The Top 10 Whiskeys of 2017

We write about all things drinkable here at Drinkhacker, but nothing gets tongues wagging more than our coverage of whiskey. Both readers and the staff alike have an obsession with the stuff, so this year we decided to get together and hash out our own top ten list of the best whiskey releases of 2017, both to honor those distilleries who got it right this year, and to give shoppers a handy cheat sheet they can take to their local bottle shop. It wasn’t an easy task, and it took significant time and effort to whittle down some 25 nominees into a list of 10 that all of us felt we could be proud of. Naturally, since taste is subjective, the debate hardly ends here. If we left out your favorite of the year (and we probably did), let us know in the comments.

Here’s to a whiskified 2018! And while you’re here, don’t miss our 2017 holiday guide, which has our top picks of the year in all spirits (and wine) categories.

1. Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon 2017 “Al Young 50th Anniversary” – Gush all you want about your Elijah Craig Barrel Proof; this one-off bottling of Four Roses’ Small Batch, bottled in honor of longtime staffer Al Young, is the best bourbon of the year. It’s also the best whiskey of the year, period, an exotic monster filled with heady aromas of spices, florals, and sultry vanilla and chocolate notes. Equal parts fruit, spice, and confectioneries, the palate is long, soothing, and incredibly inviting. Though prices have shot through the roof, it’s still hard not recommend without reservation. 108.98 proof. $500 -CN

2. Glenmorangie Bacalta – The yearly limited releases from Glenmorangie are always appointment drinking. At their best, they tend to be exercises in complex drinkability. Bacalta is one of the best yet from the distillery. A shining example of amazing balance, Bacalta mingles notes of sweet fruit and spice in a way which makes it a very difficult whisky to put down. It’s one of those whiskies which reveals a little something extra with every sip, easily making it one of the best drinking experiences of the year. 92 proof. $90 -NC

3. Compass Box No Name – This is Compass Box’s peatiest whisky yet, even more so than the Peat Monster. Mostly 2003 Ardbeg with some Caol Ila and Clynelish for mouthfeel, this blended malt is a stunner. Gotta love that Compass Box packaging too, really sexy stuff even before the bottle is open! Lime juice and grapefruit arrive on the nose, along with faded peat smoke. The mouthfeel is luscious, with great oils and plenty of citrus to balance the smoke. Medium-long creamy finish. For me this an immediate buy, or if, like me, you have no money left for whisky this year, pray Santa brings you one! 97.8 proof. $130 -DC

4. The Tyrconnell Single Malt Irish Whiskey 16 Years Old – If you love the lighter, fruitier flavors in Irish whiskey but also appreciate the earthiness and spice cabinet of traditional Scottish single malt, look no further than The Tyrconnell Single Malt 16 Years Old. This double-distilled whiskey from Ireland’s Cooley Distillery was aged in ex-bourbon barrels and bottled at a slightly higher proof than your average Irish single malt. From nose to finish, there’s a great balance of baking spice, citrus, vanilla, and stone fruit notes. It’s a beautiful whiskey and a real pleasure to drink. 92 proof. $95 -DB

5. Wyoming Whiskey Double Cask Limited Edition – For its first foray into barrel finishing, Wyoming Whiskey really knocked it out of the park with Double Cask Limited Edition. This release, developed with the help of industry specialist and master blender Nancy Fraley, took carefully chosen barrels of Wyoming Whiskey’s five year old wheated bourbon and finished them in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. The result is a whiskey with a big nose of dried fruit, fig, and candied apricot and a syrupy palate with notes of dark berry, vanilla, raisin, and candied orange peel. Only 110 cases were produced, but this one can still be found for a reasonable price. For now! 100 proof. $60 -DB

6. Parker’s Heritage Collection Single Barrel Bourbon 11 Years Old 2017 – Heaven Hill’s annual release of the Parker’s Heritage Collection always marks the unofficial beginning of the holiday season, and fans got a winner as the distillery returned to its roots for 2017. This 11 year old, single barrel, cask strength bourbon doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but by cherry-picking the distillery’s very best barrels, it’s created a complex masterpiece that’s loaded with notes of fresh fruit, honey, hazelnuts, white pepper, and more. It all comes together with such harmony that you may not mind the wildly inflated price tag. 122 proof. $400 -CN

7. Bruichladdich Octomore 10 Years Old (2017) – New Master Distiller Adam Hannett has had no problems assuming the captain’s chair from Jim McEwan — steering the good ship Bruichladdich into 2017 and releasing one expression of quality after another. This second offering of Octomore 10 Year delivers more of what loyal followers expect from the series: high peat (167ppm), loads of smoke, pepper, black tea, and tobacco — all courtesy of a short slumber in grenache blanc casks and bourbon barrels. It’s complex and well-balanced, and fans of previous editions won’t be disappointed, while newcomers to the series will find this an accessible entry point. 114.6 proof. $200 -RT

8. Westland Peat Week 2017 – When word broke last December that Paris-based spirits giant Rémy Cointreau was purchasing Seattle’s Westland Distillery, many a wise sage in the court of social media voiced concern that the quality of offerings would be tainted by corporate interference and marketing mischief. Thankfully this has not yet proven to be the case, and 2017’s offering for Peat Week delivers the goods. The nice balance of peat and fruit on the nose is not too aggressive — almost bourbon-like — that slowly brings to its conclusion a softer blend of cinnamon, vanilla, and an amazing finish of campfire smoke. There are three vintage label designs depicting circus performers, but the juice is consistent regardless of aesthetic choice. 108.8 proof. $100 -RT

9. Bunnahabhain 13 Years Old Marsala Finish – This is a whisky I have bizarre fever dreams about. There is just something magically exotic about the combination of Islay malt and Marsala wine, somewhere between Spanish sherry and a Moroccan bazaar. Tasted fresh, the sweet berries and chocolate notes aren’t as lush on the palate as they were on my initial inspection, as the smokier notes have muscled their way to the forefront. Still, it’s all so unusual and strangely compelling that it’s hard not to be enchanted by it. Pro tip: Give it lots of air, and take big gulps of it, not baby sips. 92.6 proof. $76 -CN

10. Kilchoman Red Wine Cask Matured – One of the youngest Islay distilleries in operation, Kilchoman keeps going from strength to strength. This roughly 5 year old release was aged entirely in Portuguese red wine casks, giving it a profile which is a bit unique from other Kilchoman releases. The usually assertive smoke and peat serves more as background in this one, propping up notes of chocolate, stewed red fruits, and a delightfully savory woody touch. It is a whiskey which uses bold, complex flavors to immediately put a smile on your face. Grab it while you still can, because it is probably the most fun bottle of whiskey you will come across this year. 100 proof. $115 -NC

Capsule reviews by Christopher Null, Neal Christyson, Drew Beard, Rob Theakston, and David Cover.

Review: Lawson’s Finest Liquids Sip of Sunshine IPA

Vermont is pretty serious beer country, and brewers in the state have managed, in a few short years, to make New England style IPA a unique and respected variety across the USA. Whereas West Coast IPA is usually clear and shows piney dankness and a strong, bitter finish, New England IPA appears hazy and presents tropical fruit flavors with far less bitterness at the end. Sip of Sunshine is one of the most popular and coveted examples of the New England style. Lawson’s recently expanded production, which means that instead of waiting in long lines to get the beer in Vermont, people can wait in long lines to get it at stores throughout New England, where it sells out in hours and sometimes sooner.

Sip of Sunshine is a bold, assertive New England-style IPA, somewhere between an IPA and a double IPA. There is balance and complexity in this beer, but not subtlety. Poured into a glass, the beer appears hazy and bright orange-gold. The nose offers an array of tropical fruit including lots of fresh pineapple and grapefruit. There is a touch of malt as well. The palate follows the nose, with a burst of tropical fruit, but there is a fair amount of bitterness as well, which contributes to the beer’s crisp finish. The malt introduces a little sweetness, adding complexity.

There is a lot of hype surrounding this beer, and I have to say, Sip of Sunshine manages to impress. It is bold, balanced, fresh, and flavorful. Some people who enjoy this beer recommend that it be enjoyed soon after purchase since the flavors can fade if it languishes in the closet or in one’s refrigerator for too long. But if you like IPA at all, I don’t think you have to worry.

8% abv.

A+ / $15 per 16 oz. four-pack / lawsonsfinest.com

Review: Amrut Spectrum 004 Single Malt Whisky

In 2004, Amrut Distilleries, based in Bangalore, India, introduced the first single malt whisky made in India to the UK market. Since then, the distillery has released several expressions of single malt all over the world using Indian barley, as well as peated barley sourced from Scotland. Amrut bottles their whisky at a comparatively younger age than most Scottish or Irish distilleries (only 4-5 years old), but that doesn’t mean it tastes young. Because the whisky is aged at 3,000 feet up in the tropical conditions of southern India, maturation occurs at roughly three times the Scottish rate, giving Amrut a significant advantage in the industry.

While the distillery offers traditional single malt expressions, both peated and non-peated and at standard proof or cask strength, they have also experimented with many different barrel finishes. Perhaps none of these experiments has been as complex or as interesting as Amrut’s Spectrum. The goal of this whisky was to achieve the effects of multiple barrel influences simultaneously by constructing casks from four different types of barrels: American oak (with a standard level 3 char), toasted French oak, and two sherry casks (Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez). Amrut then took their original single malt, aged three years in ex-bourbon casks, and transferred it to these Spectrum casks for an undisclosed amount of time. The first run of Spectrum in 2016 actually used an additional Spanish oak as well, but the 2017 release (dubbed 004) dropped it because it reportedly didn’t add that much to the final product. Whether the product of four different casks or five, Amrut Spectrum is an interesting experiment that I’m surprised we haven’t already seen from the industry leaders in Scotland. So what comes out of this Frankenstein barrel, you might ask?

One word: magic.

On the nose, Amrut Spectrum is immediately bold and nuanced with notes of blackberry jam, clove, wet oak, and new shoe leather. It’s silky on the palate with a great balance of sweet and spice. It has a fantastic sherry backbone, with notes of black cherry, ripe prune, and a little campfire smoke, which you would expect with the Oloroso and PX influence, but this surprisingly doesn’t dominate the rest of the spirit. Several different oak tannins are apparent, but again, they’re expertly integrated. There’s also a great balance with the other barrel influences which impart a wide range of rich flavors: dark chocolate, hazelnut, cinnamon, and toffee, along with some citrus and overripe stone fruit. The finish is just long enough to keep you going back to the glass to coax out cracked black pepper underneath lingering coffee notes, plus a little menthol. I was excited to see how this whiskey might develop with a little water, but a few drops just dulled the initial complexity without adding much. This one is perfect at its original abv so sip it neat if you’re lucky enough to find a bottle.

100 proof.

1,800 bottles produced (600 for the U.S.).

A+ / $160 / amrutdistilleries.com

Brewery Review: Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers

Jack’s Abby opened its doors in Framingham, Mass. in 2011 and has already had to expand its operation to meet demand as word spread about a brewery that only makes lagers, but ones that break the mold of what a lager is supposed to taste like. I have grown to appreciate Jack’s Abby’s beers and had a chance to visit the brewery and talk with their Master Brewer, Mike Gleason, who has been with the operation almost since it was opened by three brothers: Jack, Eric, and Sam Hendler.

Mike and I met to talk in the brewery’s new Beer Hall, a cavernous, bright, inviting space from which you can see the brewery through a wall of glass, and which includes a bar serving 24 different home-brewed lagers on tap. I tried their beers while eating one of their specialty pizzas: bacon and clams. I was impressed by the beer, enjoyed the food, and appreciated the ambiance. If I lived closer, I’d be here so much that the bartenders would know my name and my favorite lagers.

But on to the beers:

Core Beers

Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union IPL – The single beer most identified with Jack’s Abby is their India Pale Lager. Like an IPA, this beer relies on hops for its flavor, clocking in at 65 IBUs (International Bitter Units), a respectable, but not over-the-top number. But this beer is much more than just a super-bitter lager. On the nose, it shows bright grapefruit citrus, tropical notes, and resin. The flavor follows suit in beautiful fashion and introduces a malt backbone just strong enough to stand up to the hops. I can’t say for certain if I could blindly identify this beer as an IPL instead of an IPA, but I can say it is balanced and bold yet dangerously drinkable. 6.5% abv. A

Jack’s Abby Smoke & Dagger Black Lager – Without introduction, I would have guessed this pitch black beer was a porter. On the nose, it oozes sweet malt, coffee, and smoke. The taste follows, showing malt, coffee, chocolate, and sweetness, but not too much. The smoke is less intense in the flavor than in the smell. With so much going on, this beer somehow manages to be medium bodied. Without setting out to sample Jack’s Abby’s full line of available beers, I probably wouldn’t have tried this one, and that would be a shame, because it is surprisingly good. 5.6% abv. A-

Jack’s Abby Leisure Time Wheat Lager – As the name suggests, this is a light, summertime sipper. The can lists chamomile and orange peel, and both ingredients figure in the smell and the taste. Wheat also figures prominently, giving the beer a yeasty, bready quality. It doesn’t have as much character as some of the best witbiers, but it is worth a try. 4.8% abv. B

Jack’s Abby House Lager – This beer has the smell and taste of corn and yeasty bread. On their website, Jack’s Abby describes the House Lager as “sweet and golden with a full malty body.” I agree, but I found it to be too sweet, with a slightly cloying finish that detracts from a pleasant, everyday lager style. 5.2% abv. B-

Jack’s Abby Calyptra Session IPL – More heavily carbonated than Jack’s Abby’s other IPL offerings and showing a lower abv, Calyptra is an enjoyable session beer. The hops, which do not present as boldly as I typically like, grow fruitier (grapefruit citrus), more assertive, and more enjoyable as I worked my way through the can. The crispness on the finish is ideal to a hot summer day, and I finished the beer ready to start another. 4.9% abv. B+

Jack’s Abby Excess IPL – This beer lives up to its name and offers a serious challenge to the best double IPAs on the market in terms of assertive hoppiness. But this beer is more than a hop monster. It reveals bold, enticing aromas of pineapple, grapefruit, and pine. The palate follows suit, offering more fruit and citrus than bitterness. The malt component just stands up to the hops, offering a beer that is balanced but very hop forward. Love it. 7.2% abv. A

Seasonal Beers

Jack’s Abby Saxony Lager Vienna Style – In a blind taste test, I would guess this was an established German lager. The malt presence is dominant but is balanced by the hops to create a beer with great flavor, but one I could drink all day. Light grass and cereal grains show on both the nose and the palate along with the crisp finish that the style demands. 5% abv. B+

Rotating Beers

Jack’s Abby Framinghammer Baltic Porter – Nearly all popular porters are ales, but this beer proves that a lager can achieve an outstanding example of the style. Framinghammer is a rich, slightly sweet, full bodied porter that exudes dark chocolate, coffee, malt, enticing bitterness, and an impressively long, enjoyable finish. The high abv is entirely hidden by the bold flavor that goes on and on. 10% abv. A

Jack’s Abby Mass Rising Double IPL – This used to be part of Jack’s Abby’s regular rotation but was ousted by Excess, which I like more. But Mass Rising gained a following and now shows up on the rotating list of brews. It is not inferior to Excess, just different. It has a massive 100 IBUs, which show up on the nose in pineapple, pine, and citrus. The flavor also shows serious bitterness with strong resin, which are balanced by nice malt. The beer is a bit hot, showing its high abv, but it is a powerful, dank, uninhibited IPL that demands respect. 8% abv. B+

Specialty Beers

Jack’s Abby Bourbon Barrel-Aged Framinghammer Baltic Porter – I don’t know if I have tasted a better bourbon barrel aged stout or porter. Unlike so many other examples of the style, the porter and the bourbon barrel marry together seamlessly in this beer. The nose and the palate exhibit some sweetness (but not cloying), bourbon, and brown sugar along with chocolate and malt. The bourbon elements never overwhelm the beer, but work with it. This is worth hunting down. Wow. 11% abv. A+

Jack’s Abby Cordon Rouge Barrel-Aged Framinghammer Baltic Porter – This is the Framinghammer, aged in bourbon barrels with orange peel, which add a spicy kick to the otherwise silky porter. I don’t like it more than the regular Framinghammer, but it is very good. 12% abv. A

Jack’s Abby Mole Barrel-Aged Framinghammer Baltic Porter – Flavors of chocolate and spice from the mole are prevalent but don’t mesh perfectly with the porter. I expect there are going to be people who love this beer, but it doesn’t come together for me. 11.9% abv. B

Jack’s Abby PB&J Barrel-Aged Framinghammer Baltic Porter – This was my least favorite of the barrel aged porters. The flavor of peanut butter comes first with just a hint of jelly, and together they hide the outstanding flavor of the porter. 11.8% B-

jacksabby.com

Review: Two New Chocolate Ales from The Bruery: Share This O. C. and Chocolate Rain

Chocolate Rain and Share This O.C.
This month The Bruery released two ales, first through their Bruery Preservation Society and then to the public. Both are imperial stouts with heavy cacao nib flavors. We couldn’t resist opening a couple of bottles.

First up is Share This O.C., the third in the brewery’s “Share This” series of brews, meaning one dollar of each bottle sold is donated to Food Forward charity. Besides the Tcho cacao nibs, this stout also has orange zest and vanilla beans added. The chocolate fills your nose instantly as you tilt the glass of this ale toward your lips, with its dark chocolate body and creamy caramel head. It continues to dance across your palate, lingering thorough to the end. The orange is there but remains a muted partner, like a thin veil. The vanilla, as it does in cooking, nicely rounds out the other flavors. This ale is very smooth and would pair nicely with a mandarin orange cheesecake. 11% abv. A+ / $15 per 750ml bottle

Chocolate Rain is heavier on the chocolate than Share This O. C. It is also a bourbon barrel aged imperial stout, which is immediately evident at the first sip. If you like The Bruery’s It’s Black Tuesday, you’ll be pleased to know this is similar, previously released as a single casked version in 2011. Chocolate Rain’s body is very dark; even black in low light. The head is nice but vanishes in seconds. The cocoa nibs used here are Tcho cacao nibs, and the flavor is followed by vanilla bean. The non-sweet cocoa scent fills your nose like sniffing cocoa powder but then intensifies on a second pass. It is strong, as are the bourbon notes, from first sip to last. It may be too strong for some folks. The vanilla does its job of bringing the flavors together without taking center stage, and the back end reveals a hint of pepper, which could be a product of the charring process on the barrel. This would go wonderfully with barbeque ribs. 19.6 abv. B+ / $40 per 750ml bottle

thebruery.com

A Visit to Moonlight Brewery’s Tap Room, Santa Rosa, California

Moonlight Brewery is located in Santa Rosa, California. While it is a small brewer, the brewery is best known for its beer Death and Taxes. We recently visited its tap room, which is on the brewery site.

Unfortunately the brewers were not available to interview. However, the hosts of the tap room were very gracious and friendly, and they offered a look at the boiling tank workroom and the massive, covered brewing kettles. Moonlight may be small, but the size of these boys is impressive.

On tap, six beers were offered, so a sample slat of those was in order. From left to right in the above photo, we tasted:

Toast Burnt Lager – This beer, typically brewed for New Year’s celebrations,  is a light amber body color with a creamy head. At first sip, a nice maltiness is noticeable. The burnt flavor comes through on the back end without being harsh. It is dry and not sweet at all. 6% abv A

Tipple Winter Ale – This dark brown ale is a type of “winter warmer,” brewed for fall and winter. It has a nice, rich, tan head. The first pass under the nose has a citrusy hop note which carries through the first sip. The hoppy overtones are more subtle with the second taste. 6% abv. A

Reality Czeck – A pale yellow pilsner, Reality Czeck is a light and refreshing Czech style beer. It does have the traditional floral hops flavors which are stronger after the first taste, but it reminded me a bit of a Budweiser. 4.8% abv. B

Twist of Fate Bitter Ale – Moonlight calls this English style ale ESB-ish, which means it as a touch of the extra special bittering hops that are noticeable in the taste and scent. I agree this is true to its name. Its hoppiness comes through, but it’s not overpowering. 5.6% abv. A

Lunatic Lager – This lager has a bright yellow body (slightly darker than the Reality Czeck) with a light scent revealing a touch of yeast. It is refreshing with a slight lingering aftertaste which was ever so slightly soapy in texture. 5% abv. B

Death and Taxes – It is a San Francisco style black lager–a common style of lager. The dark, chocolate brown body and thick, creamy, tan head are very welcoming. There are chocolaty notes but more of a dark roast coffee taste than anything. This one remains a favorite. 5% abv. A+

All of these are approximately $7 per 16 oz. draft, depending upon where you buy them.

moonlightbrewing.com

Review: Bear Republic Barrel 188 This Little Figgie Ale

Barrel 188: This Little Figgie Ale

Just as there are dessert wines, I definitely classify Barrel 188 This Little Figgie from Bear Republic as a dessert ale. The initial sweetness is light and certainly that of figs, though they are not overpowering. The head is a nice tan color and also light. The body is a darker gold, almost the shade of dark brown sugar with a slight red tinge when held up to the light. It is pleasantly inviting.

At first sip, there is a bright effervescence bubbling on the tip of the tongue. As the ale warms, the effervescence bursts remain to tantalize your taste buds similar to those of a fine champagne. At this point, the richly sweet black Mission figs (California organic) warm up and step forward. Sip it, hold it on your tongue a moment, and enjoy all of the rich flavors for as long as you can.

The bottle comes with a re-sealable flip top cap which includes a rubber seal. While I appreciate the opportunity to save some for later, I doubt most folks will ever use it. One sip and you’ll want to finish the whole thing, particularly if shared with friends.

I cannot say if pairing This Little Figgie with a dessert with figs in it or snacks like fig-filled cookie bars is a bad thing, though I can recommend it with a German chocolate cake or a cheesecake. A brandy-soaked fruitcake could be delightful because the brandy from the barrels and the fruitcake would mingle in a nice way.

This rare, vintage 2016, brandy barrel aged golden ale is 10% abv per 750ml bottle. It is only available through Bear Republic’s Wild Club.

A+ / $30 / bearrepublic.com

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