Unless you’re thinking of Hunter S. Thompson or Kingsley Amis, my office desk does not reflect that of most writers. Yes, there are some of the classics: open notebooks scattered randomly around; a jar overflowing with pens, some of which are dry of ink; Post-it notes stuck to every available surface with themes and deadlines scribbled on them; three empty coffee cups. But what sets my desk apart is an array of small bottles, each containing samples of newly released liquids from a galaxy of brands and producers, waiting to be tasted, tested and – for the best samples – written about.
This small army of miniatures, this brigade of booze, is generally consistent in quality and volume each year, and tends, on the whole, to lean more towards mature spirit such as cognac, whisky and aged rum. It is always a good bellwether as to the state of the spirits sector of the drinks business, and this year I’m declaring a vintage for whisky.
This is the finest vintage in terms of quality releases and interesting innovation in whisky that I can remember
In the whisky business, with and without the ‘e’, innovation is not widespread. Be it the confines of the Scotch Whisky Regulations, which are restrictive (or protective, depending on your point of view) on what can be called ‘Scotch’, through to the ideals upheld in bourbon-making or the new Japanese whisky regulations, most of the world’s whisky production has to lean into liquid as their marker. This demands ever greater quality and developments in taste and flavour to deliver more complexity in the glass.
This constant push for improvement is not easy with a spirit that has been around for hundreds of years. Yet here we are in 2023 and I can confidently say that in my near two decades of writing about spirits, this is the finest vintage in terms of quality releases and interesting innovation in whisky that I can remember.
Even as I write this, there are sample bottles of real intrigue lingering in my eye-line. One that stands out – shouting ‘drink me!’ – is from Jack Daniel’s, the stalwart ‘Tennessee Whiskey’. JD is a much-loved whiskey worldwide and the brand has released a series of flavour innovations over the past decade or so, from cinnamon to apple and beyond. It has established itself as a good time pour, rather than something to sit and savour.
Yet this sample bottle is labelled ‘Jack Daniel’s American Single Malt’ and is matured in Oloroso sherry casks. What’s this? Jack doing single malt? Well I never. A JD to be sipped and savoured, and one with a price point of just under $100. Made from 100% malted barley, it retains the ‘Tennessee’ element via a process of filtration through ten feet of maple charcoal before maturation. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, however, and opening it I find a rich, robust, raucous single malt that captures some of the finesse of a young Scottish single malt and the energy, sweetness and flavour of a traditional American whiskey. A big win.
Sitting next to the sample of Jack’s own single malt is a tiny bottle of blended Scotch whisky. The new release from Royal Salute, one of my personal favourite blends, is Royal Salute Time Chamber, a 53-year-old expression that is housed in a bespoke bottle from Royal Academy artist Conrad Shawcross. His incredible creation for this whisky looks like an arrow passing through the sound barrier; it is utterly beguiling. Not so my sample bottle: a 5cl screw-top affair is designed to showcase the liquid alone.
And herein lies an observation on this year’s whisky releases. No matter how much effort, thought, creativity and design goes into the packaging, every release stands or falls on the quality inside the bottle. Thankfully, on the whole this year, I have seen both packaging and liquid stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and this Royal Salute is no exception. It is light and nutty on the nose, with a delicate vanilla and honey-led palate, and a finish that hints at ginger and cinnamon. Expert whisky-making indeed. Bottled at 41.5% abv and retailing at $120,000, only 21 of these pieces of art will ever be made.
Behind these two samples sits a taster of Laphroaig 36-year-old. The first release from the distillery’s new collection entitled ‘The Wall’, it is limited to just 200 bottles. A whiskey rare to find at such old age, I can confirm that the richly textured layers of peat smoke, oak spice and leather make this one of the whiskies of 2023, in a truly remarkable year.
No matter how much effort, thought, creativity and design goes into the packaging, every release stands or falls on the quality inside the bottle
In the hall of fame for 2023, I could list many drams from far and wide, yet it is the ones that I can talk about again and again, across a range of price points and styles that I would list as my top drams of the year. This includes a remarkable bottle of , bottled by The Whisky Exchange to celebrate five decades of retailing fine spirits; the limited edition released to celebrate 100 years of Suntory, the brand’s owner, making whisky in Japan. Then there’s anything released by English whisky distillery. These are just the tip of the iceberg in a remarkable year.
And as I type the final lines of this celebration of whisky, there is a knock at the door; another delivery man with another small box, containing another small whisky sample. Will this live up to its peers, its 2023 alumni, in what may be a golden age for whisky? There is only one way to find out. Pass me a glass, please…
WHAT JOEL HAS BEEN DRINKING THIS MONTH…
- On a recent trip to Italy, I fell in love with amaro, the spiced, herbal spirit often used as a digestif. There is an array of wonderful versions out there, some bolder than others. The one I came home with however is both beautiful in design and balanced on the palate. Ulrich Amaro is rich and rounded, with notes of butterscotch, clove and cinnamon. Apparently, it has 19 different herbs, flowers, fruits and roots in the mix, but it is totally in balance and great over ice.
- My Tequila of the month is Volcan de mi Tierra’s XA. It is not cheap at over £200 a bottle but is a complex, warm and smooth sipper that has been aged in American White Oak barrels composed of a reposado base that brings sweetness and smoothness, with añejo and extra-añejo Tequilas added to the blend to give herbal notes with some vanilla and light oak spice.
- My cocktail of the moment is the warming, satisfying Old Fashioned, which I’ve been making using a maple syrup base and (yes, it is a whiskey) Michters 10-year-old Straight Rye. The balance of the sweetness from the maple syrup with the spices from the aged rye whiskey work a treat, especially with some Fee Brothers black walnut bitters in the mix too.