn bread compared to rye bread, or even white bread. They also get a nice, vanilla sweetness from the charred oak wood barrels,” Reigler said.
7. J. Henry & Sons
Reigler recommends J. Henry & Sons Distillery as a reliable choice for a variety of whiskey options. They are a family-owned farm located in Wisconsin, and use a unique “4-grain mash bill” for all of their bourbons made up of “60% Red Heirloom Corn, 14% Heirloom Winter Wheat, 14% Heirloom Spooner Rye, and 12% Malted barley.”
“Many bourbons are over 70% corn, then filled in with rye, wheat, or malted barley,” said Reigler. Given J. Henry & Sons’ slightly lower corn content, she said these bourbons have a pleasant sweetness that is well balanced by the nutty wheat and spicy rye.
8. Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or
Greene says she doesn’t pick favorite whiskies, but for those dabbling in Scotch, she does recommend trying the spirits from Glenmorangie. “They’ve been around a long time and their spirits have awesome wood finishes, that have a real beauty about them,” Greene said. “I love the Nectar D’Or, especially on the rocks, during summer and springtime.”
9. Suntory Whiskey Toki
For Japanese whiskey, Greene recommends the Suntory Whiskey Toki, which is a very light, sun-colored whiskey. The distillery describes this expression as having notes of “green apple, honey, grapefruit, thyme, vanilla, white pepper, and ginger.”
10. Red, Yellow, and Green Spot Irish Whiskeys
The Green Spot whiskey is made in small batches in “a combination of ex-bourbon casks as well as ex-sherry butts for between seven and 10 years,” she said. It has a spicy flavor palate of cloves, toasted oak, and fruity green apple.
The Yellow Spot whiskey is left for at least 12 years in used bourbon casks, sherry butts, and Malaga casks, Greene explained. Malaga casks are most often used for aging sherry, which leaves notes of “sweet honey, peaches, and cream” in this expression.
The Red Spot whiskey is matured for more than 15 years in American Bourbon casks, Spanish sherry butts, and Sicilian Marsala wine casks, said Greene. These casks create darker flavors including cooked fruit, black cherry, red and black pepper, and oak.
There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy whiskey
“With a higher proof whiskey, I recommend adding an ice cube or splash of water,” said Reigler. It’s a popular myth that this ruins the bourbon, she said, but it actually releases more aromatics because it takes away some of the heat.
“Before the internet, I wrote about how Booker Noe drank his bourbon with with a splash of Evian water,” Reigler said of the legendary master distiller of Jim Beam. “People were in uproar, but that’s the way he drank it.”
She also cites Mike Veach, a fellow bourbon historian, who drinks what she said he calls “book bourbons.”
“He adds an ice cube to his bourbon and lets it sit. He takes the first sip, reads a chapter of a book, then tries another sip, and so on. This allows an evolution of flavors, to see how the bourbon opens up when it is aerated,” said Reigler.
It’s now more important than ever to support local distilleries
Although distilleries and tasting rooms are closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic, many whiskey makers are offering local delivery options, such as Mountain Laurel Spirits that make Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey and Kings County Distillery in New York.
“It’s a really important time to support local craft distillery,” said Greene. “These are businesses in your community, and the people who are making sanitizer for first responders. Go online and find five different craft distillers that are nearby you, and buy from them. These distillers will survive based on local consumers supporting them.”