Words by @JordanHarper
If you could only have 10 bottles of (American) whiskey in your home bar, what would they be?
One of my favourite wine bars in London — 10 Cases — has a brilliant but simple premise: they only ever have 10 cases of each of their 10 red and 10 white wines for sale. When they sell out of one, they replace it with 10 cases of a completely new wine. As someone who has always favoured constantly enjoying new experiences over the comfort of a ‘favourite drink’, this approach appeals to me.
As a fan of American whiskey in all its forms, I have some fifty bottles of bourbon, rye and ‘other’ whiskey from the USA in my drinks cabinet, and it’s getting unwieldy, not to mention stifling me with the paradox of choice. What would happen if I took the 10 Cases approach and shrank it down to just 10 bottles? Not necessarily whittling down to the rarest or most expensive, nor trying to compile a comprehensive ‘lesson’ in American whiskey, but the ones I’d buy if I were building a collection right now (April 2017).
As an added constraint (and to make it more than just a vanity project), I’m going to try and conjure up a list of 10 whiskies available right now in the UK for a total price of £500 or less for a ’10 Cases’ refresh of my imaginary home bar.
Note: prices have been rounded-up in some cases for brevity, are subject to change based on availability and (apart from number 7) are generally available from all good whiskey specialists.
1. Elijah Craig 12, £32 (Amazon)
Heaven Hill, 47%
A long, long, long time favourite of mine. Probably the whiskey that got me into American spirit in the first place many years ago. Full bodied, sweet, charred oak, vanilla, toffee, a little bit of spice; the very epitome of what makes whiskey from the US unique. At 47% ABV you’re getting some serious bang for your buck, too — this is the biggest bargain in the bourbon world for me and is incredibly versatile.
Get it while you can though, it’s been discontinued in the US (to be replaced ‘Elijah Craig small batch’, no age-statement) but for now is still widely available in the UK.
Drink: When you just need a big old glass of chewy barrel juice.
2. Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye (£85, Nickolls & Perks)
Michter’s Distillery, 54.6% (varies per batch)
The resurrected Michter’s distillery make some seriously good juice, but none of it matches the bang-for-your-buck of their barrel strength rye. This stuff is a phenomenal example of what rye whiskey brings to the table and I can’t get enough of it. Spicy, but full of caramel and vanilla notes, a touch of orange and cherry and a huge finish.
It’s a little tricky to get a hold of as it’s a limited release, but their regular single barrel rye (42.4%, £55 from Milroy’s) is a more than adequate replacement if you can’t find it. There’s probably only one rye I’d take to my desert island over this one, but that‘s not exactly easy to get hold of.
Drink: When your palate is feeling adventurous and like you deserve something special.
3. Wild Turkey Rare Breed (£52, Master of Malt)
Wild Turkey, 56.4% (barrel strength, varies per batch)
I find Wild Turkey whiskey has one of the most distinctive flavour profiles in the bourbon world. A high rye mashbill, low barrel entry proof (like Michter’s) and a real talent for consistency means that you’re always getting a smooth, butterscotch, vanilla, maple, cinnamon and ever so slightly spicy whiskey when you buy WT – and their Rare Breed is a fine example of what they do so well, blending a mix of 6–12 year old whiskies to create their signature flavour.
If you wanted to save £20, Wild Turkey 101 is an only slightly diluted version of their barrel strength expression (50.5% ABV), keeping all of the classic WT flavours but with slightly less body and mouthfeel.
Drink: After a hard day at work and you want something spicy and punchy to knock some sense into yourself.
4. Eagle Rare 10 (£37, Master of Malt)
Buffalo Trace, 45%
Less than £40 for a ten year old bourbon is something not to be sniffed at, and when that whiskey comes from Buffalo Trace — where over 200 years of distilling expertise produces some of the best and most sought after whiskies in the country — then it’s a no-brainer.
Eagle Rare 10, like Elijah Craig 12, is a classic example of Kentucky bourbon — rich and full bodied, full of maple syrup, orange peel, oak and vanilla — and is my go to bottle when I’m too tired to scan my cabinet and just want a glass of something I’m going to enjoy. They also have a lively single-barrel program (with Single Barrel selections available in BrewDog and The Cocktail Trading Company in London), which without fail I’ve always enjoyed even more than the off the shelf juice.
Drink: When you’re feeling content, and need a nice, straightforward dram to see the night off.
5. Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Straight Rye (£35, Nickolls & Perks)
Heaven Hill, 50%
If Elijah Craig was the whiskey that piqued my interest in American spirits, it was Rittenhouse that made me realise why rye whiskey was very much the spirit of America (pre-prohibition).
There’s not a lot of subtlety to Rittenhouse 100, for £35 you get a big spicy rye punch, full of cloves and a hint of citrus. So full bodied and packed with oak and vanilla it’s like a mouthful of bourbon-soaked peppercorns. Pretty much the Elijah Craig of rye whiskies – almost improbably great value and there aren’t many ryes better at twice the price in this author’s opinion.
Drink: when you fancy a manhattan, or just being warmed into a night of excess.
6. Four Roses Small Batch (£33, Milroy’s of Soho)
Four Roses, 45%
Ahh, foam bananas doused in whiskey and set alight! Four Roses limited edition bourbons have become extremely sought after, and their method of blending up to ten recipes (5 yeasts, 2 mash bills) is now somewhat legendary. Given all that geekery, it’s easy to forget that at the more available and affordable end of the scale, with their Small Batch (and Single Barrel) offerings, you can pick up pretty much the same flavours but at a fraction of the price.
FRSmB is a blend of four of the ten ‘recipes’ (details here) to create a smooth, rye heavy but incredibly sophisticated and well rounded bourbon that’s quite savory — think honey on toast (and the aforementioned foam bananas doused in whiskey). It’s the John Lennon to Elijah Craig’s Paul McCartney.
Drink: When you’re feeling like something a little different, or want to show your friends that not all bourbons are created equal.
7. FEW Delilah’s 23rd Anniversary (£62.50, The Whisky Exchange)
FEW Spirits, 50%
Image Credit: The Whisky Exchange
I’m a huge fan of FEW Spirits. For a young distillery, it’s genuinely remarkable how much depth and flavour Paul Hletko and his team are getting out of their barrels. I’m beginning to think that they’re concealing a time machine on the shores of Lake Michigan somewhere.
FEW’s regular Bourbon and Rye offerings are pretty great, but this very limited release to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of Chicago institution Delilahs really is something else. My first attempt at tasting notes were that it tasted like dark chocolate digestive biscuits and spiced toffee. It’s absolutely delicious and super-limited, but if I was restocking the bar now, I’d be making sure I grabbed one of these before they’re all gone.
Drink: When you’ve switched the Jazz for Blues and are seriously considering polishing off an entire bottle.
8. Blanton’s Gold Edition (£65, Master of Malt)
Blanton’s is a funny old beast. For the most part, every whiskey on this list is cheaper and more easily available in the US. Blanton’s have a very unusual distribution arrangement: thanks to the brand being owned by Age International (but distilled by Buffalo Trace) and being Big in Japan, they are focused heavily on the export market.
As such, bottles like Blanton’s Gold (and their Straight From the Barrel release) are almost impossible to get a hold of in the US — and when they are available are generally more expensive than buying them abroad — so for once, it pays to be a bourbon fan outside of America!
Essentially, Blanton’s Gold Edition is just an extra selective version of their Single Barrel release (widely available everywhere). It’s a lot drier and more tannic than a lot of other bourbons, but packs a HUGE oaky punch as a result. Along with a ton of vanilla and toffee, and a richness that’s almost overwhelming. This is a last drink of the night kind of bourbon, but it really is pretty great.
Drink: When you just need that one last hit before bedtime.
9. Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey (£45, Milroy’s of Soho)
Buffalo Trace, 45%
Image credit: Gear Patrol
A crisp and spicy New Orleans style rye, a little more subtle and aromatic than Rittenhouse, unsurprisingly a great choice if you’re making a Sazerac cocktail.
You could argue that you only really need one of this or Rittenhouse in your line-up, but I think having them both here really highlights the versatility of this style of spirit.
Drink: When you’re making pre-prohibition cocktails, or fancy something spicy but gentle on your tastebuds.
10. High West Double Rye (£43, The Whisky Exchange)
High West blend of MGP + Barton 46%
And finally, something a little bit different. High West’s double rye is a blend of a sweet 16-year-old 53% rye whiskey from the Barton distillery and a much fresher and spicier 2-year-old 95% MGP rye. This results in a delicious blend of old and new: with oak and age bringing a bit of sophistication to a more vibrant younger whiskey.
It’s a great example of the interesting stuff happening in the US and a great value dram to have in your cabinet. It’s not always easily available, so grab a bottle while you can.
Drink: When you fancy appreciating the spirit of American adventure and rebelling against the age-statement chasing fanboys (and girls).
That’s it! In summary, then ten bottles you’d find hitting my shelf first if the burglars robbed my spirits cabinet blind, are:
- Elijah Craig 12 (£32)
- Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye (£85)
- Wild Turkey Rare Breed (£52)
- Eagle Rare 10 (£37)
- Rittenhouse BiB Straight Rye (£36)
- Four Roses Small Batch (£33)
- FEW Delilah’s 23rd Anniversary (£62.50)
- Blanton’s Gold Edition (£65)
- Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey (£45)
- High West Double Rye (£43)
That’s just under £500 for four ryes, four bourbons and one brilliant blend – if I never had to drink an American spirit outside of that selection again, I’d still spend the rest of my days drinking some really great whiskey.