The Top 10 Whiskeys of 2021

 

As near as I can count, Drinkhacker reviewed more than 400 whiskeys in 2021. How do you whittle that down to the 10 very best of the lot? It’s not easy, and our staff’s initial list of favorites ran well over 30 selections.

Tough decisions were made. Arguments were had. Babies were thrown out with bathwater. What we ended up with in the end is what we always do: A finely tuned look at 10 of the most outstanding whiskeys that distillers saw fit to release over the last 12 months. As always, we’ve tried to balance the list as much as possible with availability and affordability in mind — but in today’s market, even relatively pedestrian bottlings are often jacked up in price well above the $1000 mark on the secondary market. I don’t like it either, but we can’t hold distillers responsible for (all of the) price gouging. While there are plenty of affordable options on the list this year — current pricing is reported across the board — you’ll also find a couple of whales on the list. I don’t know if they’re worth the money, but we really did like them that much.

As always, we’re revealing one whiskey each day over the next 10 days until we hit #1 on Christmas Eve. While you’re preparing for the big reveal, feel free to indulge in some of our previous top 10 whiskey lists: 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2017. You can also search multiple stores at wine-searcher to find the best prices on all these products and more.

1. Heaven’s Door Redbreast Master Blenders’ Edition 10 Years Old – A sourced whiskey from a celebrity spirits brand in the #1 spot!? Have we lost our minds? Maybe, but hear us out. Not only was Heaven’s Door Redbreast Master Blenders’ Edition one of the very best whiskeys we sampled in 2021, but it was, by far, the most surprising. It is disappointingly rare to encounter a celebrity spirits brand of exceptional quality but even rarer to find one that takes such a unique and creative approach: 10 year old Tennessee whiskey finished for 15 months in Redbreast Irish Whiskey casks. While not earth shatteringly elaborate, to our knowledge that kind of finishing has never been done before. The result is a beautifully balanced blend of Old and New World whiskey traditions where instead of layering the flavor, as finishing often does, the underlying Tennessee whiskey is amplified and given a depth of character that simply set it apart from – and above – everything else we tried this year. 100 proof. $150 -DB [BUY IT NOW FROM DRIZLY]

2. A. Smith Bowman Cask Strength Bourbon – If not for the ballsy approach to whiskey-making evident in our #1 choice, A. Smith Bowman Cask Strength would probably be in the top spot this year. But alas, it will have to settle for a very respectable silver medal. This one was a bruiser of a bourbon that left us happily asking for another go. And another. It takes everything we love about classic, well-aged bourbon and dials it up to 100, bursting with intense flavor yet still coming off as surprisingly approachable despite its ridiculously high barrel strength proof level. From a toasty aroma of candied bacon, apple, and dark cherry to a full-throttled palate showcasing dark caramels, coconut, and chocolate-covered cherries, it’s a rollercoaster ride from beginning to long, lingering finish. Those lamenting the absence of George T. Stagg in this year’s Antique Collection should seek this one out instead. It’s just as rare but even better. 141.1 proof. $1200 -DB

3. Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Special Release 2021 – Coy Hill High Proof – No whiskey release this year has garnered more email to us than this one, which is a rarity considering how little love old JD usually receives. It helps that Coy Hill High Proof – aged in what is essentially the attic of two Tennessee rickhouses – one of the highest proof whiskeys ever released in the U.S., over 74% alcohol. It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s actually one of Jack Daniel’s most engaging whiskeys ever, an intensely dark spirit with aromas of roasted nuts, pepper, and cherry, leading into a chocolate, coffee-laced palate that doesn’t pull any punches. As one would hope. Sadly, you won’t find many bottles for sale, especially anywhere near the $70 MSRP. 148.3 proof as tasted. $400 -CN

4. Laphroaig 30 Years Old – The Ian Hunter Story, Book Two: Building an Icon (2021) – I gave out only one A+ rating in 2021, to this whisky, which really does come packaged inside a printed book. The follow up to the almost-as-masterful Ian Hunter Story Book One, released in 2019, it’s a study of Islay’s Laphroaig at the very top of its game, 30 years spent in oloroso sherry barrels, and rich as sin with notes of sultry tea and leather infusing the whisky’s honey, nuts, and smoky citrus qualities. Like all great, old Islay whiskies, the peat integrates so well with the spirit that you barely notice it until it’s gone from the glass. It’s so good it’s sick. The current price is actually lower than its original ask, so… stock up? 96.4 proof. $1200 -CN

5. Lagavulin 11 Years Old Offerman Edition Finished in Guinness Casks – Lagavulin maintained its recent pace of varying expressions throughout 2021: an excellent Jazz Festival edition, the Distillers and 12 year old limited editions, and a rare 26 year old, the latter two part of the 2021 Diageo Limited Edition collection. And then there’s the Guinness-finished 11-year-old variation of the 2019 Offerman Edition. Stretching beyond the classic Lagavulin profile, notes of chocolate, fresh ground coffee, and ginger give the traditional smoke and medicinal notes of Islay a diminished role – but never in an obtrusive way that would set the whole experience out of tune. The whisky is more than worthy of a place in Lagavulin’s annual rotation of sibling expressions. 92 proof. $75 -RT [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS] [BUY IT NOW FROM FROOTBAT]

6. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch A121 (January 2021) – Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon has long been a favorite of ours that is reasonably priced and although often difficult to find, not impossible. The whiskey is released three times each year, and the first release of 2021, listed as A121, may be the best in the series to date. Bottled at 123.6 proof, it’s actually tame for the series, but it fairly explodes with flavor and character. Complex on the nose, this whiskey shows its greatest achievement in how well it integrates its bold flavors. Red pepper, cinnamon, and cocoa turn into creamy brown butter coupled with baking spices and fruit. The finish just goes on and on, culminating an expression of Elijah Craig that will be hard to beat. (Though, pro tip, grab the stellar C921 if you can’t find this bottling.) 123.6 proof. $80 -RL [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS] [BUY IT NOW FROM FROOTBAT]

7. WhistlePig “The Boss Hog VIII: LapuLapu’s Pacific” Rye Whiskey 17 Years Old 2021 – WhistlePig’s annual Boss Hog releases get weirder and weirder every year, and while some of these experiments are misguided at best, LapuLapu’s Pacific gets everything right. Finished in two different types of Philippine rum casks, the finished product is an intense exploration of maple and molasses, baking spices and tropical fruit – virtually none of which is “normal” for a rye. The cheery finish pours on holiday notes and touches of tea leaf, making for a festive and always interesting experience that has to be sampled at least once. 106.4 proof as tasted. $550 -CN [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

8. Eagle Rare Bourbon 17 Years Old 2021 – I’ll say right now that I would not pay $2000 for this bourbon, which is what it’s going for on the secondary market. I wouldn’t pay that for any whiskey, whether it’s from Buffalo Trace’s vaunted Antique Collection or otherwise. But I do want to call out how good it is. Distilled in 2003, this is a killer expression of Eagle Rare, which tends to be great at any age. Toasty with nuts, spice, and fruit, it’s the chocolate and coffee-laced finish that really pours on the charm. Sure, the asking price is crazy stupid. You can literally get better value anywhere else on this list. But if someone else is buying…. 101 proof. $2000 -CN [BUY IT NOW FROM DRIZLY]

9. The Balvenie Tun 1509, Batch 8 – It’s a swan song for Balvenie’s Tun 1509, as its final edition arrives – and at the top of its game. The Tun 1509 series is designed around a vatting of various cask types – 18 total for this release – with sherry being the clear focus. The whisky pours on the classic sherry-aged whisky character, expressive with citrus notes, tobacco, and a smattering of herbs – the lattermost really lingering in a way that is both unusual and endearing. 104.4 proof. $430 -CN

10. Barrell Bourbon Batch 26 – As 2021 comes to a close, Barrell will have released the 31st batch release of its bourbon, a line which launched in 2014. Drinkhacker has been there from the start, and though our initial welcome was polite, we’ve warmed up to them greatly over the years to reach fandom amongst some of the team. The producer’s recent releases have been particularly noteworthy, as Barrell continues to ante up on its blending game, introducing older whiskeys up to 15 years in age to the mix, and batch 26 finally earns Barrell a spot in our top 10 list: What makes this batch impossible to ignore is the signature complexity of Barrell bourbons combined with a notable delicacy and balance on the palate. It’s a whiskey that is pleasant to sip casually, but which only continues to unfold its depth the more you pay attention to it. Surely a sign of even more great things to come from Barrell. 112.64 proof. $90 -MU [BUY IT NOW FROM DRIZLY]

Additional reporting by Rob Theakston, Robert Lublin, Monica Uhm, and Drew Beard.

4 Comments

  1. Eli on December 23, 2021 at 12:17 pm

    Kind of gave away #1, there.
    Guess I don’t need to read tomorrow…

    • Brandon J Gress on January 5, 2022 at 10:12 pm

      Huh but you said you only gave 1 A + to the laphroaig in 2021; yet you gave another to the a smith bowman???



    • Christopher Null on January 6, 2022 at 12:37 pm

      Drew reviewed the A. Smith Bowman, not me. The Laphroaig was the only A+ I personally gave to a whiskey in 2021.



  2. Meznarich, David on January 22, 2022 at 4:17 pm

    Great list, but not many people can even find these, much less afford to purchase them. Do future reviews based on over $100 and under $100.

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