I’m going on a trip to the US, what should I buy?

Given that bourbon is a US product and there’s a crippling premium added to a lot of American whiskey imported to the UK, it’s a fair assumption that on a trip to the US, there are a lot of bargains to be had. There are also a whole host of brands, bottles and limited releases that are either not distributed in the UK or only available for an even more offensive premium at stores that take on the non-insubstantial cost of importing small numbers of bottles after buying at retail in the US themselves.

As such, a question asked at least once a fortnight goes something like: ‘I’m travelling to the US next week, what bottle should I pick up?’

There follows a brief — certainly not extensive — guide to bottles that are generally available in US liquor stores but not in the UK, based on what I’ve seen on the 15 or so trips to Chicago, Houston, Austin and New York I’ve taken in the last year. All price estimates are before local sales tax is applied, and they are in no particular order.

Old Forester 1920 ‘Prohibition Style’ Bourbon

Not available in the UK via official distribution channels.

Probably the most common answer to the question at hand, OF1920 (as it’s otherwise known) is a rich, tasty, full-bodied, high proof (115/57.5%) bourbon that almost absurdly readily available across the US. It should cost somewhere between $50–60 and is — in this writer’s humble opinion — probably the best value bourbon on the market, and certainly the best thing Old Forester put out despite not being the most difficult to find or most expensive.

Henry McKenna Bottled-in-Bond 10 Year Single Barrel

Not available in the UK via official distribution channels.

A Bottled-in-Bond (BiB) bourbon is one that comes with a certain set of quality guarantees: at least four years old, from a single ‘season’ at a single distillery, aged in a bonded warehouse (regulated and supervised by the US government) and bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV). There aren’t many BiB bourbons out there with 10 year age statements, and definitely not many with a price tag of around $30.

E.H. Taylor, Jr range

Available in the UK but much more affordable in the US.

One of Ameican whiskey’s great conundrums is why Buffalo Trace’s E.H. Taylor’s range is so absurdly expensive in the UK and Europe. Aside from limited releases (such as the much vaunted Four Grain, that was awarded world’s best whisky by Jim Murray) the core range consists of three expressions[1], with typical US/UK prices in parentheses:

  • Small Batch ($40/£95)
  • Single Barrel ($60/£95)
  • Straight Rye ($70/£95)

Not least the oddest thing is that the pricing in the UK doesn’t seem to scale at all, with all expressions generally costing about the same at retail despite there being a huge variation in the US.

Nobody should be paying £95 for a $40 bourbon, so if you dig the Buffalo Trace mash bill #1 (their core, low-rye recipe) and you’ve never been able to dig deep enough to drop £95 pound on the big yellow EHT tube, then a small batch or single barrel is a steal in the US (and the rye is still a bargain).

Rebel Yell 10 Year Old Single Barrel

Available in the UK, but rare.

A fairly common sight on shelves in US liquor stores at around $60–70 and a delicious smooth and sweet wheated bourbon, it’s recently become available in limited quantities in the UK at a fairly decent price (£70 ish), but it’s worth picking up for what amounts to a decent discount and easy availability.

There is reportedly quite a bit of variance between barrels, but I still think this one is worth a pickup.

Barrell Bourbon

Not available in the UK via official distribution channels.

Barrell are non-distilling producers, buying bourbon (and rye, rum and single malt, now) from various distillers, blending and bottling in batches. Every batch is completely different, and not all are to everyone’s tastes, but there are some gems in there (#011 is a stunner). They’re not cheap at $70–90 a bottle, but they’re widely available and largely a curiosity worth seeking out in my experience. 

Store picks

Unavailable in the UK.

A common sight in most decent liquor stores in the US, store picks are single barrel selections made from distilleries/producers bottled especially for the store. It’s certainly not a guarantee that all store picks are great, but what is generally true is that:

  1. They’re not that much more expensive than the regular release
  2. They are — if nothing else — interesting and something you won’t be able to taste at home

The most common store picks I’ve seen are Four Roses Single Barrels, Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve, Eagle Rare, Knob Creek, 1792, High West and Elijah Craig, with an honourable mention for Belle Meade whose single barrels are generally superb and I’ve seen all over the place.

You’ll also see a bunch of store picks of distillers local to the store you’re in: so in Chicago there’ll be FEW and Koval; in Seattle you’ll get Westland; in NYC, Hudson; and so on.

I’ve yet to have a poor Wild Turkey or Four Roses single barrel, so if you see one, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick it up.

Local or limited releases

Difficult/impossible to find in the UK, for the curious.

Odds are fairly heavily stacked against you in terms of finding any of the big-ticket limited releases on the shelf (BTAC, Van Winkle, Four Roses LEs, etc) — I’d argue you’ve a better chance of coming across these in the UK to be honest — but particularly for local distilleries, there’s a decent chance you’ll come across some things that only get wide releases in their home state.

If you’re in Texas, you’ll likely find the excellent Balcones Texas Blue Corn Bourbon on shelves, in Chicago you may find FEW’s Single Malt or their cask strength releases more widely available.

While craft distilleries may not be for everyone, I’ve enjoyed J. Henry & Son’sin Wisconsin, Herman Marshall in Texas, M.B. Roland from Kentucky and Leopold Bros. in Colorado… ask quality retailers for recommendations, try as much as you can.

What not to buy

One of the strangest things in the bourbon world (beyond the bizarre E.H. Taylor pricing) is that all forms of Blanton’s are more readily available and better priced in the UK (and most of the rest of the world) than in the US, so only a fool would waste suitcase space on one of these.

Almost every bourbon on the bottom (or lower middle) shelf — Buffalo Trace, Evan Williams, Wild Turkey 101, Elijah Craig Small Batch, Four Roses Small Batch, Makers Mark, etc — is pretty well priced in the UK. Sure, you’ll save yourself a few pounds buying in dollars (and at the very bottom end, where prices are in the low to mid teens, it’s almost ridiculous) but when you’ve travelled half way around the world and have limited space to mule bourbon in a suitcase home, I don’t think that buying from this selection is a particularly smart way to spend your money.

There are some bottom shelf bourbons only available in the US that are tremendous value — like Heaven Hill BiB or Green Label, only available in Kentucky for circa $10 — and are delicious, but again, I don’t really think it’s the best way to spend your money unless you’re on a very strict budget or you’re just curious to try it.

Most of all, pricing is all over the place in US liquor stores. Two stores next door to each other may price even fairly common bottles quite differently, and when it comes to the high end, you’ll almost certainly see bottles on shelves for way over retail price — even ones that aren’t that hard to come by or limited in availability. It’s a bizarre practice, but it’s worth being aware of the MSRP of bottles as it’s much easier than you might think to end up paying pretty much the same for a bottle in the US than you would in the UK.

[1] There is also an uncut and unfiltered barrel proof version that’s regularly produced but very difficult to find compared to the three listed here.

Words by Jordan Harper