When mixing with whiskey, there is always a trade off between using a good enough whiskey to make your cocktails taste great and “wasting” high end whiskey on mixing. In some instances the decision may come down to ingredients. If you are making a whiskey forward cocktail, like a Manhattan, it may be worth it to occasionally use a slightly higher end whiskey. However, you don’t want to use that rare hard to find whiskey to make a cocktail, especially if that cocktail has a lot of other ingredients detracting from the taste.
The most expensive bourbons/ryes, while hard to come by, are priced around $200-$250. This sounds like a lot until you compare it to those high end $1000 scotches. Regardles, save the Pappy Van Winkle and rare bourbons/ryes for drinking neat.
Having Said that, using bottom of the barrel (no pun intended) brands will compromise the taste of your cocktails. The good news is that there are a number of options to choose from that won’t break the bank and actually hold up quite well in whiskey forward drinks, thus saving your higher end whiskeys for sipping. In fact, the most common whiskeys used in classic cocktails, rye and bourbon, are often reasonably priced, with a few favorites coming in under 20 bucks.
While on occasion, I may make a Manhattan or a Sazerac with something “fancier,” I find that the recommendations below work well in cocktails and don’t taste half bad neat either.
The main focus is on RYE and BOURBON as these are your major players for whiskey cocktails. I will also eventually include some recommendations for other types of whiskey since a few classics call for them, not to mention they make great substitutions/additions to cocktails.
The following recommendations are by no means a complete list, but are just a few of the whiskeys I like to use when making cocktails. They also come in at prices that won’t make you feel guilty about mixing with them.
Rittenhouse Rye – 100 proof Bottled in Bond. A great rye from Heaven Hill with a solid proof for making Manhattans. Rittenhouse Rye BIB has enjoyed much popularity over the past few years and is even hard to find in some markets. The fact that this one comes in around $20 or less doesn’t help it stay on shelves either.
Bulleit Rye – A great rye from the folks at Bulleit, this one comes in at 90 proof and works well in cocktails that need a little spice, thanks to it’s high 95% rye grain mash bill. The high rye also makes Bulleit Rye a suitable substitute for higher proof rye, thanks to the added spice. $20-30.
Old Overholt – Another popular low cost rye, Overholt comes in a little lighter at 80 proof. Be careful mixing this one with other strong spirits, which can overpower its lighter taste. Distilled by a subsidiary of Jim Beam, A. Overholt and Co. $10-15.
Some stores will inflate the price on Sazerac Rye given its limited availability.
Sazerac Rye – The entry level Sazerac rye is the “official” rye of the Sazerac cocktail, with most being shipped to the Crescent City. This one really does make for a great Sazerac, but is usually hard to come by in most markets. While I do mix a few cocktails with Sazerac Rye, such as New Orleans favorites the Sazerac and Vieux Carre, I try not to use it too often given it’s relative scarcity. $25-30.
Knob Creek Rye – A great new rye with a few similarities to Knob Creek, yet drier and more spicy. 100 proof from Jim Beam. $20-30.
Knob Creek – One of the best to mix in more spirited drinks. Knob Creek is made by Jim Beam and comes in at 100 proof. Great in a Boulevardier or in a Bourbon Manhattan. To my palette Knob also has a slightly earthy flavor that lends itself very well to mixing with Campari as well as Carpano Antica Vermouth. $20-30.
Woodford Reserve – A great flavorful all purpose bourbon, great for mixing up mint julips (in fact Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby), as well as other cocktails that don’t require the punch of Knob Creek. Woodford Reserve is made by Brown-Foreman and comes in at about 90 proof. $25-35.
Eagle Rare – A single barrel more rye forward, spicier bourbon, this great all purpose 90 proofer comes from Buffalo Trace. A great choice to get a little more rye flavor but still keep the sweetness of bourbon in the cocktail. $20-30
Elijah Craig – A little more heat than Eagle Rare, this one comes in at 94 proof, and is made by Heaven Hill. Elijah Craig works well in most bourbon cocktails, and its intermediate proof help it stand up well in both spirit forward and more mixed cocktails. Nice price point for the entry level version, $15-25.
Bulleit – Another high rye bourbon, also coming in at 90 proof. While easy to use in multiple cocktails, Bulleit also tastes great neat or over ice. This one is produced by Bulleit Distilling Company. Bulleit will set you back $20-30.
Makers Mark – A very popular all purpose wheated bourbon at 90 proof (soon to be 84 proof). Makers will make for a smoother cocktail, due to the substitution of wheat for rye and for better or worse is soon to get even smoother due to the recent announcement to reduce its alcohol content by almost 7%. $20-35.
Not to be confused with the William Larue Weller of the limited release Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Don’t “waste” this high proof hard to find bourbon on a cocktail.
W.L. Weller – Amazing and low priced wheated bourbons from Buffalo Trace with great flavor. The Old Weller Antique comes in at 107 proof which makes it a little more powerful in a cocktail. However, in some lighter and sweeter drinks, the added proof is a welcomed contrast, while the wheated flavor will keep it smooth. I like this one in the RC St.G if using bourbon as well as in the classic Whiskey Sour. Typically under $20.
*More recommendations coming soon.