Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Classic Spirts--Best Buys

For those who enjoy consuming in moderation the "good stuff," the falling dollar and the economic turmoil of recent weeks can make indulging in expensive liquor a more difficult decision. Not to fear, here are my buying tips, with some category suggestions.

First of all comes the age question. Most spirits improve with time in the barrel, but not necessarily all. If you are buying vodka, buy the cheapest triple-distilled product you can find. When talking about premium rums, bourbons, Scotches and Irishes, and ryes, yes, quality does generally improve with age, but there are diminishing and perhaps, even negative returns after a certain quantity of years. Aging greatly increases the ultimate price of a liquor.

Rye whiskey tends to need the least time in the bottle to mellow, and thus, tends to be the best liquor bargain out there, so little time, in fact, that usually there will be no age statement. Rum also needs very little aging, but tends to be slightly more expensive than rye due to the cost of importation, perhaps, although some rums can age for up to five years or more. Bourbon comes next, generally doing well with six to ten years in the bottle, followed by Scotch and Irish whiskey, which can be aged up to 21 years or more.

Tequila is a new entry into this category, but due to supply constraints, it is currently well beyond what I believe it is worth and should be approached with caution. When buying Tequila, make sure that it is 100-percent agave. After that, the clear, less aged, cheaper versions with 100-percent agave tend to have the most robust tequila taste, with the more expensive dark versions tasting somewhat more like brandy, which I won't treat here because it tends to have a bad reputation in the United States, as opposed to Spain and France. Aging in general, will tend to make a liquor taste somewhat less like its original grain, fruit or sugar.

So here are my recommendations:

Rye Whiskey is almost always the best deal among premium liquors and many Scotch drinkers won't even notice the difference. Jim Beam, Pikesville and Old Overholt should all cost anywhere from $9 to $13 and are all excellent.

When speaking of Rum, I am not talking about clear rum, which is essentially vodka made from sugar. Rum tends to evaporate quickly and often does not carry an age statement. You can do excellently with Goslings Black Seal, which is a very dark rum or Sergeant Classick, which is straw in color, either for around $13 and excellent for sipping.

I find bourbon to be somewhat less friendly for sipping than either Rye or Scotch, but there are times where that more caramel taste is welcome. I would generally avoid the so-called "small batch bourbons", as I believe this is basically a scam to piggyback on the marketing of single malt whiskeys, which is a more legitimate category. Tennessee Whiskeys like George Dickel and Jack Daniels, are similar to bourbon, but perhaps a bit smoother.

Old Granddad 100 is certainly a best buy, as are the higher proofs of Ancient Age. One tip is to look for bourbons which have a proof higher than 80, as higher proofs have traditionally been a sign of better quality among bourbons, perhaps due to the bottled in bond category of yesteryear, that of a 100 proof bourbon. You will rarely go wrong with either George Dickel Number 12 or Wild Turkey 101, both for between $15 and $20 a bottle.

I am not going to pick any Irish because it is too similar to Scotch and generally more expensive. I believe the real merit in single malt whiskeys is in training the palate as to what good Scotch tastes like, but the prices of single malts generally rule them out here. If you do want to buy a single malt, consider a 10-year old as it is not clear to me, whether or not further aging actually improves the product, or rather degrades the malt taste. This depends on the palate, I suppose. Also, consider Johnny Walker Black or Chivas Regal, which are cheaper than single malts but not necessarily inferior.

The all-time winner for best buy in any category has to go to White Horse Blended Scotch Whisky, which can be found for between $12 and $15 a bottle. This whisky has attractive packing, like more expensive whiskeys, and has a base of Lagavulin, one of the most distinct and expensive of the single malts. This is highly recommended. My runner-up would be Teacher's, which is slightly more expensive. It also has the same attractive packaging, i.e., metal caps instead of cheap plastic ones, has a high malt content and a distinctive sweet taste. If you can't find either of these, Passport is not bad, for about the same money. The rule of thumb here is if it has a plastic cap, it is no longer a best buy, but rather cheap swill and this rule seems to hold up fairly well.