If you’re anything like me, you’re probably thanking your lucky stars or deity of choice right now for the fact that you were already maintaining a very well-stocked home bar before the world descended into its current, apocalyptic state. Because if there’s one thing you want to make sure you have on hand during the new societal age of social distancing, it’s … toilet paper. But it doesn’t hurt to have some whiskey, either.
With that thought in mind, during the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, I’ve been returning to the back shelves of my liquor cabinet with more regularity, re-sampling some of the various bottles of whiskey I haven’t necessarily been thinking about recently. It’s been a good opportunity to revisit some old classics and bottles I’d half forgotten about, while possibly finishing off some of those pesky bottles that have been hanging on to their last two ounces for a year or more.
Here, then, are five solid bottles of whiskey I’ve been revisiting during quarantine. If your state’s liquor stores are still in operation, consider picking up some quarantine whiskey for yourself!
Old Forester manages to maintain value—or at least a degree of value—in its popular Whiskey Row series by making all of these bourbons non-age-stated releases, which is perhaps the only downside to them in the eyes of many whiskey geeks. The age statement doesn’t ultimately matter much, however—they’re all interesting whiskeys, and tasting your way through the lineup it’s hard to believe they all come from the same mash bill. The 1920 is a popular expression, and the highest proof (115 proof, 57.5% ABV) in the series by a good margin, but has occasionally been upstaged by the popularity of the later arriving 1910 Old Fine Whisky, which builds itself around an even more intensely charred “double barreled” gimmick. With time, however, it feels like esteem for the 1920 has returned and grown, to the point that I see many whiskey geeks citing it as the peak of the series, and perhaps the best year-round Old Forester product.
My own bottle of Old Forester 1920 is definitely on the older side, having been opened perhaps 2.5 years ago, and still having about a third of the liquid in the bottle. That passage of time, and the inevitable oxidation that comes with it, have helped mellow this 115 proof spirit a bit, and it’s arguably drinking better in 2020 than it ever has.
Old Forester 1920 is rich, spicy and fruit-forward on the nose, with a combination of dark fruit (black cherry) and caramelized bananas that is considered a signature note of Old Forester, although the banana here is considerably less pronounced than the last time I sampled the 1910 by way of comparison. Instead, the 1920 has ramped up the baking spice quotient, with lots of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice on the palate, along with considerable barrel char, dark chocolate and moderate residual sweetness. There’s little doubt that this will make a very strong, but very characterful Old Fashioned, but it also shines with a little ice or water. I’ve been conservative about drinking this one over the years, but I always enjoy returning to it.
Sagamore Spirit is one of the companies that has seemingly been successful in dressing up and premiumizing the popular and ubiquitous 95-5 (rye/malted barley) recipe that so many other small distilleries have sourced from MGP of Indiana, and their Double Oak version of the flagship rye is a good example. This is the classic MGP rye, aged for an initial four years, and then re-aged for a second four-month period in a new set of barrels that the distillery notes are merely “toasted” rather than deeply charred. The goal would presumably be accentuating spice and aromatics rather than more deep caramelization, and that’s pretty much how things play out on the palate. It’s worthy of kudos in my estimation, as this bottle goes pretty far in transforming the sourced, MGP rye the company initially acquired, to the point that even whiskey geeks might not recognize it as an MGP product. It’s eventually presented at a respectable 92 proof (46% ABV).
The palate here is appreciably complex, with notes of mint, caramel apple, fennel, rye spice and tons of baking spices. This is quite spice-forward indeed, but compared to many MGP ryes it’s also richer and more caramelized, trading the dill note that some would probably be expecting for more of a sweet citrus/candied nuts impression that plays well with the pepper and cinnamon. A more decadent take on the familiar MGP profile, it’s a great pick for classic rye cocktails where you want a bit more sweetness and assertive spice.
Irish whiskey is perennially overlooked and underrated by whiskey geeks for the fact that so much of the segment remains consumed by the rank and file in the form of cheaper blends—your Jamesons, your Bushmills, etc. Irish single malts, however, are a segment that potentially has appeal both to the snobs and the everyman whiskey drinkers—they tend to fall into a lovely middle ground between the heady complexities of well-aged scotch and the sheer drinkability of triple-distilled Irish blends. More than anything, they tend to be easy to enjoy for almost any drinker, and Egan’s sums up that philosophy with their 10 year old single malt.
This is a 10-year-old, pot-distilled Irish malt whiskey, bottled at 47% ABV (94 proof), which is a very pleasant level for this particular spirit. The nose is sweet and inviting, with notes of heather, dark honey, pumpernickel bread (there’s a bit of caraway-type spice), biscuits and more vinous notes, which follow through onto the palate. There, we get more apricot-esque stone fruit notes and flashes of heat, but it still drinks very easily—dangerously easily, for the proof. This is a warm, fairly sweet and generally very inviting dram that, as mentioned above, should be easy to enjoy for drinkers of just about any experience level. It also makes dynamite cocktails, if you can find ones that call for Irish whiskey specifically. One of my favorites? The sudsy, champagne-infused Cork County Bubbles, which is a bit like the meeting point between a carbonated whiskey sour and a Last Word cocktail.
Sadly, I just finished this particular bottle, but if I can find it again on the lower end of its MSRP (it can go as low as $50) I’d be interested in snagging another.
U.S. scotch drinkers have caught on to the fact that GlenDronach produces some of the genre’s best offerings as far as sherry-matured single malts are concerned, and some entries in the company’s lineup have become hard to come by as a result. One of the most often sought-after is the 15 Year Old Revival, which strikes a good balance between extra aging and a price tag that, while high, is still a lot more affordable than the 18 Year Allardice or the 21 Year Parliament bottles. The 15 Year, on the other hand, represents a substantial upgrade from the flagship 12 Year Old in terms of “bang for your buck” and the intensity of vinous character lent to it by its sherry barrels. In fact, the 15 Year might be the most pure sherry bomb of the whole series, so for drinkers who really enjoy that aspect, this one is a bit of a holy grail.
This one is very winey and nutty on the nose, with strong notes of nut butter (sweet almond butter) and dark fruit (berry compote) in addition to maple syrup richness and shortbread butteriness. If that sounds like a decadent breakfast to you, you’re not exactly wrong. It’s sweet and commanding on the palate, with cinnamon sugar mixing with that shortbread, almond paste/marzipan and dark berries. I think of this one as more of a dessert dram, but it’s one I’ve become increasingly fond of as I’ve nursed this particular bottle. The oloroso and PX sherry cask aging speaks very strongly through this bottle, and it’s the first scotch that would come to mind if a friend asked me to pick something that really illustrates the flavors of sherry in a single malt scotch. If you know someone who thinks all single malt scotch resembles the smoky beasts of Islay (Laphroaig, Lagavulin, etc.), this is also something they should try.
This selection is likely a bit lesser known, hailing from Finger Lakes Distilling off Seneca Lake in upstate New York. But it’s also an intriguingly offbeat little rye, fermented and distilled from local New York-grown rye, before being aged three years in the expected newly charred oak. Things then take an unexpected turn, as the distillery finishes the aging of this product in “sherry barrels from local wineries,” meaning that this has the influence of what is presumably American-made sherry-style wines. As the company puts it, “the sherry balances the spiciness of the rye and gives a nod to the wine region where it’s from.” McKenzie Straight Rye is then bottled at 91 proof (45.5% ABV).
The effect is noticeable but nicely subtle, with a nose that suggests honey, light nuttiness, dusty rye and pepper, with some slight florals. On the palate this rye is somewhat sweeter, with a character that lands at an interesting midpoint between “honey” and “caramel,” and a complementary apricot fruitiness, which is tempered by younger rye grain, peppery spice and slight herbaceousness. I admire the judiciousness of the sherry flavor here, as it provides a clear illustration of how differently these types of barrels can be used, in comparison with something like the GlenDronach 15 above. Here, the sherry isn’t the star of the show, instead contributing some slight vinous character and slow-developing nuttiness on the back end, leading to a finish of roasted nuts and stewed plums. It’s a very intriguing balance between classic American rye whiskey and more European aging methods, and tasting it again for the first time in a while makes me eager to play around with it in more cocktails.
If you have the means, check out these whiskeys, and stay safe during pandemic quarantine! May your nights be filled with excellent drams and cocktails.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.