When you took your very first sip of coffee or beer, you might have thought, Do people actually like drinking this stuff? Same goes for the first whiff of a campfire-smoky Scotch, the oak-smoothed bite of bourbon on the palate or the unexpected spicy fire of a rye whiskey. We don’t know about you, but we’ve learned to love those things.
Recently, whiskey makers in several countries have started crafting spirits that are more approachable in subtle ways, appealing to all kinds of drinkers—not just whiskey nerds.
Some use a tasty mix of various grains, like Gooderham & Worts Four Grain, a corn, rye, wheat and barley offering. They might roam beyond traditional oak-barreling, as is the case with Collingwood Blended Canadian Whisky, aged with sugar maple wood. Or, like Monkey Shoulder blended Scotch, maybe they combine carefully finessed whiskies. Although each nation has its own rules about what defines a certain style, today’s whiskey makers seem freer to experiment.
All in good taste
It helps that imbibers have changed, too. The craft beer boom has created a thirst for complex flavors, like the bitterness of hops or the mocha appeal of a stout: enter Jameson Caskmates, an Irish whiskey aged in beer barrels. Similarly, the mixology renaissance has stirred a new appreciation of whiskey, especially bourbon and rye, the star of many classic cocktails.
In the past few years, suddenly the random person next to you at the bar was ordering Pappy Van Winkle bourbon and knew the difference between Oban 14- and 18-year Scotch, and was willing to pay for it. Experts started to predict shortages of ultra-aged whiskey—brands can’t suddenly make more barrels of decades-old elixir, after all.
Fortunately, the result has been innovation, not crisis. Rogue Scotch blender Compass Box Whisky, founded in 2000 by a former American Johnnie Walker executive, helped kick-start an evolution (and some industry controversy). London-based Compass Box blended but didn’t distill its own spirits. It created and named its Scotch by flavor profile (The Spice Tree and Enlightenment), not just by age statement, or the number on a bottle of aged whiskey.
Spoiled for choice
Spirits that taste great neat or on the rocks, mix beautifully in cocktails and are accessible—in both price and style—are good news for whiskey lovers. Whatever your fancy, there’s a new drink. For example, the term “bou-rye” was coined to describe whiskies that happily marry corn-based (bourbon) and rye-based spirits.
Dark Horse, the deeply bourbon barrel–aged number from Canadian rye maker Alberta Premium, is the ultimate choice when you can’t decide between a rye or bourbon Manhattan. Some Scottish distillers have taken inspiration from their U.S. colleagues, aging single-malt barley spirit solely in bourbon casks, which get used only once in America.
For cocktail fans, an “overproof” whiskey (with more alcohol by volume than the typical 40-43%, or 80-86 proof) allows for the dilution that comes from properly stirring cocktails or shaking them with ice, still resulting in a bold flavor. Kentucky bourbon Wild Turkey 101 declares its higher proof right in its name. Irish whiskey, always popular as a sipping spirit, has become a cocktail star with the launch of blends like Kilbeggan 2 Gingers, a highly mixable golden dram that’s great with—no surprise!—ginger ale.
The current craze in Japan for simple but perfect highballs—think a lemon-twist-accented Scotch and soda—calls for a light, aromatic Japanese blend like the new Toki. A blended Scotch such as Monkey Shoulder, with a classic Scotch flavor profile but no heavy smoke or peat flavors, is a ringer in cocktails like the Penicillin and the Rusty Nail.
The truth about single malt
Now that we mention it, blending is having a revival: products like Jameson Blender’s Dog are drawing fresh attention to the whiskey blender’s art. “Single malt,” by the way, might be the most misunderstood term in the whiskey world: “single” refers to a whiskey’s origin from one distillery, “malt” to a 100% malted barley whiskey. But nearly all single malts are blends of various distillations and casks, not the product of “one single malt” or batch.
Whether you’re intrigued by what goes into making a complex spirit or just love the taste of what’s in your glass, there’s never been a better moment to become a whiskey drinker. It just might also be the best time in history to try something new.
Go on, bet you can’t try just one
Monkey Shoulder (Scotland)
It smells like a basket of fresh-picked apples and tastes like butterscotch. This blended Scotch has a pleasantly fresh, green note that lingers.
Auchentoshan American Oak (Beam Suntory, Scotland)
A wonderful, almost bitter grip of American oak aging on the sides of the tongue turns to the smooth and sweet vanilla finish you’d expect from a bourbon barrel–aged Scotch.
Jameson Caskmates (Ireland)
A gold color and lightly toasted, honeyed scent belie the milk-chocolatey taste of this stout barrel–aged whiskey. Beer lovers might even taste slightly bitter hops.
Dark Horse (Canada)
There’s a whiff of fruitcake (molasses, spice, candied citrus) on the nose. A gorgeously auburn-colored rye, it has a round, salted-caramel flavor.
Collingwood Toasted Maplewood Mellowed (Canada)
Orange marmalade and a hint of maple syrup smell like breakfast. Loads of cookie spice and a long, sweet finish make a memorable tawny whiskey.
Wild Turkey 101 (U.S.)
The overproof version of this old-school bourbon has dark-amber color, a heady toffee scent and a bold, peppery flavor that holds up well in cocktails.
The appealing straw color and crisp green apple fragrance give way to complex flavors of grapefruit and lightly woody cedar. It has a sweet and soft finish.