It’s that time of year again, “the best of…”, the “#1…”, etc. lists are flooding our social feeds. I used to do them as well, then got out of the habit, but decided to start it up again, but with a little flip of the script. I’m eschewing any sort of terminology that states any specific whiskey, or list of whiskies, are the best out there because let’s face it; that’s impossible.
There is no such thing as the best whiskey, there is no single dram to rule them all that every human will instantly fall in love with and declare it the only whiskey they ever want to drink again – it’s all a matter of individual taste. And in that spirit, I’m laying out my favorite whiskeys of 2020.
These are the ones, for one reason or another, I just plain enjoyed this year. This doesn’t necessarily mean the whiskey was released this year, just consumed and written about this year. Be it their simplicity, their weirdness or whatever.
If you have an opinion of your own about any of the whiskeys listed below, or even want to share your own favorites, I’d love to see it in the comments. Now, let’s get to it!
(FYI, Seagram’s didn’t make the list, I just really like the way that photo turned out)
My Favorite Ryes of 2020
I had the opportunity to try a good amount of rye this year, some of which is still in the review queue, but there were a few that really stood out.
- Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye: Is anyone surprised this is on my list? It’s true I’m a Wild Turkey fanboy, but that doesn’t mean I automatically love everything they put out. But this WTRB Rye was just… awesome. Bold, full and deeeeelicious.
- Four Gate Batch 7 “River Kelvin Rye”: Here’s how good this one is, I remember exactly where I was when I first experienced it. I was at an Air BnB cabin in Lake Arrowhead on a glamping vacation with my dogs. I was sitting at the table, the windows were open and I was enjoying a warm early fall day. I opened the sample, poured it into a Glencairn and it was love at first sniff, which turned to lust after the first sip and then envy of everyone who had a full bottle. Sinfully good.
- Barrell Rye Batch 003: It’s almost like these guys can do no wrong. This was a super impressive rye that got bonus points for making a stellar Sazerac.
My Favorite Bourbons of 2020
Bourbon was the first whiskey I enjoyed drinking neat. It was soon followed by Irish and then Scotch and the rest of the world, but bourbon has a special place in my liver because it opened this entire world and community to me 15 years ago.
- Booker’s Bourbon 2020-02 “Boston Batch”: Not since Kentucky Chew have I been this excited about a Booker’s release. This is a stunning bourbon.
- Old Tub Bottled In Bond Bourbon: Keeping it in the Jim Beam family, next is this budget dram that’s simply perfect for what it is. A tasty, bold, whiskey that’s cheap and versatile. This is what we need more of in the market.
- Wilderness Trail High Rye Bourbon: All year people had been telling me I needed to check this one out and so I figured it would be a perfect candidate for the SCWC 20 Blind Bourbons event. Turns out the people who had been yakking about it were right. It was so tasty it won the blind tasting.
- Doc Swinson’s 15 Year Rare Release Bourbon: An unparalleled bourbon experience that’s reminiscent of the old bourbons people are spending hundred to thousands of dollars to acquire. It lasted about 3 months after being opened. Crave-worthy.
- Barrell Bourbon Batch 23: By the time I got around to writing the formal review I’d already sipped over 1/2 the bottle…
- Virginia Distillery Courage and Conviction Single Malt: Ok, yes, I know this isn’t a bourbon, but I didn’t want to make a whole category for one whiskey and I also didn’t want to come up with some broad category like Favorite American Whiskeys. I did toy with Favorite Non-Rye American Whiskeys of 2020 (that are mostly bourbon) just for giggles, but decided a long explanation about why a single malt is included would be better. Anyways, this whiskey is fun and I enjoyed it a lot.
My Favorite Scotches of 2020
This is where most of my whisky money goes…
- Laphroaig 25 Cask Strength 2019 Edition: I don’t need to explain anything here.
- Glen Scotia Rum Cask Finish – Campbeltown Festival 2019: Super long name, super awesome whisky. A HUGE thanks to Bozzy for recommending this stellar whisky.
- GlenDronach Master Vintage 1993: I still dream of this whisky. It’s everything I want in a non-peated Scotch, a true beauty.
- 2005 Single Malts of Scotland Ledaig 11: Think of this specific whisky as a placeholder for all SMoS sherried Ledaigs. I sipped on three different casks this year and each one was a banger. Somehow they’ve come into possession of some killer casks.
- 1997 Chieftain’s Ledaig 21 Years: And speaking of sherried Ledaig…
- BenRiach The Twelve: I can’t recommend this enough if you’re looking for a full-flavored, budget-friendly, unpeated, single malt.
- Octomore 10 Years: A magical, fruity, oddly understated peat bomb of a whisky that drinks dangerously easy.
- Naked Grouse Blended Malt: I know there are some people out there who’re mad at me for bringing so much attention to this whisky, but I can’t help it. This is the best bang-for-your-buck in the Scotch world right now. I bought 2 more to have in reserve before this one was even empty.
My Favorite “International Whiskies” of 2020
Normally this list would be filled with Irish Whiskey, but thanks to the ultimate party pooper, COVID-19, I had to cancel my yearly Irish Whiskey party, a.k.a St. Paddy’s. I usually buy a bunch of newer Irish whiskeys, spend a solid 10 hours cooking and baking traditional Irish dishes handed down by my Irish grandmother. Then, all my friends come over to eat, drink and be Irish for an evening. It’s my favorite day of the year.
This also leads to me spending 3-4 weeks writing about nothing but Irish Whiskey. But, since the party didn’t happen I didn’t feel like writing about all the new Irish I picked up and so this year it’s an under, vs over, represented category.
- Starward Solera Single Malt Whisky: Surprising. Fun. Interesting. Unique. It was a delightful little single malt.
- Knappogue Castle Marchesi di Barolo Cask: One of the 5 Irish whiskeys I actually did review this year and damn… this was amazing. If it weren’t for the asinine tariffs I’d have bought a bottle for St. Paddy’s. However, between the tariffs and increased international shipping costs, I could have bought a bottle of the 14 as well…
- Paul John Kanya Single Malt: The older I get the more I’m drawn to ex-Bourbon casks because it shows more of the beauty of the underlying spirit that virgin/new charred or sherry casks cover-up. This all ex-Bourbon expression shows the magic that is Paul John.
- Paul John Mars Orbiter: Part of me loves this for the packaging, the other part for just how delicious it is. It scored high at a blind tasting, it was a crowd favorite at a pre-COVID SCWC event and thanks to my buddy Koray I got to sit and sip on a bit of this at home and it’s magnificent.
TWJ’s Favorite Whisky Of 2020
I almost didn’t include this section, but I’m giving in to peer pressure. Though, like the rest of this list, I’m not just listing my highest-rated whiskey of the year and calling it a day. I thought about what whisky most fits this year and since I don’t have a bottle called Dumpster Fire, I took a beat to think about other aspects of this year and think about the whiskey we need right now.
This has been a year of mental, physical, emotional and economic hardships. All of which I’ve felt and I’m sure many of you have too. Though, during all of this I’ve found a returned sense of joy in the simple things and a return to basics in a way. And in this mindset I found myself constantly coming back to five bottles that are kind to the wallet and punch several levels up. These five are Wild Turkey 101, Evan Williams Bonded, Old Tub Bonded, Bushmills Black Bush, and Naked Grouse.
Three of the five weren’t reviewed this year, so while they get honorable mentions they’re disqualified. Making the decision between the Old Tub Bonded and the Naked Grouse. Both are good options, both hit that warm fuzzy center of a Tasty + Cheap venn diagram but only one of them gives a finger to those despicable tariffs by being a blended malt. A blended malt that also happens to be better than many distillery’s core single malts.
Naked Grouse, you’re a winner baby.
Thank you for reading, thank you for the support and I’ll see ya in 2021!