The Best Bourbon, Whiskey, Gin and More
As 2021 staggers to a close, it’s time to reflect on all of the delicious booze we’ve (responsibly) consumed over the past 12 months. And man, we savored our whiskey, rum, tequila, vodka, and gin this year, as our hopes soared and crashed on this wild ride of politics, pandemic, and economic uncertainty. The one thing we could count on was distilleries continuing to make top-notch spirits, so I took on the admittedly very enjoyable job of choosing Esquire’s best bottles of 2021 by sipping, quaffing, and sampling such spirits from every category. The following list represents a range of craft and macro distillery releases. Some are cheap and widely available, others are pricey and frustratingly elusive. But my main qualification was that these spirits tasted really, really good, regardless of how much hype (or lack thereof) was behind them, because a fascinating backstory or new label design has no flavor. So happy hunting. And pace yourself.
The oft-overlooked Tennessee brand George Dickel has gotten so much more interesting since Nicole Austin became distiller and GM a few years ago, with great bottled-in-bond vintage releases and now this new bourbon. Tennessee whiskey is arguably bourbon anyway, as it meets all of the qualifications (although some like to argue that the charcoal filtration process that defines Tennessee whiskey makes it its own unique animal). Case in point: Dickel Bourbon is called bourbon and not Tennessee whiskey basically because Austin wanted it that way, and she selected barrels that she felt met the former category’s flavor profile more than the latter’s. Call it what you will, this is an eight-year-old bourbon priced just above 30 bucks that is as delicious as anything twice its price.
Redwood Empire Grizzly Beast Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Craft distillers are starting to release older whiskey, and that usually means better whiskey. I’m the first to maintain that age doesn’t necessarily equal quality, but as these small producers are maturing their whiskey for four years and up in full-sized barrels, and getting better at distilling overall, the flavor is improving. California’s Redwood Empire surprised me with this bottled-in-bond release (at least four years old, 100 proof, and produced at one distillery over one distilling season), the first that it has produced completely in-house. I love it when a whiskey surpasses my expectations (if I had any to begin with), because so many times the story on the label is bigger and bolder than the actual flavor. But this whiskey did just that, revealing sweet honey, vanilla, and some strawberry notes on the palate, followed by a spicy finish. It’s a lovely new sipping bourbon.
Russell’s Reserve 13 Year Old
Wild Turkey is one of those old-school Kentucky distilleries that makes reliable, affordable, and unpretentious whiskey. It also produces some higher-end liquid under the Russell’s Reserve label, most of which is still a good deal, given the higher age statements and single barrel bottlings. In 2021, this limited release joined the lineup, a 13-year-old bourbon with notes of cherry syrup, orange Creamsicle, and pecan that doesn’t drink nearly as hot as its 114.8 proof would imply. Almost immediately, unscrupulous retailers started demanding hundreds more than its $70 asking price, but that’s not the whiskey’s fault. And the whiskey is indeed enjoyable.
Chattanooga Whiskey Bottled In Bond: Spring 2017 Vintage
I have been a fan of just about everything Tennessee’s Chattanooga Whiskey has released so far, but this bottled-in-bond expression was decidedly one of the best the distillery produced. Everything about the liquid is interesting, beginning with the four high-malt mash bills used to make it, each with at least 25 percent malted grains. The palate is fruity, with dollops of vanilla and espresso, and a nice amount of nutmeg, cinnamon, and other baking spices. This is one you’ll want to spend time sipping on its own.
Old Forester Single Barrel Rye
Old Forester is a little bit like Wild Turkey: well known for its inexpensive but very solid core lineup while also producing some higher-end whiskeys that are really worth checking out. When it comes to single-barrel whiskeys, it’s hard to add them to a “best of” list, as by their nature each bottle may differ depending on which barrel it came from. But this barrel-strength rye whiskey (127 proof) was too good not to include. Old Forester makes rye with a mash bill containing 65 percent rye, instead of 95 percent like the whiskey that comes out of Indiana mega-distillery MGP, putting it on the sweeter end of the rye whiskey spectrum. But spice and fruit notes explode on the palate, along with a healthy dose of char, vanilla, and canned peaches. This bottle is pricy, but try mixing up a Sazerac or Manhattan with it, and you will swoon.
Stellum Spirits Rye
Barrell Craft Spirits is an expert in sourcing and blending bourbon and rye, bringing together whiskey from different distilleries into thoughtful, complex bottlings. These batches tend to be on the pricier side, so Barrell launched Stellum Spirits this year with a bourbon and rye that are also sourced but more affordable, and with greater uniformity in the makeup of the whiskey. The rye in particular stood out, mostly consisting of 95 percent rye from Indiana’s MGP, with some whiskey from Tennessee and Kentucky included as well. The proof is high at about 115, but the palate is not overpoweringly hot, with classic notes of spice and vanilla along with some citrus and black pepper. The reality is you’ll find this priced only about $10 to $15 less than Barrell batches at most liquor stores, but it’s still worth picking up a bottle or two when you do.
Jack Daniel’s 10 Years Old
Another surprise for me this year was just how good this 10-year-old Jack Daniel’s is. This is the first age statement expression from Jack in at least a century, according to the distillery. Even if you would never consider drinking Old No. 7, give it a try. It’s like nutty banana bread in boozy liquid form, with supplementary notes of baked apple, vanilla pudding, and almond. And that signature, sweet banana Jack flavor has taken on extra richness from those extra years in barrels. Overall, this is a contender for one of the very best whiskeys I tasted in 2021.
Westland Garryana American Single Malt Edition 6
It seems like every year is supposed to be the year of American single malt, but that dream hasn’t been quite realized yet. Still, there are some distilleries diligently making their mark in the category, like Westland. The sixth edition of Garryana from this Seattle distillery gets its name from the fact that it’s partially aged in Quercus garryana, a type of oak indigenous to the Pacific Northwest (other barrels used are brandy and sherry). The palate has a rich chocolate backbone, with notes of caramel hard candy, cherry syrup, fig balsamic, vanilla pudding, and spiced cider. Westland keeps on keeping on, providing us plenty of reasons to champion the cause of American single malts.
Benriach The Twenty Five
Benriach is kind of an under-recognized Speyside distillery, but the brand has been attempting to raise its profile over the past year or so with a relaunch of its core single malt lineup. Let’s be clear: The much more affordable 10- and 12-year-old expressions are very good whiskies, both in their peated and unpeated forms. But if you have deeper pockets, check out this delectable 25-year-old bottling. It was matured in four different types of cask—sherry, bourbon, virgin oak, and Madeira wine—and the resulting whisky is lightly smoky with a rich palate of honey, caramel, and floral notes.
Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Sherry Oak Finish
Laphroaig is one of those smoky scotches most people have tried, as you can find the flagship 10-year-old pretty much everywhere. That’s not to say that most people enjoy it; the peaty, salty, iodine palate can be polarizing (something the brand considers a selling point). This Islay single malt, with all of its smoldering ash and burnt vanilla notes, was given the sherry cask treatment this year, and smoky scotch drinkers are the better for it. The whisky was finished for 12 to 18 months in Oloroso sherry butts, adding layers of dried fruit, leather, and spice to the familiar peated flavor.
Johnnie Walker High Rye
It’s not that often that I get excited about blended scotch. In fact, I’d venture to say close to never. The category certainly has its place in the whisky world, and outsells single malt by a wide margin, but these bottles don’t inspire much passion. This new blend from Johnnie Walker is an exception to that sentiment, though, due to the use of a Scottish rye whisky in the mix. It adds a pronounced level of spice, apple, and vanilla character to the whisky, making it, in my view, a much stronger blend than regular old Black Label. Plus, it’s relatively inexpensive, and the High Rye Manhattan I tried was an exceptional cocktail.
M&H Apex Dead Sea Single Malt
The whiskey world has expanded well beyond familiar stomping grounds like Scotland, Ireland, and America over the past decade or so. Countries not traditionally associated with whiskey, or distilled spirits in general, are now home to distilleries that release some noteworthy products. Count Israel’s M&H as one of these. This Tel Aviv-based distillery makes single malt in the Scottish style… mostly. In a move that could be seen as a little gimmicky, this whisky was aged in the “lowest place on earth,” exactly 432 meters below sea level on a hotel roof by the Dead Sea. Now, there is something to that, as climate and temperature (and it’s hot there) certainly influence the way in which whisky interacts with wood, usually accelerating the aging and evaporation process. That can be good or bad, but in this case it’s definitely the former. Ripe fruit, caramel, spice, orange, and grapefruit notes all explode on the palate—the result of a year of aging in this environment before returning to Tel Aviv for another few years of aging before bottling.
This Danish whisky was not just one of the best world whiskies of 2021, but one of my favorite whiskies of the year, period. If you love American rye whiskey (and why wouldn’t you?), give this bottle a try. The brand calls it “a liquid interpretation of freshly baked Danish rye bread,” and I have to say I think that’s accurate. The whisky is made from a mash bill of malted rye and barley, and matured in new American oak barrels, giving it lovely notes of fruit and spice along with a malty, vanilla, apple profile that single malt fans will recognize. Try subbing this for American rye in any classic cocktail to see how it changes the drink, and definitely sip it on its own.
There was so much new tequila released this year, and remarkably some of it was not even from celebrity-backed brands! Along with new expressions from storied distilleries, some newbies entered the market as well. One that stood out was LALO, named after tequilero Eduardo “Lalo” González, the grandson of Don Julio González (yeah, that Don Julio). This is a simple, bright, crisp tequila, and it’s additive-free, which is becoming increasingly important to agave spirit fans.
El Tesoro Mundial Collection: The Laphroaig Edition
El Tesoro’s newest release takes a single barrel reposado tequila, aged for nine months in bourbon barrels, and transplants the liquid into a cask that once held Laphroaig single malt scotch for another four months. There is some obvious synergy at work here, as both brands are owned by Beam Suntory—and why not work with what you got? This añejo tequila is quite good, with just a subtle whiff of smoke curling around soft notes of vanilla, grass, and citrus. Experiment with making cocktails with this bottle; you won’t be disappointed.
Patrón Sherry Cask Aged Añejo
This new tequila from Patrón may have its detractors, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s aged entirely in Oloroso sherry casks for more than two years, so admittedly the sherry character does dominate the palate, pushing the bright, earthy agave notes to the rear. But I think there’s still a nice balance here between the vanilla and floral añejo character, and the dried fruit and spice from the sherry. That lends this tequila particularly well to cocktails, especially if you are subbing it in for whiskey in something like an Old Fashioned or Manhattan.
Del Maguey Vida de Muertos
This mezcal from Del Maguey, a brand that helped introduce mezcal to many drinkers here in the U.S., is a new single-village expression that is bottled at 45 percent ABV. That last point is key here, because the best thing about this mezcal is its slightly higher proof, meaning it can really shine in a cocktail without the flavors getting lost in the mix. Of course, it sips pretty nicely on its own as well, with a creamy and assertive palate, and a relatively subtle smokiness. This is a bottle that will please both newbies and longtime mezcal drinkers.
Mezcal Amarás Logia Cenizo
Some of the most interesting new mezcals this past year came from Mezcal Amarás. Case in point, the brand’s new Logia Collection, which includes several expressions, each made in small batches from different types of agave. The intent seems to be to prove just how important every detail is to the spirit’s character, from its specific production method to, crucially, the particular agave plant used. One of the best of the collection illustrates that last point: Cenizo, made from agave durangensis, which strikes a nice balance of smoke, earthiness, and citrus. Sip them all side by side if you can, but this bottle is a great place to start.
Mount Gay Master Blender Collection: Andean Oak Cask
Mount Gay master blender Trudiann Branker was the creative force behind this new rum, the fourth expression in the limited-edition Master Blender Collection. This series is Branker’s chance to showcase her creativity in blending, using different types of stills and cask finishing. The latter really made this rum stand out; it was aged for 14 years in ex-bourbon barrels, and then finished in casks made from virgin Andean oak sourced from the Colombian Andes, with notes of spice, fruit, banana, and a bit of incense and peach on the finish.
Holmes Cay South Africa Mhoba 2017
If you haven’t tried South African rum before, there’s a reason: It really hasn’t been available here in the U.S. Even now it’s pretty limited, with just four casks of this single-cask, barrel-proof rum made available by importer Holmes Cay. That makes it a stand-out sipping experience, with spice, green plantain, fresh pineapple, and granny smith notes, and an almost truffle-like character on the nose. The rum was aged for four years in South African whisky barrels, which is another category worth exploring. It is a pricey bottle, but infinitely worth it.
Isle of Harris Gin
Scotland makes some of the best whisky out there, so why not gin? The Botanist is one of its best known brands, produced on Islay by the folks at Bruichladdich. This new gin is another excellent option from a far-flung Scottish locale—the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, to be exact. Some of the botanicals are the usual suspects: juniper (of course), coriander, angelica root, and bitter orange peel. But the key ingredient is the addition of sugar kelp, harvested from local waters by divers. This is a light, crisp, and clean-tasting gin, not too sweet, and with a nice burst of juniper surrounded by earthy and grassy notes. It’s impossible to say exactly what the kelp contributed without some controlled taste testing. But however sizable the impact, this is a new bottle worth the effort to track it down.
I’m not some hardcore anti-vodka crusader, and to be honest that whole schtick is kind of tired. But even so, it can be difficult to get terribly excited about a new vodka unless it just tastes really good. And that’s the case with Harridan, which launched this year. Founder Bridgette Taylor worked with Myer Farm in upstate New York to produce this 88-proof vodka made from organic corn. Notes of vanilla, lemon, and gentle grain on the palate make it a very versatile spirit that sips nicely on its own if you are so inclined, though the price tag is a bit steep.
Nixta Licor De Elote
This is described as being the first corn liqueur, made by the people behind Abasolo ancestral corn whisky at Destilería y Bodega Abasolo in Mexico. It’s a truly unique spirit, really capturing the aromas and flavors of fresh and roasted corn. It’s made from Cacahuazintle corn specifically, and production involves macerating cooked and raw corn in the distillate, then combining it with nixtamalized corn piloncillo (a type of raw sugar from the region). And it is entirely delicious. Think liquid tortillas and popcorn, along with a balanced sweetness, and vanilla and caramel flavors.
Heaven’s Door Master Blenders’ Edition
There are way too many celebrity spirits brands at the moment, particularly in the tequila world. Some celeb backers are more obvious than others—Kendall Jenner, The Rock, and Nick Jonas kind of make sense—but Bob Dylan? Apparently he’s a big whiskey guy, so his Heaven’s Door brand launched several years ago with a few different sourced whiskeys distilled in Indiana and Tennessee. Last summer the Master Blenders’ Edition was unveiled, a rare high point in an overcrowded field of actor- and musician-endorsed brands. It’s a collaboration between Heaven’s Door master blender Ryan Perry and his counterpart for Redbreast Irish whiskey, Billy Leighton. Together, they took 10-year-old bourbon and finished it in Redbreast casks for an additional 15 months, resulting in a whiskey with classic vanilla and toffee notes augmented by hints of fig, spice, and candied cherry. I’d drink this over Darius Rucker’s Backstage Southern Whiskey any day.
Sunday’s Finest Gold Fashioned
I’m not gonna lie, I’m not a big proponent of bottled cocktails. I understand their utility, but I’d rather just make a drink from scratch. However, one that stood out this year for a few reasons was the Gold Fashioned from Sunday’s Finest. It’s an Old Fashioned made with much better ingredients than most ready-to-drink versions of the classic cocktail: eight-year-old Kentucky bourbon, five-year-old Indiana rye, saffron bitters, and demerara sugar. It’s not too sweet, it has a nice whiskey kick, and it comes in a beautiful bottle with an orange zest atomizer to spritz over the drink after you’ve poured it on some ice. Gold Fashioned is definitely a splurge at $150. The quality of a bottled cocktail better be as high as the cost, and in this case, it arguably is.
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