The world of whiskey is an exciting and often overwhelming place. From brands that have been around for more than a century to new expressions unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before, there’s a lot to experience. To make the journey to whiskey nirvana a little easier, we put together a list of whiskies you need to try at least once in your life. Some are popular culture icons, while others are just damn good. While we could easily extend this list to 50-plus bottles, we condensed it to a reasonable 15. Happy sipping.
While the youth have been known to latch onto plenty of questionable trendy drinks, the latest drinking craze sweeping the nation is fairly tame: Fireball Whisky. The cinnamon-spiced Canadian whisky that claims to “burn like hell” has entranced the newest generation of drinkers. Whether or not it’s your cup of tea, it’s worth trying at least once just so you know where the “kids” are coming from. Hell, you might even like it enough to try making your own.
Fireball may be nudging Jameson out of the spotlight as the partiers’ whiskey of choice, but it’s still the best-selling Irish whiskey on the planet. Aged in sherry, port and bourbon barrels, which give the whiskey a spiced yet mildly sweet flavor, Jameson is a great whiskey for beginners and can be found in almost every bar across the country. When it comes to drinking it, go for a Pickleback shot.
If you’re going to seek out just one Tennessee whiskey to try, we recommend George Dickel 12. The 90-proof expression is a blend of aged sour mash whiskies that, when combined, create a balanced flavor with hints of vanilla, spice and oak, which goes down super easy. It’s a tasty addition to cocktails and a solid example of Tennessee whiskey.
Canadian whisky may not be as popular as many scotches, bourbons and American ryes, but if you’re going for your masters in international whiskey, this category is equally important to know. Zesty, rye-centric Canadian Club 1858 has been around for more than a century, and is a great start to understanding this class of whiskies.
Though you may never get to taste whiskey that was distilled in the 1700s, you can come pretty darn close with this rye whiskey from George Washington’s revamped Mount Vernon distillery. Made from a recipe found in ledgers from 1798 and 1799, this whiskey receives no aging treatment and is distilled twice in copper pot stills. It’s about as close to Washington’s original recipe as the distillers can get. Even if you typically don’t like unaged whiskey, make an exception for this special spirit. It’s not easy to find, but taking some time to seek it out is worth it for a taste of boozy (and presidential) history.
Another relic of the whiskey world is Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey. Though you might not expect much from this bottle—which often retails for $15 or less—you’d be sorely mistaken to exclude it from your repertoire. The brand calls its creator, Abraham Overholt, the “founder of American distilling,” and while that’s a hefty claim, he sure did make some good whiskey. Though its spicy rye kick might be a little too forward for your palate, it’s a great go-to for any and all whiskey cocktails.
Though we recommend tasting as many Japanese whiskies as you can get your hands on, if you’re only willing to try one, it should be this one. A blend of whiskies aged in five different types of wood from Suntory, it’s not only a fine example of the category and easy to sip neat or over ice, but it’s also the whiskey Bill Murray drinks in Lost in Translation. The 2003 movie has been credited with sparking the recent boom in Japanese whisky. It’s Suntory time, indeed.
Once you’ve tried the ultra-popular Jameson Irish Whiskey, move on to one of the category’s more sophisticated offerings, Yellow Spot Pot Still Irish Whiskey. Though this whiskey disappeared for nearly 60 years, it returned in 2015, keeping true to its original pot stilled recipe. It’s aged for 12 years in bourbon barrels, sherry butts and Malaga casks, which impart a spicy flavor that’s softened by notes of baking spices, honey and stone fruit. Forget everything you thought you knew about Irish whiskey, Yellow Spot will help you understand how complex the category can be.
Though it’s on the pricier side of the whiskey spectrum—typically coming in at about $150 a bottle—this scotch is one of our absolute favorites. Distilled in the (unofficial) Islands region of Scotland and aged for 18 years for a flavor that’s at once smoky, floral, fruity and spiced, this single malt scotch is just really damn good.
Lagavulin 16-Year Single Malt Whisky
Park and Recreation’s Ron Swanson is our spirit animal in more ways than one. Case and point: He hides packages of bacon around his office, you know, in the event of an emergency. But, more importantly, he’s also a diehard fan of Lagavulin Single Malt Whisky, which he refers to as the “nectar of the gods.” Though seriously peated Islay single malt scotches have been around for centuries and whisky aficionados have always had an appreciation for them, Ron Swanson helped catapult the style into star status. Luckily, he has fantastic taste.
For whiskey lovers in the know, bottled-in-bond is a pretty solid indicator of quality. Though the term is often confused as a marketing ploy, bottles marked “bonded” or “bottled in bond” actually have historical significance. The signifier means a whiskey is at least four years old and bottled at 100 proof. One of our favorites is Old Grand-Dad Bonded Kentucky Straight Bourbon, which has been on the market since 1882 and was once served in pharmacies as medicine (sign us up!). It starts off strong, but relaxes into a caramelly finish. The best part? You can make this a permanent fixture of your whiskey collection for a mere $20 a bottle.
Pappy Van Winkle has reached cult whiskey status in the United States. If you manage to get your hands on a bottle of the stuff—no matter the age statement—you’ll likely end up spending a pretty penny. Even if you don’t want to invest in a full bottle of the stuff, it’s worth trying a pour or two of the 10-year, 12-year, 15-year, 20-year or 23-year (some bars offer flights) at least once so you know what all the hype is about.
Named for the mine in Rosendale, NY, from whence the distillery gets its water, Widow Jane makes a number of impressive whiskies. But the most notable bottles can be found in its lineup of heirloom whiskies made with heritage grains. Our favorite is the Wapsie bourbon. It’s made from a majority of organic Endosperm corn, along with heirloom barley and rye, and spans a wide spectrum of flavors, from citrus and chocolate to honey and spice. If you can make it out to the distillery’s base in Red Hook Brooklyn, do it. It’s worth trying anywhere, but it’s especially good at the source.
If you’ve ever wondered what a whiskey aged on a boat in the middle of the ocean might taste like, don’t hesitate to seek out this bottle of subtly briny booze from Jefferson’s Bourbon. The temperature fluctuations and constant whiskey-to-wood contact in the barrel (thanks to the rocking of the boat) creates what the brand’s founder Trey Zoeller calls a meld of three different spirits: an island malt, a dark rum and a bourbon. Zoeller sources Kentucky bourbon to make this seafaring whiskey, and once it’s finished it rivals some of the best bourbons the U.S. has to offer.
As far as we know, this innovative—and relatively new—blend from Utah’s High West distillery is the only amalgam of bourbon, rye and scotch on the market. As its name suggests, it’s kind of like drinking a campfire, with notes of smoke, earthy spice and just enough bite to keep you coming back for more.