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What Are Top Shelf Whiskey Brands? Explained (2024 Updated)

what are top shelf whiskey brands

Last Updated on February 23, 2024 by Lydia Martin

While there are several great-tasting mass-produced whiskeys, there’s nothing wrong with splurging on smooth, top-shelf brands from time to time. But what are top-shelf whiskey brands? In this blog post, let’s find out what are top shelf whiskey brands means, including some brands whiskey enthusiasts highly recommend.

What are Top Shelf Whiskey Brands? 

Top-Shelf Whiskey Brands on desk

Generally, a top-shelf whiskey brand is a brand that produces whiskey from high-quality ingredients and is usually rare and expensive. 

The terminology top-shelf is often used because bar owners display the bottles on the top-shelf behind the bartender. It shows off the prestigious brand in stock, which is expensive and rare. 

Fun Fact: Bar owners place whiskey on top of the shelves for three reasons: 

  1. As an advertisement for high-quality and rare whiskey;

  2. To prevent theft of expensive goods; and 

  3. To promote bottles that are less frequently ordered. 

Common Qualities Of Top-Shelf Whiskeys 

Common Qualities Of Top Shelf Whiskeys 

Rare

A top-shelf whiskey is commonly rare because great stuff is challenging to find. Rare whiskeys are expensive because they are either old expressions or limited in production.

Sometimes, rare whiskeys are not found on the bar’s shelf because they are sold at auction for a higher price.

High-Quality

Top-shelf whiskeys are high-quality distilled spirits that taste way better than mass-produced and baseline whiskey products. It is sold at a higher price because of its premium quality and taste.

Small-batch whiskey has more nuanced flavors as it is aged in charred oak barrels for a particular time. Aside from aging, the mash bill used to make spirits affects the tasting notes and aroma of the whiskeys and bourbons.

Expensive

In a bar, expensive spirits sit on the hard-to-reach shelves because they are ordered less frequently. 

Top-shelf whiskeys are expensive because they are made from high-quality grains, and their aging differs from ordinary whiskey bottles

Top 15 Top-Shelf Whiskey Brands (Must-Try!) 

1. Pappy Van Winkle’s 

Pappy Van Winkle’s on table with pouch

Average Price: Roughly $129 – $55,999 (Caskers)

Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery

Alcohol Content: 47.8% – 53.5%

Star Rating: ★★★★★

Why We Liked It:

Pappy Van Winkle’s is a brand of whiskey known for its top-shelf expressions. We had difficulty securing a bottle, but it was worth the wait.

It has a rich aroma and taste of caramel and cream with soft nuts, molasses, baking spice, leather, and oak notes.

“We make fine bourbon at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon.” -Pappy Van Winkle Sr, Founder

Moreso, its sweetness complements the whiskey’s citrus and spice flavor profile. But who makes Pappy bourbons?

Food Pairing: Ideal with a gourmet cheese platter or a sophisticated beef dish, enhancing its refined and aged complexity.

2. Michter’s

Michter’s on desk with glass of whiskey

Average Price: Roughly $24.99 – $74,000 (Total Wine)

Distillery: Mitcher’s Distillery

Alcohol Content: 41.7% – 45.7%

Star Rating: ★★★★☆

Why We Liked It:

Michter’s is a whiskey brand that produces high-quality and top-shelf whiskey.

The 10-Year Single Barrel Kentucky straight bourbon is a crowd favorite because of its pleasant sweetness and bold taste. It has rich toffee notes, spicy hints from rye, and dark fruit.

Food Pairing: Pairs well with chocolate or a decadent caramel dessert, matching its complex and elegant profile.

3. Johnnie Walker 

Johnnie Walker on table with glass

Average Price: Roughly $9.99 – $10,999 (Total Wine)

Distillery: Johnie Walker Distillery

Alcohol Content: 40%- 46%

Star Rating: ★★★★☆

Why We Liked It:

Johnnie Walker is a highly versatile and one of the best-selling Scotch whiskys in the world.

It offers top-shelf whisky expressions that are bold and full of flavor even when mixed.

Johnie Walker Scotch whisky is available on different labels, making your luxurious drinking experience more enjoyable. 

Food Pairing: Enjoy with mature cheddar or roasted nuts, complementing its balanced and smoky character.

Read: Johnnie Walker High Rye Whisky Guide

4. Jack Daniel’s 

Jack Daniel’s with cocktail on table

Average Price: Roughly $14.99 – $3,499 (Total Wine)

Distillery: Jack Daniels Distillery

Alcohol Content: 40% – 64.5%

Star Rating: ★★★★☆

Why We Liked It:

Jack Daniels is one of the well-known Tennessee whiskeys on the market, and the brand produces high-quality, top-shelf whiskeys.

It is a friend to many [3] and has a very versatile spirit, so you can enjoy it neat, on the rocks, or as a cocktail. 

Jack Daniel’s is the top choice if you enjoy whiskey + cola because it complements the mixer’s sweet and tangy taste.

It is a decent sipping whiskey, flavorful and enjoyable to drink. 

Food Pairing: Best with barbecue pork or sweet and spicy wings, enhancing its iconic, smooth sweetness.

5. 1792

1792 with cocktail on desk

Average Price: Roughly $22.74- $1,100 (Total Wine

Distillery: Barton 1792 Distillery

Alcohol Content: 45.6% – 62.5%

Star Rating: ★★★★☆

Why We Liked It:

1792 is a brand that produces top-shelf whiskeys with high rye content.

The high-quality bourbon has the rich flavor of cocoa, vanilla, and rye spices, so if you want a bourbon with a little kick, you should try 1792 bourbon. 

Sazerac Company owns 1792 bourbon, previously named 1792 Ridgemont Reserve [2].

You must try a smoky, bold, intense, and full-bodied bourbon. 

Food Pairing: Complements nutty desserts or almond-based pastries, matching its rich and nuanced profile.

6. Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey with highball cocktail on table

Average Price: Roughly $14.99 – $2,999 (Total Wine)

Distillery: Wild Turkey Distilling Co. 

Alcohol Content: 35.5% – 50.5%

Star Rating:

Why We Liked It:

Wild Turkey offers a wide selection of top-shelf whiskeys, and despite its high proof, it is pleasing and smooth to drink.

It has a bold flavor that does not overpower the notes of sweet tobacco, orange, and mint. 

Every expression of Wild Turkey- from baseline to premium whiskeys has a remarkably smooth taste, and you can drink it neat or on the rocks. 

Food Pairing: Pairs well with spicy chili or bold, aged cheeses, complementing its robust and spicy character.

7. Blanton’s 

Blanton’s with glass and oranges on desk

Average Price: Roughly $29.99 – $1,650 (Caskers)

Distillery: Buffalo Distillery

Alcohol Content: 40%- 51.5%

Star Rating: ★★★★☆

Why We Liked It:

Blanton’s is a whiskey brand that is hard to find because of its steady supply and increasing demand.

Since the brand is all about quality over quantity, it may be challenging for you to score a bottle. 

Blanton’s has a satisfying flavor profile of spices, nutmeg, dry vanilla, strong caramel, and corn. It has a medium finish with hints of corn and nutmeg flavors. 

Food Pairing: Ideal with a steak or grilled lamb, matching its bold and spicy profile.

8. Maker’s Mark 

Maker’s Mark with glass and brownies on table

Average Price: Roughly $17.97- $999.99 (Total Wine)

Distillery: Maker’s Mark Distillery

Alcohol Content: 45%- 55%

Star Rating: ★★★★☆

Why We Liked It:

If you are a fan of wheated bourbon whiskeys, Maker’s Mark produces a full-flavored bourbon that is pleasing to the palate.

Aside from its trademark-hand dipped wax- Maker’s Mark expressions are top-shelf whiskeys best enjoyed neat and on the rocks. 

Instead of rye, the brand uses red winter wheat on its mash bill for a smooth, full-flavored, sweet whiskey that will not blow your ears.

Food Pairing: Enjoy with apple pie or cinnamon-spiced desserts, complementing its sweet and warming notes.

9. Widow Jane

Widow Jane with glass and sushi on desk

Average Price: Roughly $27.48 – $1,000 (Total Wine)

Distillery: Widow Jane Distillery

Alcohol Content: 45.5% – 49.5%

Star Rating: ★★★☆☆

Why We Liked It:

Widow Jane is a whiskey brand offering top-shelf bourbon whiskeys that you can find in liquor stores and online retailers.

It smells incredibly balanced, mature, and rich, and its flavor profile does not change or overpower other spices. 

Food Pairing: Pair with a rich chocolate tart or a creamy cheesecake, balancing its smooth and slightly sweet profile.

10. Jim Beam 

Jim Beam with cocktail on table

Average Price: Roughly $9.99- $1,599.99 (Total Wine)

Distillery: James B. Beam Distilling Co. 

Alcohol Content: 35% – 45%

Star Rating: ★★★☆☆

Why We Liked It:

Jim Beam is one of the whiskey brands with the largest selections of top-shelf bourbon whiskeys on the market today.

It is a versatile and complex spirit widely used in cocktail recipes. 

Moreover, Jim Beam is an elegant vintage bourbon that bagged different bourbon trophies because it is a well-rounded and drinkable spirit. 

Food Pairing: This matches classic American fare like burgers or ribs, matching its straightforward, approachable nature.

11. Laphroaig

Laphroaig with box and cocktail on desk

Average Price: Roughly $9.99 – $3,999.99 (Total Wine)

Distillery: Laphroaig Distillery 

Alcohol Content: 52% – 60.1%  

Star Rating: ★★★☆☆

Why We Liked It:

Laphroaig is a well-known Scotch whisky brand that produces the top-shelf whisky we enjoy today.

The smoke from the unique Islay peat gives the whiskey its rich flavor. It is bold, smoky, and tasty, with a surprisingly sweet taste and hints of seaweed. 

Food Pairing: Best with seafood, especially smoked salmon, enhancing its famously peaty and maritime qualities.

12. Elijah Craig

Elijah Craig with glass and cranberries on table

Average Price: Roughly $18.99 – $3,699.99 (Total Wine)

Distillery: Woodford Reserve Distillery

Alcohol Content: 45% – 61.6%

Star Rating: ★★★☆☆

Why We Liked It:

Woodford Reserve is a known whiskey brand that offers top-shelf whiskeys.

It produces a perfectly balanced taste and comprises over 200 flavor notes from oak and bold grains.

The small batches have rich spices, sweet aromatics, fruit, and floral notes that are best enjoyed neat.

Food Pairing: Ideal with creamy brie or sweet desserts, matching its smooth and versatile profile.

Read: Popular Top-Shelf Bourbon Brands

13. Woodford Reserve

Woodford Reserve on desk with glass and ham on bread

Average Price: Roughly $18.99- $12,999.99 (Caskers)

Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery

Alcohol Content: 50% – 65.15%

Star Rating: ★★★☆☆

Why We Liked It:

E.H Taylor’s collection has a rich aroma of oak spices, maple syrup, and figs. They are incredibly smooth bourbons best enjoyed with one or two ice cubes. 

From start to finish, E.H Taylor’s bourbon collection has simple yet complex notes of caramel, vanilla, oak, spicy rye, and tobacco spices, and they are bottled at around 100 proof or more.

The orange peel, dates, and maple notes complement the whiskey’s intense oak flavor profile. 

Food Pairing: Enjoy with smoked meats or barbecue, as its complex flavors balance well with smoky and savory dishes.

Read: Woodford Reserve vs Elijah Craig Bourbon

14. E. H. Taylor 

E. H. Taylor with box and cocktail on table

Average Price: Roughly $18.99- $12,999.99 (Caskers)

Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery

Alcohol Content: 50% – 65.15%

Star Rating: ★★★☆☆

Why We Liked It:

E.H Taylor’s collection has a rich aroma of oak spices, maple syrup, and figs. They are incredibly smooth bourbons that are best to enjoy with one or two ice cubes. 

From start to finish, E.H Taylor’s bourbon collection has simple yet complex notes of caramel, vanilla, oak, spicy rye, and tobacco spices and they are bottled at around 100 proof or more.

The notes of orange peel, dates, and maple complement the whiskey’s intense oak flavor profile. 

Food Pairing: Enjoy with smoked meats or barbecue, as its complex flavors balance well with smoky and savory dishes.

Read: Was Mountain Dew Really Made For Whiskey?

15. George T. Stagg

George T. Stagg with cocktail on desk

Average Price: Roughly $16.95- $4,599.99 (Caskers)

Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery

Alcohol Content: 58.45% –  67.2%

Star Rating: ★★★☆☆

Why We Liked It:

George T. Stagg has a rich toffee sweetness and hints of nougat, dark chocolate, and vanilla.

It is a powerful, well-rounded, intense, and flavorful whiskey you should try. 

George T. Stag bourbon showcases the rich spices of the spirit and does not overshadow the medium intensity of leather, cinnamon, and vanilla notes.

“In the world of whiskey, top shelf is the summit of flavor and craftsmanship.” -Liquor Laboratory

It makes an exceptional finish, especially with a single cube of ice. It is uncut, unfiltered, and boasts the bold character of the bourbon. 

Food Pairing: Pairs well with dark chocolate or a rich blue cheese, complementing its robust and intense flavors.

Disclaimer: All prices stated above are from Drizly online. Prices may vary in local liquor stores. Star ratings are based on our blind tastings.

FAQs 

What is the smoothest top-shelf whiskey? 

Laphroaig is the smoothest top-shelf whiskey. The Scotch whisky has a smooth-smoky taste that is not overpowering and complements other flavor notes of the spirit well.

Moreover, blended scotch is more approachable and easy to drink than other types of whiskey. 

Aside from the bottles mentioned above, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden, Four Roses, Eagle Rare, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, and Henry Mckenna are smooth spirits to try neat and in cocktails.

Can you use top-shelf whiskeys as a cocktail base?

Yes, you can use top-shelf whiskeys as a cocktail base. However, top-shelf whiskeys are great spirits with rich flavors; you may miss out on them if you consume them as a cocktail.

We recommend you try it neat or with a few drops of water instead. The palate profile of top-shelf spirits, especially bourbons [4], is best appreciated without any mixers.

Final Thoughts 

There are many different brands and types of whiskey, but top-shelf whiskeys from Pappy Van Winkle’s are a must-try!

Different award-giving bodies widely acclaim Pappy Van Winkle for its smooth, versatile, and complex flavor profile.

Pappy Van Winkle is best enjoyed neat or with a few drops of water because water opens up the complex flavor of the whiskey.

If you want a full-luxurious drinking experience, Pappy Van Winkle is a must-try top-shelf whiskey.  

References

  1. https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/world/tippling-point-the-story-of-elijah-craig-the-father-of-bourbon-5859371.html

  2. https://www.gearpatrol.com/food/drinks/a37667350/1792-bourbon/ 

  3. https://www.thespruceeats.com/best-bottles-of-tennessee-whiskey-761640

  4. https://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/04/5-rules-that-make-it-bourbon.html

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