Throughout a global pandemic, Brexit hassles, and the end of an international tariff war whisky brands and distilleries large and small have continued to launch exciting new releases. I’m fortunate in that I’ve been able to try a few of them, doing my job as best as I can.
So here’s my favorite whiskies that I’ve tasted in 2021 (I’ve also included links to previous years’ choices at the bottom of the article). Some of these whiskies have been mentioned in my column here before, others haven’t. Like the past lists I’ve done, my only two selection criteria for these choices is that I first tried them in 2021 (even if they were released before then), and that they were able to be bought by the bottle. However, I’ve focused on whiskies that were first released this year, with a couple exceptions.
As before, this list comes in two parts. Part one, Accessible Whiskies, are bottles that you can still get hold of either online or in specialist shops, and should be easy enough to find and buy. Part two, Rare Whiskies, are hard to find, really limited or expensive drams (sometimes all three) that I’ve had the chance to taste, I hope you can forgive this piece of reflective indulgence.
Here they are in alphabetical order:
A relatively new release from Benromach (it first came out in October 2020), this is a bottle that is worth every penny and sets the gold standard for what lightly peated whisky can do. Matured in a combination of first fill bourbon and ex-sherry casks, smoky and fruity flavors are perfectly balanced into a deeply satisfying whole. This is actually the third year in a row Benromach makes it into my annual top 10 list, an indicator of just how good (and in my opinion underrated) this distillery is.
For the last few years whisky company Distell has been releasing annual limited edition whiskies showcasing its distilleries (Bunnahabhain, Deanston, and Tobermory). This 22 year old Ledaig, which is the peated brand of whiskies from the Tobermory, is part of 2021’s releases. I find that Ledaig is often clumsy, which can lead to both disappointing and sometimes surprisingly good results. This falls in the latter category, with a klutzy and rambunctious nose leading into a truly special and well defined deep smoky palate.
I thought the Apex series of whiskies from Israel’s M&H distillery was a triumph, an excellent exploration of unusual aromas and flavors. The Pomegranate Wine is my pick of this group. This is the only whisky I’ve heard of that uses pomegranate wine casks for maturation, and it seems to work. The result is a fun sensory riot involving Turkish Delight, leather, fried beetroot, coriander, and plenty more.
As a whole, Indian single malts tend to be intense and aromatic, their youth offset by the intense maturation process caused by a hot climate. Paul John’s Mithuna is matured in ex-bourbon casks before being finished in new oak. The result is spectacular, an enjoyable contrast between a heavy nose and a fruity and creamy palate.
Based in Baltimore, Sagamore Spirits use grains grown in Maryland for their products. Its Signature Cask Strength rye offering blends together a mix of low and high ryes between 4-7 years old. Recently made available in the UK last year, I thought this was a spectacular rye whiskey. While dry, syrupy, and strong, these elements don’t crowd out the aromatic spices, a whiff a wood smoke, and the slightly leathery finish.
A new addition to Ardbeg’s core range, the 25 uses stock originally distilled in the 90s, a period in this distillery’s production that excites a lot of whisky geeks. This is the only whisky that I awarded a 10 in my scores across last year’s monthly reviews. It’s a beautiful blend of peaches, carbolic soap, sweet potato pie, cooked lentils and plenty other unusual elements, formed into a perfect whole. It also provides some serious competition to another 25 year old Ardbeg, the Lord of the Isles, an iconic bottling for many whisky connoisseurs.
Dramfool The Jim McEwan Signature Collection, Port Charlotte 1.2 2007 13 Year Old First Fill Bordeaux Barrique
The excellent Edinburgh-based indie bottler Dramfool collaborated with Bruichladdich’s legendary former distillery manager Jim McEwan to release the latter’s personal pick of single cask releases. This Port Charlotte (Bruichladdich’s heavily peated brand) comes from the first batch of the series, and was my favorite of an excellent bunch. It is a fierce battle between sweet and salty aromas and flavors, fought upon a smoky battlefield.
Talisker’s oldest release so far is also one of its most delicious. The contents of ten American oak casks were blended together, and the contents were then finished in casks built with staves that accompanied James Aitken’s 3,000 mile rowing challenge across the Atlantic. It may seem like an impressive gimmick but there’s no arguing with the results. Barbecue meat, bonfires and peaches come together on the seaside before being marinaded in salt, pepper, and saffron.
Family firm Gordon & Macphail, who mature new make spirit in their own casks and warehouses, have been in operation for over 125 years, so they’ve got access to some special whiskies. Aside from being a world class dram, this 80 year old Glenlivet marks a special milestone in Scotch whisky as the oldest ever bottled. Its display case was also designed by celebrated architect Sir David Adjaye OBE.
Every year, Lagavulin releases a whisky to celebrate Islay’s annual Jazz Festival. The distillery did something truly unique with this 13 year old release by maturing it in ex-American oak but then finishing it in ex-Mezcal casks. So technically, it’s a kind of ‘double smoked’ Lagavulin thanks to the Mezcal influence. This particular release contains all of the goodness typical of Lagavulin, that unique combination of fruit, meat, tar, and petrichor, but the Mezcal adds herbal freshness to the overall profile and the smoke as well.