What to Look for (and What to Avoid)
When It Comes to Your Whiskey
Any man worth his whiskey should know what he's drinking when he puts his lips to glass. And while you might appreciate the subtle notes of a "small-batch" craft rye, you may be surprised to find out that a lot of the whiskey out there is coming from the same place. Is it all just a bunch of handmade hype?
The rules for bourbon whiskey are set—at least 51% corn, new charred oak barrels, no color, no flavoring and made in the land of the free. But let's look under the label on the bottle and at the brands themselves. Buffalo Trace, for example, produces a ton of other brands along with its namesake including W. L. Weller, E. H. Taylor, Blantons, Eagle Rare, Stagg, Bowman Brothers, Benchmark, Elmer T. Lee, Hancock Reserve, Ancient Age and the illusive Van Winkles to name a few. Yet Buffalo Trace is owned by Sazerac, a privately held company that also makes—wait for it—Fireball. Weird, huh?
When someone says, "I'll put my name on it," you should be able to trust them. People like George T. Stagg and E. H. Taylor have earned the right through hard work and deserve their names on the bottle. Now look at Augustus Bulleit. A questionable character with murky origins representing a somewhat fictional whiskey. Bulleit is sourced whiskey from Four Roses (a great distillery, mind you) and probably some other places but the owners want you to think Bulleit Distilling Co. is a real place making real whiskey on their own still. Give them a call with the number on the back of the bottle ... you won't be taking a tour anytime soon.
Want to go a touch deeper? Look at Bulleit Rye, the green labeled brother. One would think after knowing that their bourbon is mostly Four Roses juice that the rye would be as well. Nope. Roses doesn't make a rye. So it's made by a giant distillery in Lawrenceberg, Indiana owned by the clinically-named Midwest Grain Products. And they make many of the rye brands you've probably heard of such as Templeton, Dickel, Angels Envy and Redemption.
So who can you trust? For starters, an honest bartender like myself. We don't really have a "well" anymore. Usually we've picked spirits that work best for classics or the types of drinks the bar makes and that's what we reach for when someone orders a drink. I, for one, am not trying to rip you off and I hope I'm speaking for all the other guys and gals behind the stick too. At home, my biggest tip would be to drink what you like and buy from producers that don't mislead the consumer. Drink the old brands—the ones that have stood the test of time and have men of great fortitude protecting their precious spirits. Sure, those brands make products to keep the lights on like Fireball from Sazerac or Red Stag from Beam but that affords them the ability to make a quality product for whiskey drinkers like us.
Snag a bottle of Weller 107 to sip on and use in cocktails. Or try a bottle of Old Overholt or Rittenhouse for your old fashions. Pick up a bottle of single barrel Blantons for special occasions. Then get a bottle of Beam Bonded to shoot with a friend because I don't do it often, but when I need to knock one back fast and cheap, it may be the best damn shooting whiskey I have ever let slide down my throat.