How to Drink Only the Very Best Mid-Shelf Whiskey and Get Away With It

Graduate from cheap whiskey to a proper $40, $50, or $60 bottle that tastes much richer.

It pays to be cheap. That way, you can partake in life’s frivolous treasures while still affording food and soap and a cell phone. The key is just to maximize your few tattered bills. This sort of mentality works in many ways. You can take your date to a matinee, cruise eBay for your work outfits — hell, you ever look at how many napkins are like totally unguarded at your average Burger King? Me, I pinch pennies when it comes to alcohol — specifically whiskey, where I wring the most value out of my puny booze budget. Going bottom dollar is great, but there comes a time when you want to spring for a better bottle.

Because I’m but an alcohol-swilling amateur, I again enlisted the help of my friend Andrew, a wine and spirits expert who has been in the business for longer than I’ve been able to legally drink. He helped me with some suggestions about what to drink when you have some money, but not too much, to spend on only the finest mid-range whiskeys.

The Low-High End

You can’t beat these kinds of whiskey. They’re good enough to pass for quality and not as bad as some of the bottom shelf whiskeys that could pass for turpentine or some other cleaning solution. Instead, you get to the bottom of these bottles and you feel like you’re a whiskey expert, except not, because you’re pleasantly drunk.

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I went for Maker’s Mark, the reliable choice of mid-range whiskey that drinks at $45 for a whole liter. This one gets caught in your mind from a young age mostly because of the distinct wax-tipped bottle. It turns out you can judge books and booze by their covers. Maker’s is often unfairly overlooked for some reason, maybe people think of it as the middle man between Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s. But Maker’s Mark is an everyman whiskey that will greet you in every bar in the country and has been there for as far back as anyone can remember. I think they call that a classic. Whiskey snobs won’t touch it, but it turns out its sweet taste is good in cocktails.

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Andrew went a different route than my “It’s there so why not” approach. Michter’s American Whiskey is a mysterious blend that can go for $45. “It doesn’t meet the criteria for Bourbon and it pours the color of rum, but this mutant is delicious,” he told me. This smooth choice may be the odds and ends of various whiskeys thrown together. Per the expert, it’s “rich and interesting, dangerously drinkable, and built to be enjoyed by a fire.”

The Middle-of-the-Road Middle Stuff

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My preternatural ability to sense what’s good simply because I’ve seen it a lot has rarely failed me, and if I have some extra dollars in my pocket I always go for Bulleit Bourbon. This self-proclaimed “frontier whiskey” certainly looks the part, and it tastes the part too. Just like Michter’s, it was meant to be coupled with a campfire. You should always knock back a Bulleit bourbon in or around the Old West. That or at a moderately shitty bar in New York somewhere. Still, throw a bit of this into an old fashioned and get ready for the best cocktail for minimal bucks.

For his middle of the middle of the road pick, Andrew went for the epically packaged Eagle Rare. Grab a bottle for yourself at $50 for 750 ml. He called it “the ideal representation of Bourbon,” and singled out its rich and smooth taste with just a little dab of heat to balance the boozy experience. And again, because setting is everything, he added, “This is what bourbon should taste like sitting on a porch in some wicked Southern humidity.”

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The Best of Just Before the Best

These are legitimately respectable liquors, which means if you get caught drinking them you’d be a respectable whiskey drinker. We can’t guarantee it but we’re pretty sure people will stop in their tracks just to give you a righteous high five should they see you sipping on these choices. Don’t quote us on that, but it could happen.

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My choice for the best of not quite the best is Noah’s Mill. $50 for 750 ml. Can’t beat that. I remember first drinking Noah’s Mill at a Christmas party a few years ago after deciding my bottom-shelf whiskey and Coke wasn’t agreeing with me then and wouldn’t agree with me later if I continued. I needed to slow down, enjoy it — literally drink it in. The host noticed my bewilderment and procured a bottle of Noah’s Mill and a cocktail glass to save me. It turned out to be a warm, sumptuous, spicy spirit, easy to drink that went down easy and was meant to be enjoyed over time. It’s 114 proof, so it’ll put you on your ass if you don’t appreciate accordingly.

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The top of the middle choice for Andrew comes from the other side of the planet. Nikka Coffey Grain whiskey hails from Japan, which usually means outrageous prices, but Nikka won’t empty your account. You also get the added bonus of impressing your friends. “Japanese whiskey is one of the hottest categories in spirits,” Andrew told me. “Like all things in vogue, prices are going up and it’s getting harder and harder to find, but it’s relatively inexpensive.” It’s still $63 for 750ml, which should be enough to give a cheapskate a heart attack, but remember that you’re nearly in the same league as guys who spend double that to satiate their booze lust. Nikka Coffey “is made predominantly from corn, not Coffey, which is a still type,” but Andrew explained that it makes it memorable. “Imagine bourbon daydreaming that it was scotch,” he said, “or scotch slumming it as bourbon.”

And that’s about it. Go now, former cheapskate, and reap the benefits of knowing that you can be a moderate whiskey drinker of worldly taste without emptying your Arby’s fund.

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