If you know the Slow Man even a little bit, you know I love whisk(e)y. When it comes to the spirits world, nothing reflects better the soul of the Slow than the brown stuff.
Why Whiskey Rocks
No offense is intended to those who tipple vodka, gin, and other sorts of clear swill. But whiskey, bourbon, rye, and other similar elixirs have been touched by barrel and age – most from 3 or 4 years on up to 25 and more. And they taste much better because of it. All that process, care, and patience makes whiskey the booze for complexity, richness, and deep flavors that satisfy the Slow Man’s palate.
Like The Balvenie brand ambassador Samuel Simmons says, “Much of the magic, mystery, and flavour in whisky comes from the years spent in oak casks. Take that away and, while interesting, you’re just drinking grain vodka.” Vodka just doesn’t cut it around here.
How to Get More Whiskey for Your Money
But I’m not here to talk shit about vodka (much). I am here to start a conversation about what I’ve found to be the best, cheap whiskies around. As much as I love the brown stuff, it doesn’t always make sense to drink nothing but $100 single-barrel or single-malt when sometimes you just need a good stiff drink. It also defies logic to pay a lot of money if you can’t appreciate what’s going on inside the bottle.
The best way to get that appreciation: practice with good quality stuff that doesn’t cost a lot of money. Spend your time on the mid-range world of whiskies and you can experiment more. Think you prefer bourbon over scotch, Irish over rye? How do you know unless you taste around? Palates change as knowledge grows, so build your taste buds and get a buzz by trying some of my favorite cheap whiskies. Spend enough time with the cheaper/mid-range stuff and you’ll soon better understand why you should (or should not in many cases) pay more for the top-shelf bottles.
(prices are approximate and in some cases depend on where you buy it.)
The Slow Man’s Top 7 Favorite Cheap Whiskies
7. Sazerac Rye ($26)
One of my favorites of all time at any price. It’s full-flavored, with some citrus and a tang that I can’t describe beyond that word. Goes great in a mix and is my go-to choice for Sazerac and Old Fashioned cocktails.
One of the most affordable single barrel choices out there. Single barrel means no two releases taste alike. Can usually find it for around $25 in NYC and each year tastes a little different. The 2002 bottling sounds like it’s going to be good. If I was a baller, I’d buy a case each year and compare and contrast. As it is, I buy one every now and then and enjoy it till it’s gone.
5. Bulleit Bourbon (about $25 west of the Rockies, definitely more on the east coast)
A favorite all-rounder bourbon. Great on the rocks, neat and in Old Fashioneds. Don’t like it in Manhattans, but then I usually make them with rye… It’s spicy, robust, and tastes like you should punch somebody after taking a shot. (Kidding. It’s much more sophisticated than that.)
A little thin, with a tiny bit of burn on the tongue, but this super-cheap bourbon opens up in the glass for a nice light grainy drink. The one sub-$20 bottle on my list and worth it because it’s so damn cheap and so damn drinkable. Way better than Jack Daniel’s… Note this is not the Evan Williams Black Label, which I’m not a big fan of.
Don’t scoff at WT. I turn to it all the time. For the price you get a massive wollap of taste, including leather, spice, citrus, and a long finish. And the higher proof means you can use it in mixes without losing any bourbon flavor. I also keep this leathery, spicy bourbon around for warmer days where the strength of the whiskey can withstand a bunch of ice cubes (or one giant cube) and I’m in cold bourbon heaven (or hell?).
2. Wild Turkey 101 Rye ($24)
Similar to the 101 bourbon, this is a strong, muscular drink. Since it’s rye, it’s what I prefer to use for mixing Manhattan cocktails. Bars in NYC tend to use Old Overholt, which I like neat or on the rocks, but it just gets lost in a Manhattan. WT rye stands up to the mix of the vermouth and bitters and is my choice for a kick-ass cocktail. Tastes good with a couple of cubes too. Trust me on this one.
1. Buffalo Trace ($24)
Buffalo Trace is my all-time favorite great, cheap bourbon. If I could only choose one bourbon, it’d probably be this one. At 80-proof it’s on the lower end of the get-wasted scale and has a charming, sweet taste to it that just keeps on delivering. It’s complex, but not confusing and delivers – to my mind – what I always imagined bourbon to taste like.
There are others I could include, but none of them have made it into repeat mode in my liquor cabinet. I’m sure I might have missed a couple. If you have a favorite sub-$30 whiskey, leave it in the comments.