By Richard Thomas
While we do not hold annual awards as such here at The Whiskey Reviewer, we do have a more informal way of handing out laurels to those whiskeys that have garnered our sincere and lasting admiration. Each member of active staff is invited to name two whiskeys that got his or her foremost attention during the calendar year: Best New Whisk(e)y and Best To Pass My Lips. The former is confined to new releases only, and the latter open to anything, new release or not.
Past that, any qualifications are up to the individual writer making the pick. Deputy Editor Kurt Maitland, for example (usually, but not this year) prefers avoid unattainable chimera bottles. Some members of the team don’t like particular categories, so those are excluded from their private deliberations, and so on.
These are staff picks, not votes, so everyone gets their two cents and those make the list. So, with the annual explanation of how it works taken care of, here are The Whiskey Reviewer‘s Top Picks from 2016.
Richard Thomas, Owner-Editor
In my book, one of the few unmitigated bright spots of 2016 was that it goes down as my de facto Year Of The Rye. Forget Jim Murray trying to make 2015 the year of the rye. He overreached himself, it was too soon, and this year is the year rye whiskey truly shined.
Best New Whiskey, WhistlePig Boss Hog “The Independent:”
This 100% rye, cask strength, 14 year old whiskey has a lot going for it in and of itself, but what made it stand above some other very worthy new releases this year was the finish old Scotch hogsheads. The current of peat smoke picked up from that finish rounded out the bold, ballsy rye spiciness perfectly, creating a superb rye. The good news is that it’s still out there with some retailers at its original $300 asking price, so if a Scotch-influenced 100% Canadian rye sounds like your bag, go get it.
Best To Pass My Lips, Booker’s Rye: Transcending the category of simply being best new whiskey (because it was new this year), Booker’s Rye beat everything I had this year, and that included some of the most excellent single malts I was privileged to nip at during Whisky Live Paris this year. This release of 13 year old, cask strength experimental mash bill rye whiskey laid down by namesake Booker Noe epitomizes what I want from American whiskey generally: big, big character, but not so big that it doesn’t leave room for a little sophistication.
If you listened to the naysayers and passed on an opportunity to buy a bottle when it was $300, I feel sorry for you, because it’s now going for $800 to $900 a bottle. The $300 was a signal that American whiskey pricing is becoming more European, but keeping that point in mind as an inevitable fact of life, it absolutely was not unfair.
Kurt Maitland, Deputy Editor
Best New Whiskey, TIED between Michter’s Celebration 2016 and Lagavulin 8 Year Old: I’m going to have to pick two for this year. There is a really good chance you’ll never taste one of them, Michter’s Celebration 2016. The other is far cheaper and more available, but still a limited edition in it’s own right, Lagavulin 8 yr Old.
The Celebration is amazing. It is as complex as a well aged Scotch, and even though it is a blend of rye and bourbon ranging from 10 to over 30 yrs in age, oak does not overpower the release. It’s nimble in a way that older bourbons don’t tend to be.
As for the Lagavulin 8 Yr Old, it’s simple. This release manages to both remind you of its famous older siblings while also showing of aspects that you would expect to find in their Islay neighbors Ardbeg and Laphroaig. We at The WR need to do a formal review, but if you like smoky whiskies, you should give this release a taste while it’s still around.
Best to Pass My Lips, Some Very Old Jura Malts: Duiring Feis Ile 2016 I had the pleasure being part of a Jura tasting with Richard Paterson. Included in that tasting were a 42 Yr Old Jura (Bourbon cask, Matusalem Sherry) and a 43 Yr Old Jura (Oloroso). Those two were my standouts for the Feis and are my pick for the best whisky to taste my lips this year.
John Rayls, Senior Contributing Writer
Best New Whiskey, Thomas H. Handy Rye 2016: Picture one of the final scenes in the Robert Redford movie,The Natural, as the hero knocks the final pitch above the upper deck into the lights as the thousands of sparks drift to the ground and he wins the game, saves the manager and triumphs over evil. This rye is that good. It’s approximately 6.5 years old, bottled at 126.2 proof and it’s ready to party! The flavor is of toffee, cinnamon and cloves. The fantastic viscosity takes the mouth experience to a very different level. It’s not thick and yet there is a magnificent syrupy mouth-feel.
Best To Pass My Lips, George T. Stagg 2016: In spite of its 72%+ alcohol content, this is a very drinkable, very enjoyable bourbon. If you’ve ever enjoyed a small amount of dark chocolate alongside your bourbon, you are going to love this whiskey experience. The mouthfeel is an exquisite, luxurious coating (best ever?). The action begins at the back of the mouth and moves quickly to mid-mouth. The finish doesn’t leave the other areas, but begins a slow march to the front and even to the lips. It’s a long finish that is very satisfying. The dark chocolate drives the flavor profile with notes of coffee and vanilla. The dark chocolate is very present in the finish.
Randall H. Borkus, Contributing Writer
Best New Whiskey, Four Roses Elliott’s Select Single Barrel 2016: This is an fine bourbon whiskey, a true Kentucky masterpiece. This year’s single barrel limited edition from Four Roses was a 14 year old single barrel OESK done at cask strength (ABV on mine was 59.3%). It’s a rich, full bodied, well-rounded bourbon whiskey with a great mouth feel. A little warm, yet very smooth drinking with a continued fruitiness, vanilla and caramel, and a thoughtfully placed spicy slap in the back of the throat making me beg for more. The finish is exceptionally long, and warm, with a lingering minty wood spice. Even when the glass was empty for a few minutes, I continued to pick up the smell of the oaky remains.
Best To Pass My Lips, Michter’s 20 year Old Single Barrel Bourbon 2015: Bottled at 114.2 proof (57.1% ABV), this 20 year old is just exquisite. The nose is a soft potpourri of caramel, vanilla, fruit and leather, and it drinks very smooth for a 114 proof whiskey. It has a warm syrupy mouth feel that transforms into a flavorful honey sweetness with sprinkles of vanilla, caramel and citrus candy. This aged Michter’s boasts a very balanced flavor profile, plus an extended hearty oak vanilla finish that leaves me wanting more.
Elizabeth Emmons, Contributing Writer
Best New Whiskey, Lagavulin 8 Year Old: I first tasted this when I when to the Feis Ile on Islay in May and it was Lagavulin’s 200th anniversary release (1816-2016). It has the characteristics of a Lagavulin in terms of peat but comes off lighter than their other releases. This was an excellent example of a well done young Scotch and is reflective of Lagavulin’s brand and high quality releases. They are also one of my favorite distilleries.
Best To Pass My Lips, Wemyss Winter Larder Single Cask: I first had this at a bar, fell in love with it and then proceeded to hoard bottles of it. I love a sherried whiskey and this is a wonderful example. It is 20 years old, heavy sherry, viscous, and full. I also love that the bottler/distillery is family owned. It is limited to 654 bottles. It is fantastic so if you find a bottle hiding at your liquor store, definitely pick one up.
Adam Irvine, Contributing Writer
Best New Whiskey, Redbreast Lustau: My love of Irish whisky was born in Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. It was 117.3 Hubba Bubba Mango Monstera, an unpeated 1st fill ex-bourbon barrel Cooley that rocked my whisky world. I loved the heavily tropical fruits profile and ever since have sought that out in Irish releases.
I got a chance to try Lustau in a bar in Belfast, surrounded by pictures of great (and not so great) Irish political figures of the 20th century. The Lustau did not disappoint ,with its layers of tropical fruit complemented by the darker fruits born of the sherry cask influence. In a world of whisky where new limited edition release are being churned out in ever more elaborate packaging and price tags to match, this was a beacon of hope.
Best To Pass My Lips, Loch Lomond Single Grain: The greatest drams that I have tried over the years have been those which are untainted by expectation. This whisky was the equivalent of giving someone a peck on the cheek and then being aggressively French kissed in return, and enjoying it. I was at the Loch Lomond distillery being treated to a tasting lead by Master Blender Michael Henry who was clearly excited and proud of this new creation. This is a grain with a twist. It is made entirely from malted barley at Loch Lomond and an age profile of only 3-4 years; simple and stunning.
Debbie Shocair, Contributing Writer
Best To Pass My Lips, Amrut Intermediate Sherry Single Malt : Through a tremendous and laborious process, Amrut has delivered a Sherry cask maturation that not only lacks any trace of sulfur, but also delivers a depth of complexity and a bright lingering finish that compels me to name it the best I’ve had this year.