Looking to settle down to a dram by the fire? Noah Rothbaum, whiskey enthusiast and author of the forthcoming book The Art of American Whiskey, says there’s such a wide range of value in the world of top-notch booze these days, you shouldn’t equate price or how long the liquor has aged with quality. Here, for your edification, are Rothbaum’s favorite whiskeys punching well above their weight in terms of price and quality.
W.L. Weller 12 Year Old, $25
Americans and foreigners are rediscovering bourbon. Bottles of Pappy Van Winkle fly off the shelves almost as soon as they are delivered to stores. A bottle of Van Winkle is around $100 retail but can fetch thousands on the secondary market. Bourbon is traditionally made with three grains, at least 51% corn, and a combination of malted barley, to help with fermentation, and usually finished off with rye to add that spicy kick. Think Wild Turkey. But some bourbons, like Van Winkle, use wheat for that final grain, resulting in a smooth, sweetness.
That’s the flavoring to expect with Rothbaum’s first pick, a $25 bottle of W.L. Weller 12 Year Old. “You could call it the poor man’s Pappy Van Winkle,” says Rothbaum. Both brands, Van Winkle and W.L. Weller, are made by Buffalo Trace Distillery. But don’t let the lowly price fool you. This bourbon, sans that zesty tang, is “easier to drink, even for non-bourbon drinkers,” says Rothbaum, and it is also tasty in an Old Fashioned or Mint Julep. For serious bargain hunters looking for a similar flavor profile, Rothbaum also likes Old Weller Antique at $20.
Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky, $25
Rye whiskey is truly America’s whiskey. Long before bourbon, founding fathers like George Washington had their own rye distilleries. Prohibition and both World Wars all but killed America’s Rye industry by the 50s and 60s. Still, Heaven Hill Distilleries is keeping that tradition alive with its Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky.
A sign of its popularity, the price of a bottle has grown nearly 80% in the past few years from a cheap $14 to a still reasonable $25. Restaurant and bar owners have helped drive up the price. “For bartenders, it’s the gold standard in terms of price and quality,” says Rothbaum. For this reason, it can also be harder to find than Rothbaum’s other picks. Distributors tend to funnel it to the top markets. Still, it’s a “versatile rye,” with that traditional spicy, fruity “big rye flavor,” great on the rocks or in a Manhattan or Hot Toddy, Rothbaum says. “The people who are in the know buy it,” he says.
Redbreast Irish Whiskey 12 Year Old, $43
Thanks to Jameson, Irish whiskey is the hottest growing whiskey category in the U.S. Sales rose 485% between 2002 and 2013. Though smaller craft distilleries are sprouting up throughout Ireland, there are still only three big players in the Irish whiskey business- Bushmills Irish Whiskey in Northern Ireland; Cooley Distillery in the middle; and Midleton in the south. Rothbaum’s favorite is Midleton’s Redbreast 12-year. “This is the whiskey that I pull out of the cabinet when people come over my house and say they don’t like whiskey,” he says.
It’s a bit more like a cognac than your typical Irish Whiskey, says Rothbaum, packing “fruity notes, like apples and pears,” along with “a lot of sweetness.” Again, it’s a versatile pick. Sipping it on the rocks “opens the whiskey up,” he says, but at $43 “it’s affordable enough to pour in with a ginger ale or make a Hot Toddy.”...MORE