best spirits in the world
Features 14 July 2021

The best spirits in the world

From juniper-rich gin and vanilla-tinged bourbon to mezcal, baijiu and Irish cream liqueur – these are the best spirits to try from all around the world

Words by Pip Mortimer, Stuart Peskett and Laura Richards

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Many drink lovers have chosen to use the extra time at home gifted to them in this past year to expand their drinking horizons – whether that means drilling down into their favourite spirit and its various expressions or discovering brand-new drinks for sipping solo or mixing into cocktails. So, what better time for us to share our list of the best spirits on the planet?

We’ve based our list of the 22 best spirits in the world on the latest trophies awarded to drink makers following on from rigorous tastings conducted by The International Wine and Spirit Competition (The IWSC). For the IWSC’s 2021 awards – their biggest spirits tasting in history – 80 experts sampled more than 4,000 spirits across eight days to name their champions. Expert judges included Club Oenologique spirits consultant Joel Harrison, writer and educator Marie Cheong-Thong and global rum ambassador Ian Burrell (find full details on the tasting process here).

From these extensive blind tastings, these are the champions across each individual category – from grappa to Tequila, and Scotch whisky to shochu, here are the best spirits in the world.

IWSC US Whiskey trophy winner

The best American whiskey

 

Redemption Barrel Proof High Rye Bourbon Whiskey, Deutsch Family Wine and Spirits

Corn is typically the main ingredient in bourbon, but rye’s role is hugely important, too. It acts as a beautiful counterpoint to corn’s sweetness, adding spicy notes of black pepper, mint and clove. Redemption knows this all too well, and makes its bourbons with a generous proportion of rye, as much as one-third in the case of its IWSC Trophy-winning Barrel Proof High Rye Bourbon Whiskey, which is distilled in Indiana and bottled in Kentucky. The judges were wowed by its aromas of lemon bonbons and pineapple syrup as well as punchy notes of vanilla, dark chocolate and cinnamon. SP

£136, Hedonism Wines

www.redemptionwhiskey.com

IWSC Armagnac trophy winner

The best Armagnac

 

Bas-Armagnac 1995, Domaine Tariquet

Single-vintage Armagnacs are among the best bargains in the spirits world, and are generally better value than their Cognac equivalents. Domaine Tariquet’s Bas-Armagnac 1995 is one of the finest, too, a feast of dried apricots and figs, brown sugar, toasty oak and stone fruit – and an IWSC Trophy winner. The Grassa family took over the Gascony estate just over 100 years ago, were eaux-de-vie has been made since the late 1600s. The family only use grapes grown on the estate, and they use wood from leftover vine stakes to fire up their alembic stills. Sometimes, the old ways are still the best… SP

£71.91, Drinks & Co

www.tariquet.com

IWSC Baijiu trophy winner

The best baijiu

 

Ganjiang Tiancheng Laojiao Baijiu, Zhangshu Ganjiang Brewery

Baijiu is big – more of this Chinese spirit is consumed than whisky, vodka and rum put together – and is hugely diverse. Made from a variety of grains, such as sorghum, rice and corn, it’s categorised by its aroma, including ‘light’, ‘sauce’ (herbal/soy) and, in the case of IWSC Trophy winner Ganjiang Tiancheng Laojiao from Zhangshu Ganjiang Brewery, ‘extra strong’. The IWSC judges were full of praise for this long-aged baijiu, which has been matured for 10 years, commenting on its ‘complex’ aromas of nuts, coffee and chocolate, along with notes of sweet pineapple and aniseed. SP

N/A UK

IWSC Blended Scotch Whisky trophy winner

The best blended Scotch whisky

 

21 YO Blended Scotch Whisky, Matisse

Named after Henri Matisse, the French artist who was famed for bringing eastern culture into his paintings, Matisse is a Taiwanese-owned Scottish distillery. Its award-winning blends have huge popularity in Taiwan, China and Singapore, as well as Australia and the USA. The multi-gold winning 21-year-old blend is elegant and concentrated with notes of toasted wood and nuts. Hints of orange, chocolate and spice are baked with vanilla, all intertwined and beautifully balanced. PM

N/A UK

IWSC Cognac trophy winner

The best Cognac

 

50yo Grande Champagne Cognac, Hermitage Cognac

Unlike most Cognac houses that distil their own eau-de-vie, Hermitage specialises in tracking down the finest single-estate Cognacs from under-the-radar producers, often with a vintage or age statement attached. Hermitage was founded by “Cognac hunter” David Baker, who visits the region several times a year. The IWSC Trophy-winning Cognac is a staggering 50 years old, and comes from the Grande Champagne area, home to the longest-lived Cognacs. The judges were impressed with its notes of figgy pudding, dark chocolate and spices, balanced by refreshing orange zest. A classic Cognac half a century in the making. SP

£499, BrandyClassics

IWSC Gin Contemporary trophy winner

The best contemporary gin

 

Lightning Gin, Karu

Karu is a husband-and-wife team with family connections to Estonia (Karu means ‘bear’ in the native tongue) – but based in Australia. While Karu prides its Lightning Gin on a double hit of juniper and ‘triple citrus tiers’, it is rose geranium, plucked from the distillery’s own garden, that the makers claim as their secret weapon. Judges were certainly struck by this ‘layered and compelling’ spirit, which was praised it for its ‘botanical boldness’. Alas, this shining example of contemporary gin is only currently available Down Under. LR

N/A UK

karudistillery.com.au

IWSC gin and tonic trophy winner

The best gin for a G&T

 

Kalas Rabarber Gin, Destilleriet Als

Danish producer Destilleriet Als wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a bad harvest. One year, when the family’s grapevines in Huholt failed to produce wine up to the usual standard, they started experimenting with the resultant alcohol and Kalas gin was born. Operating from an old bus station outside Sønderborg, the distillery now produces a fleet of spirits, including its rhubarb-flavoured gin – the pink stuff grown just outside the premises. A month-long maceration results in a coral-tinged, sherbety number with a tangy nose and a tart finish that’s perfectly fitting for a G&T. LR

N/A UK

https://destillerietals.dk

IWSC Grape Brandy trophy winner

The best grape brandy

 

Muscat Hamburg, Chateau Kamnik

The first vines were planted at Chateau Kamnik in North Macedonia back in 2004, and just five years later, the winery began winning awards across Europe. There’s a distillery at Kamnik, too, and it’s the source of this year’s IWSC Worldwide Grape Brandy Trophy winner. Made with well-ripened Muscat Hamburg grapes, this brandy has a delicate floral aroma of roses and an intense grape character. Kamnik is going from strength to strength, and its bottles can now be found in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Ollie Dabbous’ Hide. SP

N/A UK

chateaukamnik.com

IWSC Grappa trophy winner

The best grappa

 

Grappa Extrafina, Distilleria Nardini

The Nardini family have been making grappa in north-east Italy since the 18th century, and were the first people in the country to do so. By 1860, they had started using steam stills to produce it, which to this day is now the most popular way of making it. Extrafina is a special blend of grappa made from the pomace (the leftover grape seeds, stalks and stems) from multiple vineyards. It captured the attention of IWSC judges, who praised its ‘wonderfully expressive’ nose of orchard fruit, red apples, ground almonds and a touch of lavender and creamy mouthfeel. If you’ve never tried a grappa before, this would be the ideal place to start. SP

£50.33, Master of Malt

www.nardini.it

IWSC liqueur trophy winner

The best liqueur

 

Gingerbread Latte Irish Cream Liqueur, Tesco Finest

According to judges, you can indulge in the best liqueur in the world for just £12 a bottle. This cream liqueur with an Irish single-malt base is a part of the Tesco Finest range, and proves that supermarkets also have the potential to rule supreme when it comes to spirits. ‘Everything great about gingerbread is perfectly expressed here,’ said judges, who were captivated by caramel aromas, sweet spices and baked warmth. The result? ‘All the grown-up pleasures of liquid gingerbread.’ LR

£12, Tesco

IWSC London Dry Gin trophy winner

The best London Dry gin

 

Hench Gin, Lucky Bee

Maybe it’s been given its Hench title as this gin weighs in at navy strength (57%). Indeed, there seems to be a lot of symbolism about the Lucky Bee brand. A small operation based in Timperley on the outskirts of Manchester in the UK, the city’s bee emblem stands out on the bottles. And apparently, they’re also reclaiming the number 13 as lucky – it adds up to the number of botanicals sourced locally and used in distillation. The result is a floral bouquet, with lemon peel and blossom on the nose, soft spice alongside juniper on the palate, and a ‘super-smooth’ finish. LR

£39, The Gin To My Tonic

www.luckybeegin.co.uk

IWSC Vodka and Tonic trophy winner

The best vodka for a vodka & tonic

 

Gustav Dill Vodka, Lignell & Piispanen

Dill plays a prominent part in Scandinavian cuisine, so it’s little surprise that its aromatic qualities lend themselves to a spirit. Lignell & Piispanen from Finland has been making vodka, gin and liqueurs for more than 150 years, using locally sourced ingredients such as Arctic blueberries, cloudberries, and, for the IWSC’s Vodka & Tonic trophy, dill. Gustav Dill vodka drew praise for its hints of artichoke and pepper, along with its sweet and refined palate with notes of star anise and citrus. It shines when paired with tonic, too – try the distillery’s signature serve which features a garnish of pink peppercorns and fresh basil leaves.

£27.90, Finndeli

lignellpiispanen.com

IWSC Mezcal trophy winner

The best mezcal

 

Los Vecinos Del Campo Mezcal Tobala, Casa San Matias

Los vecinos del campo means ‘neighbours of the field’, a nod to the 10 mezcalero families across the Oaxaca region joining together to make this bottling – although, it’s all under the steer of San Matias distillery and the Sazerac Company (which makes Southern Comfort, among others). Traditional mezcal methods are applied to the process across the Los Vecinos range, with piñas baked in the ground for extra earthiness in the glass. This particular expression is crafted from 100% maguey tobala and is as aromatic as you’d expect from the plant, revealing ripe forest-fruit aromas leading to white pepper and tonka bean flavours. LR

N/A UK

www.sanmatias.com

IWSC Rum trophy winner

The best rum

 

VSOP Rum, Depaz Distillery

Rums from French-speaking Caribbean islands are usually made with sugar cane, delivering plenty of fresh aromatics, and the IWSC Rum Trophy winner is no exception. Depaz Distillery in Martinique was built in the early 1900s by Victor Depaz, the only surviving family member after the Mount Pelée volcano destroyed the site in 1902. Depaz’s hard work paid off, the awards began to roll in, and his legacy remains with Depaz’s exceptional line-up of rums. The VSOP is the pick of the bunch, delivering tempting notes of dried tropical fruit, aromatic wood and complex candy sweetness. SP

£48.95, The Whisky Exchange

IWSC Shochu trophy winner

The best shochu

 

Akane Kaze 43 Shochu, Hombo Shuzo

The humble potato is well known as a versatile ingredient in vodka, but it’s also used to great effect in Japanese spirit shochu. The IWSC Shochu Trophy winner, Akane Kaze 43 from Hombo Shuzo, is made with sweet potatoes, creating a light, floral spirit. The judges were taken by its elegant aromas of tea, bergamot and ripe fruits, with tropical-fruit notes on the palate, lifted by perfumed hints of lavender and violet. Hombo Shuzo was founded back in 1872, and is located in Kagoshima Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. SP

N/A UK

IWSC best single malt Scotch whisky no age trophy winner

The best single malt Scotch whisky (no age statement)

 

Octaves Batch 2 Classic Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Glenglassaugh

From being mothballed in the 1980s to having new life breathed into it in 2008, Glenglassaugh is determined to bring its historical whiskies back to life. The Octaves series pays tribute to the art of taking staves from old casks and creating a new smaller cask of only 65 litres, where the whisky and wood have more surface to marry. With the rich sherry wood adding a rounded spiced-toffee nose and dried fruit mingling with toast and jam, this is a delight. PM

£56.90, House of Malt

www.glenglassaugh.com

IWSC best single malt Scotch whisky 15 Years trophy winner

The best single malt Scotch whisky – 15 Years and Under

 

15 YO Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Speyburn

Hidden in the mighty Speyside region, Speyburn is unique. The only distillery to draw its water from the Granty Burn (a tributary of the River Spey), this was the first of its kind to be built three storeys high with a famous pagoda roof – with space in the narrow valley limited. Nowadays the light, sweet style is a symbol of a classic Speyside single malt. The 15YO is the perfect place to start with marmalade notes, nuts, ginger and spice. There is also delicate vanilla, toffee and a long lingering creamy finish. PM

£58.95, The Whisky Exchange

www.speyburn.com

IWSC best single malt Scotch whisky 16-25 Years trophy winner

The best single malt Scotch whisky – 16-25-year-old

 

25 YO Small Batch Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Bunnahabhain

This Islay whisky (pronounced boo-na-HAH-ven) means ‘mouth of the river’ in Gaelic, as it stands where the Margadale spring meets the North Atlantic on the Sound of Islay (the narrow strait between Islay and Jura). Without a road until the late 1960s, the distillery relied on trade in boats to the mainland, a task that is still reflected in the packaging today. Classically non-chill-filtered or coloured, whiskies from Bunnahabhain typically have an alcohol level of 46.3%. The 25-year-old is the perfect choice for those who like their drams a little less peated, rich and sweet with a whiff of peat smoke, grapefruit and caramel and spiced orange. Notes of nuts and vanilla intertwine into a delightful whisky. PM

£365, The Whisky Exchange

bunnahabhain.com

IWSC best single malt Scotch whisky over 26 Years trophy winner

The best single malt Scotch whisky – over 26-year-old

 

Highland Single Malt 1978 Whisky, Tomatin

Rumour has it that Tomatin was an illegal distillery when it was established back in the 1700s. The name means ‘hill of the juniper bush’, which was the choice of wood used to fire the stills, since it gives off no smoke when burned. However, the modern distillery was built in 1897 in the secluded high glen. Despite being so old, for many years Tomatin whisky was sold as a blending component for the big blends – it’s only more recently, under Japanese ownership, that the distillery is becoming a name in its own right once again. If you want luxury then the 1978 vintage bottling is sure to please: it’s smooth and creamy with nuts, raisins and touches of marmalade, heather and honey. Truly magnificent. PM

N/A UK

www.tomatin.com

IWSC Tequila trophy winner

The best Tequila

 

Paradiso Tequila, El Tesoro

This Extra Añejo is aged for five years in former Cognac barrels made from French oak. But despite all this happening in Jalisco, that’s not the only influence from the sophisticated French brandy seen here – it’s also a collaboration with Alain Royer, master blender and sixth-generation Cognac maker, founder of A de Fussigny Cognac. The rich gold liquid is sippable and seductive, with agave’s signature citrus on the nose, and rose and apple on the palate – demonstrating an elegant and somewhat-savoury vanilla finish. LR

N/A UK

www.eltesorotequila.com

Misty Isle Vodka

The best vodka

 

Misty Isle Vodka, Isle of Skye Distillers

From the beautiful island of Skye, this vodka made by the local Wilson brothers embodies the true nature of the landscape. From the stepped neck of the bottle that was inspired by the Cuillin Mountains, to the wheat-based vodka made using the crystal waters from the land. Like Skye itself, the vodka has depth, balance and character. The nose has delicate white fruit, lemon and vanilla, with a smooth palate of plum and elderflower that gives a grainy sweetness. PM

£34.95, Master of Malt

www.isleofskyedistillers.com

IWSC Worldwide Whiskey trophy winner

The best worldwide whiskey

 

Podium Single Malt Whisky, Kavalan Distillery

The past couple of decades has seen a huge rise in the profile of non-traditional whisky-making countries, but there’s one country – and one distillery in particular – that’s soaring ahead: Taiwan’s Kavalan. The distillery started making whisky in 2005, and soon started wowing the critics with its single malts, aged in casks that have gone through the “STR” (Shaved, Toasted, Re-charred) maturation method, imbuing the spirit with layers of complexity. The IWSC judges were particularly impressed with Trophy winner Podium, which displays roasted coffee, honeysuckle and rose aromas, accompanied by a spicy palate of nutmeg. SP

£76.95, The Whisky Exchange

www.kavalanwhisky.com

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