So, you want to stock the home bar with a decent selection of spirits but you don't want to blow the bank. We hear you. That's why we've gone to experts to find their top picks for American whiskey, tequila, and vodka so you can have a respectable bar – and still have cash left for other important stuff.
Inexpensive whiskey? That must be too good to be, well, good, right? Not right!
When you see the cost of an under-the-radar American whiskey, your knee-jerk reaction may be to give it a pass. How can it be any good when the ones getting all the press are fetching some ridiculous prices? It's way too easy to drop a hundred bucks — or more — on a bottle these days. And these sky-high-and-climbing-higher-every-day prices can skew your perception of those perfectly nice bottles hanging out on the bottom shelf.
Here's the thing: Have you seen the splashy marketing on some of these big-name whiskeys? Yeah. They're all over the place and over the top. And that doesn't come cheap.
Meanwhile some very, very decent standbys — that get no marketing whatsoever — are just quietly being enjoyed by people in the know. People like Larry Rice, who owns one of the best whiskey bars in Louisville, Kentucky (as in, bourbon country). The trouble is, he says, "There is this perceived value to expensive things and consumers are getting taken advantage of." But there's just no need to shell out big for big taste. Here are expert picks for affordable and amazing American whiskeys (also check out our favorite budget bourbons!).
1. Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch Bourbon, $14 for 750 milliliters
"Aged a bit longer than traditional Evan Williams, it is a more complex version of the original. A much bigger aroma, as well as a fuller flavor than expected with hints of vanilla and toasted caramel. This bourbon punches well above its weight. It works better in a cocktail than on its own, but does do well neat." —Todd Antz, a second-generation owner of Keg Liquors in southern Indiana
2. Buffalo Trace Bourbon, $21 for 750 milliliters
"Have you ever met someone who was just an all-around solid person? I'm talking the kind of human who's so versatile and well-rounded that you start wondering if there's anything flawed about them (only to find their flaw isn't all that exciting). Well, Buffalo Trace bourbon is that person in my eyes. It's perfect neat. It's even better in cocktails. You can even gift it because the bottle looks cool. The only flaw might be you'll pay $25 instead of $20, but if that's the worst then I'd put a ring on it." —Elliott Clark, the blogger behind Apartment Bartender
3. Rittenhouse Rye, $24 for 750 milliliters
"Rittenhouse is cool because it's a rye whiskey so it has a definite baking spice character to it — cinnamon, clove, etc. — but at the same time it's got a creamy, vanilla woodiness and is really well-balanced. It's not super expensive and obviously works well in a lot of cocktails, but can definitely work as a quality pour on its own, even against some ryes that are significantly more expensive." —Sandy Levine, owner of Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails and The Oakland in Detroit
4. Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond, $20 for 750 milliliters at The Liquor Barn
"This is a wheated bourbon, but it has a really nice spice component — it's the wheated part that will trick you into thinking it's high rye. It's one of the legacy brands that has stuck around for Heaven Hill. Wonderful, wonderful, easy to drink. It's tricky to find but if you can, get your hands on a bottle. I would never hesitate to serve it on the rocks but it also plays well [in mixed drinks]." —Jeremy Johnson, owner of Meta cocktail lounge in Louisville.
5. Henry McKenna, $22 for 1.75 liters
"It hits all the hot buttons: It's 10 years old with an age statement, bonded, single barrel. Also, there's some good Tennessee whiskey; I think Dickel is doing a good job. The one I drink at home is their #12 ($21 for 750 milliliters). It drinks like a nice bourbon. The nose up front is very traditional, a lot of caramel, not quite nutmeg but maybe pecan. The mid palate has some dark fruits and it has a nice spice like a rye, and a nice long finish." —Larry Rice, co-founder of the Silver Dollar, Pearl, and El Camino in Louisville
Prices unless noted are from Total Wine as of September 2017 — based on a shopper in Kentucky. Your pricing may vary.
Do you have a go-to that wasn't listed here? Share it in the comments!