I’ve been drinking whisky for a handful of years now so, while I’m no expert, I’ve tasted enough to have favorites — which I humbly share with you here. To give you some context for my selections below, my whisky profile is as follows. All things being equal, I prefer Scotch (usually heavy on smoke, medium on peat…but I definitely have my peaty moods). When I feel like something sweet (and typically during the week), I’ll go for Bourbon…it’s a close 2nd in my mind to Scotch. A distant 3rd is Irish whiskey, which I find nice ‘n easy, but generally lacking in character. Everything else you need to know about my feelings toward whisky can be found in my What I’ve learned about whisky post.
There are enough here that you should be able to find something you like…
- Dirt cheap: Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon. I learned about this little gem in an Esquire article on Cheap Booze. Like a good Bourbon should be, it’s sweet with some fight in it…and under 10 bucks! You could spill half of it while pouring and it’d still be a good deal. Good for a random week night.
- Rough-around-the-edges Bourbon: Bulleit Bourbon. A waiter at the EPA Four Seasons bar recommended this to me and I instantly liked it (probably because its smokiness reminded me of Scotch). They call it a “Frontier Whiskey” and claim that the recipe originated in the 1830s. It certainly delivers on that frontier moniker: a little more kick and not as sweet-smooth. A Scotch-lover’s Bourbon.
- Irish: Bushmills Black Bush. As noted above, I’m not a huge Irish fan, but I do like this one on occasion. It’s got more life to it than most Irish whiskey’s I’ve had, but still maintains that distinct Irish smoothness.
- Everyday Scotch: The Macallan Sherry Oak 12 Years Old. I call this the benchmark: the standard against which all other Scotches (and even all other whiskies) are judged. This is my go-to. Good smoke and good bite, very light on the peat. You can get this at Costco for like $38…you can’t find a better whisky under $40.
- Super Bourbon: Booker’s. Part of the Jim Beam line of Small Batch Bourbon, Booker’s is the best Bourbon I’ve ever had. Good amount of sweetness with real fire thanks to the high proof (121 to 127). I call this “the hard stuff”. Everything that a Bourbon should be.
- Mid-tier Scotch: Johnnie Walker Gold Label. Much more refined and complex than their Green Label, this goes down fairly easy but with good smoke. Tough to find a better Scotch in this price range (you can find it for $60-70).
- Pseudo-Scotch: McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey. Everything about it except for where it’s distilled makes it a Scotch (“Made from peat-malted barley brought in from Scotland, our whiskey would be a single malt Scotch if Oregon were Scotland”). Islay-like peatiness with a smoothness that belies its age (only 3 years in the barrel). It’s amazing how they make something this good in such a short time.
- Islay Scotch: Laphroaig 15 Year Old. It took me a while to get used to and like Islays. Their extreme peatiness was off-putting at first taste. But slowly, I began to come to grips with it and now really enjoy that peat strength. The Laphroaig 15 is the quintessential Islay: super potent peat and a sea saltiness that’s very attractive and endearing. I tell people that when they drink this, there’s no mistake that they’re drinking Scotch. My wife calls it jet fuel.
- High end: The Macallan Sherry Oak 18 Years Old and Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Admittedly, my “high end” doesn’t currently extend very high, but this will have to do for now. Johnnie Blue is a wonderful mix of smooth and peaty, quite unique in my limited experience. Definitely worth the money. But I have to give the overall nod to The Macallan 18. Very deep and rich, with great smoke. Very firm and distinct (sorry, I don’t have the full whisky vocabulary down, but if you try it, you’ll know what I mean by that). Both of these taste like a full meal…with The Macallan 18 the ever-so-slightly better meal.
And there you go. A quick note on some standard bearers not mentioned here. Jack Daniel’s: I’m sure it’s a fine whiskey on its own, but I only drink it with Coke. Jameson: I’m sure it’s a fine whiskey on its own, but I only drink it in Irish coffees. Canadian whisky: I find it even less flavorful than Irish whiskey, so what’s the point?