Tasting Notes: the best international whiskies, ryes and bourbons of 2021

Rob Crossan

16 February 2021

The most esteemed malts from around the world right now

16 February 2021 | Rob Crossan

While we're not going to deny it's hard to beat a good Scotch, if you're still sticking steadfastly to your single malt, you're missing out. From classic American bourbons to newer, more innovative malts from Japan and India, the wonderful world of whisky expands far beyond the Scottish border and it would be remiss of any good connoisseur not to educate themselves. Here's our guide to the ryes, bourbons and whiskies to try in 2021.

Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon

The wonderfully-named Julian ‘Pappy’ van Winkle Snr opened the Stitzel-Weller Distillery just outside Louisville, Kentucky, in 1935 and his grandson, Julian III, now runs the business. Pappy van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon, aged for between 15 and 23 years, (exceptionally lengthy for a bourbon) is as silky as cognac with a dusty, sawmill-esque fruitiness and tang to it redolent of honey and banjo strings. A more authentic taste of rural Kentucky would be all but impossible to find. Gorgeous.  

£200, masterofmalt.com

Milk and Honey Elements Sherry Cask Single Malt

New whisky producing countries are common place but even our eyebrows were raised when we heard of kosher whisky from Israel. Based in Tel Aviv, the Milk and Honey distillery has created a range of kosher malts, our favourite of which is the sherry cask single malt. Matured under the Tel Aviv sunshine, this is a deeply, soulfully complex creation with just an undernote of sweetness and a beautifully soil-imbued aroma.

£49.95, masterofmalt.com

Bladnoch 11-Year-Old Single Malt

The mantra goes that whisky is for winter nights in front of crackling fires with a gale blowing outside. But, particularly in the lowland regions of Scotland, much lighter, less peaty malts are actually just as well suited to a summer's day. One of the less heavy varietals is produced by the Bladnoch distillery. There’s a notably grassy, springtime feel to its recently released 11-year-old single malt, matured in ex-bourbon casks and with a suitably summery yellow gold colouring. One to save for warmer days in the garden.

£62.95, thewhiskyexchange.com

Barr an Uisce 1803 10-Year-Old Single Malt

What makes a whiskey Irish? Well, apart from the extra ‘e’ in the name, there’s nothing further required other than it being produced on the island of Eire (including Ulster) itself. Barr an Uisce’s (pronounced bahr-an-ISH-kah) 10-year-old single malt 1803 is a gloriously-complex and smooth creation with a creamy, vanilla-accented finish that really does take you to the broad, verdant landscapes of a misty morning in rural County Wicklow. Every bit the match for some of the finest Scottish malts.

£62, celticwhiskeyshop.com

Whistle Pig Boss Hog Rye VII: Magellan’s Atlantic

The massive surge in demand for American rye whiskeys over the last few years has meant a chronic shortage in anything aged beyond five years. Prices for older ryes have gone through the roof but, if you’re happy to shell out, there are some sublime drams to be drunk. Over in Shoreham, Vermont, Whistle Pig has created a rye inspired by the very first recorded circumnavigation of the earth.

After spending 17 years in American oak barrels, it then moves to Spanish stave casks and, finally, South American teakwood. The result is a powerfully complex spirit with a pewter stopper and a taste rich and full of toffee, hazelnuts and honey. Ideal with just the tiniest splash of spring water on a chilly afternoon.

£595, masterofmalt.com

Arran Robert Burns Single Malt

Rabbie Burns himself was a man from the deep south of Scotland and ended his days in the border town of Dumfries. The Arran distillery is the only whisky maker with the rights to use the Scottish Bard’s name on their product and that, you would think, would probably be enough for them to get away with selling some fairly rough drams. Fear not, however, this is an absolute beauty, with a notably dry, sizzling finish and a light, honey-imbued touch. As for your choice of Burns poem to read while devouring a glass, may we recommend the extremely (and we mean extremely) bawdy ‘Johnie Lad, cock up your beaver.’

£32.25, thewhiskyexchange.com

Tamdhu Batch Strength

If your whisky consumption tends to start and end with a traditional Burns Night supper, your obligations don’t end with the haggis, neeps and tatties. You should be serving up cranachan for dessert – an insanely rich melange of cream, raspberries and porridge oats. You’ll need a very rich whisky to cut through all those calories. This Speyside sherry cask whisky delivers. It’s as thick as syrup and very oaky. One to drink with a dash of spring water added before a very long lie down with a tartan blanket draped over you.

£72.95, thewhiskyexchange.com

Bruichladdich Octomore 10.1

Peatiness is the marmite or wasabi equivalent in the world of whisky; you either embrace it lovingly or flee to the nearest pint of cold lager. If that potent, soil-imbued peaty note is your bag then this number takes it to warp factor 10. Octomore is typically five-years-old and matured in bourbon casks, which, says the maker, results in a ‘softer note’. Don’t believe a word of it; this is an absolutely unreconstructed, unapologetic beast of a malt which feels, in the best possible way, like you’ve swallowed an entire central heating unit and the embers from a bonfire. Complex, fiery and unrepentant, this is a whisky for the bonniest of malt purists.

 £125, masterofmalt.com

Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve Single Malt Whisky

Great whisky has been coming out of Japan for many years now but 2013 was the year it all went stratospheric, with the Yamazaki sherry cask whisky winning the World Whisky of the Year award. Prices for its older vintages will leave scorch marks on your credit card but its distillers reserve is exceptionally reasonably priced for a whisky that has a refined elegance to it; look out for back notes of red berries, which come from the whisky being matured in wine casks from Bordeaux.

£58, waitrose.com

Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye

Jim Murray is almost certainly the world’s foremost expert on whisky and his annual Best Whisky announcement is a seriously big deal in the industry – timed to coincide with his yearly Whisky Bible book release. So we’ll defer to him for our final choice. His winner for 2020 was from that well-known whisky producing country of, err, Canada. "A succulence to the oils, balanced perfectly by ulmo and Manuka honeys ensure for the most chewable Canadian mouthful possibly ever and yet this is constantly salivating, from the very first nanosecond," said Murray. Predictably, the awarding of the gong meant that the whisky is now rather difficult to find, though head to eBay and your luck might be in for this, the most esteemed malt on the planet right now.

£219.95 (at the time of writing), ebay.co.uk

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