Food & Drink

A Crash Course in Buying (Good) Cheap Whiskey

The market is flooded with American whiskey. Over the past 30 years or so, dozens of new distilleries have sprung up, producing everything from wheated bourbons to full-flavor rye whiskey. In large part, this is due to demand—everyone wants a delicious bottle of whiskey and many are willing to pay top dollar for one. But we’ll let you in on a little secret: You don’t have to.

“There’s not a bottle of whiskey in my house over $40—even $30, really,” says Joe Riggs, a long-time bartender, bar consultant and now the East Coast brand ambassador for Redemption Whiskey. He says that inexpensive whiskey is “oftentimes better.”

That’s high praise coming from a Kentucky native and industry pro. Given his experience and fondness for affordable whiskey, we asked him to fill us in on how to find good cheap whiskey and how to make the best of the not so good stuff.

What Makes a Whiskey Good or Bad?

It’s not just age or price point, that’s for sure. While many people look to higher age statements and prices as an indicator, those preconceptions, Riggs says, are misleading.

“One thing I tell people who are getting into whiskey is that older is not necessarily better,” he says. “Two perfect examples—I would rather drink a four-year-old Jim Beam than seven-year-old Jim Beam. Also, with Pappy Van Winkle, I prefer the 15-year-old to the 23-year-old.”

Luckily for drinkers, those younger whiskies tend to fall on the lower end of the price spectrum. (Though anyone familiar with Pappy Van Winkle would never qualify it as an inexpensive whiskey.)

Another supposed quality indicator that Riggs addresses is where a whiskey is made. An oft-cited claim is that whiskey—particularly bourbon—from Kentucky is better. “Whiskey being from Kentucky is not a qualifier,” Riggs says, adding, “There are plenty of whiskies not from the state of Kentucky.”

So how do you tell a good whiskey from a bad whiskey? You taste it. Bad cheap whiskies often have a harsh flavor and telltale burn, while the good stuff tends to have a depth of flavor, often channeling warmer notes of caramel, leather, baking spice and floral notes, many of which are also found in pricier whiskies of comparable quality.

How to Find Good, Cheap Whiskey

The bad news is that there’s no foolproof way to tell whether or not a bottle of whiskey will be good just by looking at the label. Riggs says finding a good, cheap bottle of whiskey is harder than it used to be. “That area is becoming a little bit grayer, because certain marketing terms that didn’t used to be marketing terms are catching on,” he says, adding that brands may now charge more for something just because it has certain terms on its label. But he has a few tips on how to improvise the next time you want to add to your whiskey collection without overspending.

  • Buy bonded when possible: “‘Bonded’ denotes quality,” Riggs says. “It is at least four years old and 100 proof.” Unfortunately, bonded bottles don’t often come cheap these days. But if you can find a bottled-in-bond whiskey under $25, don’t hesitate to snatch it up.
  • Look to the Midwest: “If it says ‘distilled in Indiana’ and ‘MGP’, it’s likely you’re going to get a great whiskey for a great value.” MGP stands for Midwest Grain Products. It is an Indiana distillery that currently produces a range of spirits sold under about 50 different brand names.
  • Examine the label: “If the label features the grain content, proof and where the whiskey is made, the producer is showcasing what went into the product and how it was made, which is an indicator of a solid producer and a good whiskey.”
  • Avoid marketing ploys: Riggs recommends avoiding bottles with elaborate backstories. “If it sounds fishy, it probably is,” he says.
  • Favor rye: “Whiskies produced with rye are going to have more flavor, in my opinion, than whiskies produced with wheat or corn.”
  • Opt for ugly: “One of the things a good friend of mine and collector says is that an ugly bottle on the bottom shelf with a bunch of dust on it is probably really good.”

Bottles to Look for

Though there are dozens of bottles on the market that fit into the good and cheap categories, Riggs has a few favorites that he gravitates towards. Aside from his obvious bias toward Redemption whiskies, which typically run from $23 to $29 and tend to be heavier on rye content, he recommends Old Forester ($18), Old Weller Antique 107 ($23), Old Grand-Dad Bonded ($25) and Tullamore D.E.W. ($25).

Though his list is heavy on American whiskies, there are exceptions when it comes to blended scotches and Irish whiskies in particular. Canadian and Japanese whisky, on the other hand, are worth a splurge. “Most of the good Canadian whiskies are hard to track down in the U.S., to be honest,” Riggs says. “And Japanese whisky tends to be a little higher priced.”

What to Do With a Bad Bottle

If you do end up with a less than stellar bottle of hooch, all is not lost. While you may not want to drink it neat, there are plenty of simple ways to doctor it up into a satisfying drink.

“Sugar and spice make everything nice, right?” Riggs quips. And it’s true when it comes to whiskey. Whether you have a blended scotch, bourbon, rye or Irish whiskey that needs some tender love and care in order to approach drinkability, he says the easiest way is to “just add ginger beer and some bitters.” Those clove and allspice flavors mixed with ginger will help round off a harsh dram of whiskey.

Riggs also suggests mixing with citrus to counter a not-so-great whiskey’s flavor. It’s the perfect excuse to whip up a batch of Whiskey Sours or a delightfully lemon-tinged Smash.

But if you’re looking to get a bit more creative, you could always turn a bad bottle into a batch of homemade Fireball or Honey Whiskey, or go all out and create a savory bacon-infused masterpiece.