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With Thanksgiving approaching, the thoughts of whisky fans invariably turn towards North America. The US and Canada offer a variety of styles from traditional bourbon and rye whiskeys to expressive contemporary spirits created by the craft and artisanal distilling movement.
However, the big brands continue to drive sales globally, with Canada and the whiskey powerhouse states of Kentucky and Tennessee dominating sales of North American whiskey around the world.
Here are the 10 bestselling distillers, and the bottle to try from each.
Try: Buffalo Trace Bourbon
A classic bourbon that offers great value for money. This is the flagship whiskey from the Buffalo Trace distillery, which makes several other brands including Van Winkle and Blanton’s.
America’s oldest continuously operating distillery – it survived the Prohibition era (1920-1933) by producing medicinal alcohol – it was named after The Great Buffalo Trace. This ancient buffalo migration track stretches for thousands of miles across North America, including Kentucky.
Each batch of Buffalo Trace is made using no more than 40 oak barrels.
Try: Bulleit Bourbon
The bestselling bourbon in the bar trade and used to create traditional cocktails such as the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Whiskey Sour. Bulleit is popular with bartenders due to the spicy and peppery kick it adds to drinks, which is due to the high rye content in its mashbill – this is the marriage of different cereal grains mixed to create the whiskey.
The brand is named after Augustus Bulleit, who began distilling in Kentucky during the 1830s after relocating from France, and was reborn by Bulleit’s great-great grandson in the 1980s.
Try: Canadian Club Blended Whisky
This Canadian powerhouse brand is the second bestselling Canadian whiskey in the world, with sales of 6.5 million cases annually*. The brand was created by Hiram Walker at his distillery in Detroit, Michigan in 1854 and became popular amongst the gentry and upper classes. However, Prohibition meant production was moved across the border to Ontario in the 1920s and the name changed to Canadian Club.
The ready-to-drink Canadian Club & Dry (or CC&Dry for short) is also one of the world’s most popular pre-mixed drinks.
Try: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
Canada’s most popular whiskey brand and the most sold around the globe. The brand was created in 1939 to commemorate the visit of King George VI to Canada – the first reigning British monarch to do so.
Crown Royal sells 8.4 million cases per year and is rye-heavy in style. This is very traditional for Canadian whisky and what makes Crown Royal’s blends so accessible and popular.
If you want an even higher rye kick then try the multi-award-winning Northern Harvest Rye, which has 90% rye in the mash bill. Delicious.
Try: Evan Williams Extra Aged
Evan Williams sells 3.1 million cases of Kentucky bourbon per year, mostly in the USA. Named after a Welsh immigrant who settled in Kentucky during the 1780s, Evan Williams markets itself as ‘Kentucky’s First Distiller’ – the site of Williams’ inaugural distillery from 1783 is a national monument.
Evan Williams is the largest American whiskey brand produced at the fabled Heaven Hill distillery (Heaven Hill and Elijah Craig are others of note) and third placed behind Jack and Jim for American brand sales (excluding the Canadian entries).
Try: Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey
Jack is by far the largest-selling Tennessee whiskey brand globally, with a staggering 14.6 million cases purchased each year. The brand and distillery grew from humble roots and was founded by Jasper Newton Daniel, known as ‘Jack’ to his friends, in his hometown of Lynchburg, Tennessee.
The classic Old No.7 outsells everything else in the core range several times over and has become a mainstay of pop, music and modern culture. The range has expanded rapidly in recent years and now includes Jack’s first-ever American single malt.
Try: Jim Beam Black Label Bourbon
Jim is the biggest-selling bourbon and American whiskey on the market. It alone shifts an incredible 16.7 million cases annually. Jack and Jim combine to sell an astronomical 30+ million cases each year and dominate the category.
Jim Beam’s popularity has resulted in a recent $US400m expansion of the Booker Noe distillery in Claremont, Kentucky to increase production.
It is one of America’s oldest brands, founded in 1795 by German immigrant Jacob Boehm – his surname was later anglicised to Beam.
Try: Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky
When Maker’s Mark received its B Corp certification in 2022 it became the largest distillery in the world to be awarded this environmental and sustainability document to date. The brand sells 2.8 million cases annually, making it the world’s best-selling wheated bourbon – a style of whiskey that uses a higher-than-average percentage of wheat in the mash bill.
This unusual mash bill was created by founder T. William Samuels Jr in the late-1950s with the iconic square bottle with a red wax-dipped cap designed by Samuels’ wife, Marjorie.
Try: Wild Turkey 101
This classic bourbon was one of the first to relaunch after Prohibition in the mid-1930s and has not looked back. Just over 1.7 million cases are sold each year.
The distillery was originally founded by the Ripy family in 1869 with the quirky name said to have come from a distillery employee who took whiskey to accompany an annual turkey hunt. The next year he was asked by fellow hunters to bring some of ‘that wild turkey whiskey’ and the name stuck. That said, the Wild Turkey distillery is also located at Wild Turkey Hill, Kentucky.
Try: Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select
This exquisite bourbon broke through the 1 million case barrier for the first time in 2021 and continues to go from strength to strength. Unusually for a bourbon it is triple distilled through copper pot stills, like traditional Irish single malt.
Woodford Reserve has a long association with the Kentucky Derby horse race and releases a commemorative bottling each year. The brand also sponsors the iconic race and supplies all whiskeys for the meet, which is used to create the thousands of Mint Julep cocktails sipped at the event each year.
*All figures quoted in this article are from the Brand Champions Report 2023 by The Spirits Business. A case equates to nine litres / 12 bottles.