The ingredients used to distill most whiskeys are pretty simple. Single malt Scotch is made from a mash bill of 100% malted barley, bourbon is made with a mash bill consisting of at least 50% corn (and any combination of rye, barley, or wheat), and rye whiskey must be made using a mash bill of at least 50% rye (with the other ingredients in the mash bill, similar to bourbon). Most are aged in new, charred, American oak barrels.
While these are the norms, some distillers mix things up by adding different and sometimes exotic ingredients and aging (or resting) their juice in unique barrels. As the industry gets more saturated, these techniques are becoming increasingly prominent — resulting in some truly creative expressions.
The find the most unique whiskeys on the market, we reached out to the people who are constantly being asked to taste (and pour) new drams. We asked 10 bartenders to tell us the most unique whiskeys they’ve ever tasted — check out their responses below.
Old Potrero 18th Century Rye
Felipe Muñoz, head bartender Sweetleaf Cocktails in Long Island City, New York
The most unique American whiskey I can recall having is Old Potrero 18th Century Rye Whiskey from Anchor Distilling. It is malted rye which is quite unique for the United States. When we think rye, we think spice, but this has more of a creamy, almost yeasty quality to it.
There is a bit of spice lingering around but… wow — what a fun whiskey.
Barrell Bourbon Cask Strength
Erin Delaney, food and beverage director at Barn8 Restaurant & Bourbon Bar in Goshen. Kentucky
The most unique whiskey brand I have had is Barrell Bourbon Cask Strength. I like it because it has been aged for nine and a half years and is a blend of different bourbons. It’s filled with rich flavors like caramel apples and spicy cinnamon.
The Emerald 1865
Brandon “Habi” Habenstein, beverage director at The Kitchen & Bar at Bardstown Bourbon Company in Bardstown, Kentucky
I’ve had plenty of unique whiskies that weren’t particularly delicious but who cares about those, right!?
The Emerald 1865 is the most unique and delicious whiskey I’ve ever had. Out of Ransom Wine Co. & Distillery, it is truly an outstanding spirit. This is the distillery’s stab at how Irish whiskey would have tasted in the 1800s. You can read about the thought and effort that went into this bottling but what’s more important is how that thought and effort translates through the lens of your senses. The aroma shows an insane balance of clean, vegetal barley and rich, caramel wood sugars. The flavors represent that aroma very well but take it into a third dimension with a finish that will have your attention for minutes if not days.
Broken Barrel Mizunara
Andy Printy, beverage director at Chao Baan in St. Louis
Broken Barrel Mizunara may be the most unique and ponderous whiskey I’ve ever had. The 800-year-old Japanese oak is hard to come by, so instead of barreling, they use broken staves to age the whiskey. What’s created is truly bizarre, yet familiar. Unlike French or American oak, the Mizunara adds a bit of teakwood-like nose and a finish that pairs well with the mash bill. It hits the palate with notes of plum, black pepper and sorghum. On the finish, light citrus, dark cherry and spice.
Seth Falvo, bartender at The Hotel Zamora in St. Pete Beach, Florida
It’s almost cheating to nominate a whiskey distilled by Corsair. All of their offerings are so unique and innovative. Yet I’ve never since had a whiskey that was anything like Oatrage. The oats give the whiskey such a rich, creamy texture, and the whiskey has tons of espresso, milk chocolate, and oak throughout it. For the full experience, sip this one neat alongside your favorite porter or stout.
Pinhook Rye’d On
Robbie Robinson, lead bartender at The Ballantyne, A Luxury Collection Hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina
I would have to say Pinhook Rye’d On is definitely the most unique tasting whiskey I’ve ever had. It has a very dominant sense of spearmint on the palate, which is like nothing I have ever had in a whiskey. It also has notes of stone fruits, clove, cinnamon, and a hint of cherry.
Fukano Sherry Cask
Hayden Miller, head bartender at Bodega Taqueria y Tequila in Miami
When I think of unique whisky, my mind immediately goes to Fukano Sherry Cask. A crazy Japanese rice whisky with the heavy tasting notes expected from a sherry barrel is truly a tongue twister.
J. Riddle Peated Bourbon
Gavin Humes, bartender at Scratch|Bar & Kitchen in Encino, California
That’s a tough question. I think the most unique (and delicious!) that I’ve tried is the J. Riddle Peated Bourbon. It has all the sweetness that you’d expect from a bourbon, but then you get caught with the super unique smokey quality you might expect from an Islay scotch. It’s really unlike just about anything else I’ve tried, and it’s delicious by itself, or in a twist on a classic like an old fashioned or even Manhattan.
Jefferson’s Ocean Aged Bourbon
Dan Marlowe, mixologist at Modena in Washington, DC
Undoubtedly this is like asking about favorite music selections, and yet, Jefferson’s Ocean Aged Bourbon series is near the top of the list without hesitation. These Cask Strength yearly offerings spend a full nautical year aboard a ship traversing the entirety of the planet. Drastically affected by weather and temperature, each release is unique and rich in minerality and salinity not found in anything that hasn’t spent a year in an oak barrel strapped to the deck of a ship on the high seas.
Most of Ardbeg’s whiskies are aged in ex-bourbon barrels. Kelpie was first aged this way before moving to virgin Russian oak casks for a second maturation. The result is a truly unique whisky with hints of salted caramel, vanilla, ocean brine, and a nice note of peat smoke.