This article was originally published October 23, 2014.
It happens like this: Mid-October rolls around, fall Pappy Van Winkle allotments are distributed nationwide, and Wall Street hooligans, hedge fund playboys, tech-star cowboys, and booze scenesters hound liquor purveyors by the thousands asking for the bottle. "Any Pappy," they'll say with firm desperation. Some vocalize a fantasy for stumbling upon a dusty old bottle in some beaten-up country liquor store whose revenue consists of lottery tickets and jug wine, and will even send mass emails out to friends and families telling them so. I've received those emails and phone calls myself.
Update: Those stores were pillaged three years ago. They aren't getting any more.
Of those who pony-up the two grand to score Pappy off whiskey scalpers who've been hoarding bottles for resale, they'll be drinking what is called a "Wheated Bourbon," a bourbon whose mash bill (the percentage and type of grain used to make whiskey) is at least 51 percent corn, with wheat making up a majority of the remaining grain. Wheated bourbons are often delicate, refined, and softer than their high-corn or high-rye counterparts.
What drives the price of Pappy so high now isn't exactly its taste because so few have actually tasted it. Rather, it's the hype created around the brand amongst the young power-elite that populate money-making centers like Manhattan. Pappy is flash; it's the BMW M3 or membership into the SoHo House bought with a young banker's first bonus check. Great products? Sure. The best? That's subjective.
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I'd like to offer an alternative whiskey universe for the populist set whose tenets are more likely to mirror my own humble values — taste, value, availability, and, lightheartedness — rather than those of your neighbor who bought a giant inflatable palm tree, a stripper, and personal mixologist for his next party.
Below, the five whiskies you need to know to take you beyond the world of Pappy. Each bottle below should be about $100 or under, but do note the prices may vary depending on where you buy.
Willett Pot Still Reserve
Willett Bourbon is delivered in such a chic-shaped bottle that it almost doesn't matter that the liquid inside is so good. Sitting erectly on your home bar, curious guests will point to it immediately and say, "That one. I want to try that one." Serve it neat (no ice) and feel the rich marmalades, spice, and wood burst along the sides of your mouth and up through your olfactory receptors where a little message will trigger your brain to say, "sexy." The robust, punchy, and full-body mouthfeel also calls for an accompaniment of dim lighting, moody music like Foals, and repeated peeks of your neighbor vacuuming in his underwear again. This whiskey just feels a little...naughty.
Imagine running through a field dotted with Black-eyed Susans, wearing high-wasted jeans, your hair parted in the middle, and a halter top a la Buffy Saint Marie. If you're a dude reading this, go ahead and picture the same thing — I won't let this 1960s gender meme get in the way of your good time. Larceny is floral, approachable, creamy, and round. That's what I look for in a young, wheated bourbon: It's the mate that doesn't demand much of you beyond running around carelessly on a hot summer day, leaving you dizzy, wet, and happy.
Michter's 10 Year
Michter's is my "trick" whiskey. I pour this whiskey during blind tastings — tastings where guests don't know what they're sampling — and watch dozens of them gasp when I reveal the Michter's as the top pick over Pappy. I'm not surprised. Michter's delivers a full-bodied whiskey extravaganza, complete with a chocolatey, coffee-like, and velvety back-palate burst that lasts all night. And let's face it, sometimes you like things to last all night.
Surprised to see a Scotch on this list? Don't be. Glenfiddich 15 is aged in ex-bourbon barrels, new charred oak barrels (the way bourbon makers do it), and ex-Sherry barrels, all of which drive cinnamon, honey, vanilla, fig, and white chocolate notes. The fifteen years age statement — relatively old by bourbon standards — means a complexity you won't find in many young American whiskies. This is a bourbon-lovers stepping-stone to Scotch, and vice versa. Few are disappointed when I serve this whiskey. I'll do the irreverent and even pour it over ice.
Evan Williams Single Barrel
The first time I tasted Evan Williams Single Barrel I thought there'd been some sort of mistake on the pricing. The long finish, refined cornucopia of flavors such as vanilla, crème brulee, toffee, and nuts mingling together like a dainty dessert served at Per Se suggested a whiskey far more expensive or rare than this bottle. And yet. It's priced so nicely you can by two. Or three. Put it on your shelf with the rest of the whiskey gang above and call your friends over for a seriously fun evening in.