Whiskey has been, is and always will be cool. Period. It’s been enjoyed beside campfires on the American frontier, in Irish dives, and at the trendiest cocktail bars in Brooklyn. Great whiskey has been the alcohol connoisseurs drink of choice for a few good reasons: it has a totally unique taste, it can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, and it warms you up inside.
Plus, whiskey and bourbon have deep roots in American history, so it’s hardly a surprise this spirit is many people’s go-to liquor.
But whether you’re a seasoned pro who drinks his whiskey neat or someone who’s just getting into the world of craft bourbon cocktails, how do you choose the right bottle to pour? Because whiskey has so many incarnations produced by so many distilleries all over the world, the flavors can be drastically different.
If you’re unfamiliar with the different kinds of whiskey, there are really six that you have to know: Irish whiskey, Scotch, bourbon, Tennessee, rye and Japanese whisky. Each has a unique origin, distilling process and taste, so if you’re new to whiskey, it’s best to taste each and see which one you like best.
Below are the best whiskeys to try in each category. Most range from $20 to $40 a bottle, but we’ve got a few premium options for special occasions as well.
1. Buffalo Trace Bourbon
Bourbon is one of the most loved whiskeys around, especially in the States. Although you can spend hundreds on a fancy bottle, you really don’t have to. Case-in-point: this celebrated, mass-produced bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon. Distilled in charred oak barrels (as all bourbon should be), it boasts a mellow taste with the balance of sweet and smoky that you want in a true American bourbon. Sip it slowly while you unwind (it’s 90 proof), or use it in an old fashioned cocktail that will make your guests come begging for a refill.
2. Jameson Caskmates
BEST IRISH WHISKEY
As you might have guessed, Irish whiskey is made exclusively in Eire (Republic of Ireland) or in Northern Ireland using yeast-fermented grain mash or a mash of malted cereals. Although this bottle of Jameson Caskmates has an unusual distilling process, connoisseurs agree that it’s one of the best Irish whiskeys out there – especially for the price. The whiskey is finished in casks that have been used for brewing beer, upgrading the classic Irish taste with a note of fruity malt. Even though it’s shaken hands with a stout beer, you’ll still get to experience a real Irish whiskey.
3. Old Overholt Rye Whiskey
BEST RYE WHISKEY
Made in North America using a rye-heavy mash, rye whiskey produces a slightly spicy flavor that makes it especially good in cocktails. You don’t have to spend a lot to get a great rye, so we recommend this affordable Old Overholt (as do others). It’s been around since 1810, and for a while after prohibition, it was the most popular spirit in America. It’s tasty and easy to drink on its own but really shines in a Manhattan or Old Fashioned cocktail.
4. Suntory Toki
BEST JAPANESE WHISKY
Japanese whiskys (they spell it without the ‘e’) have blown-up fairly recently in North America, although they can still be hard to find and expensive. Luckily, one great Japanese whisky – Suntory Toki – has worked its way into the mainstream, coming recommended by multiple publications and whisky connoisseurs. It’s made from a blend of Hakushu white oak cask malt, Chita grain whisky, Yamazaki white oak cask and Spanish oak cask whisky. These whiskys come from different time periods, which gives the bottle its name, Toki, meaning “time” in Japanese.
It has a light taste with hints of fruit, honey and citrus, making it ideal in a highball cocktail, although it’s also great on the rocks.
5. George Dickel Barrel Select
BEST TENNESSEE WHISKEY
This George Dickel is first steeped in charcoal (making it a Tennessee whiskey) before being aged 10-12 years and subsequently hand-selected by Master Distiller John Lunn. Its silky, velvety taste delivers notes of vanilla and spice that make it highly drinkable, even if you’re new to whiskey. Still not convinced? Check the scoreboard. This bottle has won awards including multiple medals from the Beverage Testing Institute, as well as second place at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge.
6. High West Campfire
BEST AMERICAN WHISKEY
Some American-made whiskeys don’t fall into the category of bourbon, rye or Tennessee, making them simply American whiskey. This High West Campfire is one of the best American whiskeys, with a blend of bourbon, rye and Scotch whiskeys that no one else can claim. The taste is equal parts unusual, distinctive and delicious, with hints of sweet honey from the bourbon, fruity spice from the rye and smokiness from the Scotch. Although it can be mixed, it’s best enjoyed straight while catching up with a group of friends.
7. Glenfiddich 15 Year
BEST SCOTCH WHISKY
Scotch has an earthy, smoky flavor that comes imported exclusively from (you guessed it) Scotland. The high-class liquor is aged in oak casks and typically made from grain or malted barley, and the name drops the ‘e,’ spelling it ‘whisky’ like the Japanese. We highly recommend this Glenfiddich 15 year as a go-to bottle for special occasions or a treat at the end of the day. Its warming feel, notes of honey and flavors of cinnamon and toffee have earned it a gold medal with Whisky Masters, as well as a silver medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition.
8. Fighting Cock Six Year Old Bourbon
Whiskey drinking can put a dent in your wallet – but it doesn’t have to. There a handful of affordable, craft whiskeys that outdo their low price tags. One such whiskey is this Fighting Cock bourbon. It’s aged 6 years, which is quite a long time for something that comes in at less than $20. It’s got some kick to match the label with a slightly rowdy 51.5% ABV and 103 proof, ensuring some impressive bang-for-your-buck in terms of fun. However, don’t let the label fool you; a dash of rye keeps the bourbon balanced and smooth for easy sipping.
9. Four Roses Small Batch
BEST FOR COCKTAILS
Balance and a low-key flavor profile are key when it comes to great cocktail whiskeys. This Four Roses small batch bourbon nails both while upping the quality of your whiskey sours, old fashioned’s or high balls. The bottle features a blend of four bourbons that mingle to create a mellow, classic flavor.
10. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
BEST HIGH PROOF
Every whiskey connoisseur should try a high proof whiskey (or keep a bottle in your bar to impress guests). Our choice is this Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, which boasts a professional-level 67.1% ABV and 135 proof. Reviewers rank it among their favorite high-alcohol whiskeys (a burgeoning market) thanks to big bold flavors that wrestle the strong ABV into something that’s actually very enjoyable to drink.
11. Pike Creek 10 Year Whisky
Canadian whiskeys are subject to fewer restrictions on production than Irish, Scottish or American whiskey, and are typically distilled with a more adventurous spirit. This 10-year whiskey from Pike Creek is a prime example. The whiskey spends its 10 years in white oak barrels that are not placed in climate-controlled warehouses. This means the whiskey is exposed to Canada’s dramatic temperature swings, increasing the interaction of wood and alcohol. What you get is a unique, woody whiskey with hints of molasses and brown sugar.
12. Paul John Single Malt Brilliance
Unbeknownst to most, whiskey is big in India. Like Canada, India has little to no restrictions on production, meaning you can get adventurous with some very unique bottles. Our favorite Indian whiskey is this Paul John Brilliance out of party-capital Goa, which is crafted from Himalayan barley and aged just 3-5 years. Due to the tropical climate in Goa, the whiskey evaporates faster while it sits, translating to a better taste at a younger age. Flavor highlights include juicy barley, bitter fruit, caramel and lingering orange.
13. Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost & Rare
THE GOOD STUFF
Every guy should try some top-shelf whiskey at least once in their lifetime. Luxury whiskeys are usually aged around 20-25 years and come in fancy packagings like crystal bottles and wood boxes. One of the best luxury whiskeys (that you can actually get your hands on) is this Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost & Rare. Blue Label is JW’s high-end, celebration-level line of whiskey. Ghost & Rare is, like the name suggests, an even fancier edition of Blue Label. It’s a blend of rare whiskeys collected and mixed by one master distiller, Dr. Jim Beveridge, to produce a flavor that’s, well, really really good.