Picking out the best bottle of scotch or Irish whiskey is no easy task. Like bourbon or rye, there are hundreds and hundreds of labels out there with thousands of variations therein. It’s daunting and can feel a bit off-putting to the uninitiated. Fear not, we’re here to help.
Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky are intrinsically linked through history as each style evolved — from moonshiners hiding their booze from taxmen to whiskey one-upmanship in the 1800s, which then led to further refinement in the modern-day. Both styles have become something wholly unique and, at their best, absolutely delicious. They’re both certainly worth seeking out, especially if you’re looking for something a little different on your whiskey shelf this winter.
The ten bottles below are some of the best representations of Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky you can find on the U.S. market. These bottles are shining examples of each country’s respective styles and also speak to the winter weather — with sweetness, spice, and lots of warmth. As per usual, we’ve tried to keep this under or around $100 per bottle to make our list a little more accessible to the casual whiskey drinker.
TEELING SMALL BATCH IRISH WHISKEY
Teeling was the first whiskey distillery to open Dublin city, 125 years after the last still ceased operations. The comeback of a distillery — which first started operating in 1782 — is one of the best success stories in Irish whiskey’s return to international prominence. Their Small Batch is a blend of six-year-old ex-bourbon cask-aged corn and barley juice that’s then finished in old rum barrels for six months. It’s bottled without filtration, allowing the whiskey to truly shine.
Bourbon vanilla and rye spice greet you with a hint of rum molasses. Honey draws out a slight cream corn feel with notes of oak, rum, spice, and citrus. There’s a dried fruit heft with a continuation of that oaky spiciness on the dry-yet-warm finish.
BUSHMILLS SINGLE MALT AGED 10 YEARS
This Northern Irish whiskey is one of the closest expressions you’ll get to single malt scotch from Ireland. The 100 percent barley mash is triple distilled (like all good Irish whiskey) and then aged for ten long years in ex-bourbon barrels, making Bushmills Single Malt a must-try for scotch fans looking to branch into the Irish stuff.
Fresh honeycomb, bourbon vanilla, and creamy chocolate milk open this sip. There’s a throughline of rich, walnut-stuffed banana bread with more honey, vanilla, and light spices. Apple orchards and wildflowers linger as a tart raspberry edge mingles with malts on the warming and finish.
REDBREAST SINGEL POT STILL AGED 12 YEARS
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Down in the southern reaches of the Emerald Isle, Redbreast is creating some of the best whiskey around. Redbreast 12’s mash bill is a combination of malted and unmalted barley that’s triple distilled in copper pot stills. The juice is then aged in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks for 12 years until it’s just right.
Toasted oak notes dance with bright fruit and subtle spice. Those notes carry through the palate and form a foundation for sherry dryness and more tart fruit with hints of vanilla. The spices grow with the fruits as the finish brings about a creamy and warm end.
JAMESON DISTILLER’S SAFE IRISH WHISKEY
Jameson’s Distiller’s Safe is the masterwork of head distiller Brian Nation. The whiskey starts with Nation’s mastery of the still process and his ability to know when to cut the hot juice coming off the stills into the “distiller’s safe” and getting that liquid into the right barrels. This is the best cut of whiskey off the stills and represents the height of Jameson’s prowess.
Sweet barely flourishes burst with florals, herbs, spices, green peppers, grapefruit, and a distant hint of marzipan. The citruses settle into a sweeter mandarin orange while cinnamon and licorice rise along with the continuation of the barley and almond notes. The orange zest and spice linger as the barley fades into a sweet and warm finish.
RED SPOT SINGLE POT STILL AGED 15 YEARS
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Red Spot is a masterclass in the heights Irish whiskey can achieve. The recipe from Mitchell & Son is a throwback to the early 1900s. The whiskey is triple distilled and then aged for 15 years in a combination of American ex-bourbon, Spanish ex-sherry, and Sicilian ex-Marsala casks, creating a distinctly beautiful expression of Irish whiskey.
Spicy stewed apple mixes with fresh mango and ripe black cherries as bourbon oak hints at hazelnuts. The Marsala shines through with a ripe red fruit sweetness that leads towards sweet red peppers and freshly cracked black pepper spice alongside a modicum of bourbon oak and vanilla.
All of that fruit and spice come together on the finish for a warm embrace.
GAME OF THRONES THE NIGHT’S WATCH OBAN BAY RESERVE
Oban’s peaty single malt is a celebration of Game of Throne’s end. The ode to the Night’s Watch is a masterful single malt whisky that celebrates both The Wall protecting Westeros from The North and Oban’s location against a massive cliff and the sea between the Scottish Highlands and outer islands.
Candied orange zest and tart and sweet cherry pies with a buttery malt crust open this one up. Creamy caramel with more cherry plus wisps of smoke balance with cloves and cinnamon spice. The finish combines the spices and fruits with a dry sherry finish.
LAGAVULIN AGED 16 YEARS
Lagavulin 16 is all about taking its time. The barley comes from nearby Port Ellen and is malted slowly with peat. The fermentation, distillation, and aging are also all about taking the time to do it right, making for a truly great expression.
Protip: Mix this one with some sugar cane Coca-Cola to make a Smoky Cokey. Trust us, it’s amazing and Lagavulin approved.
There’s a balance of heavy smoke lined with fatty brisket that leads towards a dried seaweed brininess with a sweet barley edge. Notes of oak and spice mingle with sea spray and plenty of salt while the peat smoke carries on with a sherry sweet edge. The salt and seaweed peak as the peat billows on a dry and satisfying end.
CAOL ILA AGED 12 YEARS
Caol Ila (pronounced “cull ee-lah”) has had its ups and downs over the last 150 odd years. Today, they’re back and as strong as ever as a distillery and offer one of the most accessible drams of whisky from Scotland. The single malt is aged for 12 years to a nuanced perfection that’ll allow those curious about scotch a gateway to the spirit.
Citrus, spearmint, lavender, and almond with a very distant echo of smoke greet you. Black tea, autumn leaves on a smoky fire and apple cider all mingle with notes of spice, bales of straw, and notes of black pepper. A wisp of sea spray leads back into the light touch of autumnal smokiness with spice and sweet and tart fruits bringing the sip to a close.
GLENMORANGIE NECTAR D’OR
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Glenmorangie’s Nectar D’Or — or golden nectar — is a highwater mark in single malt scotch. The juice is aged in ex-bourbon barrels which are then hand-selected for a secondary aging process in French Sauternes cask from Bordeaux. That’s a white dessert wine that’s equal parts sweet, acidic, and fruity with a hell of a punch. The juice spends an additional two years in these casks, adding a deep layer of complexity to the sip.
Lemon, lime, and orange zest mingle with bourbon vanilla, coconut, fresh ginger, dates, golden raisins, and oak. Meringue dripping with fresh honey combines with gingerbread, creamy caramel, and roasted almonds. Finally, an earthy wisp of nutmeg arrives and ushers back in the vanilla, cream, and lemon zest towards a bold and warm finish.
TALISKER AGED 18 YEARS
There’s a lot that makes Talisker unique. Their stills have long, swan-like necks that force extra condensation before re-distilling. This adds body to the juice. The whiskey is also cooled via actual seawater baths, resting mere feet away from the stills, adding that little something extra that no other whisky has. Then there’s the Talisker rickhouse, which is also mere feet from a small, briny bay. This all adds up to one hell of a dram.
Tasting Notes: Tart plums, butterscotch, toffee cut with rum, dried orange peel, and a billow of smoke open this sip. That smoke draws a line through the taste that spurs off into creamy toffee, sweet fruits, dried wildflowers, oyster liquor, and hints of vanilla. Christmas spices, wisps of smoke, and espresso bitterness close out the sip on an lovely — holiday-inspired — note.