From Purple Felt Drawstring Bags to 2016 World Whisky of the Year

This Is the $30 Bottle That Was Just Named the Best Whisky in the World


November 19, 2015 Briefings By Photo by Henry Phillips
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Today, whisk(e)y writer Jim Murray, the most well-known name in the judging of brown spirits, announced the winning whiskies among those judged for his annual release of the Whiskey Bible (available November 24), his guide to every whiskey (over 1,000 of them) that he graded over the course of 2015. The guide is always controversial: last year Murray gave the top award to Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013, marking the first time that a Japanese whisky took the title; he didn’t include a single bottle from Scotland on the shortlist. This year, however, marks the high-water mark for Murray’s controversy. The 2016 World Whisky of the Year is an offering from Crown Royal, a company that was second in US whiskey sales only to Jack Daniels in 2014. The distillery’s new release, Northern Harvest Rye, scored 97.5 points on Murray’s 100-point scale to take home the title. The runner-up is another rye; third place goes to an Irish whiskey, a first for the island nation; and again, no Scottish bottles made the top five.

“This year, doubtless there will be many more eyebrows raised because rarely is Canada mentioned when it come to the world’s top whiskies. But, again, I have no doubt people finding the bottling I tasted will be blown away with this whisky’s uncompromising and unique beauty,” writes Murray. “It certainly puts the rye into Canadian rye.”

This last line hits hardest when you taste the Northern Harvest Rye yourself. It’s no doubt a fantastic rye, but it’s also a conservative one. It doesn’t try to be anything but a pure expression of the grain, a benchmark for what rye should be, and a re-establishment of Canada as a contender in the spirit they are most known for.

Murray is known for his no-bullshit approach to whiskey. He won’t be bought (he now retains full copyright on any articles he publishes), and he won’t follow trends, making for very controversial, and extremely influential, rankings. This year’s top two whiskeys are both ryes, an unusual choice given that this type of whiskey trails far behind single malt, Irish whiskey and bourbon sales in America, but one that has been gaining intense popularity. Since 2009, rye sales have increased 536 percent, reaching over half a million cases in 2014, according to the industry group Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, as reported by Fortune. The top two winners are not limited releases, sport no age statements and are relatively widely available — far from the exclusivity of typical spirits-competition winners and of Murray’s picks in years’ past. Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye can be purchased here and shipped to most states, and the runner-up Pikesville Straight Rye is a dressed-up re-imagining of Pikesville Rye, once a bottom-shelf rye from the Potomac region. Heaven Hill purchased the brand and put out a premium version of whiskey this summer, abandoning the old $11 bottles.

Those who have followed the trajectory of Murray’s Whiskey Bible, now in its 13th year, know that Murray has elevated discussion around whisk(e)y from America, Canada and Japan when offerings from those nations were considered inferior to the legacy brands of Scotland. He’s pushed aside institutions and judged based on the merit of the dram alone, contributing to craft distillers’ ability to be taken seriously in an industry once dominated by 20-year-old stocks of liquid from Scottish giants. But Canadian whisky is a different beast entirely, considered the “Wild West” of distilling. The bottles can contain both caramel color and additive flavoring, and there’s no regulations that address the quality of the barrels, which can be new or used, charred or un-charred. World Whisky of the Year is an award he once gave to a 21-year-old bottle from Old Pulteney, a very traditional and regarded expression of single malt. Now the award has gone to something from a brand known for purple felt drawstring bags, owned by the liquor giant Diageo.

And maybe that’s the point. Fuck pretension. Fuck branding, backstories and who you know. If it’s good enough, it’ll win. And when it wins with Jim Murray, the whole world hears about it. Below are the top five winners from this year’s Whisky Bible. Murray has increased his World Whiskies of the Year shortlist to a list of five and added the category of of Single Cask of the Year (Glenfarclas The Family Casks 1957 #2110). All of the whisk(e)y he ranked over 96 points out of 100 can be found here.

Jim Murray’s 2016 World Whiskies of the Year

Winner Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
Runner-Up Pikesville Straight Rye
3rd Midleton Dair Ghaelach
4th William Larue Weller Bourbon (Bot.2014)
5th Suntory Yamazaki Mizunara (Bot.2014)