There is just one question to ask when it comes to whiskey: what’s not to praise? It exudes refinement, grandeur, class, and a sense of history. In an increasingly fast and shallow society, this amber elixir serves as a counterpoint of profoundness.
So much of what happens in the food and drink industry lately is dictated by “the current thing”. Fortunately, whiskey is not. It is self-sufficient, even blessed, and it does not have to be trendy to be excellent because whiskey is a teller of tales.
With every sip, it reveals a new story. Your story! What prompted you to purchase the bottle and where did you buy it? Perhaps it begins with how you discovered it or where you first drank it and continues through here and now, with whom you’re enjoying it and why.
But, while you are paying attention to the present moment’s sensations, flavors, and scents, your thoughts will be simultaneously traveling the world to different places and other eras. You will be curious about the origins of the grains and the maturation of the liquid. You will want to contemplate and understand the entire atmosphere that helped produce it.
We could even say that whiskey is a form of literature, written by those who manufacture it and those who drink it, entangled in a single narrative that spans place, money, and generations. Think of it as a solid relationship: it requires time, and the more time you put in, the more layers are exposed. Yet, what makes whiskey smooth?
What Exactly Do We Mean by Smooth?
“Smooth” is one of the most commonly heard and ill-defined terms in the whiskey language. Everybody has encountered a whiskey that they would characterize as smooth at some point in their lives, but what does that actually mean? Warm? delicate? Subtle? Light? Sweet? Lacking that alcoholic burn?
In a nutshell, smooth whiskeys are those that can be effortlessly sipped without causing tongue itching or scorching and have the least amount of alcoholic “sting” as possible. Milder whiskeys, on the whole, provide a more mellow drinking experience than their more aggressive cousins. Thus, the easiest way to determine whether the liquid is smooth or not is to taste or smell it.
What Makes a Whisky Smooth?
Smoothness is a difficult attribute to define because it can originate from a wide variety of sources. To begin with, a pleasant, delicate taste may be due in part to the grain selected for distillation.
Bourbon, for one, must include at least 51% maize, although this amount is usually much higher. Corn’s delicate flavor lends itself to a milder texture than ingredients such as rye or barley. Moreover, wheat yields beverages with a smooth, delicate character comparable to a hefeweizen or wheat beer. Even in small amounts, wheat gives a subtle feel to whiskey.
Blending is another technique used for spirits to become smooth. Often, the purpose of blending is to create an exquisitely tempered whiskey, so that the first taste inspires balance rather than a dizzy spell.
Certain whiskey-producing countries, like Canada and the United States of America, permit the inclusion of sweeteners, flavoring, and blending agents in at least a few of their whiskey types, which can also improve the mouth feel’s plumpness and minimize the impression of alcohol heat.
The Distillation Process
The specifics of the distilling method vary according to the sort of whiskey manufactured, industry and local restrictions, as well as the distiller’s tastes. In general, the distillation process can make a drink more alcohol-heavy while removing things that don’t contribute to the whiskey’s sweetness.
Therefore, smoothness can be obtained by distilling to a high proof. The greater the proof of the whiskey, the more pleasantly spiced it will be. And that adds up because a lot of alcohol in a drink makes it less able to retain congeners, those flavor-holding molecules that make whiskey and vodka taste different.
Various kinds of whiskey are aged according to different criteria. Among them are things like what type of barrel is used, how long the whiskey is kept to age, and how much alcohol by volume it has.
By eliminating pollutants, big molecules, and heavy oils, sifting spirit via charcoal or another form of a filter can give it a soft texture in the mouth. Aging in an oak cask, which acts as a sieve, also contributes to the enhancement of smooth features.
However, while it is true that the more the whiskey is matured in the barrel, the sweeter it becomes, there is a significant exception to this.
Oak is extremely astringent, which means that too much time in the cask, especially a new one, will lend a zesty and tannic flavor to the whiskey. And that is almost certainly the exact antithesis of smooth, regardless of how you describe it.
While heat is not the deciding factor between rough and pleasant whiskeys, lowering the temperature can help alleviate the sensation of alcohol burn. By adding a rock or two to your glass, you may cool the drink while also preventing the nerve cells in your mouth from feeling threatened.
Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that some whiskeys, such as single malts, are clearly crafted to be consumed neat and that adding ice will usually only dilute the spirit.
The 20 Smoothest Whiskeys to Enjoy Right Now
To mark World Whiskey Day, coming on May 21, we’ve identified the 20 smoothest whiskeys to fill your home bar. Moreover, to help decode this lusciously complex spirit, we dug deep into each bottle’s tasting notes, so you’ll know precisely what to anticipate before it arrives at your door.
Therefore, join us in raising a toast to an incredible array of whiskeys that are as smooth as silk.
20. Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve is a bourbon that can easily become your new essential. It contains everything that connoisseurs have grown to embrace about Jim Beam’s finest whiskey.
The first taste is full-bodied and spicy, with intriguing dark chocolate notes that contrast with the rye and cinnamon aromas. But, the richness does not end there; you’ll also encounter toasty vanilla and oak, as well as a pleasant astringency. The finish is long and rich, serving as a reminder that you’re drinking an exceptional bourbon.
19. Ballantine’s 17 Year Old
Ballantine’s is one of the most popular blended Scotch whiskeys, and this is because it continues to employ the same formula from more than a century ago. Or so the brand says.
In the glass, Ballantine’s 17-year-old is a toffee-colored liquid, and it has toasted wood and vanilla aromas on the nose. When it comes to taste, it’s pretty rounded, with some fruity and earthy flavors. There are notes of honey, butterscotch, and spice. It’s like a creme brulee with a flowery aroma and subtle undertones of smoke. A match made in heaven!
18. Lot No. 40 Whisky
Nowadays, rye whiskey has hit the mainstream in the U.S. and the market is flooded with new names from established brands as well as fledgling boutique distilleries. Thus, Canadian manufacturers are responding to consumers’ appetite with some exceptional releases, this one included.
Lot No.40, launched by Pernod-Ricard in 2012, is essentially a resurgence of a whiskey from the late 1990s that captures the grain’s aromatic, floral, and spicy aromas all at once. Lot No. 40 blends a robust, full flavor with a silky tongue feel and low alcohol content, making it pleasant yet rewarding for the palate.
17. Laphroaig Quarter Cask
Laphroaig is a distillery on the Scottish island of Islay, which is famous for its whiskeys, many of which are highly peated. This particular drink is first aged in bourbon barrels and then in small casks, also known as quarter casks, which allow for 30% more rapid and diverse maturation of the spirit.
The Laphroaig Quarter Cask appears to be liquid honey in the glass, while the nose is delightfully ashy, suggestive of a full peat blast. The initial tasting delivers on the promise, with smokey aromas, almost to the point of being overbearing.
However, the smoky barrier leaves space for sprinkles of cinnamon and other spices, a hint of oakiness, and just a bit of smoothness.
16. George Dickel 13-Year-Old Bottle-in-Bond
In a less poetic language, George Dickel is the “other” Tennessee Whiskey distillery, overshadowed by the colossal Jack Daniel’s. Irrespective of its size, the brand has graciously and painstakingly blessed us with George Dickel Bottle-in-Bond, a limited edition 13-year-old whiskey made and barrelled in 2005.
It has exquisitely full and rich butterscotch, marshmallow, maple syrup, and creme brulee delicious notes, tempered by just enough oak, spices, grass, and mint to keep it intriguing and nuanced. George Dickel’s Tennessee Whiskey is whiskey precisely as it ought to be: straightforward and a pleasure to drink.
15. Jameson Triple Distilled
Irish whiskeys have skyrocketed recently, led by Jameson, which is currently the world’s best-selling Irish whiskey, with our dearest Bushmills placing second. Jameson is triple distilled yet is a refreshingly mild and clean-tasting drink with barley, vanilla, and unripe citrus notes.
In the glass, Jameson has the hue of sun-mottled cornflowers and the strong fragrance of petrol-infused honey. It’s refreshing and light in the mouth, and its aroma gradually exposes itself. Allow it to glide slowly on the palate and it will reveal a touch of berry. Leave it to soak and the sourball’s acerbic delicacy will start playing around the edges.
14. West Cork 8-Year Single Malt
What an incredible discovery! The West Cork 8-Year Single Malt is silky smooth, mildly fruity, and sublimely crisp.
With a traditional Irish texture, the palate swiftly evolves to sweeter ingredients. Chewy malt and butterscotch flavors come together to make the drink taste the same as a rich, nougat-like dessert with a mildly oily mouthfeel of almonds and a subtle salted cracker flavor.
While the finish is not harsh, it does leave a lingering aftertaste of roasted nuts with a hint of baking cinnamon. This fantastic single malt is equally at home on its own or in a cocktail.
13. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon is a full-bodied whiskey produced in small batches throughout the year and is widely regarded as a fantastic bourbon and a perfect example that high proof does not always have to overwhelm the depth of taste. The aromas and flavors of this drink are robust and intense, but they are also luscious and pleasant.
While it may sting a little when swallowed, the explosive growth in sweetness compensates for this. If you’re up for it, Elijah Craig’s bourbon will lavishly reward you. Don’t hesitate to buy it if you come across it, but please leave some for us as well.
12. The GlenDronach Allardice
If somebody ever wishes to offer us a whiskey as a gift, we will be overjoyed if this particular bottle shows up on our doorstep. In fact, the GlenDronach Allardice is the type of whiskey that is difficult to grow tired of, and we wholeheartedly suggest it if you haven’t tried it so far.
Sipping it gives the impression of a full-bodied, rich, and smooth, sherried whiskey, with the fruity flavor reduced to figs and raisins and enhanced by an earthy cocoa-infused fudge aroma. Later on, oak and pepper notes emerge, providing a little juxtaposition near the finish.
11. Auchentoshan 12
Auchentoshan 12 Years is the entry-level whiskey of the eponymous distillery, one of just three Lowlands factories standing following the 1983 whiskey market meltdown, which resulted in a wave of shutdowns. This is a single malt with a pleasing dose of flair, considerably darker in color, and which has been matured in oak barrels for 12 years.
The intake is mild before the richness kicks in and that deep, almost rustic malt gains control, helped by a dash of vanilla, while the texture is skillfully built around it with grape sweetness and spiciness. All things considered, Auchentoshan 12 Years-Old is a fine choice, a delightful selection from the initial scent to the final sip.
10. Henry McKenna Single Barrel
Henry McKenna immigrated to America from Ireland in 1837 and settled in Kentucky, where he sought to improve his family’s recipe for bourbon. Nowadays, Heaven Hill makes a ten-year-matured Henry McKenna Single Barrel whiskey that meets the Bottle-in-Bond rules.
It’s not an elaborate beverage, but rather a delicate blend of conventional bourbon notes with just the proper amount of oak, spice, and sweetness clashing seamlessly. The flavors of vanilla and seasoned wood dominate the palate but are immediately offset by a healthy dose of rye spice, a flash of caramelized brown sugar, and a scoop of butterscotch.
9. Pikesville Straight Rye
Do yourself a favor and invest in a bottle of Pikesville Straight Rye. With its flawless execution on every level, it is one of the ultimate whiskeys that is worth every single cent. Pikesville Rye emerged in the 1890s in Maryland, which was the core of rye whiskey manufacturing until Prohibition brought an end to everyone’s pleasure.
Both the scent and taste of this drink are robust and complex, conjuring peppery, rustic, sweet, and earthy notes. It has a fiery edge, but this comes through as a constant undertone of heat on the palate, lending tremendous intensity and complexity to the other notes.
8. Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye
Straight Rye, like most of E.H. Taylor’s offerings, is Bottled-in-Bond. This is a name used for several American spirits, and it has various controlled features.
First, the whiskey must be from a single distiller, manufactured in one distillery for one season. Second, the spirit must have been stored in a nationally approved warehouse for at least four years and be at least 100 proof (or 50% alcohol by volume) before it can be sold.
Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye’s mouthfeel is rich with caramel, sugarplum, pepper, and deep red cherry flavors, overpowered by a piquantly harsh rye grain taste. The finish is extended and maintains the toffee throughout with spice pinches, cinnamon, and nutmeg globs. All in all, this is a great and complex rye that everyone who likes whiskey will enjoy.
7. Buffalo Trace Bourbon
The moniker “Buffalo Trace” was set out to remind us of the native explorers’ trails out into the wilderness of North America seeking a better life. Buffalo Trace bourbon is matured in oak barrels for a minimum of eight years and is characterized by caramel, butterscotch, cinnamon, cracked pepper, and nutmeg notes.
Its taste may be excessively syrupy for some, but the finish truly expands and grows, eventually overwhelming your senses. The tongue is rounded out by mild oak and rye spiciness, making Buffalo Trace Bourbon incredibly complex and flavorful for a 90-proof bourbon.
6. Balvenie DoubleWood
This whiskey begins as a fairly conventional single malt scotch, matured in first-or second-fill bourbon barrels, and then finished in first-fill oloroso sherry casks for up to a year.
Having a taste of it reveals a mellow and pleasant whiskey with prominent malted barley flavors. It’s almost as if you’re enjoying a slice of freshly baked homemade bread. Next, there is a chocolate note that jumps in, giving it the feel of a grown-up variant of Cookie Crisp cereal.
The Double Wood is not as approachable as the Single-Barrel Balvenie, and is lacking in fruit and floral aromas. However, this whiskey stands alone as a stunning display of what meticulous oak maturation can do.
5. Suntory Hakushu
Suntory Hakushu is sourced directly from the unspoiled forests, fresh streams, and jaw-dropping mountains of the southern Japanese Alps and is produced at 43% alcohol by volume, distilled at 86 proof, and has a bright golden tint.
You’ll encounter vanilla, pear, and green apple, along with traces of peat and ginger, which make the finish spicier than the scent suggests. Suntory Hakushu Single Malt has a balanced mouthfeel that is smooth and precise with a silky but sharp contrast, and the heat is, to put it mildly, pleasant.
4. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey
If you can get over the idea that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey is not a whiskey, you might just enjoy the authentic honey-sweet taste of the whiskey-based liquor served over ice or in a cocktail. As is the case with most liqueurs, it is extremely mellow, but due to its 70 proof, it also overwhelms the palate.
However, Tennessee Honey is unmistakably Jack Daniel’s from start to finish, and it lacks the compelling or synthetic flavor present in many sweetened whiskeys. Simply said, it tastes like you poured a teaspoon of honey into a shot of Jack Daniel’s.
The finish is silky and lingering, providing one more hint of its smoothness. If you’ve previously avoided spiced whiskeys, you should give this one a shot.
3. Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
You’ll want to return to this exceptional Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon time and time again. It’s rich, filled to the brim, and unexpectedly smooth, with an incredibly soft aftertaste. It instantly explodes with apple, caramel, and vanilla flavors, with a touch of wood, cinnamon, and clove on the finish.
As luscious as it is, the Four Roses Single Barrel is not overly aromatic, but there is enough apple and orange on the palate, along with traces of berries, to lend a delightful touch of vitality and depth, elevating it from fine to fascinating.
2. Westland Peated Whiskey
The Westland Peated Single Malt is exceptionally well-executed, aged in both new American oak barrels and first-fill ex-bourbon casks for a minimum of three years, and finished at 46% ABV without extra coloring.
From inception to delivery, it’s a delicious blend of bakery sweetness and campfire rusticity that could easily compete with any of the young Islays on the market. The tongue is greeted by ashy peat, which recedes after a minor sting to expose bittersweet chocolate truffles, pear touches, and dark roasted coffee bean aromas.
As it dissipates, the peat takes on a minty flavor, and the chocolate takes precedence over the smoke, as the subtle notes of cocoa powder and oaky tannins come together to make an exquisite whiskey.
1. Aberlour 16 Whiskey
Aberlour’s 16-year-old is a sweet and aromatic edition that has been aged in a blend of sherry barrels and first-fill bourbon casks at a somewhat lower ABV of 47% than the prior versions. It flows effortlessly and leaves a pleasant aftertaste in the mouth, which makes it one of those timeless blends that transport you to another place with ease.
Swing it around your mouth and you’ll experience incredible silky pleasure, given by subtle flavors. Keep it on your palate and there you have it: wheat aromas, oak spices, more noticeable honey, pepper, and cloves, albeit a small amount. Not as plump as some on this side of the gamut, not as fragrant, strangely, but still absolutely amazing.
While the adage “the older the better” is a reasonable, and frequently pricey, starting point, there are many variations to excellence as there are tasting notes in the glass. Even though whiskey may appear to be a daunting drink with a lot of tradition and rigmarole, the main goal is to savor your dram to the utmost.
So, just press play on Chris Stapleton’s song “Tennessee Whiskey” and remember to drink responsibly. Cheers!