What is the best whisky in the world? Or, to make it more personal, what’s your favorite whisky?
The usual answer is the dreaded “it depends.” In practice it might be different for every person but, for the purposes of this piece, I am treating that approach scornfully, as a bit of sniveling wormery. I have had these two whiskies, they are the best (says me), and I’m intent on finding out why.
This is not a purely academic line of inquiry. After all, we’re inundated yearly with lists and awards proclaiming this or that whisky the “best” of a category, country, or even the world.
In the whiskyverse, most greet these proclamations with a wry grin and carry on with their business. A few rage against the arrogance and ineptitude of the critics and judges, or cast aspersions on their motivations. Some cowardly and craven idiots make anonymous threats online; a prominent critic recently had his tires slashed following a controversial award to what had been some folks’ go-to budget bourbon. Others are not so preoccupied with right and wrong, as they have sped off to their local retailer to scoop up every bottle on hand, assured of a tidy profit as others clamor for “the best.”
Stepping back from the spectrum of knee-jerk responses, I thought it was worth meditating at length on what sets the truly special whiskies apart, and why a person (such as your humble reviewer) might anoint a dram their “favorite” or even canonize it as “the best.”
This piece was motivated by Adam’s wry observation that “you’re not allowed favourites these days.” That stuck in my craw a bit. I have experienced firsthand the type of bloviating equivocation he mentioned and have perhaps indulged in a bit of it myself. To be on the receiving end of it is disappointing, frustrating, and incites in the hearer a mildly contemptuous hatred for the speaker.
For all the hemming and hawing I could do about personal tastes and preferences, deep in my heart I know that two whiskies have excited and enlightened and moved me in ways that no others have. When well-meaning interlocutors ask me about my favorite whisky, I demur politely for a nanosecond before I blurt out the names of these two immortal expressions.
As part of my ongoing struggle with objectivity in whisky reviews (both conceptually and in my day-to-day efforts), I noted the importance of a reviewer’s knowledge and experience. I’d bet everyone writing for this site has tasted hundreds – if not thousands – of whiskies. We amass a set of mental benchmarks at both the low end and the high end. It’s this latter extreme of the spectrum that I’m considering today.
In pursuit of the magical X-factor that elevates whisky beyond the realm of the quotidian, it’s both challenging and helpful that the two I’m proposing for top honors are so different from one another. One is a blend of malt and grain, the other is a straight rye. One is from Japan, the other is from America. One is moderately aged, the other is superannuated. Yet, they both share characteristics that set them apart. They’re not just on another level from the rest of whisky; they’ve transcended whisky and entered another dimension.
At this point, trepidation is setting in from several sides, for reasons both prosaic and philosophical.
To start, these are damn expensive even at MSRP, a price at which any of us would be lucky to find them. Both of these bottles are auction house darlings due to some combination of rarity and hype, commanding sums well in excess of what I (and, I presume, the majority of readers here) are willing or able to pay.
I’m like everyone else: fallible, suggestible, my mind prey to biases and heuristics which short-circuit critical thought. I doubt that even my natural cynicism is enough to fully compensate for the subconscious impact of a famous name or a four-figure price tag. For the purposes of these reviews, I have had to be more-or-less price agnostic. This is justified, in my mind, by the fact that these aren’t normal whiskies, and as such do not bear the tawdry considerations associated with a cost/benefit calculation. Hopefully, my angle of critical attack will allow me to argue this position more convincingly.
I am also concerned that this piece will come off as ostentatious, self-indulgent and boastful. I beg your forbearance and understanding in advance. At worst, this will perhaps be informative to readers of my past and future reviews. Practically, it can help you understand my calibration and whisky ideals in a way that will let you adjust my opinions and scores to be more personally relevant to you.
So, suppressing my self-doubt and once again striving for a semblance of objectivity, I hope you’ll allow me to share with you the two whiskies that changed my life.
The first is the Hibiki 30 years old, a blend from Suntory of Japan. MALT has previously covered the NAS Japanese Harmony expression, and I ruefully noted the demise of the 17-year-old expression in a piece last year. This is a blend of malt whisky from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, as well as grain whisky from Chita. It is bottled at 43%.
I was able to sample a 15 ml dram of this for ¥2,900 during my tour of the Yamazaki distillery, which I would highly recommend for both the natural beauty of the site as well as the depth of the bar’s library and the unusually fair pour prices. Indicative auction prices for this expression are more like £4,000.
Hibiki 30 Years Old – Review
Color: Golden amber
On the nose: The nose is incredible, and incredibly difficult to describe. Imagine what the smoke would smell like if you lit pure gold on fire? There are hot aromas of cinders, rich and sweet fruit aromas of ripe apricots and marmalade, an iodine-infused stony aroma, and green forest smells that subtly emerge. So much going on here.
In the mouth: This enters the mouth with a slightly sweet flavor, before filling the midpalate with intense richness. This tastes like liquid gold – golden sugar, golden fruit, golden light, golden heat. There’s a long, lingering finish of pine trees. Overall, this has a purity and intensity of aromas and flavors that overwhelms and envelops you. You don’t drink this whisky- you become it, momentarily. It’s breathtaking.
The Yamazaki tour guide described the experience of tasting this as “like going to another planet,” and I struggle to improve upon that description. Sell your house, sell your car, sell your kids and get a bottle. This is the promised land.
The next is a rye from the Van Winkle stable, the only non-bourbon expression the family produces. Following my recent survey of the Van Winkle bourbons, a reader noted the omission of this bottle and requested a review. Like a wedding DJ, I am happy to take requests and am obligingly providing these notes for that gentleman, at least.
This is a straight rye whiskey, aged 13 years and bottled at 95.6 proof (47.8%).
I noticed a bottle of this behind the bar during a friend’s bachelor party and used the happy occasion as an excuse to splurge. I paid $50 for a generous free pour from a heavy-handed bartender, may God bless and keep him. MSRP is $120; auction prices are closer to $1,000.
Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye – Review
Color: Dark brown cola color with amber glints.
On the nose: This has an intriguing nose with sticky sweet aromas of molasses, spicy smells of cracked black pepper, and the grainy, slightly bitter scents of rye and caraway.
In the mouth: The palate is where this really comes together- waves of hot, sweet, and tangy/citric flavors. This has remarkable persistence, with the pulsating re-emergence of grapefruit and stony flavors lingering long after the last swallow.
A single neat dram of this whisky allows one to sit and sniff and taste and savor again and again for an hour. Like the Hibiki 30 Years Old, this whisky revisited me periodically throughout the next day, evoking distinct memories of the variegated flavors of astounding intensity which are somehow combined into a coherent totality. Superb; worth seeking out in all circumstances.
If you’ve made it this far, you might have noticed what these whiskies share in common. They are both densely aromatic and flavorful. There’s a diversity of scents and tastes in complex interaction, yet they are both monolithic in presentation. Each time a flavor asserts itself it eludes description because it is so quickly subsumed back into the overall balance.
Above all, though, these linger. Not just for a minute, or even for an hour, but for several days. In both cases, I woke up the next morning being able to sense these whiskies; like an amputee’s phantom limb, they tingled in my mouth. Not having them with me any longer felt like I had lost some part of myself.
So, if you ask me what my favorite whisky is, I’d say these two. If you’re particularly curious and ask why, I’d rattle off “complexity, balance, length.” But those are mere words, and don’t do any sort of justice to the true experience of tasting these. They subsume you, or rather you subsume them, with the two parts being united. These are nose filling and mouth-filling, certainly, but they’re also soul filling and eye-opening. That may sound overwrought, but tasting these felt like I was Dorothy stepping out of her sepia-toned farmhouse into the technicolor land of Oz.
Does that make any sense? Probably not, unless you’ve tried these for yourself, or have had that experience with another whisky. In that regard, this article is an abject failure, but hopefully, it has sparked in you the desire to go out and try these for yourself. Better yet, carry on in our shared crusade to find those magical drams that make you reconsider everything you thought you knew about what whisky is or could be. And once you’ve found them, by all means, let me know what they are!
Lead image from Whiskybase and the Van Winkle Rye courtesy of Drizly.