Isn’t it true that each time you have a glass of whiskey in your hand, you know it’s time to relax? Add a premium cigar to the mix, and you’ll almost reach Nirvana. This begs the question: why? Which factor sets off this reaction? Does the spirit elicit the release of endorphins? Or is it only the elegance of having a heritage drink that sets the mood?
Whiskey has deep historical roots in the United States, which makes sense given the country’s easy access to the grains used to distill it. Our forefathers drank it, our presidents enjoyed it, and now we do too. It’s something we can drink with pride.
Did you know, for instance, that whiskey was previously used as currency? Not to mention the fact that it was once considered a potential cure-all. Even though whiskey has progressed tremendously since then, its legacy is still visible in the many varieties available today.
From this, we can say that class and refinement have always been associated with whiskey. It simply has a way of elevating any occasion, whether you’re sipping it at a swanky bar or in the coziness of your own home. Is there anything better than sinking into a soft couch with a glass of your favorite bourbon and unwinding for a while?
Whiskey’s perfume is enough to inspire even the most fatigued of souls, whether it’s the crisp burn of a single malt or the mellow, woody aroma of a blended Scotch. The best part is that its versatile flavor profile makes it ideal for a wide range of drinks. Neat, on the rocks, or in cocktails—it’s entirely up to you.
You can even try it in the kitchen if you’re feeling particularly daring. Splash some on your steak or use it to make some homemade chocolate truffles, and you can thank us later. In other words, there is a whiskey out there that will suit any budget, palate, or personal choice. But what does “top shelf” whiskey actually mean?
What Is a Top Shelf Whiskey?
Top-shelf whiskeys, also known as premium whiskeys, are superior in flavor to cheap or mass-produced varieties. Thus, even though they come with a higher price tag, their outstanding quality and deliciousness totally justify it.
The concept behind categorizing products into “top shelf” and “bottom shelf” is straightforward: since higher-priced spirits are ordered less frequently, bars typically stock them on the upper, more inconvenient shelves, while affordable, more reliable bottles are placed in plain sight.
It can also serve as a statement of the bar’s commitment to its booze selection by highlighting its most expensive beverages. While there is no blanket rule about price, these are typically bottles that would retail for $50 or more in-store.
Top-Shelf Whiskeys We Recommend
Distillation processes take three basic ingredients—grain, water, and yeast—and produce a wide range of whiskeys of dazzling complexity. The world of whiskey is more than vast, with so many countries producing a plethora of varieties and distillers planting flags in each of the figurative corners of the world.
While it would be challenging, if not impossible, to condense each style and country into a single definitive example, several bottles act as exemplary representatives for their respective categories. Here are the 20 best top-shelf whiskeys to enjoy right now, with options for every cost, taste, and event.
20. Knappogue Castle Sherry Finish 16 Year Single Malt Irish Whiskey
The majority of prominent Irish whiskeys sold in the United States are blends of spirits distilled from malted barley, unmalted barley, and corn. They are often matured in ex-bourbon barrels and then marketed without an age statement.
A delightfully fragrant triple-distilled Irish single malt, matured for 14 years in ex-bourbon casks and an additional two in oloroso sherry casks, Knappogue Single Malt boasts complex aromas of fruit, sherry, chocolate, malt, and spice.
In other words, this is a magnificent old malt with just the proper amount of sherry flavor to complement the overall strength of the whiskey flavor. You should give it a shot! We are pretty sure you won’t be disappointed.
19. Port Charlotte 10-Year Whisky
The unbiased distillers at the Bruichladdich refinery in Islay have recently launched their 10-year-old Port Charlotte whiskey, which is smoky with just a hint of the sea. The brand claims this is because its warehouses are so close to the water. However, the most significant aspect is the taste, which is rather good.
This Port Charlotte 10-year-old may be spicy, but it is gentle and easy to drink. The harmony between the peaty flavors, smoke, sweetness, and malt is beyond comparison and entices you to taste more.
All in all, this whiskey is a multilayered drama, with each layer building upon the previous. You require very little water—only a drop or two—to make it even better. A superb whiskey to end your year with!
18. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Whiskey
To create the Double Oaked Whiskey, standard Woodford Reserve bourbon is transferred to a new, charred barrel, where it spends the final stages of its maturation for about a year and a half.
This fresh barrel works much like a flavor booster shot, hastening the wood’s interaction with the distillate to create a whiskey with more complexity.
That extra time in the barrel is glaringly obvious in the whiskey’s finish, where its pronounced tannin structure shines. A lot is going on in the mouth, and the silky texture is a welcome bonus.
The finish might be a little harsh for some tastes, but we can imagine it being a smashing success among fans of both sweet and dry tannic bourbons.
17. Colonel E.H. Taylor JR. Small Batch Bottled in Bond Bourbon
The Colonel E.H. Taylor label is the latest in a long line of successful products from Buffalo Trace. This brand extension was introduced in 2011 to pay tribute to Edmund Haynes Taylor, the man widely regarded as the inspiration for the Bottled in Bond movement.
All whiskey bearing the BiB label must have been produced in a single distillery during a single distillation season by a single distiller, matured in a federally approved storage facility, under US government guidance for at least four years, and bottled at exactly 100 proof. Also, if the distillery and bottler are different, they must be stated on the label.
When it comes to bottled-in-bond bourbons, E.H. Taylor Jr. Single Barrel is a model of what this category should be. It makes up for what the small batch lacked, resulting in a spirit that’s rich in flavor and nuance. While not a high proof, the 100 proof is effective in achieving spiciness without being overpowering. Good job!
16. Willett Family Estate Small Batch Rye 4 Year
The Willett Distilling Company is a small, family-owned distillery that markets bourbon and rye whiskey. And it’s safe to say that Willett is a whiskey expert. Although the label has found great success with its bourbon bottlings, this rye proves that this brand is more than just a one-trick pony.
The distinctive flavor profile is what makes Willett 4-Year Rye so noteworthy. The nose is similar to the two-year-old version, with the addition of complex caramel notes to the original floral and botanical aromas. On the palate, you’ll also find plenty of unique tastes that don’t typically work together, but somehow they do wonders.
Though several other craft distilleries have succeeded in producing rye with unique flavors, many still have a youthful, grainy profile. Willett’s talent lies precisely in this area.
15. Highland Park 18-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
In some ways, the 18-Year Old Single Malt epitomizes the outstanding job that Highland Park has done over the decades as one of the few distilleries in the Scotch industry to focus on both peated malt and sherry cask aging.
Therefore, fruit and spice complement each other beautifully in Highland Park’s 18-Year-Old Single Malt. Its aromas of sugar-glazed plums, fragrant chai tea, and peat-smoked honey are quickly followed by flavors of roasted peaches and caramelized black cherries.
To top it all, once this unbelievably delicious Scotch whiskey has coated your palate, it will continue to shower you with massive hits of taste and aroma. We recommend that you enjoy it in its natural state! You will understand why!
14. Green Spot Single Pot Still Whiskey
This Irish whiskey has come a long way since it was first sold in Mitchell’s grocery store on Grafton Street in the heart of Dublin, but the robust flavor has remained unchanged and is much loved by the critics.
This spirit has been aged in both new and used bourbon barrels, as well as sherry casks. It has a pale gold hue and a subtle fruity aroma. You’ll pick up on notes of sherry, vanilla creaminess, and a subtle herbal counterpoint alongside sweet barley, honey, apples, and tropical fruit.
The texture is smooth and silky on the tongue. Vanilla keeps it creamy, apples are joined by apricot and pear, spices lean toward cinnamon, and a hint of mint from the herbal edge balances the slight bitterness and lush malt sweetness.
At a lower price point than its competitors, without sacrificing complexity or enjoyment, this is a great way to ease into the world of single-pot still whiskey.
13. Eagle Rare 10-Year Bourbon
Eagle Rare 10-Year Old originates in Kentucky’s historic Buffalo Trace Distillery, and it is a spectacular 45% AVB straight bourbon whiskey that has been aged for at least 10 years. Yet, you may still be wondering what it is about these bottles that makes them so special.
Well, we’re going with the massive bald eagle, its wings spread as if it were about to swoop down and grab a meal. Remarkable, no doubt. Moreover, the whiskey itself has a lot of character, with flavors like cinder toffee, orange peel, and buttery corn.
Thus, the Eagle Rare 10-Year is a chameleon and a temptress, offering pleasures only to take them away and replace them with others. It combines the richness of sweet and fruity flavors with the depth of earthy sous bois tangs, and at the suggested retail price of $60, it’s a great deal.
12. Ardbeg Uigeadail Single Malt Scotch Whisky
According to the back cover of an older bottle, the moniker “Uigeadail” comes from the “brooding, mysterious loch that provides the peat-leaven water for Ardbeg.” Be that as it may, this whiskey is a high-proof blend made from a secret proportion of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, bottled for the first time in 2003 from whiskey distilled in 1993.
The aromas presented in the nose are complex and well-balanced; all the elements are easily identifiable as separate from one another while also fitting together to form a coherent whole. The flavors on the palate, however, are more distinct. The textures and flavors here are clearly separated into the front, middle, and end stages.
That said, nothing is out of place about the Ardbeg Uigeadail Single Malt; it is a whiskey always in harmony with itself and its surroundings.
11. Sazerac 18-Year-Old Rye Whiskey
In many respects, the Sazerac 18 Year is on firmer ground than it has been since 2016. The nose is very evocative, taking you back to the time of the steel tanks. This is due to the fact that the whiskey’s flavor profile has reverted to its original, more traditional Sazerac form.
Fans of the earliest run are more than pleased, as are those who are curious to see what the controversy was about. In any case, it has a classic, rich aroma and a refined, well-balanced flavor profile. Thus, Sazerac 18-Year-Old is widely regarded as the finest whiskey available, but it is quite hard to find because of its once-a-year limited release.
10. Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15-Year-Old Bourbon Whiskey
Even though Pappy Van Winkle has a relatively short history compared to other bourbons, the brand is still considered to be quite exclusive. Moreover, despite its 15-year-old edition being entry-level premium whiskey, it is a pretty unusual find, and it’s not something you typically see for sale, even behind glass.
This bourbon was made on demand, following the secret Van Winkle family recipe. Notes of flavored caramel corn and vanilla create a sophisticated and sweet aroma. Moreover, the combination of the leathery, oaky, and fruity flavors is bold and thrilling yet very approachable, with a soft, spicy finish and a hint of oak tannins.
9. Johnnie Walker Platinum 18-Year Blended Scotch Whisky
In 2013, the Johnnie Walker range expanded with the addition of a Platinum Label to its roster of blended scotches, going against the grain of the NAS trend by boasting an 18-year-old statement. This whiskey is a fusion of 20 to 25 distilleries, and it is marketed as having a Speyside identity with some hints of Islay peat.
This exceptional spirit combines bold, signature Johnnie Walker flavors with intriguing modern undertones of citrus and scented almonds, making for a sweet whiskey at first, with tangerine and a warm vanilla undertone as it moves across the palate.
As a brand that has endured for so many years, Johnnie Walker must be doing something right, proving once again how excellent it can be with this 18-year-old Platinum Scotch Whisky.
8. Heaven’s Door 10-Year-Old Bourbon
When Heaven’s Door first released its bourbon, everybody wanted to have a taste of the absolutely delicious spirit. Since the original whiskey is no longer available, the Bob Dylan-backed label has released a new 10-year-old bourbon, which, even though it is not marketed as “Tennessee”, contains more than 20% rye in its mash bill.
Generally speaking, Heaven’s Door whiskeys provide a sweeter experience, and this bottle is no exception. On the nose, you’ll notice notes of mint, butterscotch, and vanilla. Back on the palate, the fruitiness reigns supreme, this time manifesting as orange peel, Marasca cherry, and plenty of brown butter. Love it!
7. Four Roses 2019 Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon
When it comes to their Limited Edition Small Batch releases, Four Roses always yields a distinctive blend of recipes and ages, and this year’s offering is no different. To set itself apart from previous versions, though, the brand included a 21-year-old bourbon in one of its releases. And its complex taste serves to emphasize this idea.
The flavor profile of this whiskey is among the best you’ll find in 2019. This, along with the spirit’s age and depth, creates a whiskey that is sure to gratify anyone lucky enough to have a glass, despite its hefty price tag.
6. WhistlePig Double Malt Rye
In 2007, WhistlePig’s founders made their first important purchase: a farm. After some time and with the aid of Master Distiller Dave Pickerell, the company took a vow to produce the finest and most special rye whiskeys in the world.
Thus, the brand will seize any opportunity to release an ultra-aged, extremely rare, and expensive whiskey. Here comes the WhistlePig Double Malt Rye, which is produced from unmalted rye, malted rye, and malted barley. This is a big change for the distillery, taking into account that it previously focused on unmalted rye whiskeys only.
This top-shelf spirit, aged for 18 years, offers a pleasant aroma and a smooth, oily taste dominated by warm spices like cinnamon and allspice. The bottle comes in elegant packaging and is topped with a gorgeous glass stopper that will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. You only need an Arturo Fuente cigar to have a ball.
5. Lagavulin 16-Year-Old Whisky
The Lagavulin distillery is perched on the isle of Islay, which is famous for its highly peated whiskeys. In this case, the whiskey’s 16 years in oak barrels have contributed to the development of those rich, smoky notes. Not for the faint of heart, but beloved by those who have developed a taste for it, this bottle has become a bestseller.
It has a strong aroma of lapsang souchong, tobacco, iodine, vanilla, and sherry spice, and it is dry, full-bodied, and daunting. Therefore, many people prefer having their Lagavulin 16 on the rocks to better appreciate its complex flavors.
The tarlike thickness on the palate compels you to savor and analyze every sip, rewarding your efforts with notes of mature fruitiness and deep oak that follow on from the sherry aroma. And the aftertaste lingers with a pleasant combination of black pepper and a hint of dried dark fruit.
A dram of Lagavulin is like oysters: either you love them or hate them. For the same reasons that many people adore it, many also find it to be too intense, intimidating, and gritty. But some of us will accept nothing less.
4. Blanton’s Original Single Barrel Bourbon
You might be surprised to learn that it wasn’t too difficult to find a bottle of Blanton’s at any time of the year until fairly recently. Fast forward to today, and this is one of the most elusive bourbons in the United States.
Still, many whiskey connoisseurs have a soft spot for the original king of single-barrel bourbon. The racehorse on top of the bottle, the cute look of the label, and the almost round shape of the flask show that a lot of thought went into the beautiful packaging.
Also, all of Blanton’s barrels are kept in Buffalo Trace’s warehouse H, which is made of metal instead of the more common wood and brick. This raises the temperature inside the storage, speeds up the processing of the whiskey, and hastens the interaction between the spirit and the wood.
So, despite all the doubts it has gotten over the years, Blanton’s Original Single Barrel Bourbon has proven itself time and time again by steadily pleasing drinkers with its smooth texture and approachable flavor.
3. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon Batch A121
Although Heaven Hill has been around for a while and has a wide variety of bourbons in its portfolio, including some that date back to the company’s inception, the brand has recently gained a lot of attention and respect for various special editions of its older lines.
This bottle is part of a continuing series called Barrel Proof, and it contains a 12-year-old bourbon that was chosen because it was an exceptional single barrel. For the uninitiated, these rare iterations of Elijah Craig are always bottled at 12 years of age, raw and unbiased.
The taste is initially daring and spicy, with a Mexican chocolate vibe, thanks to the addition of red pepper, cinnamon, and cocoa; however, it quickly settles into a creamy groove, showcasing brown butter aromas. You can’t help but return to this whiskey for another whiff or sip. Among the best of its kind, this edition is well worth the price.
2. Yamazaki 12-Year-Old Single Malt Whisky
Japanese whiskey is slowly making its way into the US bar and restaurant scene, and experts in the field have nothing but praise for it.
The Yamazaki distillery, which is controlled by Suntory and is sited between Osaka and Kyoto, is famous for producing single malt whiskey that is aged in a combination of sherry, bourbon, and mizunara casks. If you must know, the refinery is located in a valley between two mountains, hence the name Yamazaki.
Yamazaki 12-Year has an unusually rich and full-bodied mouthfeel for its age. Matured in a trifecta of American, Spanish, and Japanese oak barrels, this whiskey successfully displays the notes characteristic of each type of cask.
All in all, this is an excellent whiskey, with a flavor profile that piques the palate’s interest and builds anticipation for the finish.
1. Laphroaig Lore Single Malt Whisky
There are those who adore Laphroaig and those who despise it. Its widespread acclaim can be attributed to the tasty combination of Islay peat fumes and the delicacy of sherry. The root of disdain, however, is the fact that Lore is a no-age-statement (NAS) expression that has only replaced the 18-year-old in Laphroaig’s range.
John Campbell painstakingly mixed Laphroaig from different barrels to develop this melange, from first-load bourbon to quarter casks and Oloroso hogsheads. Thus, while part of the whiskey may be relatively new, some of it was distilled as far back as 1993, which makes this single malt a rare, vintage hotshot.
In other words, a little of Laphroaig’s history is told by this bottle: a whiskey that’s as bold as it is poignant, like a bulldozer perched precariously on a razor’s edge. Is it of high quality? Yes. Tasty? Yep. Overall, Laphroaig Lore is an excellent single-malt whisky. Close to perfection!
There are numerous premium whiskey brands available, each one more expensive than the last. What you won’t find, though, is a guide that helps you figure out which top-shelf whiskeys you didn’t even know you liked. This is that guide.
Moreover, this list will introduce you to top-shelf whiskeys’ truly divine flavors and teach you to appreciate them like you never have before. Furthermore, if you’d rather have a cocktail, you’ll find that our suggestions go very well with any drink you care to name.
- What Is a Top Shelf Whiskey?
- 20. Knappogue Castle Sherry Finish 16 Year Single Malt Irish Whiskey
- 19. Port Charlotte 10-Year Whisky
- 18. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Whiskey
- 17. Colonel E.H. Taylor JR. Small Batch Bottled in Bond Bourbon
- 16. Willett Family Estate Small Batch Rye 4 Year
- 15. Highland Park 18-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- 14. Green Spot Single Pot Still Whiskey
- 13. Eagle Rare 10-Year Bourbon
- 12. Ardbeg Uigeadail Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- 11. Sazerac 18-Year-Old Rye Whiskey
- 10. Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15-Year-Old Bourbon Whiskey
- 9. Johnnie Walker Platinum 18-Year Blended Scotch Whisky
- 8. Heaven’s Door 10-Year-Old Bourbon
- 7. Four Roses 2019 Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon
- 6. WhistlePig Double Malt Rye
- 5. Lagavulin 16-Year-Old Whisky
- 4. Blanton’s Original Single Barrel Bourbon
- 3. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon Batch A121
- 2. Yamazaki 12-Year-Old Single Malt Whisky
- 1. Laphroaig Lore Single Malt Whisky