The best whiskeys for toasts, sips, and gifts this holiday season
Despite issues with supply chains, we found 14 whiskies that reflect a broad range of tastes, origins and price points.
By Craig LaBan || December 15, 2021
The demons of the supply chain, which have flummoxed everything from microchips to cream cheese this year, tried their best to ruin my annual holiday whiskey tasting, too.
“We looked at our higher-end whiskies and we have so little,” one liquor distributor contact bemoaned.
“I have some disappointing news,” wrote another, who said that a much-anticipated Christmas edition single-malt from India was no longer set to arrive until sometime in 2022.
But my annual pursuit of the year’s best whiskey gifts would not be denied. I managed to gather more sample bottles than ever, 35 different whiskeys from around the world available in Pennsylvania right now for consideration by my small tasting panel of neighbors, friends, and spirit heads. By the end of two afternoons’ worth of thoughtful and spirited outdoor sipping, we landed on 14 favorites to recommend that reflect a broad range of tastes, origins, and price points. There are plenty by local producers, some classic Scotches, Asian whiskies, and bourbons and ryes from Kentucky and beyond. Among them are a few stellar bargains, some worthy splurges and a couple oddities, too. Turkey-infused whiskey? Read on. It was better than I ever expected.
So take that, you supply chain demons! With this list, there should be plenty of spirits for holiday whiskey shoppers in the Philly region this year.
Coopers’ Craft Straight Bourbon
The tasting panel, which sipped blind to prices, was shocked and also pleasantly surprised to learn that this tasty bourbon from Brown-Forman (which makes Woodford Reserve) only costs about $25. “Holy smokes, what a value!” There’s a dark sweetness on the initial sip with breezy notes of waving grain on the nose, a mid-palate wash of black coffee, and then a minty, cherry and char finish that’s extra smooth from a finishing pass through a beech and birch charcoal filter. Coopers’ Craft Straight Bourbon, 82 proof, 750ml, $24.99; available online in Pennsylvania at Finewineandgoodspirits.com (PLCB item #35099)
Michter’s US 1 Small Batch Bourbon
The Michter’s name has roots in a historic Pennsylvania distillery that once made the legendary A.H. Hirsch. The brand was bought and relocated to Kentucky in the 1990s and, though it now boasts a new distillery with pot stills from the original site, the new Michter’s made its reputation on well-chosen, sourced old whiskey. The Small Batch, blended from no more than 20 barrels, is an impressive entry-level bottle to the line, rich with corny sweetness (“like a corn cookie!”), a citrusy ping, deep brown sugar notes, and a mouth-coating weight that balances a savory finish. A solid value at this price. Michter’s US 1 Small Batch Bourbon, 91.4 proof, 750ml, $49.99 (PLCB item # 9655)
Hudson Whiskey NY Bright Lights, Big Bourbon
Tuthilltown Spirits, which makes the Hudson brand in upstate New York, was a trailblazer in the American craft spirit movement outside Kentucky. Local corn makes up 95% of the mash bill and dominates an earthy flavor that tastes like roasted and distilled cobs wrapped in orange peels, caramel, and spice. It’s frisky but still balanced to sip — and fairly priced for a brand that’s historically not been a bargain. Hudson Whiskey Bright Lights, Big Bourbon, 92 proof, 750ml, on sale for $3 off through December, $36.99 (PLCB item #1299)
Manatawny Still Works Select Four Grain American Whiskey, Cask Strength.
This Pottstown distiller continues to improve as one of Pennsylvania’s distilling stars, with a consistent blend of creativity and craft. This limited special-edition version of Manatawny’s flagship whiskey, made from mostly malted barley with wheat, oats, and rye, is bold yet approachable at cask strength (118 proof) and deeply colored with three- to six-year-old spirits in the blend. But it’s the complexity that wowed as a panel favorite. The sweet nose gives a whiff of Life Savers’ Wint O Green, then unleashes waves of cocoa, coffee, maple, and chocolate-covered fruit, with different notes popping until it lands on butterscotch. Yes, it’s expensive. Manatawny’s standard Four Grain (PLCB item #1853) is $43, and the 94-proof Select Four Grain, blended from handpicked older barrels, is $58. But this cask-strength edition of the Select showcases the distiller’s art best at a higher proof. Manatawny Still Works Select Four Grain American Whiskey, Cask Strength, 118 proof, 750ml, $78, available only to Pennsylvania residents through Manatawny’s website
House of Tamworth Bird of Courage
The eye-roll reflex is strong at the mention of a whiskey infused with roasted turkey, corn bread, and cranberries, the latest “non-vegan” collaboration between Philadelphia’s Art in the Age and House of Tamworth Distilling in New Hampshire, which has also produced spirits with beaver glands (Eau de Musc) and venison (Deerslayer). But Bird of Courage surprised in every way, from its polished drinkability to the many flavors that followed. It doesn’t taste overtly like poultry. The first smell is sweet, dark, and fruity (”Dr Pepper?” a taster suggested.) Then the tang of cranberries raised its hand. A distant celery note evoked stuffing. Is that pecan pie? That’s the New England chestnuts added. And then, yes, a savory roasted note. The marketing power of suggestion is strong. But once “Thanksgiving” was planted, this whiskey painted that feast in vivid tones. This limited bottling is extremely pricey. But it’s also a unique and fascinating spirit imbued with nostalgia that would be gift-worthy any time of year. House of Tamworth Bird of Courage, 92 proof, 200ml, $65, at Art in the Age (116 N, Thirrd St. artintheage.com) or online at seelbachs.com
Thistle Finch Straight Rye Whiskey
This charming craft distillery sits in a historic former tobacco warehouse in downtown Lancaster and made its name in 2014 with white rye made from Pennsylvania grains. It’s been around long enough now to produce aged spirits, as well. This pot-stilled straight rye, aged for a minimum of two years, is one of Pennsylvania’s best all-purpose ryes. Its relative youth at just two years still has that fresh grain rye spice smell of a warm mash tun, with vivid fruity notes that center a liquid that’s still light in texture. But it also spins off lovely waves of dark chocolate and a lingering sweetness on the bottom lip that reminded one taster of Werther’s caramel. Thistle Finch Straight Rye Whiskey, 90 proof, 750ml, $46.99 from thistlefinch.com or finewineandgoodspirits.com (PLCB item #2142)
Templeton Straight Rye Whiskey 6 Year
Whiskey purists may chafe at a brand like Templeton, which evokes historic roots but built its products (like so many other start-ups) on ryes sourced from powerhouse MGP spirits in Indiana, before opening its own Iowa distillery in 2018. Its flagship product, at six years of age and still made from sourced whiskey, was popular with our panel, which noted a sweetness on the nose, with a rye spice that hovered like mist, then bright fruit notes of apple and cherry on the palate ending in a butterscotch finish. Not a collector’s rye, but it’s still delicious straight or in a Manhattan. Templeton Straight Rye Whiskey 6 Year, 91.5 proof, 750ml $46.99 (PLCB item $15344)
Redemption Rum Cask Finish
I’m wary of cask finishes that introduce other powerful spirits that can often clash with the base. But the rum cask finish on this high-proof Redemption rye really works. The rye’s distinctive spice rides high on the crest of each sip, but then it’s wrapped inside Caribbean flavors that lend a darker, deeper sweetness reminiscent of molasses, and tropical fruit notes that suddenly don’t feel out of place. Balance is the key in a spirit which is great on its own but could also add a fun rye twist to your tiki cocktail repertoire. Redemption Rum Cask Finish, 94 proof, 750ml (PLCB code 974), $45.99
J.P. Wiser’s Signature Series Canadian Whisky
I’m still waiting for Canadian whisky’s big surge in the American market. But this tasty blend from J.P. Wiser’s is a lovely eye-opener. It’s made from four different grains and blended from five different barrels. The result is a dram that’s simultaneously smooth but complex, with a sweet nose of candy canes and lemon drops that’s super creamy on the palate with notes of baked apple and a salty-sweet dulce de leche finish. No burn, just Canadian silk. J.P. Wiser’s Signature Series Canadian Whisky, 86.6 proof, 750ml, $39.99 (PA code 84674)
Punjabi Club Rye Whisky
Indian whiskies are another international category on the rise. One premium example we tasted, the richly-peated Paul John Christmas Edition 2021 ($84.99), might have made this list had the shipment not been delayed until early 2022. Punjabi Club occupies a more affordable end of the spectrum, although with a more complicated backstory. It’s actually a Canadian rye whisky distilled by Punjabi-born brothers, Ravinder and Manjit Minhas, then bottled in Wisconsin. It’s pretty hot for 86 proof but bursts with fascinating flavors, its rye spice wrapped in melon-like fruits, coriander, citrus, and ginger. I’d add this to a mango cocktail any day. The distillery suggests a Punjabi Adaraka with 1½ oz. rye, ½ oz. lemon juice, and 1 oz. honey syrup over muddled ginger. It’s special-order bottle in Pennsylvania, but it’s a deal. Punjabi Club Rye Whiskey, 86 Proof, 750ml, $21.99, (PLCB special-order item #627161)
Hinotori Blended Japanese Whisky 5 Year
This blended Japanese whisky comes from the Hekinan Distillery, revived in 2014 more than 50 years after the original closed following a natural disaster. That explains the red phoenix swirling on the label. The nose is understated but hints at licorice and nuts, and the flavor opens up with a splash of water and takes more a confident hold with notes of caramel, Asian pear, and salted cashews that linger on a charred-oak cocoa finish. True to the Japanese whisky category, this one is a splurge. Hinotori Blended Japanese Whisky 5 Years Old, 80 proof, 750ml, $61.99 (PLCB special-order item #641598)
Scotch and Irish Whiskey
The Balvenie Single Malt Doublewood 12 Year
The Balvenie helped pioneer the wood-finishing trend in the 1990s, and because this Speyside spirit is so big and fruity, it’s never overwhelmed. The addition of sherry casks in the Doublewood to pair with the ex-bourbon casks traditionally used for Scotch add honeycomb, nut, and fruit notes. The deep amber spirit is layered with fruitcake and a twinge of kiln-dried malt smoke, but also an unexpected spicy tingle on the finish. A $5-off sale in Pennsylvania in December makes it a timely moment to acquire this classic Scotch. The Balvenie Single Malt Doublewood 12 Year, 86 proof, 750ml, $66.99 on sale for $61.99 in December (PLCB code 7693)
Jura Single Malt Scotch 10 Year
Though Jura is a peat-rich island, this distillery traditionally made more lightly-peated malts — until recently. This 10-year-old indulges the peat, though with nowhere near the smokiness of bottles from the neighboring island of Islay. But restraint and balance are its virtues, with an unmistakable smoke imbued with marine salt, but also vegetal green notes from the ferns that lushly covers the landscape. A sherry cask finish brings honeyed nuts, chocolate, and citrus notes to a well-rounded finish. With a $5-off sale in December in Pennsylvania, this is one of the best single-malt bargains out there. Jura Single Malt Scotch 10 Year, 80 proof, 750ml, $44.99, but on sale for $39.99 in December (PLCB code 10878)
The Quiet Man Irish Whiskey 12 Year Single Malt
This Irish whiskey made by Niche Drinks from sourced spirits has been somewhat controversial, earning a rave review from one notable expert that was followed by a host of naysayers. Our panel enjoyed it. Its straw pale color belied some vivid aromas of apples and other intriguing spices (caraway?), plus notes of cocoa and fruit that rolled on the palate into a touch of bourbon cask cherry that remained on the tip of the tongue. This one’s a splurge, but worth considering for fans of Irish whiskey. The Quiet Man Irish Whiskey 12 Year Single Malt, 92 proof, 750ml, $59.99 (PLCB code 81365)