With 2020 finally about to kick itself to the curb, it’s time to look back on the year that was — at least in terms of whiskey. While 2020 will be reviled for just about everything else, it was actually a delightful year for brown spirits, and paring down our list of top whiskeys of the year — which initially ran to nearly 30 choices — was a daunting problem. How to handle special bottlings, one-offs, and anniversary drams that sold out immediately… but which we loved? It’s a tricky calculus to balance availability and adoration, but we’ve tried to do our best in this list to highlight whiskeys you might have a hope of actually getting, while offering praise where it’s deserved, regardless of whether the product is still in stock. (All prices reported reflect the current market.)
As always, we’re revealing one whiskey each day, starting with #10 and highlighting another each day until we hit #1. Pull up a chair and pop some corks. Let’s drink to 2021!
1. Highland Park Cask Strength Release No. 1 – It flew under the radar this fall when venerable Scotch producer Highland Park decided to casually expand its core lineup to include the first ever release of a full-proof bottling. Being fans of Highland Park ourselves (its Twisted Tattoo made the Top 10 in 2019), we were prepared to like this one. But not this much. The cask strength release is everything we love about classic, sherry-driven Highland Park only dialed up to 12. Even at cask strength, it’s immensely approachable with big citrus, wood, and spiced almond notes that cascade across the palate without ever diminishing en route to a sweet, silky, and clove-kissed finish. It’s a great dram year-round, but a particularly appropriate companion to the holidays. Scoop this one up quick in the New Year. 126.6 proof. $90 -DB [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
2. Bushmills Single Malt Cognac Cask 28 Years Old – If you had told me a year ago that a bottle of Bushmills would hit #2 in our top whiskeys of the year list, I would have said you were probably touched in the head. Try this dram and you’ll understand. Aged in a mix of bourbon and Oloroso sherry barrels for 11 years then finished in Cognac casks for 17 more years, it’s the most enchanting bottle of Bushmills I’ve ever tried – and one of the best Irish whiskeys I’ve had the pleasure to sample, full of exotic notes that range from maple syrup to incense to flowery potpourri. Alas, only 500 bottles were produced and they appear to be long gone. Nonetheless, it is – was – amazing stuff. 93.4 proof. $500 -CN [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
3. Aberfeldy Exceptional Cask 20 Years Old – Aberfeldy’s been hard at work with new releases both permanent and special issue. In the last 12 months we’ve reviewed no fewer than 8 expressions from the brand. This one tops them all, a 20 year old release that finishes for one of those years in Sauternes wine casks. Bright and sunny, it’s a stellar example of how Sauternes finishing can elevate a single malt with just the right amount of honeyed sweetness. Notes of spiced apples and pears and hints of tropical fruit give this whisky a character you rarely find in Speyside. It’s a limited release, but still widely available. Pick it up before it isn’t. 86 proof. $200 -CN [BUY IT NOW FROM THE WHISKY BARREL]
4. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch A120 – In recent years, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof has consistently excelled at balancing intense, barrel-driven notes with more delicate spices and caramels, making it something of a sure-bet when it comes to quality bourbon. At the beginning of this year, however, Heaven Hill outdid themselves with the release of batch A120, the closest we’ve yet encountered to perfection in the series. Like so many past releases, it showcases remarkable balance at an extremely high, yet entirely approachable proof, but where it stands apart is in its complexity, delivering notes of lumber, mint, chocolate, and toffee alongside lots of dark fruits, something of a rarity in the expression and a hallmark of much earlier Heaven Hill expressions. Unfortunately, Batch A120 has mostly come and gone from the shelves, but chances are you can find someone who has tucked a few away. 136.6 proof. $70 -DB [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
5. Baker’s Bourbon Single Barrel 13 Years Old – When Jim Beam announced a revamp and extension of the Baker’s line to focus exclusively on single barrel offerings, we were initially concerned about the future of a bourbon that, while overlooked by many, we’ve always loved for its unique, fruit-forward profile. The limited edition 13-year-old release put our concerns fully to rest, delivering an even better version of this whiskey that is richer and more rounded than ever before, and more complex with the big stone fruit notes we love, accentuating a whole host of classic bourbon aromas and flavors. It was one of the harder pours for us to put down in 2020, and, given the explosion in prices we’ve observed, we apparently weren’t the only ones to think so. Happy hunting in the new year! 107 proof. $325 -DB
6. Glendalough Single Malt Irish Whiskey 17 Years Old – Don’t look now, but Irish whiskey is entering a Renaissance of sorts, from both craft distillers muscling in on the well-worn turf of Jameson and its brethren, and from the big guys themselves, which are finding all kinds of ways to innovate what can be a pretty sleepy spirit category. Glendalough bills itself as “Ireland’s oldest craft distillery,” and while the distillation of this 17 year old single malt predates its 2011 founding, it’s what Glendalough has done with it in the last decade that merits your attention. Specifically, after 15 years in bourbon cask, the whiskey spends 2 years in Japanese mizunara oak, which seems insane but which works amazingly well. Maple, honey, and lots of stewed fruit wind their way toward a lightly oaky finish that offers some unusual notes of coconut and flavors of the Far East. Unique through and through, and highly worthwhile. 92 proof. $280 -CN [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
7. Maker’s Mark 2020 Limited Release – We were impressed by last year’s Maker’s Mark RC6, and this year’s limited release makes it to the top 10, which is interesting because while this year’s edition may not be as complex, it’s simply extremely good stuff. The flavors in MM2020 come together so nicely and the alcohol is so well hidden (for a 110 proof whiskey) that it is simply difficult to put this bourbon down. The nose melds caramel, baked apple, cinnamon, allspice, and vanilla together with some oak, while the palate introduces a rush of spicier bourbon notes, including cinnamon, butterscotch, and dark chocolate. The finish is long and introduces a touch of mint before the flavors slowly fade, everything blending into a seamless whole. Despite the quality, it’s a surprisingly affordable bottle that won’t last long once it’s opened. 110.8 proof. $65 -RL
8. Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend Bourbon (Batch 27) – Over the years, Joseph A. Magnus & Co.’s Cigar Blend Bourbon has earned a cult following among that small but devoted group of whiskey lovers that quest for premium representations of older, sourced bourbons. The latest batch releases, which comprised whiskeys aged between 12 and a whopping 20 years, represent some of the oldest sourced offerings out there. Add to that Cigar Blend’s unique Armagnac, Cognac, and sherry finishing, and you’ve got a recipe for real whiskey magic. Our taste of Batch 27 was nothing short of it, showcasing a refined, well-aged aroma with lots of dessert-filled sweetness and a palate equally bold with a balance of pastry shop, tobacco, and rich, seasoned wood notes. With the announcement this fall of the distillery’s move from Washington, D.C. to Holland, Michigan, it’s unclear what the future of Cigar Blend will be, but if this was its curtain call, then it sure went out with a bang. $300 -DB
9. Knob Creek Bourbon 15 Years Old – The autumn bourbon release season always arrives inundated with impossible-to-find or irresponsible-to-purchase offerings. Those bottles spotted in the wild find themselves marked up exponentially beyond suggested retail prices, well into the stratosphere by retailers demanding their slice of the custard pie. One bottle bucking the preciousness trend without compromising quality was this sturdy 15-year-old expression from Jim Beam’s boutique line, Knob Creek. It offers elements one would expect from Knob Creek: Bold oak on the nose with muted notes of pepper and tobacco leaf, but then takes things one step beyond on the palate with a very full and welcome rush of dark chocolate, baking spices and overly ripe dark berries. The finish carries on and on and is a real treat, because why should such a good thing let up with ease? It’s been one grueling year. Upgrade your normal Knob Creek and consider this a well-earned victory dram for enduring under such awful global circumstances. 100 proof. $100 -RT
10. Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 135.19 – Amidst the constant stream of new releases flooding the market, the toil of the independent bottler can be overlooked for any number of reasons: limited editions, rate of outturn, and accessibility being three major challenges we often see stateside. In 2020, bottlers such Signatory, Cadenheads, That Boutique-y Whisky Company, and Scotch Malt Whisky Society all offered a fair number of releases that could hold court with (or best) anything from the big names. This 11-year-old from Inchmoan distillery (“Easy Lover” for those who abide by names versus than cask numbers) was released in autumn in an edition of 279 bottles via the SMWS, and was an absolute beautiful bottle down to the final dram. A chorus of vanilla, hazelnut, and oak on the nose and palate, with a consummate finish of pear and plantain to round things out in fine form. The good folks at Loch Lomond certainly deserves due credit here, but there are lots of talented people and palates behind these smaller enterprises who select the casks, and they are just as deserving of amplified recognition to a larger audience. 112.2 proof. Currently sold out (check your local bar or secondary shop). -RT [BUY IT NOW FROM SMWS]
Additional reporting by Rob Theakston, Robert Lublin, and Drew Beard.