This is always one of our favourite posts to write each year. The Top 10 is something we first began way back in 2009 and within it we celebrate the finest new whisky releases of that calendar year. Our first selection crowned Benromach 10 years old as our Whisky of the Year. We decided some time ago to no longer give a top prize. Instead, each of the ten whiskies that we have chosen is a winner in its own right and for differing reasons.
As the world continued to do battle with the Covid-19 pandemic, the whisky world seemed to respond with some excellent releases. The adversity and uncertainty acted as inspiration for some of the companies to bottle some of their best whiskies of recent times. It has been difficult to select just ten to be honest.As with all Top 10 selections, the choices are subjective. Everyone will pick a different set of whiskies to feature and that is what makes the industry so interesting and diverse. What would you pick as your favourite of 2021? Let us know in the comments please - we would love to hear. Click on each heading to read our full review with thoughts and tasting notes.
Our Top 10 Whiskies of 2021
This one may surprise a few as the Aber Falls distillery in north Wales has slipped under the radar somewhat. However, they pulled off a major coup in appointing Dr. Kirstie McCallum as Master Blender this year. Her years of expertise within the Scotch industry has led to a couple of fabulous releases, with this 2021 Bottling being the best. This whisky forms the beginning of a core range and is a marriage of three year old whiskies matured in ex-bourbon, ex-Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry, plus virgin oak casks. The brand should also be congratulated on pricing this under £30. So often new distilleries put their early whiskies out as expensive prices so few get to taste them. Hats off to Aber Falls for doing the opposite.
A fabulous offering from the Islay distillery of Ardbeg. This year was a busy one with a number of limited edition releases coming out. This single malt eclipsed them all though and would be seriously close to obtaining our Whisky of the Year crown if we had one. Dr. Bill Lumsden, the Director of Distilling & Whisky Creation at Ardbeg, put this whisky our to get people talking and comparing whisky. It was only available to members of the Ardbeg Committee and for a short time, and we were delighted to secure a bottle before it sold out. This is classic Ardbeg. Peaty, powerful, sweet, earthy, ashy and cask strength. Delicious.
The innovative Speyside distillery of Benriach has always been a little underrated in our view. So much goes on there - three styles of single malt come off the stills which are combined with a plethora of barrels from different origins around the world. Now, we can add their own floor malting into the mix. This is a rare product as they are one of only two distilleries in Speyside, and seven in Scotland, to malt some of their own barley. This has been distilled and matured separately from their other spirits and finally released for the first time. The result is delicious and has been matured in ex-bourbon and virgin American oak casks.
One of the undoubted highlights of 2021 was the reopening of the Brora distillery in the north Highlands. To celebrate, owners Diageo put out a rare set of three vintage whiskies - the Brora Triptych. The trio were all distilled in the pre-closure days of the 1970s and early 1980s from the final remaining casks. The Brora Triptych is formed of the Timeless Original 38 years old, Age of Peat 43 years old and Elusive Legacy 48 years old - the oldest ever official release of Brora by Diageo. All are exquisite but our favourite was actually the youngest, which was distilled in 1982 and matured in American oak re-fill ex-bourbon casks. An absolute stunner.
This limited edition was released for the Feis Ile festival that happens on Islay each year. Again, this year's events were largely virtual due to ongoing pandemic but that did not stop most of the distilleries releasing a special bottling or two. This cask strength offering from Lagavulin is superb and bottled at 13 years of age. Initial maturation was in American oak re-fill ex-bourbon casks before being transferred to highly charred ex-Port barrels by Pierrick Guilaume, the Distillery Manager at Lagavulin. The result is a fabulous mix of classic Islay peat smoke, rich juicy sweet fruits and biscuity cereals.
Linkwood 1981 Prima & Ultima
As mentioned later on, this year's line-up in Diageo's Prima & Ultima collection was pretty stellar. The limited edition whiskies, which are said to be either the first or last of their kind from each distillery, all have some serious age and cost to them. This Linkwood was the winner for us and was distilled in 1981, then bottled at 39 years of age. It had an initial maturation in ex-bourbon barrels before a super long secondary maturation in ex-Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. The sweet dessert sherry shows a profound influence that manifests itself in plenty of chocolate, Christmas spice and dried fruit notes. So luxurious, velvety and rich. How older whiskies should be.
The Swedish distillery of Mackmyra have long been ahead of the curve in the 'new world' whisky scene. Their seasonal limited editions, one released each Spring and one each Autumn, have built up a cult following and this year saw one of the best. Björksav translates as 'birch sap' from Swedish and features ex-birch sap wine cask matured whiskies in the final product. Other cask types include ex-bourbon, ex-Oloroso sherry, virgin Swedish oak and even some ex-raspberry wine barrels. These were married together skillfully by Angela D'Orazio, the Master Blender for Mackmyra, and the resulting whisky is delectable and sweet with a wonderful mouth feel and flavour. An absolute 'must try'.
Another limited edition, this time from Redbreast. The Irish single pot still brand had another strong year that also included the release of the excellent Pedro Ximenez Edition in the Autumn. This 10 years old expression was bottled to celebrate the 30 year anniversary since Irish Distillers brought Redbreast back from whisky oblivion. It was only available to members of The Birdhouse, the brand's fan club. In classic Redbreast style the whiskey features only ex-Oloroso sherry cask matured spirit, all aged between 10 and 15 years. Cool touches include the retro packaging that harked back to the final days of Redbreast in the 1950s and 1960s. What a cracker.
The Melbourne-based distillery of Starward has gone from strength to strength and is leading Australian whisky into new territory. This UK exclusive saw a marriage of three different red wine barrels sourced from the Barossa and Yarra Valley regions - ex-Cabernet Sauvignon, ex-Pinot Noir and ex-Shiraz. Left-Field is absolutely delicious and is great sipped neat or over ice. However, it really comes to life when mixed in a classic whisky cocktail. Try using it in a Manhattan, Old Fashioned or Sazerac and tell us that we are wrong ... PS / it's a good price too and something of a revelation.
Another revelation, this time in the form of this fifth rye whisky release from The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD for short). Red Red Rye was released to celebrate the English distillery's fourth anniversary and made using heritage strains of rye grain that had previously been lost to agriculture. This was harvested in Autumn 2017 and married with a smaller percentage of heritage wheat and barley. The spirit was then aged in an innovative combination of ex-bourbon, then ex-sherry and finally ex-Port casks. This is big, bold and super-charged with flavour and character. a great addition to our Top 10.
Close but no cigar ...
There were numerous whiskies that could easily have made our final Top 10 selection. For one reason or another they did not quite make it, but are very worthy of a mention. Click on the links to read our thoughts and tasting notes on each.
The 2021 set of Diageo Special Releases was particularly strong this year and accompanied by stunning artwork and packaging created by illustrator Ken Taylor. The standout whisky for us was the Royal Lochnagar 16 years old The Spring Stallion. Likewise for Diageo's Prima & Ultima with the Talisker 1979 41 years old another particular highlight.
Three more very old whiskies made a huge impression - the rare Ardbeg 25 years old, The Singleton of Glen Ord 39 years old and the Glenglassaugh 50 years old. The Speyside distillery of Glenallachie had another strong year with their Wood Finish Series particularly impressive. Glenmorangie in the north Highlands were busy with three notable excellent releases - X by Glenmorangie, the Lighthouse 12 years old and A Tale of Winter.
Craft and artisan distilleries also had a strong year with a number of them releasing their first ever bottlings. Highlights included the Cotswolds Bourbon Cask and Pineau des Charentes Cask from the English distillery's Hearts & Crafts range, the Nc'nean Organic Batch 2 and the Torabhaig Allt Gleann.
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