As I’m pretty sure everyone can agree 2021 has been an odd, difficult, and different year in many many ways. Whilst I have kept my whisky fascination going throughout the year, I have taken my foot off the gas on the blogging front so as to focus on family life and a life-changing and (gasp) non-whisky related venture. Having found myself in some sort of Rick Grimes situation and having managed to totally avoid the dreaded virus, I have still been able to enjoy the odd dram without the fun/fuss of critiquing it. On that note then, here are the top ten whiskies that I tried over the course of that peculiar year:
10. Rebel – Tawny Port
Another year’s countdown and another entry courtesy of the good work performed by Steve Rush @TheWhiskyWire this time via a flash blog event in collaboration with Lux Row. This Kentucky Bourbon has been finished in Tawny Port casks and it marks the first time that I have tried a bourbon with this kind of cask finishing. As someone who is primarily a scotch whisky drinker, I have become familiar with the influences of port casks, and this bourbon’s nose brought the familiar red fruit flavours, juiciness, and sweetness that I would come to expect. The actual taste of the whiskey though brought a whole new dimension with some grapefruit style bittersweet moments. Maybe not a bottle that I’d be rushing out to buy again and again, but a definite eye-opener into an are of whisk(e)y that I have yet to explore. Click here to read more.
9. Henstone – Single Malt Whisky (Batch 2)
Luckily, in the UK, there is a current boom in the number of new distilleries setting up and reaching the requisite maturity to release their whiskies. There are many comments about where this boom may lead, but for now, I am enjoying the ride and expansion of the whisky wares available. Luckier still then, that only 30 minutes down the road from me, one such distillery has had their distillate reach the hallowed three year point that converts their ‘spirit drink’ to ‘whisky’. On St. George’s Day 2021, I posted my thoughts on Henstone releasing Batch 2 of a new English single malt whisky. This bottling was purely ex-bourbon cask matured and was an exercise in subtlety – though not quite as subtle as the b in the word subtle. Lots of little flavours and signatures were appearing and showed what the blueprints were for their whisky. A good start and one to keep an eye on for sure. Click here to read more.
8. Macnair’s Lum Reek – 21 Years Old
A couple of years ago I sampled some of the first offerings of the GlenAllachie’s sub-brand of MacNair’s. The peated blended malt scotch whiskies were released under the brand “Lum Reek” from the fabled Scots offering of “Lang May Yer Lum Reek”. In the summer of 2021, the GlenAllachie rebranded the MacNair’s name and have repositioned the brand to sit as a “Boutique House of Spirits” – adding a series of rums to the blended malt whisky range. The recent explosion of the rum market has seen some fine spirits being released from Scotland, but in this case I’ve remained a stickler for tradition and its the older sibling of the Lum Reek scotch whiskies that gets my vote here as well aged Speyside and Islay malts combine for a rich and flavoursome experience. Click here to read more.
7. Bladnoch – 10 Years Old
Whilst technically a gift from the previous Christmas, I didn’t open this malt until New Year’s Day 2021 and so it scrapes into this year’s count in terms of whiskies that I’ve tried, but I have made many return journeys to the chunky square bottle on my shelf. I have been after a Bladnoch for a long time and was aware that it was one of the few remaining Lowlands single malts. The depth and breadth of flavours in this purely ex-bourbon single malt are fantastic and it packs a spicy punch too. I also like that it is in a bold bottle but with a simple message – no BS statements about origins, battles, or nearby historical figures, just a simple: this is our malt. Its been matured in ex-bourbon casks. That’s it. It has actually been discontinued now too, so I might have to eek it out a little longer before finding a suitable replacement. Click here to read more.
6. Mackmyra – Björksav
It wouldn’t feel like my list if a Mackmyra didn’t feature in here. I am biased. I love their work. I love the exploration of cask finishes and the fact that their master blender is “Chief Nosing Officer”. This whisky was released as part of the Spring/Summer seasonal releases as the 2021 entrant and, as ever, the team publish exactly what contents have gone into making this single malt, and the unusual influence this time around is birch sap wine. The whisky showcases the Mackmyra DNA and how it can be taken in yet another direction: this time, a sticky sweet one. Click here to read more.
5. The Lakes – Whiskymaker’s Reserve No. 4
2021 saw The Lakes Distillery firing out special edition releases left, right, and centre as their stocks and diversification have been reaching simultaneous maturity. The Whiskymaker’s Editions have been a series of one-off bottlings which showcase one particular aspect of what The Lakes are housing, whilst the Whiskymaker’s Reserve series have been a documented journey of Dhavall’s quest to perfect The Lakes’ malt. Whilst not able to try them all, the Bal Masque was my favourite of the Whiskymaker’s Editions, but my highlight of their releases this year was the Whiskymaker’s Reserve No. 4. Sherry-led and one of the most silky and layered whiskies I’ve ever tried. When will we hit the true signature malt? Who knows, but I think it will be soon. Click here to read more.
4. Port Charlotte – 10 Years Old
Bruichladdich has a special place in my heart. Ever since I visited it 8 years ago, that clean malt has had a regular place in the whisky cabinet, and I loved that it is unpeated Islay whisky. When the Port Charlotte brands were coming out, I had my reservations. They already had the insanely peated Octomore, why go for another style? Well, because its bloody good whisky, that’s why. Once Port Charlotte reached a steady 10 year old age statement – a landmark for any distillery – I tried some and just had to get a bottle of it. The same clean malt spirit is there but their use of peat is something else. Now.. if only the Laddie Ten were to reappear… Click here to read more.
3. Deanston – Chronicles
I didn’t think that I’d be able to get to a distillery this year, but a holiday in Stirling made for the perfect setting to sneak one trip in. An unusual building and interesting history set amongst some gorgeous country. The staff at the gift shop were very generous too, and the highlight for me was the recently launched Chronicles release, or rather “Edition 1 of the Chronicles”. A distillery exclusive bottling that contains liquid from casks that span 4 decades of the distillery’s life dating back to the 1970s. Layer upon layer of flavours unfurled, even from a small sample or three. Another bonus from the visit was being able to assemble your own miniatures package, and I took the option of buying several of their 12 year old releases in different cask finishes to get to appreciate the Deanston malt and see in which directions it was best being taken. It was a stretch to buy a bottle of the Chronicles release at the time, but the malt marks a moment and a memory too, and that you can’t put a price on.
2. Highland Park – 15 Years Old – Viking Heart
A lot has been said about Highland Park’s heavily Viking clad releases. One question that has always been asked though has been: when is the 15 year old coming back? The end of 2021 finally saw that question being addressed and I don’t think anyone would have guessed that it would have come with a ceramic answer. Call them crazy or innovative, but the results are good. Really good. At least, they are to this Highland Park fanboy. Its interesting though, that the 15 year old doesn’t seem like a natural progression between the 12 and 18 year old releases. There’s a certain richness that I was expecting that the 15yo is lacking, but instead there is this soft and honey-like texture that comes with maturity beyond its years. To elaborate further, Highland Park malts are best known for their sherry-heavy influence, but actually the main focus of this 15 year old is aimed at the distillery’s heathery peat rather than the sherry’s influence. The peat often sits in the background to a Highland Park release, whereas here it is at the (Viking) Heart of the offering. A devious whisky in its own right and a welcome addition to the family. Click here to read more.
1. Lagavulin – Offerman Edition – Guinness Cask Finish
The words ‘legend’ and ‘hero’ are bandied around all too often these days and as such have lost their meaning. I think that they are aptly applied however to Nick Offerman. You light disagree and I think that his humility would not want those words applied to him either. But that’s what I like about him. He seems to be a humble, honest, and humerous man, who is passionate about what he does. In addition to the acting, podcasting, woodworking, and writing work that he does, he has also carved out a sideline in promoting something else that he loves: Lagavulin. His character Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation openly talks about his love of Lagavulin, and that is all down to Nick Offerman bringing that which he loved to the character. Through that passion, he has ended up working on various adverts for Lagavulin over recent years and sitting in front of a fire for a very long time whilst savouring it. The next step in that journey has naturally been to release his own edition of Lagavulin. In 2019 the first 11 year old Lagavulin Offerman Edition was released and in 2021 we saw a variant of that mad available in limited quantities. Courtesy of Diageo-interplay, the Islay nectar has been housed for the its final 4 months in casks that previously contained Guinness. How true it is that Guinness is his dad’s favourite drink is anyone’s guess, but I admire him bringing his family and hero into the equation and dedicating some more of his offerings to the man whose work ethic he uses as his own yardstick. I’m also delighted to say that the whisky itself lived up to expectations and, Offermania aside, is my favourite whisky of the year. Period. Click here to read more.
Honourable Mentions: I’ve tasted some incredible independent bottlings this year and am ever grateful to Steve Rush / The WhiskyWire for his continued support and to all brand ambassadors out there looking to share their message through enthusiasts like me. The Whisky Cellars is one such example (those Private Cask selections are just fantastic), and the new batch releases of JJ Corry releases (The Gael, The Flintlock, and The Hanson) have been brilliant too – along with their very interesting Fier and Field releases which are really pushing the boundaries of whiskey. On the Irish whiskey note, I have also restocked on Green Spot and Redbreast 12, which seem to be a constant hit any time of the year.
Summary: I’ll say it again: a different and difficult year, but one that has had more highlights than lowlights fortunately. I’m clearly still a scotch fan when going back over this list – and peat features more heavily than I’d have thought too – but there are more and more things out there opening my eyes within the whisk(e)y world and I want to keep them open and looking for what else is to come in 2022. A better year for all, I hope. On that note: Happy New Year. Stay safe. Drink responsibly. Drink wisely.