Whiskey is so in right now, and it has been for the last few years. When you do what I do for a living, that’s both a blessing and a curse: A lot more people are getting into the spirit, but they’re also driving prices way up. Especially for the long-aged bottlings that require a decade or more in barrels, former old favorite whiskies are now out of reach for lots of drinkers.
This is sad, but I have a solution: Expand your horizons! The bottles below run the gamut from rum to brandy to tequila to some intriguing younger whiskies, and they all deliver the same kind of deeply oaky notes whiskey lovers crave. Plus, they’re all quite a bit more affordable than a 20-year-old bourbon or Scotch.
NOMAD OUTLAND WHISKY ($45)
In order to be called Scotch, a whisky has to be both distilled and aged entirely within Scotland. And that’s why this intriguing spirit isn’t a Scotch. It’s a blend of dozens of Scottish-made-and-aged whiskies that’s then transferred to southern Spain’s sherry-producing Jerez region and finished in barrels that held Pedro Ximenez sherry. The resulting spirit shares much with Scotch, but it picks up an amazing amount of the sweet, fruity, nutty notes of the sherry. The final spirit is great over a giant ice cube or in any cocktail that involves muddled berries.
PARK VSOP COGNAC ($50)
Cognac suffers from many of the same price issues as whiskey: sought-after, long-aged bottlings are becoming more and more inaccessible. So budget-conscious drinkers should turn to VSOP brandies, which are aged a minimum of four years (as opposed to XO’s minimum of six years). Park has a reputation for making bartender-favorite, cocktail-friendly cognacs, and its VSOP is no exception. The eaux-de-vie used are an average of 8 to 12 years old, and the final product strikes a nice balance between floral, fresh-fruit flavors and caramelized, dessert-y notes.
CHATEAU DU TARIQUET VSOP ARMAGNAC ($45)
Armagnac is cognac’s slightly-less-refined cousin: It’s also made from grapes, in France (the region is a couple hours’ drive south of cognac’s) and aged in oak. But Armagnac is distilled only once (as opposed to cognac’s twice), which gives it a somewhat less refined edge, a little bit like American whiskey. Tariquet’s VSOP spends a minimum of seven years in barrels, for a long, oaky-vanilla finish that’s a lovely complement to the fresh-baked bread notes on the nose. As a whiskey substitute, it’s best in high-proof, stirred cocktails, or just neat.
VIRGINIA BLACK AMERICAN WHISKEY ($35)
Yep, this is Drake’s whiskey. And yes, the bottle is designed to be impressive on a nightclub bottle-service table, looking like something out of Studio 54 in its heyday. But none of that means that it’s not a tasty beverage, at a very good price. The owners of the brand (who include DeLeon Tequila creator Brent Hocking as well as the Canadian actor/rapper/meme fodder) are impressively upfront about what’s in this bottle: It’s a mix of two-, three- and four-year old bourbon distilled at MGP, the Indiana distillery that makes the bourbons and ryes marketed under dozens of brand names. Despite its young age, Virginia Black has an impressive amount of barrel flavor, making it good for mixing or sipping.
HAVANA CLUB AÑEJO CLASICO RUM ($22)
Setting aside the bitter legal dispute over the Havana Club trademark, this new rum, made in Puerto Rico by Bacardi, is very tasty. It ages for between one and three years in oak on the Caribbean island, whose high heat makes spirits age much faster than they do in Kentucky or Scotland. The rum has the clean-and-crisp flavor typical of Cuban and Puerto Rican spirits, which lets the oak and vanilla notes shine through strongly. Try it in an Old Fashioned, and it’ll blow your mind. The Añejo Clasico has been rolling out across the country gradually since early in the summer, and it’ll be available nationwide by September.
PAUL JOHN EDITED SINGLE MALT WHISKY ($65)
India drinks more whiskey than any other country on Earth. It sounds surprising, but the nation is the second-most-populous on the planet (and was ruled for a long time by the whiskey-loving British). Many domestic Indian whiskies are dirt-cheap, low-quality spirits only available on the Subcontinent, but a few brands, including Paul John, are starting to export some excellent products. This smoky, Scotch-like single malt smokes its barley using peat imported from Islay in Scotland, but it only ages for five to six years. The brand claims that the tropical climate in Goa, where it’s made, ages whisky about four times faster than in Scotland, meaning that it can stand up to Scotches aged 20 years or more. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but this bottle can run easily with peaty Scotches aged well more than a decade and selling for well over $100.
BOULARD VSOP CALVADOS ($40)
Calvados is northern France’s answer to cognac and armagnac: It’s an oak-aged brandy made from apples—as opposed to grapes—in the English Channel-bordering Normandy region. This particular bottling spends four years in French-oak casks, turning the raw-apple harshness of the unaged brandy into the mellow, spiced sweetness of a roasted-apple crumble. Try it in place of aged bourbon for a sprightly and fruity Manhattan, Sour or Boulevardier.
ALTOS AÑEJO TEQUILA ($35)
Bartenders around the country love Altos as a high-quality, 100-percent-agave tequila that’s still priced low enough to make it economical for cocktails. But until very recently, they had to be satisfied with just an unaged blanco and short-aged reposado from the brand. That changed this spring, when Altos rolled out this bottling, aged for 18 months. All that time in oak mellows the grassy agave notes, converting them into flavors of dried fruit, nuts and a hint of chocolate. You can substitute this spirit into just about any whiskey cocktail recipe for mind-bending results.
WATCH JASON BLIND TASTE TEST BOTTOM-SHELF VODKA