Starting a Whiskey collection can be a fun and exciting idea. You are past the point where you’ve realized that Rum, Vodka, and Tequila are of little to no interest and it’s time to get serious about Whiskey. Depending on your palate and what you already know you enjoy you might take a more focused approach to building your collection IE only bourbon, or only Irish whiskey which is certainly valid.
This article, however, will cover the main geographic regions and styles and give some bottle suggestions for each style. Starting with a generalized collection is a great idea as it gives you the opportunity to really find what it is you like, don’t like and figure out why. This article will also help those looking to branch into new styles of whiskey that maybe you didn’t consider or were scared of giving a try.
All the bottles I chose for this list serve as great representation of their style without being rare or exceedingly expensive. While you are starting your collection and at the start of your journey, there is no need to rush into the realm of allocated bottles and high price tags. If you have already started your collection and are on your whiskey journey these are some great bottles to think about adding as they can bring some great diversity to yourself without breaking the bank.
Without further delay, here are the 7 bottles to help jump start your whiskey collection.
Bourbon by law must be made in America, must be made with at least 51% corn, aged in new unused charred oak barrels, and bottled at no lower than 80 proof/ 40% ABV. If the Bourbon is aged for at least 2 years it can be designated as Straight Bourbon with most Bourbons being aged for at least 4 years. Bourbon is generally sweeter than other whiskey’s due to the high amount of corn in the mash bill (recipe) and because it is aged in unused barrels bourbon will extract more of the enzymes from that charred layer of wood that produces flavors like vanilla and caramel.
Bourbon: Henry McKenna 10 year Bottled in Bond
Mashbill: 75% Corn, 13% Rye, 12% Malted Barley,
Aged: 10 years
Price: $30-$35 dollars
- Nose: Traditional bourbon scents of Vanilla, Caramel, burnt brown sugar but balanced and strong enough to be easily distinguishable.
- Palate: that same vanilla, caramel, and brown sugar notes carry on to the palate but add’s some nice rye spice and oak flavor due to the higher proof and 10 years spent in barrel.
- Finish: medium in length with the rye spice taking center stage with a little bit of oak lingering around.
Notes from Whiskey Nowadays: Henry McKenna is my pick for bourbon because it delivers all the standard bourbon flavors but at a heightened and easily identifiable level. This is because of its higher proof and 10-year age statement. Being that this is a single barrel offering you will get some changes in flavor from barrel to barrel and potentially bottle to bottle but Henry McKenna has been very consistent with delivering strong balanced flavors. With the bourbon market booming and producers either dropping proof, age statements or up charging for including those things this bourbon is a steal and definitely hangs under the radar of most people starting out with bourbon and a closely guarded secret among enthusiasts. It’s higher proof also allows it to stand up to being served on the rocks or with a splash of water, its price means you won’t feel guilty using it in cocktails, making this a true Swiss army knife bourbon.
Rye Whiskey has very similar requirements as bourbon and the easiest way to think of it is that Rye is Bourbons spicier brother. In America, Rye whiskey must be comprised of at least 51% Rye in the mash bill and aged in new unused charred oak barrels and bottled at no lower than 80 proof or 40% ABV. Rye had a bad reputation for a while because of its association with Canadian whiskey which has no such requirements and was often less than 51% rye grain and blended. American Rye much like bourbon will pick up notes of caramel and vanilla with oak notes at higher ages because of being aged in first fill barrels. Because rye is a spicier grain than corn it will balance that sweetness with spice on the palate in a low percentage rye and really pack the spice notes at higher percentages.
Rye: Sazerac Rye
Mashbill: 51% Rye, 39% corn, 10% Malted Barley
Aged: 6 years
Price: $30-$35 dollars
- Nose: sweet and fruity with some vanilla and caramel not a lot of spice if any on the nose.
- Palate: Sazerac has your classic rye flavors of pepper, cinnamon, rye spice and grain flavors all at very approachable levels. Because of the high percentage of corn in the mash bill, Sazerac brings the traditional bourbon flavors of vanilla and caramel bordering toffee to the palate and really balances the sweet and spicy flavors.
- Finish: Sazerac brings back that spice of paprika and peppercorns but quickly moves to sweet fruit and a touch of oak so faint you might miss it if you’re not paying attention.
Notes from Whiskey Nowadays: Sazerac is my pick for Rye because it remains approachable to all levels of experience and offers a gentle start into rye Whiskey. Rye can quickly get very spicy and hot with only subtle sweetness as you increase the percentage of rye in the mash bill which can make rye very tough for people new to whiskey to enjoy. Sazerac finds the right connection between spice and sweet and can easily be enjoyed by both bourbon fans looking for a rye and for rye fans looking for something sweeter without losing that rye spice altogether. For those experienced with rye and who enjoy it (myself included) Sazerac is a must have in any collection because of its versatility and general approachability to all experience levels. Sazerac should also be on most peoples shelves because of the Sazerac cocktail which was made exclusively with Sazerac rye when I visited New Orleans and was trying one at every bar we visited. The Sazarac Room was hands down the best one I had my whole trip but also seemingly the most expensive in NOLA.
Scotch Whisky or rather more specifically Single Malt Scotch must be made of 100% malted barley, aged in oak barrels for at least 3 years and bottled at least at 80 proof/ 40% ABV. Most scotch is aged for much longer than the 3-year minimum before being bottled with most brands offering nothing younger than 10 years. Scotch can be aged much longer than Bourbon or Rye before negative flavors start developing because most Scotch Whisky is aged in second or third use barrels. The two most common types of barrels used in scotch are old bourbon barrels or European sherry barrels. Scotch has multiple distinct production regions that often have a signature style of flavor so it is helpful to do a little research and pay extra attention to what you are ordering/ buying.
Non-Peated Scotch: Macallan 12
Mashbill: 100% Malted Barley
Aged: 12 years in ex-sherry casks
The Macallan 12 is iconic these days and has become my go-to entry level scotch for those that don’t want something with peat or smoke on the palate. This is with good reason as it brings classic
- Nose: Plum, fig, nutmeg and other baking spices.
- Palate: Apricot and stonefruit with more nutmeg and other baking spices, hint of citrus.
- Finish: is short where a little bit of vanilla and orange enters the picture but without over-complicating things.
Notes from Whiskey Nowadays: The Macallan 12-year sherry oak belongs on any whiskey shelf because of its iconic status in the world of single malt scotch. It delivers everything a good scotch should and is a great introduction to scotches that are aged in Ex-Sherry barrels. The only shortcoming I find with the Macallan 12 year is that for those that really love Scotch this can come across quite tame and mild. This easily made up for this with its great combination of price and availability both at liquor stores and bars alike and for a long while was my normal order when going out. The Macallan 12 will always have a place on my shelf because and should have a place on yours because it’s something that can be enjoyed by everyone even those new to scotch.
Peated Scotch: Lagavulin 16
Mashbill: 100% Malted Barley
Aged: 16 years in ex-sherry barrels
Right out of the gate Lagavulin lets you know it’s a peated single malt.
- Nose: Packed with smoke, oak and a little brininess that is iconic of the Islay distilleries.
- Palate: Carries those same notes over primarily the smoke but picks up some nice baking spice flavor I tasted cinnamon mostly which morphs into an earthy sweetness of plum and hazelnut.
- Finish: Holds those spice notes and the sweetness goes away pretty quick before leaving this faint smoke taste in your mouth like you have been sitting around a campfire breathing in the air for a while.
Notes from Whiskey Nowadays: Lagavulin is my pick for entry into peated single malt. This because it brings the expected smoke and earthiness associated with Islay malts but brings a really great sweetness on the palate. Often times Islay malts especially the entry level ones can be just one tone of smoke and peat but Lagavulin balances that out with some nice spice and dry sweetness. This can be attributed to the fact that Lagavulin ages most of its product in Ex Sherry barrels as opposed to Ex Bourbon barrels so it has a richer mouthfeel and more developed palate. Lagavulin 16 is a core expression that tends to keep its status as a backbone in many collections because of its great value and well developed approachable flavors.
For the purposes of this article Irish Whiskey must be produced and aged in Ireland, have a mash bill that can consist of malted and or unmalted barley plus small amounts of cereal grains, be aged for at least 3 years in wooden casks, and be bottled no lower than 80 proof/ 40%ABV. Irish whiskey is also traditionally triple distilled as opposed to Scotch which is double distilled giving it a smoother flavor and any malted portion of malted barley is kiln baked rather than smoked over peat. Irish Whiskey has four distinct sub groups which I will go into further detail in a later article.
Irish Whiskey: Redbreast 12 Cask Strength
Mashbill: 100% Malted Barley
Aged: 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels
- Nose: is sweet with notes of honey, caramel, green apple and trace amounts of citrus.
- Palate: you pick up some vanilla from the ex-bourbon barrels that they age in along with some caramel that mixes with the fruit flavors to almost become a bananas-foster-like flavor.
- Finish: long with a tug of war between sweet fruit like apricot and savory like butterscotch with that high proof spice lingering for quite a bit reminding you that you are drinking something well above average.
Notes from Whiskey Nowadays: The Redbreast 12-year Cask strength is the most expensive Whiskey on my list but for good reason. It is actually pulling double duty as being my pick for both Irish whiskey and Cask strength whiskey and that combination is tough to come across these days. The way it achieves both fruit sweet and savory flavors plus some spice is remarkable. It is easy to forget you are drinking something 114 proof with how sweet, balanced and smooth this whiskey is and it will be sure to impress any guest you serve this too plus be a great pour for yourself after a tough day at work.
Japanese whisky has been around for a while, since roughly 1924 and is most similar to scotch. It relies heavily on the use of Malted Barley even peat smoking some of it as in scotch and uses the same type of barrels (Ex-sherry and Ex-Bourbon) while adding in a special type of Japanese oak called mizunara. Japanese Whiskey is also similar to scotch because the island closely resembles several micro-climates meaning that different distilleries will have significant taste differences between them. If there is one theme to most if not all Japanese Whisky’s it is a commitment to refinement and an approach to balance and blending that is rarely seen elsewhere.
Japanese Whiskey: Nikka Coffey Grain
Mashbill: 95% Corn 5% Malted Barley
Aged: Timeless (Non-age statement)
First off, Nikka Coffey Grain is named after the type of stills they use to make this whiskey NOT a unique spelling of coffee or a coffee-flavored whiskey.
- Nose: very fruity and herbal with notes of fresh berries, melon, and vanilla.
- Palate: delivers flavors of sweet melon, apple and vanilla all balanced very delicately and in harmony with one another.
- Finish: fairly short with a nice bit of spice before disappearing entirely and you obviously go for another sip of this great liquid.
Notes from Whiskey Nowadays: Grain and blended Whiskey have become the norm for entry level Japanese offerings as demand for Japanese single malts are skyrocketing and distilleries are having to make tough decisions of how to keep the premium expressions around while still offering a great entry product. Nikka Coffey grain brings a lot to the table and even I was surprised when I found out it had such a huge amount of corn in the mash as it tastes like it has a much higher amount of malted barley. Those things being said Nikka Coffey grain stands tall with its delicately balanced flavors that highlight not just great flavors, but the level of attention and artistry the blenders and distillers put in to create a wonderful product. With Japanese whiskey prices going through the roof this is a whiskey you can sip without guilt or sticker shock while still getting a definitive Japanese style whiskey taste and experience.
Whiskey for Cocktails
Let's admit it, there are times when someone makes a cocktail with a beautiful sipping whiskey and I desire to take away their drinking permit in a small fit of rage. Whiskey for cocktails needs to have a solid profile or most of the flavor is lost.
Cocktail Whiskey: Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky
Mashbill: 51% rye, 37%corn, 12% Malted Barley
Aged: 4 years
- Nose: you can right away smell that this isn’t like other lower priced offerings with the nose being more fruity and sweet with notes of vanilla, apple & cherry.
- Palate: retains those fruit flavors and sweetness with rye’s signature peppery spice entering the picture and staying through to the finish.
- Finish: isn’t very long and it is predominately rye spice, and vanilla with hints of cherry.
Notes from Whiskey Nowadays: Rittenhouse is a bottle that is surprisingly tame for its high proof, low age and low price point. Its enjoyable on the rocks and fills a very similar role as Sazerac if being enjoyed neat being as they both are only 51% rye in the mash bill. Rittenhouse really differentiates itself from Sazerac and excels when it comes to being used in cocktails and mixed drinks. The fruit flavors lend themselves well to old fashioned’s and Manhattans while its high proof means it can stand up and retain a strong punch through sweet simple syrup or strongly flavored vermouth. Rittenhouse has quickly become the go-to Rye for making any and every type of whiskey-based cocktail in our household and I know many bartenders say that Rittenhouse is their secret weapon for making their signature old-fashioned. For its price, you can easily stock up when guests are coming and make as many cocktails as you desire without fear of breaking the bank.