Top Whiskies of 2014

Well folks, it’s here. The New Year has reached us all with its fresh embrace, filled with good intentions of positive resolutions, excitement for change, and well…probably a bit less eating, if any of your holiday seasons were anything like mine!

For me, this year feels like a big one. You see, for some reason I remember very clearly thinking in the mid-’90s (as I reached my 10th birthday) that 2015 was a momentous year. It was unfathomable at that age too – this date so far off in the future as to seem unattainable. It wasn’t even in the next decade, but halfway through the following one. I remember being overwhelmed by this idea. And yet, here it is, in all its halfway-point-through-the-decade-glory.

But, as always on this site, I like to use the start of the New Year to not only be hopeful for things to come for my family, friends, myself and you – dear reader – but to look back with a bit of fondness at the year past, especially when it comes to whisky.

Choosing my favourite drams from a whole year is never an easy task. I was lucky enough to try well over a couple of hundred in 2014 (not all were reviewed on here, I should note) and so looking back through my notes and reviews on this site, it was with both joy at having tried and shared my thoughts on so many fantastic drams, and trepidation at choosing those that I felt really stood out this year.

As always, this round-up is merely my own feelings on whisky, based sometimes on circumstance, and sometimes on value, and sometimes on sheer absolute stunning taste. You may have a number of whiskies that you think should be noted on this list – I encourage you to share your favourite whiskies of the year in the comments section below for, as I always say, we each have our own palates that dictate our preferences.

This year’s list is a bit different in that I didn’t just choose a Top 10 but a few additional picks such as Best Value and Best Limited Edition amongst others.

So without further adieu, here’s what really took my fancy in 2014…

1. Back in January, I headed to Canada for the Victoria Whisky Festival. It was my first time there hosting events and I was thrilled to take part. Luckily, I also had some time off and managed to take in a few masterclasses, one of which was the Springbank tasting with Ranald Watson. For me, the stand-out dram of that tasting was the Hazelburn Rundlets & Kilderkins, a 10-year old whisky coming in at around £59. You can read more about this interesting release in the round-up post I did on the Festival here.

2. I love what Compass Box do, and I’m certainly not the only one. While it is a small, London-based blending company, it is one with a big heart and bags of creativity. The whisky from them that really impressed me this year was The General. You can get my full tasting notes here and while it may not be readily available, it’s one to definitely look out for on good whisky bar shelves. A real stunner.

3. In March, it was the Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve that impressed. While not as intense as one of my favourite Japanese whiskies (the classic, Yamazaki 12) it showed off the skills of the Japanese master blenders in their full. As a new, entry-level, NAS whisky that will hopefully help to encourage people to the wonderful world of whiskies from this revered country, the Distiller’s Reserve is easy to drink for newbies but complex enough to excite seasoned whisky lovers. Find out more about this release, and its counterpart – the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve – in this post. It’s currently out of stock in most places, but seems to be coming back in later in January, and costs around £39.

4. Later that month, the big news was all about the new Mortlach releases. A controversial move in some ways for Diageo – since many long-time whisky lovers felt the classic Flora & Fauna Mortlach was all that jazz – the new line-up was fully under scrutiny from the moment it was mentioned. I tried all four before they were officially bottled and came to the definite conclusion that I not only liked them a lot, but liked a couple of them a lot more than the classic Flora & Fauna. My favourite was the Mortach 25-year old: it was sumptuous, rich, comforting and simply beautiful. And with its beautiful packaging, it not only captured my tastebuds but my eyes. At nearly £600 a pop, it was ridiculed for being elitist and out of the price range of those who had long loved Mortlach. And, I agree: it’s a hell of a lot of money to spend on a bottle of whisky. As such I say it’s one to try a dram of when you see it on a bar shelf if you fancy treating yourself to something special. And in the interim, the Rare Old release (at £54) is a fantastic whisky, and a way to try the new Mortlachs at a more reasonable price point. Read my full thoughts on these whiskies here.

5. In May, I had the opportunity to meet a long-time idol for me in the whisky world: Ichiro Akuto, founder of Chichibu distillery in Japan. I have long been a fan of his whiskies and the chance to speak to him about his thoughts on and experiences with whisky was a true whisky highlight of the year for me. The distillery’s latest release – Chichibu On The Way – also impressed me thoroughly and reaffirmed my belief that this newest and coolest of whisky distilleries in Japan deserves a lot of respect. Read my full thoughts on this whisky, and others from the range, in this post.

6. As always, also in May this year, the yearly Feis Ile releases came out from distilleries on Islay. The one that really stood out for me this year was the Caol Ila release. Super smoky, with loads of freshening citrus and fantastic balance, I thought this was a cracker and you can get my full thoughts in this piece. It isn’t one you’ll find kicking around on store shelves, but look out at good whisky bars and in Scotch whisky auctions if you’re keen to try it out.

7. In June, I headed out to Sweden to visit Box Whisky Distillery and Mackmyra, two wonderfully interesting distilleries in that land. I’ve enjoyed the intriguing, fruity and spicy whiskies from Mackmyra for a couple of years now, and this year it was the Midvinter that caught my attention. It’s sweet, with notes of dark berries, pine trees and caramel, and I loved it. However, it definitely splits opinions – and it’s definitely not a Scotch. But it’s also definitely worth trying.

8. In late September, I finally had the chance to go and visit Laphroaig distillery on Islay. I’d visited Islay back in February, but this gem of a distillery was one I didn’t get time to visit. After checking out the distillery, I sat down for a tasting of the range with John Campbell, the distillery manager. Of these, it was the classic Laphroaig 18 that blew me away. While not a release specifically from 2014, I wanted to add it to this list because I thought it was just so darn delicious. With big fruity notes, interplaying with the fishy smoke and spicy ginger and oak, it was wonderful and I can’t believe it took me so long to try this wonderful whisky.

9. Come October, all my attention was focused on what gems I might find at the annual TWE Whisky Show, a longtime favourite event for me when it comes to whisky. This year, it was the Signatory bottlings that really impressed and, more specifically, the Bruichladdich 1990. You can get my full thoughts on this wonderful whisky here.

10. In late October, I made my first journey out to bourbon country to learn more about this style of whisky. It was a longtime goal and I was lucky enough to visit six distilleries while I was there (be sure to check out the site this year for behind the scenes interviews and features on those distilleries). My favourite distillery turned out to be Wild Turkey, and it was a really random release from this spot that I loved. Called ‘Forgiven’ the release is made from a mixture of bourbon and rye whiskies, that are said to have been accidentally mixed up when it came to marrying time. The release was called Forgiven because the person who made the mistake was allowed to keep his job. It’s fruity and spicy, with loads of vanilla and fresh oak tannins and I really fell in love with it. It’s not currently available but the distillery decided to recreate its mistake after the release proved extremely popular, so I would expect it to be around again soon.

IMG_5234Biggest Surprise of the Year: 

This has to go to Tormore 12 year old, which I recently tried while on a visit to the newly refurbished Craigellachie hotel and its famous Quaich Bar. Having driven past the distinctive green and white distillery umpteen times during visits to Speyside, I was very curious to try out this whisky since it is rare to hear much about it. And it really impressed not just on taste (big, bold toffee, dry grass and fruity) but on price at around £38. I believe it has been discontinued so if you are keen to try, you can pick it up here.

Best Value of the Year:

For me, hands down it’s got to be Bowmore Small Batch. I love this whisky – it’s fruity, fresh, smoky and vanilla led. And, I picked it up in Asda for the ridiculous price of £27. Currently, it’s on offer at Tesco for £25, making it even better value. Can’t recommend it enough.

Best Limited Edition of the Year:

The moreish Glenfiddich Explorers’ Edition hit all the right notes for me – despite being over 50% ABV, it was ridiculously smooth, but unendingly complex. I sat down to review this one night and drank all 200ml of the sample that was sent to me without even realising it. I just wanted another sip, and then another. It was only available for members of the online Glenfiddich club – The Explorers – so if you want to try it, you’ll likely have to look out for it at shows or ask around to friends who may have gotten one. Absolutely stunning.

IMG_5252Best Whisky with the Worst Packaging:

Okay, so whisky is definitely not all about the packaging. Of course not. But it can help if you’re hunting around for one to try. For me, the one that wins this category hands-down is the old-school bottling of BenRiach’s Birnie Moss. Even the name is ridiculous. All I could think about was a big pile of burning moss. But the whisky was lovely. And I laughed my way through the super peaty dram as I drank it (also at the Cragiellachie Bar in Speyside for the grand price of about £3) because while the bottle’s label would definitely put me off, its tastes definitely won me over. (*Note: You can get this whisky still, in less terrible packaging here).