I distinctly remember the first time I realized my own drinking cart needed its first upgrade in the quality department. I was a few years out of college, barely paying the bills, and I’d sipped the sweet, smoky nectar of Lagavulin enough times to develop an inclination for the good stuff. But Scotch was expensive and I’d be jumping from no bottle at all to a moderately pricey one. So I pulled the spoiled brat card and asked my parents to hook it up on Christmas. Frowning a little, they obliged.
How good it was! So good that a few weeks later, when my girlfriend threw me a birthday party at our apartment, I hid the bottle behind my writing desk where no one could find it. Except someone did find it — my own soused self. All that was left by morning was an empty bottle and memories of pouring great, big glugs into the plastic cups of friends, even if they still had beer in the bottom.
Here’s the problem with flippantly drinking the good stuff as an adult: it gets you nowhere as an enthusiast. Which — if you’re not ready to be one — is fine. But at a certain point, most whiskey drinkers make the leap beyond entry-level booze.
Unfortunately, that step up can feel like a financial cliff, especially when it comes to whiskey. Case in point: jumping from Jim Beam to, say, Pappy Van Winkle adds not just one but two extra zeros to the price tag. There is a middle ground, of course, but finding it can be a slippery enterprise. Clever marketers try very hard to get you to spend your hard-earned money on a bourbon or Scotch that’s not that much better than the well.
But if you’re ready to own up, consider something with a little history, a little weight. Here are a few ideas for your own upgrade, based on what you like drinking now. Choose wisely.
Longbranch Kentucky Straight Bourbon
For the Guy Who Drinks Jack Daniel’s: The stuff that’s good enough for rock stars is good enough for you, right? Of course it is. But stow the Jack for those rare beer-and-a-shot nights with friends. Longbranch takes the mellow, sipping-friendly flavors of Jack and adds a touch of complexity thanks to the use of oak and Texas mesquite charcoal during the filtration process (Jack Daniels uses charcoal made from sugar maple timbers), courtesy of Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell and creative director Matthew McConaughey. All right, all right, all right.
Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey
For the Guy Who Drinks Jameson: Jameson is delicious but have you tried its sister brand? Powers is made in Dublin by Irish Distillers (the same parent company that owns Jameson), and it shares many characteristics with its Cork-born pal. The Gold Label boasts a higher proof and its high potstill content adds a jolt to the classic honeyed flavors of Irish whiskey.
Elijah Craig Small Batch
For the Guy Who Drinks Jim Beam: Beam is a classic, boasting all the flavors you get from barrel aging in fresh oak. Elijah Craig comes from a different distillery, Heaven Hill; its different iterations have been winning awards left and right, including its barrel-proof version, which won Whiskey Advocate’s Whiskey of the Year award in 2017. The Small Batch version gets you the unique flavors of a small batch, plus a much higher proof than Beam — for only a little more coin.
Lot 40 Rye
For the Guy Who Drinks Crown Royal: The crown prince of Canadian whiskey has and perhaps always will be Crown Royal. Of course, Diageo bought the brand in 2001, and some might say its whiskey hasn’t been the same since. Lot 40 celebrates the most important ingredient in Canadian whiskies — rye. As a result, its mash bill is spicy and fruity in a way the Crown just can’t match.
Forty Creek Barrel Select
For the Guy Who Drinks Canadian Club: Canadian Club got its claws in American drinkers during Prohibition and never left. Thank goodness it is cheap and tasty. This stuff is much younger (Forty Creek was founded in 1992) and it’s a blend of whiskies aged in ex-bourbon casks and new American white oak. The flavors are crisp, refreshing and just a little bit more dignified than the stuff Al Capone smuggled in.
Henry McKenna 10 Year
For the Guy Who Drinks Wild Turkey: People who enjoy Wild Turkey — and its boisterous cousin, 101 — love it for its rich flavors. Henry McKenna is distilled by Heaven Hill and shares a mash bill with Elijah Craig. But its 10-year age statement translates to more interaction with its charred oak barrels — that means bigger, bolder flavors.
For the Guy Who Drinks Southern Comfort: SoCo is, well… SoCo. We’re not judging you for drinking a whiskey liqueur but just like with all bottom-shelf options, there’s room to upgrade. In this case, it’s the work on your end, rather than the price, that gets hiked. Benchmark Bourbon comes from Buffalo Trace with the same mash bill as their base stuff, but it costs less than a Jackson. Buy a bottle; infuse it with your favorite fruits for flavor; enjoy.
Compass Box Great King Street Artist Blend
For the Guy Who Drinks Dewar’s: Single malt wasn’t always the king of Scotch. (No, we’re not comparing modern Dewar’s to Lagavulin.) But blended Scotch certainly brings a smooth drinkability to the category. Compass Box returns the bar to its heightened state for blends. Their King Street Artist Blend is creamy, with fruity and woody flavors. You can count on all the complexity that makes Scotch great.