Single malt whisky is one of the most universal styles of whisk(e)y on earth. In fact, it might just be the most universal style of all — since it can be made in any country and isn’t beholden to geographical designations. The only real “law” is that it has to be made with 100 percent malted barley in the mash bill. Beyond that, countries like Scotland, Japan, Ireland, and so on have their own rules for what classifies — but when you take a step back, single malts are made everywhere whisk(e)y is made and that’s the real throughline of all of it.
So which countries make great single malts?
To answer that, I’m gathering up some single malts from all over the world and putting them to a blind taste test. Generally, these all fall in the fairly affordable $40 to $100 range. I threw in one high-priced bottle to see where it’d land but the thrust of this blind tasting is about taste, not price.
Our international lineup today is:
- Old Line American Single Malt Whiskey Cask Strength (USA)
- The Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky Puncheon 2022 Edition (JP)
- The Irishman Single Malt Irish Whiskey (IE)
- The Glenlivet Caribbean Reserve (UK)
- Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky (USA)
- Baller Single Malt Whiskey by St. George Spirits (USA)
- Starward Octave Barrels The Octavius Single Malt Australian Whisky (AUS)
- Waterford Irish Single Malt Whisky Biodynamic Luna 1.1 (IE)
Okay, let’s travel around the world and find a whisk(e)y for your bar cart!
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Part 1: The Tasting
This feels very dialed toward a rye/bourbon nose with big notes of fresh green chili pepper, Red Hots, maple syrup, a touch of Dr. Pepper, and a hint of sawdust. The palate is a mix of leather, sweet vanilla pudding, sugar cookies, and woody Christmas spices with a hint of pine in the background. The end is soft and sweet with a fruity rock candy vibe next to soft cedar and warming holiday spices with a dash of dark chocolate powder.
This is really nice. I’m not sure where it’ll land. That heavy sweet bourbon feel is familiar but not overly malty.
This is supple on the nose with a hint of old orchard tree bark next to dried pears and slightly floral honey with a line of sour butter lurking in the backend. The palate is luxurious with a sense of almost burnt toffee, smoked salt, pears stewed in saffron, and a little bit more of that fresh sour butter covered in honey. The dry bark makes a comeback on the finish as pear pudding and vanilla cream mix with a lightly bitter pear core with seeds and stems.
This is very clearly the Japanese whisky, thanks to that mild sour butter underbelly. I like this but I’m not sure I like it that much more than the last taste.
The nose on this is all about the apple candy with a hint of pear in there alongside mild notes of cinnamon and maybe a little honey. The palate is light and touches on chocolate chips and winter spice before going big with the apple candy again. The end washes out a tad with the proofing water, leaving hints of dark spices, raisins, and more apple/pear candy.
I wasn’t a big fan of this. It’s just too washed out from all that proofing water.
There’s a good sense of butterscotch with red apples and old pears on the nose next to a hint of winter spice and maybe some cream soda. The palate has a banana/butterscotch feel to it that’s very sweet, which leads to apple pie filling with cinnamon and nutmeg and a sense of rock candy. The end is sweet and ultimately washed out by the proofing water but keeps some sense of rum-raisin, winter spice, and stewed apples.
The nose on this is dense and very American with a pile of pecan waffles smothered in cinnamon butter and maple syrup with a hint of spicy root beer and creamed vanilla. The palate is creamy and deep with pear tree bark, sharp ginger, pecan shells, and almost musty Earl Grey tea leaves. The end leans into the nutshell with a black tea tobacco vibe next to more spicy root beer and a sense of an old back porch full of wicker on a hot day.
This is another really good pour (from Texas). The thing is, none of these have blown me away yet.
This whiskey opens with a nose that feels like breaking up a stem of lemongrass in your fingers before leaning into hints of maple, plum skins, and malty spice. The palate is a silky sip that starts off with spiced prunes and stewed peaches next to woody maple syrup, a touch of marzipan, and a hint of burnt peach pits. The end sweetens with a line of fresh mango flesh next to old charcoal drenched in plum wine with a whisper that lemongrass peaking back in late.
This was really f*cking good. It was also very different from the rest thanks to that citrus note (likely because it’s an American crafty single malt).
The nose on this is already lush with a chocolate-toffee vibe leading to hints of old raisins, stewed peaches with plenty of cinnamon, bright tart berries, and a braid of dry cedar bark, sweetgrass, and tobacco. The taste slowly leans into a thick sense of wild berry compote and salted butter on a malted biscuit cracker with thick vanilla cream and caramel sauce. The end arrives with a dry sense of that cedar bark braid while leading into huckleberry tobacco with a hint of wet tree bark and moss held in an old leather glove.
Well, this is a winner. I’ve been tasting a lot of Australia’s Starward lately and this definitely feels like their wheelhouse.
The buttery note on the nose is so distinct it almost feels like buttery Popeye’s Southern Biscuit with a hint of orange peels, green grass, wildflower honey, pear trees, and red cherries all mingling beneath it. The palate boils the cherries down into a jam as nougat and buttery biscuits counter marzipan and grape must. The end arrives with a hint of white pepper and floral honey with a hint more of that marzipan and red cherry.
This is very good whiskey. It felt a little wild compared to the last couple of pours but it made sense.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. The Glenlivet Caribbean Reserve — Taste 4
Average Price: $40
The Glenlivet is a classic Speyside whisky This expression is a no-age-statement whisky. It’s created from vatted barrels of whisky that are then refilled into Jamaican rum casks for a final maturation run. Those barrels are then blended, proofed way down, and bottled.
This was just too faint. I don’t really even recommend buying or trying.
7. The Irishman Single Malt Irish Whiskey — Taste 3
Average Price: $52
This whiskey is made from Irish barley that’s mashed and then tripled distilled. The juice is then filled in ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry casks for a long maturation (no age is given). Those barrels and then blended and the whiskey is proofed down for bottling.
This was very one note with all the apple candy. It was very much in the “fine” category. That said, you can probably skip and spend $50 on a great bourbon instead. Or two bottles of Jameson.
6. Old Line American Single Malt Whiskey Cask Strength — Taste 1
Average Price: $68
This whiskey from Maryland is made from 100 percent malted barley grown in Washington State. The juice in the bottle spends several years aging in small-format (ten-gallon) barrels in Maryland. Those one-fifth-sized barrels speed up the aging process slightly. The whiskey from those barrels is vatted and then bottled without any proofing water.
I genuinely like this. The only reason it’s this low on this ranking is that it felt like a single malt that was made for bourbon drinkers and not just a great single malt on its own. I missed some of the malty aspects that I think would have shined with what was already in the flavor profile.
5. Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky — Taste 5
Average Price: $78
The juice in this now-classic malt is made with 100 percent malted barley imported from Scotland, specifically Scottish Golden Promise Malted Barley. The spirit then ages in a combination of barrels ranging from new and used American, French, and Hungarian oak. After a few years under the hot Waco, Texas sun, the barrels are vatted and bottled as-is with no fussing besides a touch of local water.
This is where we get into the malty good stuff. This was bold and memorable. The only reason it’s not higher is that the next four were just a little more refined. This wasn’t rough. It was more like a loving wake-up slap in the face from an old friend.
4. The Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky Puncheon 2022 Edition — Taste 2
Average Price: $3,930
This is classic Yamazaki whisky. The juice is made from malt whisky that is aged in large puncheon barrels (480 liters, compared to around 200 liters for a standard barrel). The barrels were made by Suntory from American oak specifically to age this whisky.
This was funky and classic at the same time. I’m not in love with this whisky but it’s really, really solid. This has more nuance than the Balcones above and that’s why it’s ranked higher, but I’d probably reach for the Balcones first to actually drink again.
Also… um… you might have noticed… it’s pricey.
3. Baller Single Malt Whiskey by St. George Spirits — Taste 6
Average Price: $55
This single malt from St. George Spirits out in California is beloved. The juice is made from 100 percent malted and lightly roasted barley with an eye toward Japanese traditions. The whiskey spends three to four years in ex-bourbon and ex-French wine casks before vatting and re-barreling into umeshu casks (Japanese plum wine that the team at St. George makes themselves) for a final rest. Finally, the whiskey is blended and just touched with local proofing water before bottling.
This was the biggest outlier of the group. On another day, I could see this taking the top spot given that the flavor notes were distinct and not general. The lemongrass felt real. That’s something special.
2. Waterford Irish Single Malt Whisky Biodynamic Luna 1.1 — Taste 8
Average Price: $110
This whiskey is made from 100 percent organic and sustainable farms in Ireland. The barley comes from three small farms that utilize “biodynamic” farming practices which take organic to the next level by integrating agriculture with animals and humans to create as natural a product as possible. The juice made from that barley is loaded into 500 barrels and left to rest for years before blending and bottling with a touch of proofing water.
This whiskey had the deepest flavor, by far. I really like this whiskey but it does kind of feel like a project to nose and taste to find everything. Sometimes you really just want a nice whiskey that you don’t have to think about and this isn’t that (by design).
1. Starward Octave Barrels The Octavius Single Malt Australian Whisky — Taste 7
Average Price: $80
This new whisky from Austrailia really leans into the old-school red wine tradition from Down Under. The 100 percent malted barley juice is aged in old shiraz red wine barrels that held Yalumba The Octavious from the oldest wine-making family in Australia. Those barrels were dumped in 2018 and Starward filled them with their whisky. Three years later, those barrels were vatted and just proofed with a little local water before bottling as-is.
This was such a clear winner. It’s deep, nuanced, yet playful and kind of fresh. It was just a nice sip from nose to finish with a true journey of flavor in between.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Australia wins the day! I don’t think I’ve had a bad pour of Starward whisky lately. The Octavius is such a refined and beautiful expression — it’s definitely making a “top whiskeys of 2022” list.
Overall, there weren’t any terrible whiskeys on this list. There were two very skippable ones. But even then, you can blend those out into highballs with Coke or ginger ale or fizzy water if you want. They’re not undrinkable. More just … boring.
As for seven through two, they’re all really solid. Look through those tasting notes and find one that speaks to you and then give it a try. And hey! The most expensive whisky didn’t dominate. It wasn’t even top three.