Numbers are a big deal in the whiskey world. The headline-grabbing bottles are those with the largest age statements, highest point scores, and record-breaking auction sales. But the aged grain spirits landscape is much broader than just a handful of hallowed bottles.
From American whiskeys with interesting mash bills, to innovative products from Japan and beyond, the whiskey category is rich with lesser-known brands waiting to be discovered.
To help broaden your whiskey horizons in 2020, VinePair asked bartenders around the U.S. what they consider the most underrated whisk(e)y. Here’s what they recommend picking up.
“Old Forester Rye. One of the oldest continuously operated distilleries in Kentucky, this rye isn’t overly spicy, so it makes it a great application for just about any whiskey-based cocktail. [The] price point makes it great for consumers and cocktail margins alike.” — Lucas Huff, Mixology Director, Bently Heritage Estate Distillery, Minden, NV
“Ohishi Sherry Cask. This brand is thinking outside of the box and creating a non-traditional Japanese whisky. Produced from rice, this whisky will remind you of overproof shochu aged in a sherry cask. After one sip of this whisky, you will discover vanilla notes, plenty of fruits, nuts, and spices. This whisky is highly recommended for people who are partial to whisky aged in sherry casks.” — Slava Borisov, Mixologist, Travelle at The Langham, Chicago, IL
“When it comes to American whiskey, I tend to lean toward Wild Turkey 101. It is overproof but has a sweetness that counterbalances the heat of the booze. It also has a great rye-forward flavor that I love. It’s great for either sipping or mixing; personally, I’m a sipper and it’s my go-to after a long day.” — Amanda Thomas, Bar Chef, SoBou, New Orleans, LA
“For this whiskey, we will have to travel all the way to Lynchburg, Tenn., to the Uncle Nearest Distillery for their 1856. This whiskey has an amazing back story. Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green was a slave that distilled whiskey at a man named Dan Call’s residence. Another young man came to live at the farm and learned how to make whiskey from Nearest. That man’s name was Jack Daniel. This whiskey pays homage to Nearest and his unheard legacy uncovered by CEO Fawn Weaver; it helps that it’s great whiskey to boot.” — Jamien Tomlinson, Beverage Director, High Horse, Raleigh, NC
“I’m all about bang for my buck so I’ll say Larceny from Heaven Hill. At $20 a bottle, it often gets overlooked, but that’s a mistake. It has this unique sweetness that’s like a hug from the best butterscotch you’ve ever had. Not overly complex, just a great whiskey.” — Robert Barceló III, Head Bartender, Simon & The Whale, New York, NY
“In general terms, I’d say American single malt is the most underrated style of whiskey out there now. It lacks definition, which makes for high variability between brands. Because of this freedom, I suspect there will be more interesting brands emerging on the scene soon enough. In specific terms, I witness most days an interesting paradox. When I tell guests that one of my favorite whiskeys is Wild Turkey 101 Rye, I get some odd looks. Certainly, the popularity and size of Wild Turkey is undeniable, yet many of my patrons have low regard [for] this wonderful juice. But, a good portion of my job is to delight people with the unexpected. So when I make them something with Wild Turkey 101 Rye, it’s satisfying to see them transition from skepticism to enjoyment.” — Devin Chapnick, Lead Bartender, Poka Lola, Denver, CO
“The U.S. market has been sleeping on Glen Grant 15-Year-Old Scotch. O.K., we love bourbon, but this is equally impressive Speyside juice, aged with integrity in ex-bourbon barrels, non-chill filtered (leaving the perfect viscosity), strong, and fully rounded. One rock will suffice. Stamp it.” — Josh Cameron, Head Bartender, Boulton & Watt, New York, NY
“I feel that Canadian Whisky as a whole is a much-misunderstood spirit, as the regulations on it are very loosely written. However, that is no reason to write off the entire category, particularly as it contains one of my favorite rye whiskies: Lot 40. It is a high-rye whisky with lots of spice and character, and makes one hell of a Manhattan. It is one of my go-tos when making cocktails and succinctly represents what Canadian whisky can be.” — Erick Castro, Co-founder, Raised By Wolves and Polite Provisions, San Diego, CA
“Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt Scotch. It’s affordable, great to mix with, and absolutely drinkable on its own. That isn’t always the case in this price range.” — Justin Simko, Bar Manager, The Bar at Husk, Charleston, SC
“In an age where very few celebrity brands are able to shine through, Blackened has really been able to deliver. Its complexity adds a dimension to cocktails and it can be enjoyed on its own, which is no easy feat. Metallica respected the industry, teamed up with the right tastemakers, thought outside the box, and gave us something to talk about… after the mosh pit, of course.” — Marc Shelton, Owner, LKSD Kitchen, Downey, CA