Like so much else in this mad world, things were once simpler when it came to whiskey. Single malts came from Scotland. You could name every rye producer in one breath. And there wasn't, for Chrissakes, sweet tea-flavored bourbon. Well, times have changed: Distilling has exploded across the globe, and many of the results are excellent. In the roaring category of Japanese whiskeys, Suntory's Hibiki 21 blends product from Chita, Hakushu, and Yamazaki, an all-star cast of distilleries. Aged in American and Spanish oak, as well as Japanese mizunara oak, it offers lush tones of caramel, wood, and fruit, with a touch of smoke.
It's rare nowadays to find single pot still whiskey, distilled from both malted and unmalted barley in a copper pot still. But Redbreast produces Irish whiskey the traditional way, which lends elegance to Redbreast 21. Aged in bourbon and oloroso sherry casks, the smooth spirit bursts with tropical fruit, spice, and toasted nuts.
In Speyside, where peat is uncommon but port casks are not, BenRiach Solstice 17 Year Old Second Edition marries Scotland's twin traditions of smokier and sweeter scotches. Starting with heavily peated malted barley and finishing in tawny port casks, the spirit has a smoky kick that tangles with toffee and a hint of bright red fruit.
American producers are new to single malts, but New York's Hillrock Single Malt Whiskey stands toe-to-toe with the best. Made from organic estate-grown barley, smoked with Scottish peat, and aged in sherry casks, it sports spicy clove and cherry notes, resolving in a sleek finish. Another young outfit, West Virginia's Smooth Ambler, makes a lovely rye. Balancing spiciness with honey and mint notes, Old Scout Straight Rye Whiskey 7 Year is more perky than rough. A non-chill-filtration whiskey, it retains the fatty acids that contribute to flavor and a silky mouthfeel.
And the classic producers still wow. The highly anticipated annual release of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 offers rich vanilla, cinnamon, and dried fruit notes—as with other years, this limited edition bottle will sell out quickly. But with more whiskey produced than ever, even if you can't track it down, there's something on the shelf worth taking home.