With categories like bourbon, Scotch or Irish as well as countless brands lining the shelves, it can seem quite daunting to dive into the world of whisky for the first time. Not to worry – we’ve rounded up the top whisky brands from around the world which are guaranteed to have you coming back for more.
10. Southern Comfort
Although Southern Comfort is technically a liqueur and only flavoured with whisky along with fruit and spice, its hard to overlook based on sheer popularity (plus, most people believe it’s indeed a whisky or bourbon anyway). Originating in Louisiana, Southern Comfort was first produced under the brand ‘Cuffs and Buttons’ by bartender Martin Wilkes Heron in 1874 in the French Quarter of New Orleans when he was trying to make the taste of unrefined whisky more palatable. Fifteen years later, Heron moved to Memphis, Tennessee to patent his creation which would later go on to win the gold medal at the 1904 World’s Fair in Missouri. Heron’s original recipe started with a premium bourbon base. He would then add vanilla bean, lemon, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cherries and an orange before letting it all soak for a number of days. Just before he was ready to bottle it, he would add his sweetener of choice, usually honey. Although today’s recipe is kept under lock and key, it’s believed they have now replaced the honey with a fruit concentrate with apricot as the dominant fruit. Southern Comfort is famous for its wide use in cocktails, the first of which to be marketed being the Scarlet O’Hara. Concocted as a tribute to the actress for her role in Gone With the Wind, the mixture includes Southern Comfort, cranberry juice and fresh lime. A drink worth giving a damn about.
Justerini & Brooks, otherwise known as JB, is a blend of 42 Scottish malt and grain whiskies. In 1749, Giacomo Justerini travelled from Italy to London and, finding a partner with George Johnson, set up as a wine merchant. The company was then bought by Alfred Brooks in 1831, renaming it Justerini & Brooks, and it began its foray into whisky distillery. Seeing the potential of blended whisky, J&B became one of the first London spirit merchants to buy up stocks of mature malt whisky and created its own house blend. Originally named Club (a brand which is still available for purchase in shops in both London and Edinburgh), they saw hefty dividends in New York City as Prohibition came to an end in 1933. Truman Capote is notable as having chosen J&B as his favourite drink, only ever referring to it by its full name of Justerini & Brooks. Were any bartender to not immediately know what the full moniker was, he was rumoured to swiftly leave the establishment. Today J&B is now owned by parent company Diageo; a London based company which is the world’s largest spirits manufacturer. J&B is ideal for mixing – with cola, ginger ale and lemon being recommended as great bases.
8. Canadian Club
A brand of whisky from, you guessed it, Canada, Canadian Club began production in 1858. Hiram Walker first began experimenting with distilling cider vinegar in his grocery store in 1854, before founding his first distillery 4 years later in Detroit. Shortly thereafter, production moved across the river to Windsor, Ontario. Aging his whisky for 5 years – a precedent unheard of at the time as most whisky and bourbon was aged for just a year – it took off in popularity across America in finer gentlemen’s establishments and soon became known as the Club Whisky. The American government passed a law requiring all Canadian distilleries to include the country of origin on their label, resulting in the now infamous legacy of Canadian Club Whisky. When Prohibition hit the States in the 1920s, Chicago gangster and smuggler Al Capone became one of the distilleries most important clients. Smuggling in thousands of cases across the Canadian border, Hiram’s whisky soon became the number one spirit. With many knock-off distillers trying to peddle lower grade whisky to unsuspecting members of the public, Canadian Club distributors helped protect the brand by advertising patrons to ask for the drink by name to make sure they were getting the real deal. Hiram Walker & Sons is the only American distillery to have received a royal warrant. Perhaps more astounding is they have received multiple warrants from Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George VI and Elizabeth II – a feat Hiram himself would be proud of. Today, Canadian Club is the fourth best selling alcoholic beverage in the world and is available in seven varieties worldwide.
7. The Famous Grouse
Moving on from his humble beginnings as a grocer in Perth, Scotland, Matthew Gloag began purchasing whiskies around the country and by 1842 he had become the supplier of wines to the royal banquet when Queen Victoria visited. Eighteen years later, his son took control of the company and began producing his own blended whiskies. However, it wasn’t until 1896 when the Grouse Blend made its debut. Wanting to meet the demands of the ever increasing number of wealthy victorian tourists, this blend offered something unique (it was also here the famous red grouse logo appeared for the first time). With its rich blend of carefully chosen grain and exceptional malts, the drink became an immediate success and became widely celebrated. In 1905, capitalising on its success and strengthening its brand, the word ‘Famous’ was finally added to the label. The company saw massive growth and it soon relocated to bigger, purpose built facilities in order to cope with increase in demand. In 1970, independent Scottish company Highland Distillers acquired Gloag & Son, providing immense resources to help The Famous Grouse become Scotland’s best selling whisky. 10 years later, the brand began selling internationally and saw exports of over 2 million cases annually. In 1984, the distillery was granted the Royal Warrant. In 2006, The Famous Grouse allowed customers to personalise a bottle with their own name, allowing everyone their fifteen minutes of fame – provided they also want a shot of scotch.
6. Chivas Regal
Another blended Scotch whisky, Chivas Regal traces its roots back to 1801. The Chivas Brothers store was founded on selling luxury foodstuffs such as coffee, spices, French brandies, and Caribbean rum to their wealthy clientele. In 1843, Chivas Brothers was given a Royal Warrant to provide goods to Queen Victoria and they soon became renowned as the finest purveying business in the north of Scotland. Seven years later, they had sufficient demands for a smoother whisky and the company began experimenting with a blended Scotch, known as Royal Glen Dee. This was soon followed with a second blend, the Royal Strathythan. In 1900, bolstered by a booming economy in America the Chivas Brothers began exporting their most aged blended Scotch whisky under the name Chivas Regal. It became an instant hit and continued with enormous success until the beginning of Prohibition. Following the demise of Prohibition and the end of World War II, Chivas Regal relaunched and became a fashionable drink of the era which was strongly associated with the Rat Pack. Sinatra was known for only requesting Chivas Regal and the brand became his sponsor for his 1990 Diamond Jubilee Tour. The range has expanded quite considerably with the launch of Chivas Regal 18 years old and 25 years in 1997 and 2007, respectively. Receiving wide critical acclaim, the whiskeys have performed well at spirit competitions, gaining double-gold medals for three years consecutively since 2011.
5. Jim Beam
During the late 18th Century, members of the Böhm family, later renamed Beam, settled in Kentucky and began producing their first barrels of bourbon in 1795. The drink was first branded as Old Jake Beam and the distillery was known as the Old Tub. As the Industrial Revolution hit, the distillery saw rapid expansion and capitalised on the growing network of railway lines in order to distribute its bourbon more efficiently and widespread. After the end of Prohibition in 1933, the business was rebuilt in Clermont, Kentucky by James B. Beam. Two years later, the bourbon was renamed in his honour and included labels bearing the statement ‘none genuine without my signature’ with his signature below. In 1954, the company expanded by opening a second distillery in Boston, Kentucky and saw further growth as the years past. Since its origins, seven generations of the Beam family have been involved in the production of whisky. In 2014, Japanese conglomerate Suntory Holdings began the process of buying the company. However, still keen to keep the family involved, Jim Beam continued to be managed by its current leadership. Jim Beam ages in barrels for 4 years – twice the minimum requirement for bourbon – and believes this contributes to their unique mellow. As the process of aging results in the loss of some bourbon due to evaporation, the Beam family have branded this ‘the angels share’. Provided our share remains as smooth as it is famous, the angels can have all they like.
4. Wild Turkey
The Ripy brothers founded their distillery in Tyrone, Kentucky in 1869, and the company has seen several acquisitions over the years. First by the Goud Brothers in 1952, then Pernod Ricard, and finally the Campari Group in 2009. The brand received its famous name after a distillery executive took some samples on a turkey hunt in 1940. The following year, his friends asked for ‘some of that wild turkey whisky’ and the name took hold. Wild Turkey has recently tried to rebrand itself as a more sophisticated brand having held a reputation for being associated with tough guys thanks to appearances in films like Rambo, Bad Lieutenant, Thelma & Louise (it’s also a regular staple on the TV show Justified). Their most famous promotional campaign will forever be the “Give ‘em the Bird” slogan which, unsurprisingly, featured the middle finger gesture. Despite the advert being ruled as breaking the code of ethical practices, the company still uses the slogan. Most recently, master distiller Jimmy Russell publicly called for Barack Obama to “give us the bird” in reference to the White House turkey on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. Jimmy Russell is also famous as being the world’s longest-tenured, active distiller in the world. Along with this, he also pioneered the flavoured bourbon category in 1976 with the introduction of American Honey – then known as Wild Turkey Honey Liqueur. Wild Turkey has received consistently favourable reviews and various expert bodies have ranked their 101 Single Barrel as being in the 97th percentile of all rated bourbons.
3. Jameson Irish Whiskey
Scottish born John Jameson travelled to Dublin in 1780, acquiring a distillery which at the time produced 30,000 gallons per year. Less than 20 years later it had become the second largest producer in Ireland and one of the biggest in the world, outputting in excess of 1 million gallons. Despite being the number one whisky by 1805, the distillery faced a number of setbacks which held back its growth for a number of years. First came the Irish War of Independence, resulting in Jameson being denied the export to members of the Commonwealth. Then came the impact of Prohibition in the States. Whereas many whiskeys, especially Scotch, were able to pass through the Canadian border, Jameson was denied this privilege. Scottish distillers introduced column stills, allowing a vast increase in production. Many Irish companies along with Jameson in particular kept the traditional pot still production process for many years. Jameson soon found itself relocating to Cork in order to be able to produce even more product to meet demand. In 1988, Pernod Ricard purchased the company and converted the old distillery into a museum, complete with a tour. Today, its annual sales top 4.7 million cases, or 56 million bottles, and it is easily the biggest selling Irish whisky in the world. Despite a previous hickup, the States is its largest market with ever increasing consumption numbers.
2. Johnnie Walker
Johnnie Walker first began selling blended whisky from his grocer’s in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1820. Originally known as Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky, the brand was an initial success but it wasn’t until Walker’s death in 1857 that the whisky really take off. Prior to this, whisky contributed just to 8% of the company’s total income. With his son Alexander Walker in charge, this figure increased to 95%. The now iconic square bottle was introduced in 1870 as a means to allow more bottles to fill the same space with fewer breakages. The line was expanded and in 1908, under a new managing director, the name was changed to Johnnie Walker Whisky with the slogan ‘born 1820 – still going strong!’. The striding man logo was made in honour of the founder and is still used today. After being acquired by Diageo, the firm caused quite a stir when they announced production would be moved from the originally distillery in Kilmarnock to a number of plants throughout Scotland. Dispute a public campaign to keep the distillery open and widespread media attention, the doors closed in March 2012. Johnnie Walker remains one of the most widely distributed Scotch whiskeys in the world, being sold in pretty much every country, and has annual sales of over 130 million bottles.
1. Jack Daniel’s
A brand of Tennessee whisky and well-known by college kids worldwide, Jack Daniel founded his distillery in 1875 in Lynchburg, Tennessee. By the 1880s, Daniel had the second most productive distillery in Moore County and saw the introduction of square bottles as a way to convey a sense of fairness and integrity. The origin of the slogan ‘Old No. 7’ originated as the number assigned by the government for registration. Despite the requirement to change this number when the government redrew the district (he became number 16), Daniel’s kept his original number as a brand name. Although the local temperance movement was gaining momentum and affected his reputation, Daniel’s whisky saw a surge in population after receiving the gold medal at the 1904 St Louis World Fair. Despite Prohibition being repealed at a federal level, state laws in Tennessee remained in effect until 1938 when production was finally allowed to restart. However, Moore County still remains a dry county and, whilst it is illegal to purchase alcohol, it is still legal for Jack Daniel’s to distill. Today, Jack Daniel’s is owned by the Brown-Forman Corporation, but production and manufacture has always remained in Lynchburg. The bourbon has annual sales of 11 million cases and is the highest selling American whisky in the world.