Best Whiskies

My Favourite Whiskies of 2020 by Jason Hambrey

Here is my list of a few favourite drams this year. They are not necessarily the best whiskies I tasted in the past year – but the most memorable.

This year, I didn’t go as hard on the reviews (about a third of last year’s quantity)- but, nonetheless, it was a memorable whisky year and life, for me, as for many, took a few turns which required attention elsewhere!

It was too bad to see a lot of premium Canadian whisky releases get postponed or cancelled due to COVID-related reasons, but we still had a few good ones to go by. I did miss the usual Corby’s collection of a premium Wiser’s, Pike Creek, Gooderham, and Lot no. 40 - but fingers are crossed for next year. I was delighted to see Forty Creek hearken back to the old days with a 20th anniversary bottling of Three Grain.

Scotch continues to get expensive and quality tends to be diluted, but there were a few great finds for me - on the reasonable end (Arran 10) and the more expensive end. These days, I buy less Scotch but am more choosy with what I buy which means I sometime go above what I have in the past on my bottles.

American whisky is doing all sorts of great things, but it’s very competitive to get a lot of the limited stuff and ultimately it means there isn’t much variety of great American whisky in Canada as there used to be. It’s too bad since there is lots of exciting things happening- and, with COVID, I didn’t get across the border as expected to do any whisky shopping.

Oddly enough, there is more Irish varieties coming through Canada and some good finds are there.

I was a lot less active on the spirits scene than in years past - I’ll try to amend that one this year. Another good Barchef bottled cocktail was terrific (a Vesper) and Dillon’s Peach were the two main standouts.

Well, on to the list:

1. North of 7 Single Cask - personal bottling

I can’t help but start here. North of 7 distillery, here in Ottawa, let me and a bunch of friends select one out of ten casks to bottle at cask strength. The favourite was a nearly 6 year old four grain whisky which is a fantastic spice bomb, and packs quite a punch at 74.5%! The process was so much fun, and the whisky is fantastic. We have a barrel of rye stashed away as well to age for a few years…

Read my review here.

2. Arran 10 Year Old

What a fantastic, affordable, Scotch! It is probably my favourite bottle in the cheaper tier of single malts. Just terrific. A consensus winner from a few “budget” Scotch tastings I held this year. (Honarable mentions - I do also think Glenmorangie 10 and Highland Park 10 are terrific too).

Read my review here.

3. Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 14 Year Old

I find the new edition better and it exhibits such wonderful tropical fruits. Awesome stuff.

Read my review here.

4. Little Book Chapter 03

Just a fantastic blend of Jim Beam whiskies. This one is all bourbon, and it’s just a fantastic blend of different mashbills. Too bad about the price (~$140 in Canada) but it probably was my favourite bourbon this year.

Read my review here.

5. Jack Daniel’s Single Cask Rye

Pickings were slim for American whiskies in Canada this year, but this is quite a nice rye with a rich, fruity and spicy character throughout. They’ve done quite well with their rye - it’s quite a far distance from their flagship whisky.

Read my review here.

6. Shelter Point the Collective

Perhaps my favourite Shelter Point to date. A terrific blend - deep, broad, unique and very interesting: smoky, grainy, spicy, fruity, and oaky. A blend of 5 different casks of whisky.

Read my review here.

7. AnCnoc 16 Year Old 125th Anniversary

An awesome cask strength AnCnoc. It’s about all you can ask for from a fruity, malty dram - full of complexity and depth.

Read my review here.

8. Cragganmore 12 Year Old Special Release

A deep, smoky Cragganmore. Just incredible. My favourite Scotch of the past year. I liked this more than the 15 year old Talisker in the Special releases that folks tended to rave about.

Read my review here.

9. Benromach Cask Strength

Well, I might as well wrap up the Scotches. This whisky does the rare balancing act of having a strong sherry, peat, and malt influence almost in even quantity.

Read my review here.

10. Crown Royal Blender’s Select

I’ll always have a weakness for “coffey rye”. It is so welcoming and confectionary - truly one of the world’s most special whiskies.

Read my review here.

11. Glendalough Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey

This shows off a very different side of pot still, with incredible herbaceous barley notes. What is more, it’s matured in Irish oak. Tons of flavour, and very interesting whiskey.

Read my review here.

12. Canadian Club 43 Year Old

My favourite whisky this year, and the only one to get an “exceptional” mark that I reviewed this year. It’s incredible in complexity, subtlety, and richness. Nothing like the core lineup from Canadian Club, if anyone wondered.

Read my review here.

Honorable Mentions: I quite liked a bottle of Glenfarclas 105 that I got before the quarantine hit, and the Bruichladdich Bere Barley did not disappoint. Also, the Shelter Point Single Cask Peat Finish at cask strength was fantastic as was Smoke Point edition 2, and Two Brewers Batch 18.

My Favourite Whiskies of 2019 (Part 2) by Jason Hambrey

The second dozen of my favourite whiskies of 2019. These are almost all Canadian (Mister Sam is part Canadian, part American). We had a few lovely surprises, such as Alberta Premium releasing a 20 year old and a cask strength 100% rye at over 65%. And the micro-distillers continue to impress…

1. Mister Sam Tribute Whisky

A blend of Canadian and American whiskies from Sazerac in honour of Mister Sam Bronfman, one of the most legendary whisky figures. It was bottled at 66.9% and is one of the best whiskies I have ever tasted.

Read my review here.

2. Alberta Premium Cask Strength

Yes, this is a whopper! It really delivers on flavor. Nice to see Alberta Premium start to engage the connoisseur market as their usual bottom shelf stuff belongs there - but they make the best rye on the planet.

Read my review here.

3. Shelter Point Single Cask Virgin Oak Finish

This whisky came in right at the end of the year, and I absolutely love it. I found Shelter Point really started to move from good to great last year, and this is one of my favourite whiskies they’ve released - indeed, one of my favourite whiskies ever from a small producer. It is part of a series of single casks that have all been good - a cask strength rye, a Foch wine barrel finish, “Smoke Point” an Islay (Laphroaig) finish, and now this.

Read my review here.

4. Shelter Point Avant-Garde Barley (Bottled for the Strath Liquor Store)

A cask strength Shelter Point, finished in an ex-blackberry wine cask. These cask strength wine finishes (often bottled for specialty liquor stores) are very worthy buys if you can find them. Shelter Point’s Double barrel also receives an honourable mention.

Read my review here.

5. Two Brewers Peated - Batch 12.

I think Two Brewers is currently the only small craft distiller who can compete with the big distilleries for the best whisky made in Canada. This whisky was incredibly complex, interesting, and more smoky than their previous batches.

Read my review of here.

6. Fils du Roy Rye

Lots of elderflower on this very unique New Brunswick rye whisky. Full in flavor and balanced - I first found out about this after marking it very highly in a massive blind tasting.

Read my review here.

7. North of 7, Four Grain, Barrel 5

At well over 5 years of age, this whisky really starts to shine. Really awesome stuff - I’ve shared multiple bottles of this to very appreciative audiences. I only buy a handful of whiskies a year, and rarely multiples - but I bought three of these and may go back for more (if any are left).

Read my review here.

8. Pike Creek 21 Year Old Oloroso Sherry Finish

I actually didn’t think Sherry would pair well with well aged light Canadian corn whisky. I was very wrong.

Read my review here.

9. Wiser’s 23 Year Old Cask Strength

Again, I was wrong here. I thought a cask strength 20+ year old light Canadian corn whisky would just be full of nail polish remover at cask strength. But, somehow, Wiser’s pulled off a stunner of a whisky.

Read my review here.

10. Gooderham & Worts 49 Wellington 19 Years Old

Might as well give the hat trick to Corby’s/Wiser’s. Of every whisky I tried this year, this one begged a second dram the strongest, among them all. I found it difficult to only have one. Really nice stuff.

Read my review here.

11. Hochstadter’s 16 Year Old Family Reserve

Another Alberta rye, at 16 years of age and massive in flavor - but bottled by an independent bottler. Just awesome.

Read my review here.

12. Hochstadter’s Vatted Rye Whisky

A blend of ryes from the USA and Canada. I think it is just absolutely fantastic. If I lived in an area where I could buy this, it would be my everyday whisky.

Read my review here.

My Favourite Whiskies of 2019 (Part 1) by Jason Hambrey

Here is my list of a few favourite drams this year. They are not necessarily the best whiskies I tasted in the past year – but the most memorable. This year, I reviewed almost 300 spirits, mostly whiskies, and mostly Canadian (about ~190). I only reviewed 30 Scotches, and I purchased very few this year. I do love Scotch, especially a few old favorites, but the category can be a bit challenging.

Scotch of late largely disinterests me - I love the category, but (in Canada at least) many of the new extensions are lower quality at the lower end and the upper end is unrecommendable based on price on price (also with unpredictable quality). And the middle end is also too expensive to roll the dice on, for what I am comfortable paying given how much good (and often better) Canadian and American whisky there is at half the price or less. I certainly have some disdain for luxury marketing, and brands that go that way. Luxury does sell, but moves whiskies away from things I like about them as a connecting element for people across many demographics. Scotch isn’t the only proponent of this - all whisky types want to pretend that you are somehow refined and set apart if you drink aged distilled grain. Back to Scotch, some of the brands are still doing nice stuff and there remain a number of good core brands (Glenmorangie 10, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Springbank 10, etc.), and independent bottles are a lot of fun - but hard to find and expensive, certainly in Canada, for the most part.

However, I did want to start this list with a few Scotches that I think were both good buys and were extremely enjoyable. Then, on to the rest of the list, with a few more coming tomorrow as well.

1. Port Charlotte 10 Year Old

Port Charlotte came out with a 10 year old regular release, and it is (relatively) well priced for the Scotch and competes at the bottom end of the price range of other good peated Islay whiskies. A terrific nose with lots of nice farmy peat. Very complex.

Read my review here.

2. Benromach Peat Smoke

I was so-so about this bottle when I first opened it, but, as with many bottles, it really came alive as I continued to drink it with beautiful malty, bourbon cask notes. It was a hit at a number of tastings.

Read my review here.

3. Lark Single Malt

I was able to visit Tasmania this year on a Whisky Magazine trip, and our first stop was where the modern Australian whisky scene started - in Tasmania, with Bill Lark and his cask-driven, fruity, and oily distillate. A really enjoyable dram.

Read my review here.

4. Westland Garryana 4.1

Westland uses its native Garry oak in these blends, and it is quite a unique flavour - this whisky, to my mind, brings out the character of the wood the best of all their releases. Terrific waxy and phenolic wood notes come through, with a decent dash of sherry.

Read my review here.

5. Woodford Reserve Straight Malt Whiskey

Woodford released a few extensions to their core lineup - including a vibrant wheat whiskey and this one, which is something a bit different - a malt heavy mashbill which has a lot of balance and complexity (and relatively cheap, too!).

Read my review here.

6. Balcones Brimstone Single Malt

Texas single malt, smoked with Texas scub oak. It’s quite like a BBQ whisky, in the best of senses.

Read my review here.

7. Green Spot Leoville Barton

I like the regular Green Spot, but this Bordeaux cask really took it up a notch. I was surprised.

Read my review here.

8. Ohishi Sherry Cask

Most well-revered Japanese whisky are variations on the theme of Scotch - this, however, is something entirely different. Distilled from rice, it is a very unique whisky which shows forth something much different.

Read my review here.

9. Wild Turkey Master’s Keep 17 Year Old

A 17 Year old bourbon bottled at cask strength of only 43.4%! The ABV went down in these barrels, unlike most barrels in Kentucky where the ABV rises with time. My favourite Wild Turkey ever.

Read my review here.

10. Maker’s Mark Private Select (for BC Liquor stores)

This whisky just oozes oaky complexity.

Read my review here.

11. Jack Daniel’s Cask Strength

I’m not a fan of the regular Jack, but this shows just what some good Jack Daniels can taste like. I’ve had a number of batches and I’ve enjoyed them all quite a bit. Very Jack, but very good.

Read my review here.

12. Little Book Chapter 02: Noe Small Task

A blend of 13 year old Canadian rye whisky, 40 year old Canadian corn whisky, and 8 year old Kentucky rye whisky. Bottled at the blend cask strength of nearly 60%. And it works a chram.

Read my review here.

My Favourite Drams of 2018 (Part 2) by Jason Hambrey

Basically, my favorite special releases this year.

1. Caroni 2000

Caroni is a closed rum distillery from Trinidid & Tobago, and is now renowned for its unique and complex spirit. This is my favourite spirit I tasted this year, 55%, unsweetened, and 17 years of age. I bought it at a whisky store in New York. Heady and complex - immensely spicy and medicinal, with all sorts of rubbery and tarry notes (to the point that some friends thought they’d get a headache just smelling the stuff). If you like intense, medicinal peated whiskies this stuff works a charm. Read my review here.

2. Talisker 8 Year Old Cask Strength

This stuff is just awesome. If this could possibly be turned into a regular release, I would love it. Huge, complex, smoky, spicy, fruity.

Read my review here.

3. A few other Diageo Special Releases: Cladach, Inchgower 27 Year Old, Carsebridge 48 Year Old, and Caol Ila 35 Year Old

These don’t merit their own line item like the Talisker 8 because of some rather prohibitive pricing. The Cladach is a remarkable complex blended smoky malt with lots of marine character. The Inchgower 27 was uniquely herbal and lightly fruity, the Carsebridge was incredibly rich and elegant, and the Caol Ila 35 is among the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted. If you get a taste of any of these, you won’t be dissapointed.

4. Lot no. 40 11 Year Old Cask Strength

I don’t have a lot more to add - this stuff is just awesome, as always. Intense, rich, and moreish. Big and fruity this year. If they keep bottling these upwards of 8 or 9 years they’ll probably be a perennially on this list.

Read my review here.

5. Century Reserve 30 Year Old and Canadian Rockies 21

Two old corn whiskies coming out of highwood - the incredible 30 year old from BC liquor stores which came in at 45% and only 150$! The Canadian Rockies 21 is always good, too.

Read my review here.

5. Crown Royal 13 Year Old Blender’s Mash (Noble Collection)

This whisky tastes just like an elegant bourbon, but it is immensely complex with a ton of rye character. In a blind tasting of over 100 whiskies, this came in my top 2. It’s sadly only available in the USA, but if you can get it, you should…

Read my review here.

6. J.P. Wiser’s 35 Year Old

This year’s isn’t quite as unique or rye heavy as last year, but it’s a bit more approachable and still unbelievable. Perhaps the pinnacle of Canadian whisky at the moment.

Read my review here.

7. J.P. Wiser’s Seasoned Oak

A 19 year old corn whisky, with a very lovely dash of rich rye. Oaky and rich, too.

Read my review here.

8. Westland Amaretto Cask

This was one of my favourites of a the year - a cask sample of an amaretto casked Westland. I thought it might not work at all, but it was just awesome!

Read my review here.

9. Westland Garryana

I tried a single cask of an exclusively Garry oak matured westland, and I understand why they blend it - it is intense and rich, similar to Japanese oak in its overpowering nature. When Westland applies their blending magic, though, we do get something truly spectacular in the peated releases.

Read my review here.

10. Port Charlotte 2007: CC1

I quite like the cask strength port charlottes, and the cognac cask does the trick here…very nice!

Read my review here.

My Favourite Drams of 2018 (Part 1) by Jason Hambrey

Here is my list of a few favourite drams this year. They are not necessarily the best whiskies I tasted in the past year – but the most memorable. I’ll divide it into two parts, as usual – the best standard (i.e. available) whiskies, and the best limited edition whiskies I’ve tasted. Here we go!

These are not in any particular order, so let’s start with Canadian:

1. Two Brewers Batch 8 and 10

Two Brewers released a great hopped whisky (batch 8) and a cask strength (batch 10) which were fantastic. I love the style, and through multiple tastings this year - blind and not blind - they stunned the participants.

Read my review of batch 8 here and batch 10 here.

2. Lohin McKinnon Chocolate Malt

When I visited Lohin McKinnon this year, they said the chocolate malt was hard to make because the malt became like coffee grinds in the lauter tun. Sometimes people found it a bit weird - a chocolate malt whisky aged solely in a Sauternes cask, but lots of people loved it and I found myself taking it to countless tastings with friends. There is a great kick of stout-like flavour mid-palate which is just wonderful.

Read my review here.

3. Shelter Point Single Malt

I ran a Canadian craft whisky tasting earlier this year and this just stood out, to me and participants - with lots of complexity and stone fruits. It was quite memorable.

Read my review here.

4. J.P. Wiser’s Wendel Clark

A sleeper this year - a mix of column and pot distilled rye, 11 years old. Yes please!

Read my review here.

5. Crown Royal Bourbon Mash, Northern Harvest Rye, and Blender’s Select

These whiskies are terrific to taste together. A funky rye geared towards blending, a whisky made very much like a bourbon, and a third whisky where that bourbon mash gets distilled through a column still again. Nosing bourbon mash (or blender’s mash) alongside blender’s select (or Crown Royal single barrel) is fascinating because you have all the flavours of the blender’s mash in the bourbon mash, but they bloom so wonderfully in the blender’s mash. It’s a great picture of some of the powerful, diverse distillates coming out of Canadian distilleries. Bourbon mash can be a bit rough, but the same stuff is just amazing in the 13 year old noble collection this year.

Read my review of Bourbon Mash, Northern Harvest Rye, and Blender’s Select.

6. Talisker 18 Year Old

This peaty whisky is so well balanced.

Read my review here.

7. Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2009

The winner of a massive blind tasting I led in the fall. It is really terrific stuff - a bit like the old Laddie Ten.

Read my review here.

8. Westland American Oak Single Malt

I just love this single malt. It is a great expression of a variation on a theme, single malt, while also being so distinctly American and not Scottish. It’s also a whisky that, as you drink more, you like it more.

Read my review here.

9. Amrut Intermediate Sherry and Peated Cask Strength

If you’ve never had either of these, you need to. They are truly some of the world’s great whiskies - a cask strength, sherry matured single malt made and matured in India, and a cask strength peated whisky made and matured in India. Amrut Peated Cask strength is probably on my top 5 whisky list.

Read my review of Intermediate Sherry here and Peated Cask Strength here.

10. A few gins! Glen Saanich Genever, Roku, and Dillon’s Unfiltered 22

I tasted my way through a number of impressive gins this year, and three really stood out. The first was Glen Saanich Genever (not really a gin, but close enough) made near Victoria BC - it is a genever made by steeping a number of spices and botanicals into Glen Saanich’s single malt spirit (notably star anise). It is just a wonderful spirit. My review is here.

Roku is a Japanese gin made by Suntory which incorporates seasonal botanicals . It is incredibly floral and complex, with a spicy bite from Sancho pepper. Perhaps the best gin I’ve had. Read my review here.

Dillon’s Unfiltered 22 is a gin made with 22 botanicals with a Niagara grape spirit base. It is the craft unfiltered IPA version of gin, and I love it. Immensely flavourful and complex. Read my review here.