Budget Whiskeys

Ahh, the Piano Bar.

Never learned to play the damn thing, but it has served well hosting a rotating selection of my favorite spirits over the years. Some rare, some expensive, but mostly budget bottles I don’t feel guilty about emptying (or pouring over ice for a trip to the hot tub).

For years I’ve maintained a list of my favorite budget bottles, sharing said list when requested with good friends. I figure it’s high time to put it out there for larger consumption – and ridicule, no doubt.

But first, some random thoughts about whiskeys (and yes this includes Scotch you spelling pedantics) as you browse the brown spirits isles of your liquor store.

  • Just about anything labeled “Bottled in Bond” (BiB for short) is worth your consideration. Believe it or not, Bottled in Bond is actually a US legal definition dating all the way back to the late 1800s. Specifically:

    The spirit must be aged for at least four years and bottled at precisely 100 proof (50% abv). It must be made by one distiller at a single distillery in one season, then aged in a bonded warehouse.

    So, you’re getting 4 year (minimum) age, 100 proof juice for quite often a very bargain price. Win-win-win in my book.

  • If you see a Compass Box Whiskey on the shelf, buy it. Period. No exceptions. These blended Scotch expressions are unique, ever changing, and always excellent. Sadly, word is out and it’s getting harder and harder to find these on the shelves. Do not miss an opportunity.
  • Support local! Yes, most of the juices out of Tennessee and Kentucky are amazing. Believe it or not, many of the craft distillers near you have been filling barrels for four or more years now. They’re doing amazing things, redefining what American Whiskey means. Always give the local guys and gals a shot. If nothing else, it’s a cool story to tell your friends as you pour them a finger or two.
  • Bourbon vs rye… I have good friends who boldly declare “I hate rye!” Yet when they tell me their absolute favorite bourbon it’ll more often than not be a high rye bourbon. Some folk can’t tell the difference, and while you may snicker, it’s a fair point. Bourbon is legally 51% corn and 49% anything else. Can be more corn, rye, barley, wheat, other grains, or any combination thereof. There is also 100% straight rye whiskey, and I suspect this is where a lot of hate comes from. Rye is a bitch to distill. It’s easy to get wrong. I can totally see someone’s opinion of rye tainted by a bad bottle. Thing is, rye is a pretty darn important component to what most people consider “standard” bourbon flavor. Here’s a little tip: If you like your bourbon neat, look for low rye or wheated bourbons. On the rocks? Consider high rye bottles or even try one of the straight rye expressions below. The thicker, spicier texture of rye holds up to ice much better.

OK, here we go. In no particular order, I promise. These should all be around or under $50 a bottle at your shop.

George Dickel BiB
Larceny Barrel Proof
Kilbeggan Single Pot Still
Bib & Tucker Small Batch
Old Overholt BiB Rye
Leopold Bros. American Whiskey
Jameson Caskmates IPA
Loch Lomond
Corsair Triple Smoke
Old Forester Classic
Wyoming Whiskey (any)
Ardbeg Wee Beastie
Nikka Days
Stranahan’s Blue Peak
Woody Creek Straight Rye
Compass Box (any)
Rittenhouse Rye BiB
Tim Smith’s Climax Wood Fired Whiskey
Chattanooga Straight Rye
Jura 12 year
Balcones (any)
Elijah Craig Straight Rye
Suntory Toki
Redbreast 12 year
Bushmills Black Bush
Mashbuild Bourbon

So Jeff, you ask, what’s always stocked on that piano? Glad you asked! Here’s my favorite, always must have on-hand bottles.

  • Jameson Caskmates IPA – I love Irish whiskeys. Caskmates IPA is finished in whiskey barrels that were loaned to a brewery to make IPA beer. Clear as mud, eh? Regardless, cheap, magical, and delicious.
  • Redbreast 12 year – Continuing my Irish love… This one’s a stretch to find at $50 unless you score a sale. Still, the gold standard of Irish whiskey, in my opinion.
  • Suntory Toki – “Cheap Japanese whisky” are three words you normally don’t find in one sentence, yet here we are. Readily available, affordable, and damn tasty. Works great over ice or in cocktails.
  • Rittenhouse Rye BiB – Soooo good on the rocks. This one was simply made for hottubbing.
  • Tim Smith’s Climax Wood Fired Whiskey – Yeah, the dude from Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners. So shoot me. The show is a guilty pleasure to be sure, but Tim’s shine is good. Like, really good. I absolutely love this wood “aged” expression. Because of the show’s popularity, this one can be hard to find but if your state allows mail order spirits, it’s easy to get online.
  • Old Forester Classic – I’m bourbon fickle, wandering from bottle to bottle with three or four on the piano at any time, but when the Old Forester runs dry, I’m inevitably reaching for another next trip to the liquor store.
  • Ardbeg Wee Beastie – My most recent must-have. Peaty, like an Ardbeg should be, but young and bright. Good Scotch isn’t supposed to be this affordable.
  • Mashbuild Bourbon – On paper, these simply shouldn’t work. Blends of insane multiples of sourced juices, solera finished in a variety of casks, these bourbons should be one hot mess. But they aren’t. I don’t know how Rich does it but time after time he pulls off amazing expressions. I like to think of him as the Compass Box of bourbons (but a hell of a lot easier to find). Rich also bought my still and distillery equipment when I came to my senses and gave up my craft distilling dream, so cheers for that!

I’ll try to do a follow-up post on rum – there’s a crapton of those on the piano too. Stay tuned, as they say.