There’s a strongly demarcated, not at all fine line between people with good taste and people who just want to show off. I remember a jovial conversation at work in which one fellow accused another of having a beer belly. He replied: “No, it’s a single-malt scotch belly.” And suddenly, nobody was happy anymore. The guy’s pretentiousness — implying that he only drank single-malt scotch, and had had enough of it to give himself a paunch — had sucked the fun out of the room.
Don’t be that guy. Realize that whiskey, like everything else should be enjoyed without unnecessary class distinctions. Ask anyone who really knows the stuff; plenty of great blends handily beat a lot of single-malts, several American and Japanese whiskeys put the best from Scotland and Ireland to shame. And more expensive does not always mean better. That’s why we’ve put together a list of less expensive whiskeys that will wow your taste buds and impress your friends (as long as you don’t show them the label). Delve into our picks of the 9 best whiskeys under $50.
After the public discovered Scotch, Irish whiskey and then bourbon, making them trends, the attention has now turned to rye, and, as with the others, prices are being ratcheted up with its new-found popularity. But bargains remain, and none are better than Rittenhouse. Unlike many ryes, it doesn’t have much of a nose, but it makes up for it in flavor and, especially, finish. A splash of water doesn’t just reduce the rye burn, but also allows the more subtle fruit flavors to escape the overpowering spice and caramel that precede them. But it’s the finish — oh, that long-lasting and flavorful finish — that makes Rittenhouse one of the best ryes available at any price.
If you know a bourbon aficionado who needs to expand his or her taste, this is the perfect gateway whiskey because it possesses many of the traits of fine bourbons, but it’s also delightfully different. A rich and complicated nose entices, and it thankfully lacks the intrusive spiciness that turn many people off low-cost ryes. Unlike Rittenhouse, this rye starts with fruit and follows with spice. And the finish is mercifully low in rye burn, making the addition of water absolutely unnecessary. And, best of all, it has a sweet smoothness that will make bourbon drinkers forget they’re trying a rye.
Tyrconnell Irish Whiskey
Here’s another low-budget temptress that can convert bourbon and scotch drinkers whose knowledge of Irish whiskey is limited to Bushmills and Jameson. Unlike those two mass-market crowd-pleasers, Tyrconnell has a creamy drinkability that puts it closer to the bourbon camp. It’s a complex flavor but easy to drink without a hint of smoke. But like most Irish whiskeys, it has a bit of an oily finish. Consider this, instead of scotch, for after-dinner conversation.
The Black Grouse
This is a whiskey that causes the snobs no lack of headaches — it’s mass-produced, it’s blended, it’s cheap and it’s awesome. In fact, Jim Murray gave it a 94-point rating in his Whiskey Bible. And make no mistake, this is hardcore scotch. On opening the bottle, you’ll be introduced to its smoky, peaty nature right away. And its solid caramel flavor and uncompromising peat smoke finish will convince you you’re drinking something a lot more rare and expensive. I like this one before dinner so the purity of its flavor has nothing to affect it. But try to prevent yourself from asking your guests “guess how much I paid for this?” Though satisfying, it’s not really polite.
Ordinarily, wines and spirits with cutesy or silly names tend to disappoint. They are clearly aimed at a buyer who’s more easily seduced by impulse than depth. But it would be unwise to discount Monkey Shoulder on the basis of its name. Made from a blend of three William Grant single malts, it seems to transcend them all. The nose gives me vanilla and spice, which is followed by a creamy butterscotch taste and followed by an oaky finish. Monkey Shoulder is kind of like a cult film. The critics love it, and the few people who’ve had it love it to the point of evangelism, but it really hasn’t caught on with the mainstream yet.
Dalmore 12 Year Old
I have to admit I’m cheating on this one a bit; when I was young, I bought a bottle of Dalmore because I was wowed by its pretty color and the deer on the label. I thought my date would be suitably impressed as well. But when I first tasted it, I was brought into a whole new world of whiskey appreciation. If you’re a Lagavulin purist, leave this one behind. While there is little if any smoke, there are rich, delicate flavors (coffee, buttered popcorn, caramel and many others) to be had and a finish to die for. Smooth, inexpensive and full of subtlety — not bad at all for the price.
Eagle Rare 10 Year Old
When it comes to bang for the buck, it’s almost unfair to compare bourbon to scotch and Irish whiskey. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t bargains to be had among the bargains. And Eagle Rare represents a gold standard among low-priced bourbons, especially if you’re after complexity. The most obvious flavor is wood, but it keeps hitting you with new and varied tastes, from leather to cherry to honey. Buy as much of it as you can find.
Evan Williams Single Barrel
The problem with many lower-priced whiskeys is that they lack subtlety; they have an annoying habit of hammering you over the head with one or two strong flavors — and that can get old pretty quickly. Luckily, there’s Evan Williams Single Barrel to prove an exception to that rule. From its caramel and oak nose to its graceful honey and apple finish, the lower-priced whiskey stands out as a small wonder. The Wine Spectator named it a Best Buy, noting its smoothness and “austere elegance.”
Wild Turkey 101 Proof
This is a great example of the danger of jumping to conclusions. In movies and books, the Wild Turkey name is associated with chaotic abandon, hardly the image one associates with a fine whiskey. The fact that it has a high alcohol content would lead many to believe that it’s a harsh, fiery drink. And its low price hints at a lack of refinement. And nothing could be further than the truth. Wild Turkey 101 Proof is smooth and subtle and full of refinement. From its crisp vanilla and citrus nose to its lingering butterscotch and tobacco finish, this is a whiskey that can be enjoyed at any time. The only problem is that it’s so easy to enjoy, that it’s hard to realize how much alcohol you’re actually drinking.