Beyond Jack Daniel’s and Johnnie Walker – 10 best whisky brands for bourbon and Scotch that will make you look like a boss

Top drops from Taylor Whiskey, Suntory Toki and Westland Whiskey. Photo: Instagram

Many people still associate whisky (or whiskey for Americans) with men in old films, who usually drink the liquor straight up. Today's top whisky experts, however, are a far cry from that stereotype, and are working to make whisky drinking less intimidating and more accessible for beginners.

“I would love to tell you there are hard, fast rules, but there aren't any more. There's no 'all Scotch tastes like this' any more,” says whiskey expert Heather Greene. “If I had to make one big generalisation – 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 flavour that's slightly maple and sweet.”

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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 per cent corn) tends to be sweeter with hints of caramel, rye (made from mash that is at least 51 per cent rye) is more spicy and herbal, and whiskies with a higher wheat or barley content are more earthy and nutty.

Beyond that, there numerous 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 many whiskey-centric bars 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.

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Susan Reigler is a world-renowned bourbon expert, lifelong 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, co-authored with fellow connoisseur Peggy Noe Stevens and called Which Fork do I Use with My Bourbon? is all about food pairings and bourbon-centric parties.

In no particular order, these are their top 10 picks.

1. Old Forester Rye


Kentucky distillery Old Forester makes both rye and bourbon whiskey. The original Old Forester is one of Reigler's favourites for making cocktails. “They started making this in 1870, and it's very characteristic,” said Reigler. “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 smoky, with a lovely chocolate note.”

2. Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye


Another distillery that Reigler recommends for rye is Catoctin Creek, located in Virginia in the United States.

“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 per cent barley mash, and is smoked using mesquite wood,” Reiger said, which gives it a smooth, nutty flavour 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.

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This Single Malt is also a peated whiskey, meaning the malt is dried and smoked over a peat fire. It's flavour profile is described by the distillery as “smouldering 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 flavours 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 “four-grain mash bill” for all of their bourbons made up of “60 per cent Red Heirloom Corn, 14 per cent Heirloom Winter Wheat, 14% Heirloom Spooner Rye, and 12 per cent malted barley.”

“Many bourbons are over 70 per cent 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 favourite 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.”

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9. Suntory Whisky Toki


For Japanese whisky, Greene recommends the Suntory Whisky Toki, which is a very light, sun-coloured 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


For Irish whiskey, Greene suggested three Spot Whiskeys made by Irish Distillers that come in different expressions called Red, Yellow and Green. Each expression is matured differently.

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 flavour 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 ageing 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 flavours including cooked fruit, black cherry, red and black pepper, and oak.

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“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 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 flavours, to see how the bourbon opens up when it is aerated,” said Reigler.

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This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

Bored of high street bourbon and supermarket Scotch? Look sharp and drink smart with STYLE’s picks of left-field and lesser-known whisky brands from across the US, Japan, Ireland and, of course, Scotland