Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: 18 American Whiskeys to Get You Started

Along with writing about whiskey, I sometimes do whiskey tastings, and bourbon tastings in particular, for novice or intermediate whiskey drinkers. In these tastings, I am often asked for bourbon recommendations. To that end, I've come up with a list of American whiskeys to try. The idea of this list is that if you are a novice bourbon drinker, tasting these whiskeys will give you a good sense of the variety and range of styles of American whiskey. Once you have tried all of these, you will be ready for the big-time. In addition, they are all whiskeys I feel comfortable recommending (i.e. I generally like them).

Since the list is intended for novices, the two qualifications for the list are that all of the whiskeys be (1) fairly easy to find in a good Los Angeles area liquor store (although some are obviously easier to find than others); and (2) fairly affordable (although, obviously there is a range and the idea was not to only list the absolute cheapest bottles or expressions). I also tried to mix it up between styles and distilleries.

The list certainly reflects my biases. You won't find many Beam products or any Jack Daniels but lots of Buffalo Trace. Rye is arguably over-represented, but I love my rye. Of course, there are some great bourbons that I left off. I wasn't going to list every expression of a given whiskey, so for instance, I limited myself to one Weller. And while Very Old Barton BIB is great and would easily belong on such a list, you can't get it in California, so it's not on the list. I also excluded special releases that change from year to year (such as Parker's Heritage, Buffalo Trace Experimental, etc.).

So let me know what you think. How helpful would you find this list if you were (or are) a novice? What would you add? What doesn't belong?

Booker’s Bourbon ($50)
Buffalo Trace Bourbon ($20)
Eagle Rare 10 Bourbon ($25)
Elijah Craig 12 Bourbon ($20)
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon ($40)
High West Rendezvous Rye ($50)
George Dickel #12 Tennessee Whiskey ($18)
George T. Stagg Bourbon ($75)
Maker’s Mark Bourbon ($23)
Old Grand-Dad 114 Bourbon ($23)
Old Potrero Rye ($70)
Sazerac Rye ($27)
Ridgemont Reserve 1792 Bourbon ($36)
Rittenhouse 100 Rye ($20)
Wild Turkey 101 Rye ($20)
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon ($43)
William Larue Weller Bourbon ($75)
Woodford Reserve Bourbon ($25)


Jason Pyle said...

Steve it's a great list. Some varied mashbills scattered throughout and a good mix of price points. I love rye as well so I'd have to tip my cap to quite a few as well. It's still, even with the surge, an underappreciated whiskey.

One thing I think too many experts advocate when advising novices is directing them to ONLY the entry level. I think it's fine to try a variety of styles and flavors, and price points like this. It's the only way to find out what you like.

AaronWF said...

Sku, I enjoy your comments on Jason's site (and StraightBourbon as well if memory serves?) and look forward to digging deeper into your blog!

I was recently thinking about just this sort of list; quick, comprehensive suggestions someone could take with them to the liquor store, confident there's not a dud to be found. With the exception of a bottle of Russell Reserve Rye, I still have yet to buy a bottle of, or even really taste any Wild Turkey product, so I think your list may finally push me into giving it a shot. (Btw, RR Rye is not something I plan on purchasing again.)

One thing that seems out of place to me is your choice of Weller. I think I would include the 90 proof 12 year on a list like this, simply because it is so outrageously accessible a whiskey, and at a much lower price point.

Unless it's a matter of availability in your neck of the woods, I think I'd include Noah's Mill over Booker's, though I haven't tasted the recent bottling of NM. My last comment would be to wonder how vital the Elijah Craig is to your list; I don't have much experience with it.

I hope to see Old Portero on Chicago shelves in the not-too-distant future!

sku said...

Jason, you hit it right on the head in terms of not dumbing it down for novices. For people who are interested enough in whiskey to go to a tasting, they are probably looking for the next level.

AaronWF, thanks for your comments and welcome to the blog! You know, I thought a lot about both the WL Weller and the Stagg, and if I was to put the list in order, they would probably be the last two I would recommend trying. As I said, though, I wanted to show range of everything: distillery, mashbill, abv, you name it, and since these two are two of the best bourbons around, how could I leave them off? That being said, Weller Antique 107 or 12 would have been very good choices as well.

As to Elijah Craig, I wanted a Heaven Hill bourbon on the list and I thought that was the best choice.

Noah's Mill could easily replace Booker's, but I did want to get a few Beam products in. Also, I think it's less helpful for novices to give them a bourbon made by a bottler where you don't know who the distiller is. The whole world of American indie bottlings is beyond my general novice tasting spiel and can get pretty confusing pretty quickly for the uninitiated.

sam k said...

Sku, excellent post, and a good starting point for anyone with interest in the subject.

Are you sure you don't have the pricing on Ridgemont and Woodford mixed up? They're the opposite in my neck of the woods.

Also, which Old Potrero? Don't they make an 18th and a 19th century style, each a bit different? By the way, neither would make any list of mine since I'm absolutely, diametrically opposed to an all-malt rye, but I'm splitting hairs.

Anyone who hasn't enjoyed the combination of value and guts of Wild Turkey rye is missing something, IMO.

Thanks for another great post!

sku said...

Hey Sam, thanks for your comments. Those are prices I pulled from one of our retailers, though the Ridgemont can be found for as low as $25, the Woodford is always about the same here.

On the Old Potrero, I like the Hoatlings the best but it's the most important. I figured for the purposes of this list, any one would do. The 18th century seems to be the easiest to find out here.

Anonymous said...

If instead of being an unheralded Tennessee gem, Dickel #12 were a tightly allocated Buffalo Trace or Four Roses product... it would not cost eighteen f-ing dollars! Huge bargain. Somebody at that joint needs to wake-up, start a cask strength private retail bottling program for around $26 street price, and blow people's minds.

sku said...

Amen Anon, amen. I've never understood why we can't get something like that out of Dickel.

scott said...

It's a good list, and very useful to me. I'm someone who in the last few months has been on a learning/exploring curve and can really appreciate it. In fact I'd kinda gotten there already just from reading lots of great info on your site, Jason's site, Chuck Cowdery's site (and book), and others.
Of the 8 bottles on your list that I haven't tried yet the Elijah Craig and Eagle Rare were already next on my list to buy, and the Grand Dad and Wild Turkey I was waiting to spot in a bar soon (because I've bought a lot already!).
The only thing missing from the list that I have found useful and interesting and fun would be a white dog or new make and also perhaps the Bernheim wheat whiskey. Nothing shows the magic of time and barrelling faster than a side by side of Buffalo Trace White Dog and the regular Buffalo Trace. And the Bernheim is just so smooth and delightful (my non whiskey friends seem to love it especially) it might help show how wheat makes the wheater bourbons so well loved...
And I couldn't agree more about the Dickel. I bought an extra bottle and gave it to my favorite place just so I'd be able to get it while out!

sku said...

Scott, thanks so much for your comments. You are absolutely right about the value of including a white dog, and I always include one in a basic tasting. I don't put it on the list because I feel bad recommending that someone buy a whole bottle of any white whiskey. If it weren't for these tastings, I wouldn't ever make it through the ones I have. If we had Mellow Corn in California, I might add that, since it is a whole category I'm lacking.

Good point too about Bernheim Wheat. I've toyed with putting it on but ultimately decided against it, though not for any great reason. I may add it to my next draft.

sam k said...

I think the Bernheim has an amazing amount of character for a straight wheater. I initially thought it would be like Maker's Mark light, but was surprised at its layers of flavor.

scott said...

I found a half size $15 bottle of Eagle Rare today. It sure would be nice if more bottles were available in that size, especially for the novices like me.
Sku you're right about the white dog.
The Buffalo Trace bottle is small and I know I'll have it around a long time. I as much as I want to try the Heaven Hill Trybox stuff I'm looking at those big bottles and thinking...too much.
Speaking of Maker's Mark. I had a small unopened bottle from 15 years ago (one of the only 3 brands I'd ever bought until my renewed interest in whiskey this year) and I took it to a bar and did a side by side taste with current Makers last week. The old one was super smooth with no bite at all. The current one was very different. Couple other folks tried them and agreed. Do you think Makers has changed much over the years or does whiskey mellow out some while sitting in the bottle a long time? The flavor profile was the same, just the new one was hotter so to speak..

sku said...

Scott, if your Maker's bottle was unopened (and there was not problem with the cork which would let oxygen into the bottle - unlikely with the wax seal), it shouldn't have changed over the years. I've never heard about a change in Maker's, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a difference. Most whiskeys from 15 years ago tasted different than they do today.

Humchan2k said...

Just as a heads up, the 18th Century Potrero is due to be discontinued, so if you're out and about and you find it, swipe it up now. Hotaling's is also long gone. It seems that Anchor is bringing out a new style every year or so, and then killing it off to keep things interesting...but the single malt rye, 90 proof, will apparently always be around.

Thrilled you put that on the list, btw. I don't know where you are finding OGD 114 for $23 or Saz for $27 though!

sku said...

Thanks for the info. Humchan. The prices are what I found at local retailers. The OGD 114 is available at Hi-Time Wine for $23. I forget where I got the Saz price from; it seems to be mostly out of stock right now.

Matt Lange said...

Good list. I'd add Sazerac 18 only because I love that whiskey, as well as Hudson 4 Grain Bourbon to show what again in smaller barrels can do for a bourbon.