Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Our Top 10 Whiskies of 2020

Another year has passed and it is time for one of our favourite blog posts - our top 10 whiskies from last year. Everyone will have a different opinion about what should and should not be on such a list. Our list is simply our favourites with no agenda or criteria, other than the whisky had to be released in 2020. 

2020 was a year like no other in our lifetimes. The effects of Covid-19 have impacted all facets of daily life and beyond. It has had huge implications for the whisky industry around the world too. But after a short hiatus in March and April, companies began to carry on with adapted plans and release new bottlings. Launch events, tastings and even whisky shows turned to the online format and have now become commonplace. 

As with previous years we have struggled to narrow our choices down to just ten. We have sampled many nice whiskies, reviewing over 100 of them. As with the last few years, we have decided to again list the final ten in alphabetical order, rather than ranking them. Please let us know your thoughts and your favourite whiskies of 2020 in the comments. So here goes ...


Our Top 10 Whiskies of 2020

Ardnamurchan AD/09.20:01
To read our full review - click here.
This whisky is the first single malt ever released from the west Highland distillery and follows limited edition releases of new make and part-matured spirits. We have tried numerous such releases from various new distilleries and this is one of the best. It blew us both away with its quality and balance. The whisky mixes their peated and unpeated spirits (distilled in either 2014 or 2015) together in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. Fresh and crisp with plenty of green apple, toffee and malty notes, plus chocolate, honey and vanilla. Also a lovely whiff of peat smoke that licks around everything. We like what they've done here - waited until the whisky is ready, rather than bottling bang in three years and releasing at an accessible price (£45), allowing more whisky fans to try their liquid. 

Ballantine's 7 Years Old Bourbon Finish
To read our full review - click here

This new permanent addition to the core range of the famous blend was released in September and impressed many people immediately. A marriage of single malt and single grain whiskies, all with a minimum age of seven years, that were blended together and then finished in ex-bourbon barrels from Kentucky. The result is a bright, sweet and vibrant whisky that is expressive and delivers way beyond its £28 price point. Creamy and soft on the palate with plenty of vanilla, butterscotch and green apple, plus hints of coconut and baking spices. Not the most complicated whisky but one that is delicious, great value for money and readily available. Excellent work by Sandy Hyslop and his blending team.

Benriach The Original Ten

To read our full review - click here.
This single malt from the innovative Speyside distillery forms the entry point to a totally overhauled and revamped core range. The new whiskies are designed to showcase Benriach's eclectic mix of different spirit types and multiple origins of cask from all over the world. The result is a fine range of whiskies but this 10 years old stands out. It shows a substantial leap in quality and flavour from the previous incarnation and is also a decent price (£38). A marriage of ex-bourbon, ex-Oloroso sherry and virgin oak casks that gives soft fudge and toffee with honey, golden syrup and stewed apples. plus a good late pinch of warming oak spices. They also released a smoky version alongside it with a slightly different cask make-up. Want to show someone what a classic Speysider should be like? Give them The Original Ten.

Filey Bay Moscatel Finish
To read our full review - click here

The latest single malt release from the English distillery Spirit of Yorkshire appeared back in the Spring and offered a ray of bright sunshine during a heavy Covid lockdown in the UK. This whisky features some of the very first spirit distilled in the Summer of 2016, which was then transferred to ex-Moscatel wine casks for a finishing period. It shows a definite evolution from their first whiskies, one of which made our Top 10 last year, due to the use of a slightly unorthadox cask type. The result is a sumptuous mix of aromas and flavours - brown sugar, honey and maple syrup mix with green apples, sultanas and candied oranges with a hint of tropical fruits also. Another very promising bottling from a new distillery and one that was again well priced (£60).


Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake
To read our full review - click here.
One of the first releases of the Autumn saw the latest in a string of fabulous new releases from the famous north Highland distillery. A Tale of Cake is a great whisky, but more than that seemed to capture the imagination of consumers like not many have before. Yes, it had good marketing and a nice back story (creator Dr. Bill Lumsden's grandma used to make him pineapple upside down cake when he was a child) but the liquid lived up to the hype. A finishing period in rare ex-Tokaji dessert wine casks from Hungary gave a viscous and sweet single malt packed with aromas and flavours of golden syrup, lemon, vanilla and an abundance of tropical fruit characteristics. Also decent value for what is essentially a limited edition 12 years old whisky from a popular brand using a rare cask (£75).


John Walker & Sons Celebratory Blend
To read our full review - click here

The Johnnie Walker brand celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2020, despite the pandemic - there was an excellent book 'A Long Stride' by Dr. Nicholas Morgan and numerous bottlings. This Celebratory Blend, released under the original John Walker & Sons name, was the entry level product in a set of three special bottlings, alongside the premium Blue Label Legendary Eight and super premium Bicentennial Blend. The high ABV (51%) and use of some old whiskies in the blend lead to an explosion of flavour - baking spices, vanilla, brown sugar and even some marzipan mingle with caramelised apples and dried fruits. Fabulous and definitely in our Top 3 (if we had one). You get lots of whisky for your money here (£50). Superb.

Label 5 Bourbon Barrel
To watch our video review - click here.

This whisky is the only single grain in our Top 10 this year and what a beauty it is. This appeared back in the Spring and superbly shows the qualities of single grain at the lower end of the spectrum. There are not many products in this category with the most famous being Haig Club. This Label 5 has more depth and complexity and sits in the same price bracket as the Clubman expression (£25). This makes it the cheapest whisky in our Top 10, but arguably one of the most impressive because of that. It offers plenty - soft and creamy vanilla, butterscotch, some coconut and honey, cereals, a pinch of warming spice. Delicious taken neat and over ice on a hot day as we discovered. But also mixes well as it has enought depth and sweetness to stand out. A great all rounder and fantastic value.

Scarabus 10 years old
To read our full review - click here.

This late Autumn release from Hunter Laing's Islay single malt brand helped to establish a core range for Scarabus. Previously there has been only the Specially Selected, which made it to our Top 10 last year. This 10 years old expression was also joined by the Batch Strength to form a tasty trio. This whisky has been matured for the minimum of a decade in ex-bourbon and virgin oak casks, and comes from an un-named Islay distillery. Aromas and flavours of malty burnt biscuits, vanilla and honey combine with damp earthy and mossy smoke that turns more ashy and charcoal-like with time. Depth and complexity are added by further notes of lemon, chocolate and ginger. Another superb effort from Hunter Laing and again one that is competitively priced (£45).

Smokehead Rum Rebel
To read our full review - click here.

A Summer release that saw another permanent addition to the increasingly popular Smokehead range of Islay single malts. Like with Scarabus, the distillery is un-named but in this case the whisky has been finished in ex-rum casks from the Caribbean. It was launched on International Rum Day (August 16) as a result. Good value for money too, as with most of our choices (£55).

The Rum Rebel packs a peaty punch right from the off and this has a hot, drying and ashy feel. The smoke and ash notes are never far away and supported by further notes of oat cookies, sultanas, golden syrup, white chocolate and tropical fruits (especially mango). The combo of peated spirit and ex-rum casks is not that common but seems to be one that works well. Here the sweetness mixes very nicely with the acrid bitterness of the smoke and compliments it well.

Talisker 8 Years Old (Diageo Special Releases)
To read our full review - click here

Having said that peated spirit in ex-rum casks are relatively rare, here is another one. This cask strength Talisker, the first ever expression from the Skye distillery to be matured in ex-Caribbean rum casks, formed part of the eight-strong Diageo Special Releases 2020. It was the stand out whisky for many, despite there being much older and more expensive options. This 8 years old has an initial flinty quality with plenty of sweetness, especially white chocolate and honey. The trademark Talisker peppery peat smoke is vibrant and fresh with further notes of tropical fruits and warming baking spice on the palate. Overall, an absolute cracker and we had to buy a bottle. Another that would be in our Top 3 if we had one.

Honourable Mentions

As we said, it has been difficult to select our final Top 10. In the end we went largely with value for money. All 10 are below £100 per bottle and all give you plenty at their various price points. But of course there are other whiskies that we considered and that almost made it. These deserve an 'honourable mention'.

Some limited edition and permanent releases impressed us especially the Blue Spot 7 years old and Tamdhu Batch Strength No.005 from the Autumn. The Mackmyra Grönt Te and Glen Moray Madeira Cask Project from earlier in the year were also highlights. A few single cask releases were also of superb quality. Those worth noting include the Glenglassaugh Coastal Casks and Glendronach Batch 18 that we sampled, plus the Rosebank 1993 Casks and the John Crabbie 1994 Single Cask.

At the expensive end there were some excellent whiskies released. The Redbreast 27 years old matured in ex-Port casks was an early pre-Covid highlight. Then came two from Diageo - the John Walker & Sons Bicentennial Blend, part of the brand's 200th anniversary celebrations, and The Singleton of Glen Ord 38 years old. The new Benriach The Twenty Five and The Thirty were both superb, as was the Glendronach Kingsman 1989 Vintage.

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