When I first started this whiskey journey I wasted a lot of money on mistakes. (That still happens occasionally!) What made a bottle a mistake? Maybe I didn’t like the taste. Maybe I liked it fine, just not enough for the money. Or maybe the price made sense for the experience, but I’d already spent too much that month.
Here are some bottles I’ve come to believe make a good basis for getting one’s home bar going. The criteria are: AVAILABLE, AFFORDABLE, and APPROACHABLE. And by “approachable” I mean they are likely to please a range of tastes.
You’ll notice an utter lack of SCOTCH on that list. It’s expensive. So I’ve separated the scotch out on its own list. And as for Japanese whisky, I’m not (yet!) experienced broadly enough with it to offer well researched suggestions here.
I’ll then also point out some highly coveted bottles that, in my own experience, can be sweated over a bit less given certain ALTERNATIVES.
Finally, I’ll add some not-the-usual-suspects for folks interested in sailing their home bar down uncommon side streams of the whiskey river, where things might cost more but given the ADVENTURE it’s not a bad deal.
Naturally these are very subjective lists. (On another day I might likely include other bottles.) And these are notably not intended to serve as “Best” lists. Rather, as the post’s title indicates, they’re lists of suggested starters. I encourage anyone to share their own lists in the comments below. The more the merrier!
Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon — Decently aged, with nice caramel notes sweet enough to soften the kick of its oaky 94 proof. A very solid and satisfying bourbon. If the store is charging you too much more than $30 go somewhere else. It’s around.
Evan Williams 1783 Bourbon — A smooth, easy, tasty entry into the Heaven Hill Distillery realm, also populated by the now highly hunted Henry McKenna 10-Year Bottled in Bond Single Barrel. Sadly the latter recently achieved unicorn $tatus, otherwise it too might be on this list. But the uncomplicated Evan Williams 1783 remains an unsought-after bottle of simple vanilla and nutty pleasures, at an easy 86 proof, and an easy $20.
Forty Creek Barrel Select Canadian Whisky — This Canadian number is all syrupy butterscotch. I’m surprised I like it but I do. It’s an 86-proof party with balloons and streamers. Nothing to think about. Just have fun. Usually runs around $25.
Jim Beam Annual Limited Release/Edition Bourbons — The 2017 Distiller’s Cut LR and 2018 Repeal Batch LE were easily found for $15-$25 and $10-$20 respectively in their time. You might still find them around now. No doubt 2019 will see the next LE/LR offering from Jim Beam. Distiller’s Cut was 5 years old and 100 proof. Repeal Batch was 4 years old and 86 proof. Both were unfiltered and FULL of flavor. Go crazy and buy a case of each. I wish I had!
Old Forester Straight Rye — So good. So cheap. 100 proof but you’d never know it. Floral and cherry-ridden, with nice caramel and enough cinnamon and spice to keep things lively. Not a mind-blower, just perfectly good.
Rittenhouse Rye 100 BiB — This bottled in bond, good ol’ dependable surprises me each time with how good and even interesting it can be. I’ve found it highly susceptible to what I eat near it, sometimes tilting toward thin while other times its thick and flavorful. Put it to use neat or in a cocktail.
Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon — Among the ultimate no-brainers! Wild Turkey 101 defies reason with its combination of bright autumnal flavors, high quality, remarkable consistency, and low price. It tastes exactly how one might imagine bourbon should taste. Cowboys, artists, and business folk alike can dig it.
Maker’s 46 Bourbon — The only Maker’s Mark product worth stocking, in my opinion. The others have a medicinal quality that Maker’s 46 manages to shed, swapping in a nicely blended spice rack to compliment the sweet wheat flavors.
Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10-Year Bourbon — This bottle is all autumnal spice, dark cooked cherries, easy sweet oak, and so well balanced its ridiculous. Anyone charging more than $40 is ripping you off. Keep looking.
Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 6-Year Rye — A nice, in the pocket rye. Just old enough to have some legs and young enough to stay bright. Autumnal, sweet, simple but no dummy.
Stolen Whiskey — You might even find this for around $30 occasionally. It’s an 11-year, 100% corn whiskey, aged like a scotch and with a light smokiness to show for it. Buttery, sweet, smokey, and fun.
Woodinville Bourbon — One of the best things to come out of the burgeoning craft bourbon sector. It’s a rustic alternative to the ubiquitous and mainstream Buffalo Trace, with stewed cherry and apple, lovely weathered oak, and soft autumnal spices.
George Dickel 9-Year Hand Selected Barrel — A well aged, 103-proof Tennessee whiskey that’s always popping with bright caramel, baking spices, citrus zest, buttery corn, and soft oak. Though it has its variations from bottling to bottling, I find I always enjoy what it has to offer.
McKenzie BiB Wheated Bourbon — A relatively new addition to the wheated bourbon world and one I’m very excited about. It’s so packed with flavors, it’s virtually its own cocktail. Notes of sweet wheat, fresh field grasses, cedar, vanilla, corn, citrus, tropical fruits, a creamy old fashioned butterscotch hard candy of some kind… Really interesting, unusual, fun, and thoughtful. Almost scotch-like in certain respects, it could make a great bridge to bourbon for scotch fans.
Old Ezra Brooks Barrel Strength Bourbon — a 7-year, 117-proof caramel and nut firecracker. It’s big, bold, and creamy. Neither a thinker nor thoughtless. Just a good strong party with chat and dancing. Don’t pay much more than $50 for it though. Less than $40 is highly unlikely.
Rowan’s Creek Bourbon — A nicely floral intro to what the Willett Distillery has up its sleeve, bottled at a quirky 100.1 proof for a bit of spice. There is something both rustic and considered about Rowan’s, like sitting under an oak tree near a field of tall wild grasses with a slow fresh water stream. Mostly I see it around $45, and occasionally even under $40. So aim for less and you’ll have scored big!
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon — Think Wild Turkey 101 set loose from the turkey coop! This barrel proof bourbon kicks the flavor up a notch and gets the job done well, without feeling too hot despite its high proof.
Writers Tears Copper Pot — This Irish whisky is said to be a recreation of the kind of blend made in the 19th century that would have fueled the late nights of the great Irish poets and playwrights. It’s sweet, round, simple, easy to drink, and won’t distract you from more complicated thoughts. Think of it as the Horatio to your Hamlet. I suggest it over the more well-known (and similarly Horatian) Redbreast 12-Year because, although the Redbreast can be found under $50, you’ll be more likely to find Writers Tears closer to even the $40 mark.
Lagavulin 8-Year Single Malt — The most known of the Lagavulin line is the 16-year. But for my money and taste buds, its cheaper and younger cousin is the better bet. Brighter and more flavor-forward than its elder, the Lagavulin 8-Year makes a wonderful introduction to the salty, peat-smoked Islay region of scotches. At 96 proof to the 16-year’s 86, it packs more sparkle without getting too rowdy. Should cost around $55 to $65.
Balvenie Doublewood 12-Year Single Malt — at 86 proof and with a dozen years under its belt, this is a great gateway scotch, period, and a nice intro to the Speyside region, known for fruity flavors and for going easy on the smoke. If you picked up one first scotch, this is a safe and very satisfying bet. Should cost around $55 to $65.
Ben Nevis — I’d recommend a particular bottling of this lesser-known Highland region brand, but they seem to come and go fast and, thankfully, frequently. Now owned by Japan’s Nikka Distillery, much of the Ben Nevis distillate is sent to Japan for blending. But it often shows up in the USA under other bottler’s labels, like Signatory or one of the various Hunter Laing imprints. My experiences with Ben Nevis have ranged from creamy honeysuckle to tangy smoke, from stewed stone fruits to salted chocolate. Ben Nevis is a dependable Highland chameleon. As such it makes a great distillery to start exploring the flavor range that any scotch region might offer. Could cost from $55 to $130 depending on the age, whether it’s cask strength, single malt or a blend, etcetera.
WELLER SPECIAL RESERVE ➔ REBEL YELL 100 / REDEMPTION WHEATED
Though Weller Special Reserve is the lowest rung on the Weller ladder, this $20 wheated bourbon typically goes for $30 on up to even $100 a bottle. But while the standard 80-proof Rebel Yell wheater is nothing to yell about, its newer 100-proof rendition is a hoot and a holler. I find it as pleasing in its own sweet caramelly way as the Weller, and you’re guaranteed to find it well under $30.
Another Weller alternative might be Redemption Wheated Bourbon. It’s 4 years old and 96 proof, and typically closer to $40 or so. I have found it exceptionally enjoyable from the bottle’s first to last shots.
Mind you, neither of these wheated alternatives tastes like Weller. Only Weller tastes like Weller. And I can’t say any one is “better” than the other. I’m simply suggesting one need not break a sweat hunting Weller quite so hard, or ever pay the hiked prices, given Rebel Yell 100 and Redemption Wheated.
HENRY MCKENNA 10 YEAR BiB SiB BOURBON ➔ RUSSELL’S RESERVE SmB 10-YEAR BOURBON
It wasn’t long ago that McKenna would have been on the other side of such an equation. For so long it was the great affordable sleeper bourbon, well aged, bottled in bond, a single barrel—all traits that should have made it expensive and impossible to find. Alas, now it is both!
Selecting an alternative is tricky. Few bourbons feature the triumvirate of 10+ years and both Bottled in Bond and Single Barrel status. Though Russell’s Reserve tastes nothing like McKenna, and among its vital stats it only shares the 10-Year age mark, I suggest it as an alternative because in its own way I find it to be of similar stature.
I also find Russell’s Reserve to be far more consistent, actually, than the McKenna. While one McKenna can be forehead-slapping amazing, another might taste downright medicinal. This makes McKenna an even dicier business now that the average price has nearly doubled. Whereas with Russell’s Reserve you know exactly what you’re going to get when you uncork any bottle.
COLONEL E.H. TAYLOR BiB RYE ➔ OLD FORESTER RYE
Vastly different in price and availability, I pair these two because when I tasted the Old Forester Rye my taste buds immediately conjured up memories of the Colonel E.H. Taylor Bottled in Bond Rye. So I did a side-by-side comparison. In addition to their surprisingly mellow 100 proof, they also shared a nice floral quality and lovely soft spiciness. The Old Forester featured banana and chocolate notes. The Taylor featured quality bubblegum and butterscotch notes.
But adjacent, these seemed very much like equals. So why hunt twice as long and pay three times the price for the Taylor?
I can’t think of a good reason.
WILLETT FAMILY ESTATE SiB RYE OR BOURBON ➔ WILLETT FAMILY ESTATE SmB RYE
The highly coveted Willett Single Barrels, whether bourbon or rye, are currently only a couple years older on average than the Willett Small Batch Rye, itself a standard 4-years from batch to batch.
Also, the “barely legal” mash bills of the Willett ryes and bourbons—meaning they each have just above the minimum percentage of their primary grain to be bourbon or rye—lend their respective taste profiles a striking similarity.
And all of them are bottled at barrel strength.
Those three points make it difficult for me to justify paying $100 to $300 for the Willett single barrels (though with very mixed feelings, I have!) when I can find the Small Batch Rye for $55 to $65 (itself not cheap) most any day.
These are fightin’ words for many a Willett aficionado. For me the Willett line has been an expensive lesson in the nature of value and personal taste. I personally love the Willett taste profile. But my annual income means I very much value a good value, and a $200 single barrel bourbon that tastes not significantly unlike a $60 small batch rye is not my idea of a good value.
I will continue to enjoy what remains of the Willett single barrels I have on my home bar. And I look forward to many more future Willett small batches!
Old Potrero SiB Straight Malt Rye — Oh man. These! I was lucky to nab a bottle of the very first Old Potrero single barrel rye ever released. It was a store pick offered by K&L in the summer of 2017. After aging, it was finished in a toasted ex-chardonnay barrel and emerged at a smooth 110.6 proof. The chardonnay barrel and 100% rye mash bill worked wonders together, creating a rich, dynamic, chocolatey array of luscious dark dried fruits and complex rye spice. Since then I’ve tried more Old Potrero single barrels, none finished in wine barrels but rather aged in the usual new charred oak barrels. Each has been stunning, at once decadently sensual and endlessly thought provoking. At about $100 a pop they’re not cheap. But I count them among my favorite splurges.
Home Base Bourbon — The first bottle I tried from this tiny, Berkeley-CA-based distillery was much too young for my tastes. Aged 12 months and bottled in 2016, not long after the distillery’s 2015 opening, I found it to be more raw wood and splinters than anything else. Three years later I picked up their 2019 Batch #10, a single barrel bottling aged 36 months. Gone was the raw wood, replaced now by sweet fresh baked bread, soft orchard fruits, bits of fresh ginger, and a youthful but very pleasant oakiness. I’m so impressed by how quickly and well this distillery has refined its products. I love that it’s among the (too few!) women-run distilleries in the country. And I so appreciate their emphasis on transparency and local ingredients. At $55 a bottle it’s a steep price for young bourbon. But that is the going price for small craft distilleries given their scale. I look forward to continuing to follow Home Base Spirits on its journey.
Tom’s Foolery BiB SiB Bourbons and Ryes — This mom-and-pop distillery in Ohio, like Home Base Spirits in California, emphasizes local ingredients and transparency. Whiskey geeks love transparency because we want to learn how mash bills, entry proofs, barrel types, and aging processes all impact what we eventually experience out of the bottle. Though not every Tom’s Foolery single barrel bottle I’ve had has pleased me equally, I have found that their bottled in bond offerings—whether bourbon or rye—have for whatever reason been consistently solid experiences. The bourbons tend to be grassy, woody, apricoty, fruit-pie-crust-doughy, and fresh-cracked peppery. Their ryes are likewise grassy and woody and feature that fresh cracked pepper, then also chocolate with molasses and caramel, all spiced with the rye. Priced in the common craft distillery range of $50, there are cheaper and pricier adventures one could go on. But if you like fresh forests, orchards, and grassy fields, hop on the Tom’s Foolery train and enjoy the scenery.
31n50 — This unique single barrel bourbon experience is the heart and soul of Dry Diggings Distillery, located in El Dorado Hills, CA. Of the adventures listed here, it is easily the most difficult to get a ticket to. Only twelve barrels exist, each bottled separately and yielding around 60 bottles for sale. The rest are intended to be donated by Dry Diggings to charities. I go into more detail about 31n50 elsewhere. So here I’ll just say that if you wish to experience an atomic caramel bomb going off in slow motion in your mouth, seek this out. It is a true special event bottle—it is the event itself—and not the sort of thing you want to mix with anything else. Not even ice or water. That may seem counter-intuitive given its 122-to-148 proof range. But I suggest taking it in small doses and purely on its own terms. It will not be the greatest bourbon you try in your lifetime. Yet tasting it may be among the most conversation-inducing experiences you’ll have. It’s $200 a bottle and available only at the distillery—for how long, I have no idea! And even then it takes a chat with the distillery owner, Cris Steller, to possibly procure a bottle. But if it’s either no longer available or Steller isn’t releasing any at that moment, your visit won’t be for naught. Pick up a bottle of Rubicon Rye instead and you’ll be very happy, and will have spent less money to boot!