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We’re living in the golden age of spirits. Never before have there been more bottles of booze vying for a parking space on your bar cart. We lean on the pros to help you build a bottle list from scratch.
Fred Minnick knows his way around whiskey shelves. The author of nine books, including “Bourbon Curious,” Minnick is the bourbon curator at Louisville, Ky.’s loaded Bourbon & Beyond festival, as well as one of the sharpest palates in the business. In 2013, he was named bourbon authority for the Kentucky Derby Museum.
As an avid collector and tireless rare-bottle hunter, Bill Thomas is the proprietor of Washington, D.C.’s Jack Rose Dining Saloon, a world-renowned whiskey bar that’s home to 2,700 bottles.
We tapped the two to determine five must-have bourbons for the home bartender. Sticking to that number proved to be a challenge, but Minnick and Thomas were up to the sipping task. Even better, they selected bottles that didn’t cost a fortune and are relatively easy to find. These are the five essential bourbons for your home bar.
“This is arguably the best non-distiller producer on the market right now,” says Minnick. “They acquire stocks from distillers yet somehow continue getting the best of what’s out there and create their own house style. Their whiskeys often have a marzipan note I just love.”
Barrell also provides plenty of insights into the specifics of its whiskeys to help educate those who are thirsty for knowledge and bourbon. Detailed batch-by-batch information is available online, disclosing all the need-to-know nuggets that make up each particular selection. They release new batches regularly, so keep your head on a swivel for new expressions, and you can start your own collection of Barrell bourbons.
“This is a standout in the category of alternate cask-aging,” says Thomas. It’s a sourced bourbon finished and bottled by Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, which is located in Nashville and run by brothers Andy and Charlie Nelson.
“It’s also a great gateway for The Macallan scotch lovers,” says Thomas. “It allows bourbon’s traditional characteristics to shine through with those extra notes of raisin sweetness for a perfectly balanced dram.”
Both Minnick and Thomas independently selected the single-barrel Henry McKenna. “I love the complexity and depth of flavor,” says Minnick. At 10 years old and bottled in bond at 100 proof, what’s not to like? “Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it wins a lot of my own blind competitions at home.”
Henry McKenna Single Barrel is loved by more than just Minnick and his drinking buddies—it’s also a favorite of competition judges. “This bottle has won whiskey’s top honors,” Thomas says, referring to its accolades as Best Bourbon from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. “It’s about time this bourbon got its due. It’s aged long enough that it has some boldness, but it’s affordable enough that you can enjoy it anyway you like.”
“Larceny may be the best value brand on the market right now,” says Minnick. That’s no small feat, considering that many great, affordable bourbons are made by the big producers. It also happens to be Minnick’s second choice coming from Heaven Hill. “It’s so inexpensive but is as good as bourbons two to three times its price.”
Larceny is also made with a wheated mash bill, perhaps reminding some folks of another big cult wheated whiskey: Pappy Van Winkle.
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“This bourbon packs a punch,” says Minnick. Old Forester dubs this a Prohibition-style whiskey, said to be reminiscent of the whiskey the distillery was permitted to make during those dark, dry times. Back then, it was meant for “medicinal use,” but you can drink it however you like. It’s bottled at a robust 115 proof, so it stands up great in cocktails and won’t dilute too quickly when served on ice. “I go back and forth with this and McKenna as my house bourbons,” says Minnick. That should be all the encouragement you need to snag a bottle for yourself.