By Richard Thomas
Some may be surprised to learn that although whisky-making has been spreading around the globe in recent years, the industry had already long extended beyond the “Big Five” nations of Scotland, the United States, Ireland, Canada and Japan. Even if you discount the ersatz Indian whisky industry on technical grounds, the French and Germans have had whisky distilleries since the 1980s, and Spain’s DYC distillery began operation in 1959!
Still, if you read between the lines there, you can see that the concentrations were North America and Europe, with Japan as an Asian outpost. Now it’s spread to every continent, from Argentina to South Africa to Israel to Australia to Taiwan.
So many countries are in the whisky-making game now that it’s hard for even serious observers to keep track of it all, so international enthusiasts can be forgiven for overlooking some of the best and most interesting offerings out there. It’s a literal ocean of whisky, with plenty of choice as to where to dip your whisky thief. Here are eight seriously underrated and overlooked whiskies from around the world:
Australia: Hellyers Road 10 Year Old Single Malt
Australian whisky is certainly not underrated or overlooked, but most of the attention has focused on Sullivan’s Cove due to the distillery’s big win when its French Oak Cask carried Best Whisky at the 2014 World Whisky Awards. Sadly, the spotlight did not spread more widely, so the work of other Australian distilleries remain lesser known or actually obscure.
One distillery that merits as much attention as Sullivan’s Cove is their Tasmanian neighbor, Hellyers Road. Their flagship 10 Year Old single malt is a solid example of a middle of the road whisky. It’s sweet and toasty, very approachable while retaining a little sophistication, and ideal as an aperitif dram.
Canada: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
This one ought to give an informed reader with a memory pause, because Jim Murray controversially named it Whisky of the Year in his 2016 Whisky Bible. Since literally everyone who wasn’t Murray or working for Crown Royal’s parent company Diageo strongly disagreed with this call, however, the expression saw a backlash. Among the cognoscenti, the whisky became a scorned or deliberately ignored item.
The odd thing is that Northern Harvest Rye is a very solid, easy drinking, sweet-yet-spicy Canadian style whisky. Once you get past the unjustifiable hooplah that Murray attached to it, it is actually a pretty nice pour. Priced at $28, it’s also a good bargain buy, since I’d say it’s comparable to a selection of Canadian and American Rye whiskies priced in the $30 to $35 range.
India: Paul John Classic Single Malt
Although Amrut’s single malts are becoming fairly well-known, Paul John whiskies are still generally overlooked. Like Amrut, Paul John makes malt whisky using Indian barley and in pot stills, making use of highland Indian climate for maturation (in Paul John’s case, the Himalayan foothills). Only when Paul John needs some smoke in their flavor profile do they import something, bringing in Scottish peated malt.
The Classic Single Malt is a single cask, cask strength offering, drawing on stock that has a “Goan” character, which Paul John defines as a tropical sweetness. So what you get here is the sweet, jungle spicy essence of malt whisky, bottled straight from the ex-Bourbon barrel.
Ireland: Teeling Single Grain
In my opinion, Teeling Single Grain is the most underrated whiskey in Ireland, and the reason boils down to the snobbery directed at grain whisk(e)y. Scotch snobs love their malts, and often scoff at blended whiskies as a cheap watering down of their precious malts using inferior grain whisky. That grain whisk(e)y, whether it be Scottish or Irish, can become good stuff in its own right never enters into such thinking.
Teeling Single Grain is a lovely, grassy creation, enhanced by notes of sweet vanilla and dried fruits that come from the barrel stock used in maturing (ex- bourbon) and finishing (ex-wine) the whiskey. If a dram of this doesn’t change your mind about grain whisk(e)y, then I doubt anything will.
Japan: Miyagikyo 12 Year Old Single Malt
Unlike Australia and Sullivan’s Cove, when Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 won top world whisky plaudits it carried more than just its own brand name with it. Even so, plenty of brand names, including several small, independent distilleries, remain relatively obscure. Sometimes this is because of sheer lack of attention, but sometimes it is because scarcity prevents international drinkers from encountering them.
Nikka’s Miyagikyo Distillery and it’s single malts are a perfect example of the latter, and none moreso than the Miyagikyo 12 Year Old. Lying in the center of the Miyagikyo line, this Sherry cask-aged single malt is full-bodied and superbly well-balanced. It’s exactly the sort of thing a Sherried whisky lover would adore, and the price tag attached to ($125) it isn’t unreasonable, but it is so rarely available that few ever get to try it. Hence, hardly anyone knows about it outside of devoted Japanese whisky circles.
The Netherlands: Zuidam Distillers Millstone 100 Rye
I can label this item overlooked simply because so few people are aware that whisky is even made in the Netherlands in the first place. This expression is an incredible oddity for two reasons: it’s an American-inspired whisky in the middle of Scotch-modeled, malt-dominated Europe; and everything about it ties into the number “100.” The whisky is 100% small pot distilled from a 100% rye mash, aged entirely in new American white oak barrels for 100 months (8.3 years) and bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV).
It’s won awards, but honestly, who is actually paying attention to awards for Best Grain Whisky (see Teeling Single Grain above) or Best European Rye? This expression should put Zuidam on the map with fans of American style whiskeys, and as soon as more people find out about it, it probably will.
Scotland: Caol Ila 12 Year Old Single Malt
Writing material about underrated and overlooked whiskies makes me feel a lot like the Moneyball character Peter Brand, because in so many instances the reason why an expression is discounted is because of the irrational preconceptions of a handful of snobs.
Take Caol Ila. People buy and like Caol Ila, but no one raves about it the way they do other Islay single malts, such as Ardbeg, Laphroaig or even Bowmore. Caol Ila is arguably the least appreciated of Islay malts, and not because it’s the least of them, but because it provides a foundation for so much of what Johnnie Walker blends. It’s a silly reason to neglect a fine single malt, but the snobs are welcome to think that way, because it leaves plenty of Caol Ila 12 Year Old for the rest of us.
United States: Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
If I told an American Bourbon fan “Hey, there is a Bourbon out there bottled at 50.5% ABV, aged for six to eight years, and costs just $22,” I would have their rapt attention as to what it was and where they could buy it. Yet if I answered “Everywhere, because it’s Wild Turkey 101,” the response might even be a yawn and a “Oh, OK, whatever.”
It’s simply amazing how taken for granted Wild Turkey 101 is. Compare it against Knob Creek. Although the two whiskeys have differing flavor profiles, with Knob Creek now an NAS the two Bourbons are now very comparable in terms of age and proof, yet Knob Creek costs $10 more on average. People drink WT101, and some people adore it, but it continues to be underrated relative to its peers given what the stuff actually is.