The bottom few shelves at your local liquor store are usually a place you should avoid. But among the swill are a few gems that hide delicious flavor behind a modest pricetag. Many in-the-know drinkers try to keep these a secret, but we're breaking the silence!
Sure, there are times that call for dropping a few Benjamins on something rare and unusual, but other times it's a Tuesday and you just want a delicious drink. From Pappy Van Winkle's sub-$20 bourbon brother to the best single malt Scotch value out there, you'll want to try these tasty bottlings next time your funds run low.]
Bowmore Legend Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($32.99):
There's no getting around it: Single malt Scotch ain't that cheap. (The bargain Scotches on the bottom shelf at your local liquor store are blended whiskies, which means they're a combination of multiple single malts along with whiskies made from grains other than barley. Blends aren't inherently better or worse than single malts, and there are plenty of great ones, but the lowest-priced ones … aren't so great.) However, this smoky gem is a great value, and a nice introduction to the joys of peaty Scotch. It's from the island of Islay, where barley is typically dried over burning peat prior to fermentation, giving the finished product notes of things like bacon, barbecue and seaweed. This has just a hint of that smoke, along with some light citrus and honey flavors.
Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon ($18.99):
If you find somebody who hates on Four Roses, ask them if they've tried it since 2002. You see, Four Roses Bourbon was one of the most popular in the country just after Prohibition, until the Seagram company bought the brand and replaced the bourbon with a blended whiskey that many described as substandard way back in the 1950s. (Oddly, they kept selling the bourbon in Europe and Japan but not the U.S.) Thankfully, Japanese brewery Kirin bought Four Roses and restored the bourbon just over a decade ago, and it's experiencing a resurgence. There's unexpected complexity in this low-cost bottle, with spice, yeast, maple and chocolate all mixed up together. It's a great cocktail bourbon.
Old Overholt Rye Whiskey ($15.99):
Spicy rye whiskey is on something of a tear lately in craft-cocktail circles, and this cheapie is many a bartender's dirty Manhattan or old-fashioned secret. Plus, this one has some history behind it: You can regale your friends with the tale of Abraham Overholt, who started his distillery in 1810 in Western Pennsylvania. (Today, the brand's owned by Jim Beam, and the stuff's made at the Beam distillery in Kentucky.) It's actually quite gentle as ryes go, with nice fruitiness to balance the spice. Besides those Manhattans and old-fashioneds, it's also a great partner for ginger ale.
Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey ($24.99):
Irish whiskey goes way, way beyond Jameson – and even the really high-end ones are affordable compared with their Scotch and bourbon counterparts. This dram's a touch pricier than Jameson but a lot more than a touch deliciouser. It has vanilla, malt and floral notes with a buttery texture and then just a slight hint of grassy funk on the finish. Pour a round for your friends and ask what they taste – you'll undoubtedly get different answers from each one.
W.L. Weller Special Reserve Bourbon ($17.99):
You've heard of Pappy Van Winkle, right? The legendary (and legendarily hard-to-find) bourbon that whiskey connoisseurs would sell their children and murder their spouses for? Consider this Pappy's younger brother. It's made at the same distillery (Buffalo Trace) and using the same wheat-heavy mix of grains. Despite its 90-proof strength, it's incredibly smooth, with big caramel sweetness and notes of dark plum. It may cost less than 20 bucks, but it's still worth drinking straight. There's also an even-tastier cousin called Old Weller Antique that's a massive 107-proof and costs just two bucks more, but it's nearly impossible to find in Southern California.
Jason Horn has been obsessed with food since he learned the secret ingredient in his dad's chicken soup (he'll never tell) and obsessed with writing since he followed a high-school crush to a literary magazine meeting (it didn't work out). Follow him online at The Messy Epicure and on Twitter at @MessyEpicure, and if you find Old Weller in L.A., please let him know. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.