I like whiskey – bourbon, scotch, whatever. It can be a good cocktail all by itself – neat or on the rocks, depending on the type – or as part of a delicious mixed cocktail. But without a scorecard or a very well-informed liquor store rep, it’s a crapshoot to pick out a good whiskey. If you're like me and don’t drink enough whiskey to feel any kind of confidence about ferreting out the best-tasting ones, here are a couple of tips.
One good way to choose is to frequent a Chicago restaurant that specializes in whiskies. Their bartenders are usually pretty well educated about this time-honored libation. A couple I recently learned about are Chicago Q, 1160 N. Dearborn St. (taste a few if you like before you decide), and Untitled Chicago, 111 W. Kinzie.
So I was excited when I heard about Paul Pacault. He decided one day to put together what he calls the Ultimate Spirits Competition. He enlisted the palates of a bunch of people with lots of experience in these matters and invited them all to come together for a tasting. Then he invited whiskey makers around the world to send bottles of their best stuff to be judged. They did a yeoman’s job of tasting – bless ‘em – and came up with winners in every category of spirits.
For the second year in a row, every panel of judges agreed on a single top whiskey – every single judge awarding the full 100 points for the beverage. It’s from Ireland, and it’s called Redbreast 21 Years Old Irish Pot Still Whiskey. FYI, pot stills are the type of equipment moonshiners used to use (mebbe still, eh?). For a manly discussion of this topic, see this Esquire article on the difference between pot stilling and column stilling.
In any case, the whiskies below all came out on top in their various categories. So herewith, check out the “Chairman’s Trophy” award winners - the top 10 whiskies in the world plus one best-in-show - divided by national origin.
WHISKEY – USA
American: Wild Turkey Forgiven
Kentucky Straight Bourbon: George T. Stagg
Rye: Bulleit 95 Small Batch (Bulleit has been a huge and consistent winner, here and a Double Gold winner at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition)
WHISKEY - IRELAND
Blended: Tullamore D.E.W. Special Reserve 12 Years Old (Tried & True Award)
Irish Pot Still: Redbreast 21 Years Old (the unanimous 100-point overall winner in all categories)
Single Malt: Bushmills 16 Years Old (Tried & True Award)
WHISKEY - SCOTLAND
Blended Malt: Big Peat
Blended: Ballantine's 17 Years Old
Single Malt: Glenmorangie Quarter Century 25 Years Old
WHISKEY - CANADA
Alberta Premium Dark Horse
WHISKEY – JAPAN
Nikka Coffey Grain
For all the different liquor categories – vodka, gin, brandy, etc. etc. – see the spirit competition winners laid out in a very approachable design on the Ultimate Spirits Competition website. Cruise around. You’re sure to see a few surprises. For example, good old Absolut Vodka won best in show among the whole crowd of vodka competitors.
I’m guessing some of the big names that are missing – e.g., Grey Goose – just didn’t enter the competition. And that makes sense from a business standpoint. Who’d want to blow a multi-million-dollar advertising budget by having some other vodka hailed a winner over yours?