When people find out I write about intoxicants for a living, I get asked lots of questions—the most prominent one being, “Really, they pay you for that?” But lately, I’m continually getting asked what bourbons to buy, whether people want to drink it, flip it, or simply show off their #bourbonporn on Instagram.
The question is simple: If person X has Y dollars, what would be the best bottle he could reasonably purchase? Reasonably is a critical word. Sure, Old Rip Van Winkle might be the best with a MSRP of $40—but good luck finding it on shelves, and good luck finding it anywhere for less than $200. For the sake of this exercise, we’re going to ignore those white whales—the bourbons you can only score if you camp out, win store lotteries, or “know a guy.” There will be a few tricky picks on this list. You won’t be able to saunter into your local BevMo! and nab everything in one awesome Supermarket Sweep-style booze run, but with a little effort and cash, you’ll be able to track down most of these bad boys.
But why should we limit it to bourbon? There are all sorts of whiskeys worth buying nowadays, and many offer better value since they don’t have cult-bourbon’s cachet. In the following list you’ll see ryes, Irish whiskeys, Japanese whiskeys, Scotches, and even one weirdo hybrid*. All the best of the best, dollar-for-dollar. (Sorry Canadians, you won’t see any of your stuff on this list, so spend your loonies elsewhere.)
*I will use “whiskey” with an “e” at all times, no matter whether that is technically correct, so don’t be an annoying pedant.
$5: The Macallan 12 Years Old (airplane bottle)
Spirit: Single-malt Scotch
Approx. cost: $5.50
Even when I was 22, I had a taste for bourbon-fueled binge-drinking. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the budget to match. Luckily, my corner store had fifths of Early Times for $4.99. Long known as “The Official Drink of the Kentucky Derby,” it hit the spot—and I hit Mario’s Discount Liquors every Friday to replenish my stash. Thankfully, my discretionary income has risen, so revisiting this old friend for the first time in a decade, I was shocked to see he’d grown up…to a retail price of $15.99! In fact, even plastic-bottle rotgut whiskey is pricy nowdays. Thus, the only thing you’ll be able to get for a five-spot is an airline-sized bottle, a “miniature” as those in the industry call them. You could drink worse than Macallan 12 while flying through the air. And you have. (Rest assured, everything from this point on will be a 750 mL.) (Photo: lovescotch.com)
$10: Benchmark Old No. 8
If I were transported back to being a broke 22-year-old dipsomaniac once again, what would I be drinking? Benchmark Old No. 8 from Buffalo Trace fits the bill. A rye-heavy bourbon—though not a true rye, per se—the whiskey’s ABV is as low as legally possible, but still flavorful enough: a strong caramel note with just enough vanilla to let you know it was kept in barrels for a few years. At this price point you won’t fare much better, mainly because you can’t find many other bourbons so cheap. Unfortunately, Old No. 8 can be hard to find itself, no matter how low on the shelf you check.
$15: Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond
“Bottled in Bond” is a term you should come to know and love when you’re being thrifty. It refers to laws set forth in 1897 that are intricate enough to merit a 700-word Wikipedia entry. The tl;dr verison: Bottled-in-bond whiskeys are 100 proof. Most cheaper offerings you’ll see are a watered-down 80 proof and lacking in flavor. But not Old Heaven Hill, which must be the cheapest bonded bourbon on earth, making it one of the best deals in all of spirits. Unfortunately, it can be a tad tricky to find—there are constant rumors it’s been pulled from the market—as Heaven Hill seems more content pushing its Evan Williams and Elijah Craig lines.
Others: Old Crow Reserve, Old Fitzgerald Prime, Old Overholt, Very Old Barton Bottled in Bond, probably anything with “Old” in the name
$20: Old Grand-Dad Bonded
If you go to high-end bars that have massive leather-bound menus and row after row of brown spirits, you’ll notice one bottle sticks out like a sore thumb. Its cap isn’t a nice cork, but instead street-cone orange and plastic. It’s label has a glossy finish. It’ll easily be the cheapest pour available. Not to worry though, because pros know “OGD” is the original gangsta. A dirt cheap line of bourbons owned by Beam Suntory, its traditional 80 proof is fine, and the 114 barrel-proof is nifty. But the “Bottled in Bond” (there’s that word again) hits the sweet spot for both price and taste, dominated by spicy rye notes with a corn syrupy finish. I always keep a handle around the apartment as it’s perfect for testing out cocktail recipes. Best of all, the design has just been updated—it finally has a corked cap!—reflecting its favor amongst even the snobbiest of connoisseurs.
Others: Fighting Cock, Four Roses (Yellow Label), Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, Larceny Bourbon
$25: Old Weller Antique
Are you the kind of bourbon neophyte who is all about the Pappy, baby? Gotta have that Pappy. Ooh, what you wouldn’t give for some Pappy. (Would you please just quit saying “Pappy”?!) Let me let you in on the world’s worst kept secret: There’s a cheaper line of bourbons sorta like the beloved Van Winkles’ that you’ve never tasted before. You see, Pappy is a wheated bourbon, which is fairly unique in the industry. In 2002, Buffalo Trace acquired the Old Rip Van Winkle brand and began using its wheated mash bill to make the Pappys. Are things starting to come together for you? Yes! Buffalo Trace also owns the Old Weller line of wheated bourbons for which it uses that exact same mash bill. The indispensable Bourbonr blog calls it “Poor Man’s Pappy,” advocating mixing Old Weller Antique with the similarly-priced, though tougher-to-find, W.L. Weller 12 Year. If I wanted to mix things at home, though, I’d make a cocktail. “Antique” is perfect by itself.
Others: Elijah Craig 12 Year, Old Forester Signature, Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond
$30: Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon
Jimmy Russell has been making whiskey at the 75-year-old Wild Turkey Distillery for a whopping 54 years, so he probably knows a thing or two about crafting a decent bourbon. Now, working side-by-side with his son Eddie, the two have released a slew of well-priced products in the last few years. Their Russell’s Reserve line provides some of my favorite offerings from the company. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel is top-notch, but at a $55 price point, it faces too much competition to make this list. Luckily, there’s a cheaper 10 Year Old bottling nearly as good. Made from small-batch barrels in the “center cut” of the rickhouse, and specially selected by the Russells, this spicy bourbon is perfect for a neat pour.
Others: Evan Williams Single Barrel, James Pepper 1776, Jefferson’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey Very Small Batch
$35: Sazerac Rye
“Baby Saz,” as it’s lovingly called—to distinguish it from the higher-acclaimed Sazerac Rye 18-Year-Old—is just six-years-old, but still packed with flavor. The 18-Year-Old is part of the vaunted Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and, thus, you’re unlikely to find it. Baby Saz is everywhere fine liquors are sold though, and for less than half the price. It may not be single-barrel like it’s father, but it’s still a small-batch blend of top barrels, and comes in a bottle perfect for displaying next to your bobblehead collection.
Others: Hirsch Reserve Small Batch Bourbon, Wild Turkey Rare Breed
$40: Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Small Batch
This is starting to look like a sponsored post from Buffalo Trace, but what can I say—the brand owns some great properties. Case in point: the E.H. Taylor line, the oldest of which are some of the finest whiskeys in the business in my book. You can’t go wrong with the Single Barrel and Barrel Proof offerings, both settling in the $70-$90 range if you can find them. But at half the price, you can easily add this bottled-in-bond offering to your liquor cabinet. Quite a bit of boozy heat comes off this beaut, but it’s flavor profile fights through with a nice caramel-apple explosion. Packaged in a classy tube, this is the first whiskey on the list that actually screams “Luxury!” (and, not, “Hasn’t been paid this month!”)
Others: George Dickel Barrel Select, High West Son of Bourye, Michter’s US*1 Small Batch Bourbon
$45: Angel’s Envy Bourbon
As we move beyond the $40 price point, we find manufacturers willing to be a little more playful with products like with High West’s scotch/bourbon/rye blend, Campfire. Angel’s Envy is another such release, a blend of four- to six-year-old bourbons finished in French-oak port barrels. That injection of wine adds a great chocolate-covered-cherries zing to the already toffee-like flavor profile. I’m sure some annoying know-it-all has told you before that “angel’s share” refers to the portion of whiskey lost due to evaporation during aging. Well, this is supposedly the bourbon angels are “envious” they weren’t able to nab. You’ll have no such trouble so long as you’ve got a valid I.D and no court orders against you.
Others: Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey, High West Campfire, Old Forester 1870 Original Batch, Smooth Ambler Old Scout (from any private-barrel program)
$50: Stagg Jr.
This is the price point where you can finally get decent single malt (see below), but I’ll still recommend a banger of a bourbon. Yet another Buffalo Trace-owned whiskey—I swear they aren’t paying me—Stagg Jr. is the baby version of my favorite bourbon on planet earth, George T. Stagg. Unfortunately, as you probably know, Stagg Sr. is now in Pappy territory, with bottles camped out for, then flipped for five times the purchase price (does anyone actually drink bourbon these days?!) Stagg Jr. is easier to find and you won’t feel bad about getting drunk off it. Bottled at barrel proof like Pops, though with about half the time spent in barrels, Junior is aggressive yet drinkable. It may lack the nuance of George T., but those iconic woody, smoky notes are still there for the taking.
Others: Ardbeg 10 Year Old, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Jefferson’s Reserve Straight Bourbon, Talisker 10 Year Old
$55: Four Roses Single Barrel (private selections)
A great secret in the wild world of bourbon is that many top liquor stores offer their own bottlings from single-barrels distilleries that have allowed them to hand-select. The Party Source in Kentucky, Binny’s in Chicagoland, Julio’s in Massachusetts, and BevMo! on the West Coast are just a few places taking part in these programs. Only the most astute liquor connoisseurs typically notice these are any different from the standard options, as they are usually marked with the tiniest of stickers. You’d also think these specialties would cost more than their typical off-the-shelf counterparts. I’ve found, though, they often cost the same, if not a tad less. Four Roses offers some of the best store-picked offerings. All are high-proof (usually cask-strength), and they’re almost always available since stores like to maintain their “private” stock.
Others: Booker’s, Laphroaig Quarter Cask
$60: Suntory Hakushu Single Malt Whisky – Distiller’s Reserve
Japanese whiskey is becoming so coveted it’s making bourbon look like cupcake-flavored vodka. The one issue is that Japanese whiskey almost always has wicked pricy MSRPs, with most of the better stuff in the three-figures realm. The silver lining is that the stuff can often be found since few can afford it. Luckily there’s Hakusho, a great toe-dipper for those wanting a reasonably affordable whiskey with Japanese characters on the label. (“He’s so international,” your impressed house guests will whisper.) The single malt’s flavor profile is light and delicate, smoky yet oddly refreshing.
Others: High West Rendezvous Rye, Laphroaig Cask Strength
$65: Redbreast 12 Year Old
Irish whiskey gets a bad rap for whatever reason. Bourbon is red hot, rye is hip, Scotch is classy, and Canadian whiskey often comes in a cool purple satchel at the very least. But no one is impressed when you have bottles of Irish whiskey displayed in your pad. Yet, you should have some displayed because, dollar-for-dollar, Irish whiskey is the best value out there. My favorite offerings are from Redbreast in County Cork. Its 12 Year Old is a single pot-still whiskey that’s as good as many $80-$120 single malts.
Others: The Balvenie Caribbean Cask, Highland Park 15
$70: Ardbeg Uigeadail
In 2009, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible named Ardbeg Uigeadail “World Whisky of the Year,” praising its “utter silky brilliance.” Silky sounds dangerously close to smooth, and we know I hate that term. But believe me, this is anything but. I have no idea what’s going on with Murray’s tastebuds as (you’ll-fuck-up-the-pronunciation) Uigeadail is one aggressive sipper—the type of whiskey that someone across the room can smell once the bottle is opened in the same way you can smell a Subway sandwich shop from a block away. Luckily, this doesn’t smell of soggy Italian bread, but rather a coal mine that caught on fire. That might sound like something you should be paid to drink, but at an approachable 70 bucks, it’s one of my favorite single malts around.
Others: Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Straight Rye, Redbreast Cask Strength
$75: Laphroaig Cairdeas
I’m loathe to recommend Cairdeas as it breaks two rules I’ve set for this exercise without telling you: 1) It’s a limited seasonal release and 2) the expression changes each year. Typically put on shelves every June to honor “Friends of Laphroaig,” the bottlings are always intriguing. Past releases have seen single malts aged in port pipes and Maker’s Mark barrels, and the 2014 version was double matured in bourbon barrels and Amontillado hogsheads. Who knows what 2015’s release will bring, but I’ll be certain to have at least 75 bucks in my checking account when it does. I’d recommend you do as well—these bottles do tend to sell out.
Others: Bowmore 15 Year Old “Darkest,” Elijah Craig 18 Year
$80: High West Bourye American Whiskey
You may have noticed that my list is fairly bereft of microdistillery products. I don’t like them, and due to economies of scale, they are often insanely overpriced. But not High West, the Utah craft distillery making products on par with the big boys—and usually more inventive to boot. Incidentally, $80 is where Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection (i.e., George T. Stagg, Sazerac 18, etc.) and Pappy Van Winkle 15 are typically priced. Okay, if you find those for 80 bucks, buy them all…and ask the store clerk if he also has any unicorns in the back room to sell you. Realistically, though, you’ll be “stuck” with Bourye, but that’s hardly something to be bummed about. A blending of one bourbon and two ryes, in many ways it makes for a more interesting story to tell friends than one about standing in line for two days to get a bottle of Pappy you immediately sold off.
Others: Lagavulin 16, High West Midsummer’s Night Dram, WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey
$85: Jameson Gold Reserve
If Irish whiskey gets a bad rap, Jameson takes the brunt of it. Unfortunately, it’s still seen as the stereotypical shot you take after your team loses a close game of kickball. In actuality, the Dublin legend has some terrific offerings, and the Gold Reserve is cause for celebration. Of course, you should sip it neat—don’t you dare shoot it. If you’d rather not spend your whiskey money on something peaty, Gold is about the best you can do. The spirit’s massive honey notes and rich complexity will certainly please you—especially if you think Irish whiskey is only reserved for punishment.
Others: Bowmore 18, Laphroaig 18
$90: Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel
If you’re a true bourbon geek, you’ll see my selection here and immediately rush to roast me in the comments, neglecting to even read what I’m about to say next: Yes, you cannot buy this bottle in America, as it’s made specifically for European and Asian markets. That’s what makes it completely unreasonable for me to recommend…except for the fact that it’s actually quite possible to land. You’re just gonna have to wait ’til the next time you fly internationally, when you can likely pick this up in a duty-free shop. Sure, you’ll feel guilty for dropping $90 at the airport and not even getting an Auntie Anne’s pretzel out of the deal, but once you taste this luxurious, caramel-drizzled fudge masterpiece, you’ll feel better.
Others: Redbreast 15 Year Old, Willett (whatever you can find)
$95: The Balvenie Single Barrel 15
It would seem if you’re willing to spend $95 on a single bottle of booze, you might as well spend an even Ben Franklin. But maybe you need some bus fare to get your pricey booze home—in which case you’re drawn to this Speyside Scotch. Smart choice, as this 15-Year-Old oak sherry butt-aged offering is one of the finest Scotches on planet earth, offering an elegant nose of dark fruits with a unique spiced wine finish. Only 650 hand-numbered bottles are produced from each butt—please quit saying “butt”—making every bottling unique and unrepeatable, and well-worth adding to your booze collection.
Others: Hibiki 17, Lagavulin 16, Springbank 15
$100: Yamazaki 18
So maybe it’s your birthday and grandma mailed you a check for $100; or perhaps you won your office March Madness pool last month (how can you live with yourself for picking Duke?!). Whatever the case, you’ve got five twenties and they’re burning a hole in your joggers. You need to convert this cash into brown liquor ASAP. Most of the elite bourbons have much lower shelf prices than $100, while many that broach that three-digit mark (i.e., Four Roses 125th Anniversary) are limited editions snapped up quickly. (Or overpriced gimmicks nobody wants.) Scotches are pretty terrific at this price, as they should be, but remarkably I’m going to recommend a single-malt…Japanese whiskey. With 80% of Yamazaki 18 aged in sherry casks, and the rest in American and Mizunara, this bad boy is extraordinarily rich and decadent, like sticky-toffee pudding. It’s utterly perfect for savoring slowly as you stare off into the horizon, wondering whether you should have just bought five bottles of Old Grand-Dad instead.
Others: Ardbeg Corryvreckan, Glenmorangie 18, Highland Park 18, Hillrock Estate Single Malt