Elijah Craig 12

$ — 47% ABV — 12 years

In the 1780s, a Baptist preacher named Elijah Craig moved out into the American frontier, where modern Kentucky is today. There, he built many factories to supply jobs for his growing congregation, and one of those factories distilled corn.

The story goes that a fire scorched a heap of wood staves destined for the cooper, but Craig decided to use them anyway. Thus Bourbon, with its signature maturation in charred oak, was born. Only ... probably not.

Historians believe the tradition of charred oak was started by French merchants transporting Cognac. American distillers were trying to climb over a sinking rum industry, but were also aspiring to compete with foreign luxuries. It's no surprise then they would model their production after brandy. Yet the legend of Elijah and the staves of Kentucky lives on in much the same manner as Patrick and the snakes of Ireland: a good tale to tell, especially over a glass of whiskey.

And what a whiskey it is! Despite being named after a man of the cloth, this bourbon is light on holy smoke and big on forbidden fruit. A fair amount of rye, a slightly higher barley content and a very robust maturation of 12 years makes for a cult classic Bourbon that punches way above its price category. Currently, there are rumblings of the brand dropping its age statement, which many fear will mean a dip in quality. Get a bottle now — if only so you can go on about how they don't make 'em like they used to.

Heaven Hill is located in Bardstown, Kentucky in the Southern USA. Established 1935 by the Shapira family, it remains an independent distiller.

Flavor Notes

Butterscotch, Honey, Vanilla, Orange, Apple, Peppercorn

Macchu Pisco

$ — 40% ABV — 9 months

Wine-lovers are a hard crowd to sell, but aromatic piscos might well be it. Smooth and clear but still very flavorful and (shockingly) affordable, pisco is the vodka-killer. And like Macchu Pisco will be the one to do it. Uncorking the bottle gives of a strong aroma of chardonnay.

However, Macchu Pisco is made from quebranta grapes, and one bottle of pisco requires the equivalent poundage of grapes that would make eight bottles wine. No doubt this is what's causing such a dramatic nose. This is also likely what keeps the price low. Quebrantas are common and cheap and classed as one of the three "non-aromatic" pisco grapes, a distinction that doesn't seem to make sense until you start sipping premium piscos.

Aged in steel drums for a mere nine months, Macchu Pisco's maturation may seem downright trivial. Tequila fans will know the big difference nine months can make, but in steel, the pisco has no carbon to filter it, no flavor to absorb and is given very little contact with its environment.

Still, these nine months are necessary, especially for pisco's target audience: the rawness of the spirit is lost during this time to a process called esterification. The alcohols are so volatile when first distilled, a nine month meditation in a neutral container gives the spirit a chance to calm down and collect itself. It's a practice that's echoed in blended Scotch, but few folks hear about it because it sounds quite boring. The result is anything but.

Macchu Pisco is located in Ica, Peru. Established in 2003 by Melanie de Trindade-Asher, it remains an independent distiller.

Lysholm Linie

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$$ — 41.5% ABV 1 year

For most of its history, oak aging was an accidental process of the alcohol trade. Be it Bourbon farmers sending whiskey across the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, or Cognac vintners sending brandy up the Charente and through the English Channel — stories abound over the distiller's discovery that the wait was crucial to the product. Modern shipping is much faster and no less expensive, so aging now occurs almost exclusively in warehouses. But there has always been one glaring exception: linie aquavit.

There's a misconception that linie is a brand, but it's actually a style of aquavit, describing those that are aged at sea and cross the linje, or equator. The most common brand in the US is Lysholm Linie and the brand lettering being smaller than the style isn't helping matters. Round trips across the linje tend to be shorter now; Lhysolm's is aged a little shy of five months at sea, and twice as long on land.

Despite the relatively long aging time, large and old Oloroso Sherry barrels makes sure Lysholm's botanicals remain assertive. Linie is made from potatoes, not rye grain, and so is mostly a blank canvas. Caraway, orange and aniseed are the heavyweights, placing this spirit somewhere between a gin and an absinthe. Dill weed and coriander show through, as do the oaky vanilla and nutty wine flavors from its age.

Strong, dry and pungent, Lysholm is obviously meant to be enjoyed with something. It's no doubt why it's the aquavit of choice for many bartenders, and a lovely companion to smoked salmon or gravlax. And the very reasonable price means there's more in the budget for caviar!

Lysholm is located in Trondheim in Central Norway. Established in 1821 by Jørgen B. Lysholm, it is now owned by Arcus.

Caol Ila Moch

$$$ — 43% ABV — ~8 years

You may not have heard of Caol Ila [cool ee-la] but, if you've ever had any Scotch, it's very likely you've tasted some. Johnny Walker and J&B, for instance, are significantly comprised of Caol Ila spirit. It's a smoky, bready, somewhat indistinct whisky, and so hasn't gained a huge fanbase. But only 10% of its massive production goes into bottles bearing the distillery's name, so clearly Caol Ila's own brands are not its main concern.

Named for the narrow strip of water between Islay and Jura (caol is Gaelic for sound or strait) Caol Ila is Diageo's main Islay distillery. Capable of making 10 million liters of whisky per year while running 24/7, they've recently slowed production to a meager 7 million liters. Despite this voluntary slow-down, age stated bottles of Caol Ila are getting harder to find. They're instead playing with "flavor-led" brands, or what would more commonly be called no age statement (NAS) whisky.

Moch, Gaelic for Dawn, is young — eight to 10 years — which is leading fans to snub their noses at it, considering it's priced about the same as the 12. But its youth and mild smoke helps Moch stand out against other more famous Islay distilleries, especially Caol Ila's sister, Lagavulin, whose base expression is twice the age of Moch.

Dressed in a matte gray label; black gothic type; and pale green glass, it's evident Moch isn't trying to pass itself off as something it's not. This is a very solid dram for drinkers who don't like sweet whisky, who want to taste both the malt and the peat. And at $50, it punches its weight. Like most anything made on Islay, it's a niche product — and this time Caol Ila might just find its audience.

Caol Ila is located on Islay in Argyll & Bute in Southwestern Scotland. Established in 1846 by Hector Henderson and renovated in 1972, it is now owned by Diageo.

Jura 16 Diurach's Own

$$$ — 40% ABV — 16 Years

Standing at the banks of Bunnahabhain or Caol Isla, there are some breathtaking views of Islay's neighboring island, Jura. From these vantage points, you might get the impression that Jura is inhabited only by cloven-hoofed animals, but you'd be very wrong.

On the other side of the windswept (and very sexy) paps of Jura are about 200 residents — and four stills. The Jura Distillery has been industrially producing Scotch since the '60s, though it has a history with whisky that stretches back to at least 1810. Like Bruichladdich, Jura is a regional outlier in that they don't typically peat smoke their barley. Stranger still are the shapes of their stills, with dramatically cinched waists and tall necks that rival Glenmorangie. Unlike Glenmorangie, Jura is a little less fruit and a lot more cream.

Diurach's Own earned its name to recognize its popularity among the locals. A 16 year unpeated Scotch that spends its last two years in Sherry casks, it's a berry cobbler a la mode. Unlike Highland Park, Diurach's Own isn't a sherry bomb, but rather is soft, round, rich and — given its age and quality — shockingly affordable.

Jura is located on Jura in Argyll & Bute in Southwestern Scotland. Established in 1810, it is owned by Emperador.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

$$ — 54.1% ABV — 6 to 12 years

It's unlikely for an American not to at least be aware of Wild Turkey Bourbon. It's cemented in the top 5 best-selling Bourbon distillers alongside Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's, Evan Williams and Maker's Mark — but, even though it's nowhere near the oldest Bourbon around, somehow Wild Turkey feels the most star-spangled.

Named for a fateful turkey-hunting trip, an Austin Nichols Imports exec brought along some whiskey made at the Ripy Distillery. Soon after, he got requests from his friends for "some of that wild turkey whiskey." America's #2 bird (behind the bald eagle, of course) proved to be so popular, Nichols bought the distillery.

Wild Turkey has since become one of the most ubiquitous whiskey brands; it's always somewhere in the Country Top 100 or a Stephen King novel or an episode of NCIS. That's rather apropos, because Wild Turkey is also about as stereotypical a Bourbon as you can buy. Imagine the way American whiskey tastes, and that's basically Wild Turkey: corn-sweet and vanilla-oak, with a little spice on the finish.

Some fans argue Rare Breed doesn't beat Wild Turkey 101, which hedges closely to the original 8-year-old expression. Either is good for just about any use: spike your beans, build a cocktail, or just sip it on the rocks. To each his own, but Rare Breed's slightly minty taste and barrel strength makes it a greatly favored choice for highballs.

Wild Turkey is located in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky in the Southern USA. Established in 1855 by the Ripy family, it is now owned by Gruppo Campari.

Chartreuse

$$$ — 55% ABV — Herbal

If you're iffy on what Chartreuse green looks like, simply pick up a bottle of this 400-year-old French cordial. No, that green doesn't come from the Chartreuse Mountains; the liqueur does! A vibrant quaff, its color is naturally derived from a blend of 130-some-odd herbs and flowers. The only folks who know the blend are a couple monks from the Order of Saint Bruno, better known as the Carthusian Order.

A favorite of Quentin Tarantino, Tom Waits, and even Hunter S. Thompson, this monastic drink has endured quite a lot of history, chiefly when the French Revolution called for the exile of all religious orders. The Carthusian monks fled in 1793, and this is likely why many similar products are found in neighboring countries, including Strega, Galliano and Jägermeister. By 1810, the recipe was considered "well-known" by Napoleonic France.

Yet after reclaiming (and rebuilding) their home, the Carthusian monks continue to make a superior cordial that's garnered several medals at liquor competitions. Sweet, hot, earthy, bitter, pungent, the flavor is hard to describe — and that's what makes Chartreuse so good. It's the linchpin ingredient in one of the all-time best cocktails, the Last Word, and balanced enough to drink neat, just like they did back in 16-whatever. Though, as one of the priciest liqueurs on the market, it damn well better be!

Green Chartreuse is the original (-ish) formula, however Yellow Chartreuse, which adds honey and saffron, has been made since 1838. It's a sweeter, milder and less alcoholic drink, but is otherwise similar to the green. Both also have a $100+ luxury version called Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé (V.E.P.), meaning: 'exceptionally prolonged aging.' It's a yearly limited release that's far more robust, oaky, viscous and a crime to mix with. Though it's absolutely a must-try, finding a bottle of V.E.P. may require vigilance bordering on the religious.

Grande Chartreuse is located in Voiron, Rhône-Alpes in southeastern France. Established in 1605 by the Carthusian Order, it remains an independent distiller.

Four Roses Single Barrel

$$ — 50% ABV — ~10 years

The big complication that distillers rarely talk about is yeast, the living powder that makes alcohol possible. So valuable is this little microbe that all the big companies keep backups in special yeast banks that dot the globe; if the distillery goes up in flames (as Heaven Hill's did in 1996) their yeast would be recoverable.

Without their proprietary yeast, a distiller could not hope to create the same-tasting liquor they've come to be known for. Yeast contamination is so possible and so scary as to ward off most distillers from experimenting with it in any way, even Buffalo Trace.

And then there's Four Roses. With five proprietary yeasts, this Kentucky distiller is constantly experimenting with how fermentation changes the flavor of their Bourbons. But even Four Roses seems to have honed in on a favorite: their Single Barrel expression, possibly the best bang for your buck on the whisky market today, uses only their "V" yeast, which creates a creamy caramel taste. Aged for about ten years and proofed at a full hundred, this is a gorgeous and slightly dry Bourbon that works well however you like it (old fasioned for me, thank you).

The distillery's Small Batch is less expensive and is a blend of Bourbons made with the spicy "K" and fruity "O" yeasts, which lend to each other well, but are best in a cocktail. The floral "Q" and herbal "F" are the wildcards, often dumped into the cheap Yellow Label. But sometimes, the distillery will offer special releases, like the 2014 single barrel release which featured "F." It's for this reason, adventurous Bourbon lovers often look to Four Roses.

Four Roses is located in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky in Southern USA. Established in 1888 by Paul Jones Jr., it is now owned by the Kirin Company.

Flavor Notes

vanilla, toffee, deep, dry, cherry, maple, molasses, roses