Auchentoshan American Oak, Scotch Whisky: The best known of the generally overlooked Lowland distilleries, Auchentoshan is the only Scottish distillery exclusively making triple distilled whisky, with a resulting reputation for being “light.” But this recent family addition is the first aged in American Oak first-fill former bourbon barrels (the distillery’s parent also owns Jim Beam, Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark). While still on the lighter side – as in very smooth – it has plenty of flavor, sweet notes of vanilla and caramelized sugar, with a tiny bit of spiciness and a rich bright gold color. It combines drinkability, flavor and value, and I loved this whisky ($40).Hibiki 12 & 17, Japanese Blended Whisky: Here at Forbes.com a couple of years back I called Japanese fine whiskies “The Next Big Thing,” and I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. They have become increasingly available, increasingly desirable, and just keep racking up global awards in competition – including world’s best whisky. But I think Japan is even more standout for its blends than its more famous single malts, and as a longtime Scotch lover, I have to say I am as surprised as anyone that I prefer the Hibiki to rivals Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker and the rest of the bunch. To put it simply, I’ve never had a better blend, and I’ve yet to try the super-premium 21 year old. It also comes in a much cooler bottle, but it’s more expensive than its Scottish peers, $60 for the 12 and around $150 for the 17, which by the way is the whisky Bill Murray drinks constantly in the American Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo in the film Lost in Translation, where he plays a Suntory spokesman (which owns Hibiki).
George Dickel Rye Whiskey: George Dickel is the main competitor to Jack Daniels in the very limited world of Tennessee whiskey, which differs from very similar bourbon because of one extra step, charcoal filtering to remove taste impurities. To me the regular Dickel whiskey has always been just okay, but I love the newer rye, and it is arguably the best value in the whisky world, as good as ryes costing twice the price. Made from 95% Indiana-grown rye, it’s ultra-smooth without even a hint of a single unpleasant note, and I like it neat ($25).
Bowmore Small Batch Single Malt, Scotch Whisky: Bowmore is one of Scotland’s most iconic distilleries, and like Islay neighbors Laphroaig and Ardbeg, has long been associated with everything strong and seaside in single malts: peat, smoke, iodine. The distillery is actually built into coastal walls protecting the village from the sea. But this is a slightly kinder and gentler Bowmore, a bridge for Macallan and Balvenie fans (like me) into the more full-bodied world of seaside malts. It gives a preview of the traditional Islay character, without overpowering the palate, adds sweet tropical fruit flavors and an almost rum-like note, and is different from almost anything on the market ($40).
Green Spot, Irish Single Pot: Long rare and prized in its homeland, the Green Spot has only been available in limited quantities on these shores for the past two years – I remember not so long ago hand carrying a bottle back from across the pond. For the past century, almost all Irish whiskies have been blends, but the Midleton Distillery in County Cork has been aggressively returning to the older roots of Irish whiskey making with several single pot still labels. These are similar to single malts, but instead of simply being the product of one distillery they come from one still. While most distilling today is done in huge commercial continuous stills, the Green Spot uses a smaller, older traditional copper pot still, the kind required by law when making Cognac. The Green Spot sold here is one of three versions in Ireland, the non-age statement (the others are 7 and 9 years old), 25% sherry casked, and just delicious ($50).