Think back just a couple of years: flavored whiskies weren’t much of a category.
But look at the shelves today. Inspired by the strong success of flavored vodkas, the flavored whiskey category has roared to life. For this month’s tastings, flavors ranged from fruity to vanilla- and cinnamon-spiced; maple to salted caramel. (No cupcake-flavored whiskies yet—whew!) The unspoken rule seems to be this: find a flavor that exists in the natural spectrum of whiskey, and amp it up.
In general, the bases of these products are younger spirits, and they’re intended for cocktails (cola or ginger ale seem to be the go-to mixers here). Canadian whiskey used to be the primary foundation for flavored products, but that’s no longer the case, as bases now range from Irish whiskey to rye to unaged American moonshine.
It would be a challenge to compare these young whiskies side by side with their fine, long-aged counterparts. In many ways, it’s comparable to the intersection between aged rums and spiced rums: “fine” versus “fun.”
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. California wine-and-spirits maker, Charbay, bucks the young-whiskey trend by distilling beer and aging it for extended periods to create intriguing “hop-flavored” whiskies. Two are included here, although some might argue they belong in a different category from whiskies with flavoring added after distillation.
These flavored whiskies are drawing in tipplers who are new to whiskey altogether. Some experts refer to them as “starter whiskies”—if you try and enjoy maple-flavored Bourbon, distillers reason, perhaps you’ll be more likely to try unflavored Bourbon down the road.
We’re all for that kind of experimentation at Wine Enthusiast, so if you find a flavored whiskey here you like, consider heading over to our online Buying Guide to locate an unflavored whiskey you might enjoy too.
95 Charbay Hop Flavored Whiskey—Release III 1999 (USA; Charbay Distillers, Ukiah, CA). Double-distilled from Pilsner beer, flavored with hops and aged for 14 years (six years in oak, eight years out of oak), this limited-edition whiskey isn’t for everyone. It’s powerful, big and oaky on the palate, with lots of tannins rounding out into vanilla, honey and sweet-yet-bitter orange peel. Bottled at an over-the-top 132 proof, it needs a lot of dilution, but once the alcohol is tamed, an enticing velvetiness emerges. This whiskey is different, interesting and oddly haunting. It would make a wild Manhattan.
abv: 66.2% Price: $400
93 Jim Beam Maple (USA; James B. Beam Distilling Company, Frankfort, KY). This maple-flavored Bourbon features rich and sweet maple and vanilla aromas and flavors, plus a lingering butterscotch note. A flicker of heat on the finish reminds one there’s actually whiskey in there, and serves to balance out the sweetness with cinnamon and ginger sparks. Surprisingly addictive, this is one of the few flavored whiskies that works equally well mixed or sipped straight up. Best Buy.
abv: 35% Price: $16
92 Knob Creek Smoked Maple (USA; Knob Creek Distillery, Clermont, KY). Whiskey first, flavoring second in this bottle. The alcohol presence comes through early on the nose and palate (it’s 90 proof, after all), followed by undercurrents of maple and vanilla. It finishes with flourishes of spice and heat, with a welcome orange-peel note. If you’re seeking a quality flavored Bourbon that will stand up to mixing, here it is.
abv: 45% Price: $31
92 Jack Daniel’s Winter Jack Tennessee Cider (USA; Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Lynchburg, TN). A lighter style of whiskey, this blend of apple cider liqueur and Tennessee whiskey smells fresh and inviting, hinting at apples, pears and baking spices. Sweet and tart on the tongue—resembling a light version of ice wine—this easy-drinking seasonal offering works well either warm or chilled. Best Buy.
abv: 15% Price: $18
90 Vanilla Mist (Canada; Brown-Forman, Louisville, KY). A mix of vanilla liqueur and blended Canadian whiskey, this bottle has a rich vanilla aroma and flavor, with touches of maple and brown sugar. Though it’s easy-sipping, balanced alcohol keeps the sweetness in check. Best Buy.
abv: 35% Price: $10
90 Paddy Bee Sting (Ireland; Pernod Ricard, New York, NY). This mix of Irish whiskey, liqueur, honey and flavorings offers a honey aroma with a strong waxy note. On the palate it’s viscous, almost creamy, with bold apple and honey flavors accented by spice and floral notes on the finish. It’s appealing to sip or mix.
abv: 35% Price: $33
89 Pow-Wow Botanical Rye (USA; Georgetown Trading Co., Washington, DC). The unusual herbal notes in this rye whiskey-based product yield an almost amaro-like aroma. Flavors run to vanilla and sarsaparilla, which yield to assertive bitter elements that resemble dried citrus peel or hops, and finish with a bright citrusy note.
abv: 45% Price: $40