The best style of whiskey is a hard thing to define. The brown elixir has so many variables at play in every bottle — mash bill, where it’s made, distillation process, aging… the list is long. Even within particular styles, you can see wild variations in flavor, texture, and execution. Add in x-factors like terroir, grain sourcing, and mad-scientist distillers tinkering away in stillhouses and you have a lot of different whisk(e)ys to enjoy and argue over.
So which style of whiskey is overall “the best”? Really, that comes down to personal taste. We all develop our palates over time. Our impressions change and the bottles that once charmed us often start to feel “ordinary” as our well of experiences grows. That being said, there are elements of certain styles of whiskey that do seem to rise above the rest. Processes that make a region feel special for aficionados.
Before we dive into our ten favorite whiskey styles, we have to drop a big disclaimer. This isn’t a scientific ranking. These are opinions about style and craft and what speaks to our team. Our biggest desire? To find the sweet spot where accessibility meets refinement to make something truly special that novices and experts alike can savor.
10. American Whiskey
American Whiskey is a broad designation. Generally, what we call “American Whiskey” is a blend of various grains and cereals with no single dominant malt taking over 51 percent of the mash bill (recipe). That is, bourbon has to be at least 51 percent corn. Rye has to be at least 51 percent rye. You get it. For a while, this style was maligned and sidelined for not having a clear focus. Today, master blenders are finding new depths in the style by tinkering and refining.
The Bottle To Buy: Michter’s Unblended American Whiskey
Michter’s masters do some amazing work with their barrel program. Their recent release of an Unblended American Whiskey hits high marks in refinement and drinkability. There’s a clear sense of classic American whiskey notes with clear butterscotch and vanilla up front. Then a dried fruit sweetness comes in, alongside light notes of caramel and ripe orchard fruit with a warm finish. $50.
9. Canadian Whisky
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Canadian whisky doesn’t get the respect it deserves. The great grasslands of Canada’s interior grow a lot of the barley, corn, and rye that goes into your favorite whiskeys worlwide. A standard blended Canadian whisky will be a mix of barley, corn, and rye whiskies that are distilled and matured separately before blending and finishing casking.
Overall, this is a great style to start with but will eventually leave you wanting a little more refinement.
The Bottle To Buy: Pendleton Canadian Whisky
Pendleton Canadian Whisky is a blend that bridges the U.S. and Canada. The whisky is distilled and up in Canada and then cut with glacial water from Mount Hood in Oregon, where it’s also bottled. Sweetness, vanilla, and floral notes dominate here but never overpower. It’s a light touch whisky that works wonders in a highball. $22.
8. Blended Scotch
Scotch whisky generally falls into two categories: Blended Scotch and Single Malt. Basically, a blended Scotch is a simple mix of single malts from Scotland. It’s not so much a matter of one being better than the other than each being a different beast and standing on its own. Blended Scotch offers the drinker a chance to get a feel for the single malts out there. This is a gateway into a wider world of Scotch.
The Bottle To Buy: Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years
This is a powerhouse blended Scotch. There are 18 different whiskies at play, including whisky from Blair Athol, Cardhu, Glen Elgin, and Auchroisk to name but a few. The sip starts with a whisper of smoke then leans into sweet dried fruits, fatty nuts, bitter dark chocolate, fresh bouquets of violets, and fresh honey. Finally, a bit of charred smoky wood comes in on the end, tying it all together. $100.
7. Canadian Rye
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All right, let’s get this out of the way. Canadian Whisky (see above) is often colloquially called “Rye” whether or not it even has rye in it. That’s not to be confused with actual Canadian rye whisky which needs a mash bill that’s predominately made from rye grains. We know, it’s confusing.
Moving on, Canadian rye is a masterclass in what great rye-forward whisky can be. Also, it’s worth noting that a lot of great American Rye whiskey bottlers (Whistlepig being one) source their rye from Canada because it’s so damn good.
The Bottle To Buy: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
This Canadian rye has been named the best whisky in the world. That’s no joke. Northern Harvest Rye has a mash bill of 90 percent rye, giving this blend a distinct peppery edge that’s amazingly subtle. Baking spices, woody vanilla, rich butterscotch, and cracked pepper are all in play.
The thing is, nothing here is overwrought. Every element is balanced — making this one tasty sip. $25.
6. “American” Rye
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We finally got it back! Originally distilled and aged in Canada and then moved for further maturation at the Whistlepig farm in Vermont this is a 10 year old straight rye made with 100% rye. Clove, mint, barrel char, creamy caramels and butterscotch on the palate. @whistlepigwhiskey #whistlepig10 #straightrye #whiskey #whisky #rye
We’re putting quotes around “American” for a reason. A lot of American rye whiskeys you’ll find on our liquor store shelves are Canadian ryes that have been blended, barrel-finished, and bottled in the U.S. So this is more a hybrid of great whiskeys filtered through an American lens (and barrel). What sets American ryes apart from Canadain ones is that barrel finishing the whiskey goes through once it arrives at the blending house. There’s a little extra somethin’-somethin’ to that process that puts these ryes a hair above Canada’s.
The Bottle To Buy: WhistlePig 10
This Alberta rye is finished in used bourbon barrels in Vermont, where it’s then bottled. It’s hard to argue with the quality of this rye. There’s a lot of beauty on the nose with whispers of orange zest, allspice, charred oak, creamy caramel, and anise. The taste is as subtle as it’s complex with rich caramel sweetness next to oaky vanilla and notes of freshly plucked mint. Finally, that peppery rye spiciness comes in on the backend and finishes with a warm butterscotch note. $80.
It’s hard to know where to rank bourbon. The American style is a powerhouse of the whiskey market right now. Corn-fueled bourbon is a slightly sweet, slightly spicy mix of great whiskey notes. This is a classic style (think vanilla, oak, warm spices) that is easy to drink, hence the popularity.
The Bottle To Buy: Booker’s Bourbon
Booker’s Bourbon is the mountaintop of what great bourbon can be. Aged leather, charred oak, and creamy caramel lead the way. Bright fruits come in next with more old libraries full of dusty leathery books and plenty of spicy oak wood. Finally, there’s a very distant echo of cherry at the end of the sip. $70.
4. Tennessee Whiskey
Yup, we’re putting Tennessee whiskey above Kentucky bourbon in this ranking. Tennessee whiskey and bourbon are a very similar beast with one major difference. Tennessee whiskey needs to be filtered through maple charcoal, adding an extra layer of depth to the style. The so-called Lincoln County Process helps this style stand out and, often, above.
The Bottle To Buy: Nelson’s First 108
Nelson’s Green Brier’s first major foray into making their own Tennesee whiskey was a triumph for the style. The sip lures you in with notes of candied apples, cedar boughs, cinnamon, anise, and wet brown sugar. That nose leads to a taste of rich toffee, sweet crackers, nutmeg, cinnamon, and more brown sugar. Finally, the sip circles around to tart cherry with hints of coconut and deeply rich cocoa bitterness. $50.
3. Japanese Single Malt
Japanese Single Malts were modeled after the scotches of the Scottish countryside. From there, Japanese distillers took the drink to all new heights with the ultimate refinement of the process. Japanese single malts are some of the most consistently good to great bottles on the market, making them a great three seed on our list.
The Bottle To Buy: Suntory Yamazaki 12
It’s Suntory time! The Japanese single malt is aged in three different barrels: American ex-Bourbon barrels, used Spanish Oloroso Sherry, and Japanese Mizunara Oak barrels. These three kinds of wood all impart something special into the whisky, giving it a unique edge. Buttered toast, honey, vanilla come in fast. Orange zest and dried red fruit are present on the palate. Finally, there’s a hint of smokiness on the end that adds a nice layer to the whole drink. $130.
2. Scotch Single Malt
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Single malt scotch can be a lot of things. Depending on the region of Scotland the whisky is being made, you can get anything from a floral-bomb elixir to a smoky and dank sip. A lot of it comes down to how the barley is malted, especially kilned (dried). Then there’s the water to consider, the process of distillation, and finally the barreling program. All of those steps add up to a single spirit that people ride or die for.
The Bottle To Buy: Talisker 10
The best entry point into the world of single malt scotch is Talisker 10. The bottle has a depth that highlights the best the seaside styles of whisky have to offer. There’s a distinct yet subtle smokiness at play that leans towards a fatty pork belly. Then that seawater comes into play with a hint of brine and seaweed. The malts are sweet and toasted. The char of the ex-bourbon barrels adds a nice floral element. The slightly spicy burn at the end counterpoints each layer that came before it. $43.
1. Irish Whiskey
Yup, Irish whiskey wins the day. While Irish whiskey tends to be a blend of ex-bourbon barrel-aged whiskeys and ex-sherry cask whiskeys, it has an ace up its sleeve that other whiskeys do not. Irish whiskey is triple distilled, adding an extra layer of refinement to the whiskey type. Generally speaking, you won’t get the crazy-specific flavors you get with a single malt, but you will get a clear sense of “whiskey” as a drink. This is easy-drinking booze that maintains its complexity, and that kind of makes it the best.
The Bottle To Buy: Redbreast 15
Redbreast, made at the Midleton distillery in County Cork, is a stellar example. Their 15-year-old whiskey starts off with a combination of buttery toast and fresh honey with a slight lemon marmalade feel. Woody oak spices come into play that leads to a dried fruit sweet edge. Caramel, toffee, tart orchard fruits, and a grassy earthiness are also at play. Finally, the sip ends with a mild return of spice and heat that mellows beautifully on the tongue. It’s a masterclass in whiskey in a single sip. $90.