As part of our mission to find the best spirits to stock for sipping, we dutifully blind-tasted more than 100 bottles under $50 this year.
Our series kicked off with rye whiskey, a spirit undergoing both boom and transformation. One of our favorite spirits we tasted—period—was from Dad’s Hat, a producer of Pennsylvania rye whiskey, and an advocate for the return of Old Monongahela rye (an old style of Mid-Atlantic whiskey) to the American lexicon. It offered a clarity in its flavors and stone-fruit singularity that both channeled our ideas of what rye should taste like and subtly challenged it.
This, in fact, was the case with most of the top spirits—from Foursquare’s Zinfandel Cask Rum to Siembra Valles’ High Proof Blanco Tequila—on our list. The best of today’s spirits are finding a middle way between tradition and a desire to improve upon it. This list, we believe, represents just that.
So, without further ado, our 12 top vote-getters across all of our under-$50 tastings this year.
Siembra Valles High Proof Blanco Tequila
David Suro is a Philadelphia-based tequila connoisseur who, after immigrating to the U.S. in 1985, returned to his native Guadalajara to begin producing his Siembra Valles (“Valley Harvest”) line of tequilas. Coming from the volcanic Valles region, Suro works with the Rosales family of Distileria Cascahuín (founded in 1956). Fermented in both a stone mampostería and in stainless steel tanks, bagasse (agave’s pulpy residue) is used in concert with yeast to introduce more flavor, a process rarely used by commercial producers. This is complex and tropical, with notes of roasted pineapple, vanilla and a slightly mentholated aspect, similar to eucalyptus. Rich, but biting on the finish, this was our favorite tequila in the tasting. (Siempre Valles’ reposado was also our favorite pick of the oak-aged tequilas, even if it didn’t quite crack the top five.)
- Price: $39
- ABV: 46 percent
Selección ArteNOM 1579 Blanco Tequila
ArteNOM’s forward-thinking distiller, Felipe Camarena, is the biggest name in the tequila industry today, having come from a long line of tequileros. ArteNOM is produced at the high-altitude Destilería El Pandillo (which was was completed in 2011), an eco-concious distillery that has invested in solar and wind power, water harvesting and hydropower; and recycling biowaste to prevent toxins from entering the environment. Camarena’s own hillside agave is slow-roasted then macerated intact, a process that he believes makes for a more pronounced agave flavor. Indeed, Greenbaum found it “aggressively vegetal,” while the group as a whole thought this would serve perfectly as a “mezcal lover’s tequila.”
- Price: $47
- ABV: 40 percent
Nuestra Soledad Mezcal Lachigui (2016)
Nuestra Soledad is El Jolgorio’s line of six single-village artisanal method mezcals, all made from cultivated espadín that averages around ten years of age. While each is worthy of a spot on this list, it was the Lachigui from the mountainous district of Miahuatlán that made the cut. Rich and creamy with notes of fresh-cut grass and tropical fruit, the panel declared that it, “ticks all the boxes.”
- Price: $49
- ABV: 48 percent
Mezcal Amarás Cupreata (2017)
The only bottling in our tasting not made from espadín, Mezcal Amarás’ artisanal method mezcal is made from cupreata, a type of wild agave typically grown at higher elevations, in this case near Mazatlán, in the state of Guerrero, north of Oaxaca. Cupreata is known for its floral, herbal aromatics and this is no exception. The most distinctive bottling in the line up, this showed high-toned notes of bitter melon and fresh aloe vera.
- Price: $49
- ABV: 43 percent
Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Gold Rum
Jamaica has been renowned for centuries for its heavy and flavorful pot still rums. With an intense, ester-y nose and a super-long, complex finish, we found this example, which is imported by self-appointed Minister of Rum, Ed Hamilton, and produced at the Worthy Park distillery, to be an excellent showcase for why. While the petrol-y notes and wild intensity may not be for everybody, for drinkers in search of funk, this is your godsend.
- Price: $26
- ABV: 46.5 percent
Foursquare 11 Year Old Zinfandel Cask Blend Rum
The experts we polled for our rum tasting raved about the bottlings issued from the Foursquare Distillery in Barbados. This is a blend of 11-year-old column and pot still rums, some partially aged in Zinfandel casks (rum is typically aged in bourbon barrels, but finishing in casks that have held other wines and spirits is a trend currently being embraced by producers—something we also saw in our recent tasting of ryes). It stood out from the lot for being balanced, having clear sugarcane and wood notes and a nice mid-palate sweetness that we ultimately found made for a “bourbon-lover’s rum.” Foursquare rums are also available, in other expressions, in the United States in some markets under the Doorly’s and Real McCoy brands.
Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye
Based on a mash bill of 80 percent rye, 5 percent malted rye and 15 percent malted barley, sourced locally, this bottling sees only six months of aging in charred, new oak quarter casks (50 liters versus the standard 200), and the shorter aging offers a clearer picture of the base spirit and singular character of Old Monongahela rye. (As Risen writes in his American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye, this was the first take on the style in more than a century when it was first released, in 2012.) Clean, bright, complex flavors of fruit and spice on the nose give way to a finely textured, elegant spirit that reminded us of a high-quality fruit brandy in the purity of its flavors. Astonishingly complete for a whiskey aged just six months.
- Price: $46
- ABV: 45 percent
Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye
The oldest whiskey in the tasting alongside Sazerac, Russell’s showed more intense rye notes and wood influence. With a mash bill of 65 percent rye, 23 percent corn and 12 percent malted rye, the 6 Year is a brawny, musky whiskey showing notes of sandalwood, chocolate and red spice. Another mature, and “well-manicured,” as one panelist called it, whiskey for the price.
- Price: $46
- ABV: 45 percent
Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon (10 Year)
A Heaven Hill offering, this is said to be the oldest bottled-in-bond bourbon on the market today. On the nose it shows notes of toffee, brown sugar and a subtle minerality akin to baking soda. It’s followed up by a super-concentrated mouthfeel dominated by flavors of fig, bitter orange and walnuts (think oloroso sherry) and a long, complex finish.
- Price: $32
- ABV: 50 percent
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon (116.8 Proof)
One of the few limited offerings in our bourbon tasting, Rare Breed is nonetheless pretty easy to find. Packaged at barrel strength (116.8 proof this year), this is unquestionably boozy. Said to be a blend of six-, eight-, and 12-year-old barrels, the nose is fruity and estery with notes of caramel and banana (one taster likened it to Bananas Foster). It wears the heat well on the palate, showing complex notes of dark maple syrup, old leather, chili pepper and a touch of oak.
- Price: $44
- ABV: 58.4 percent
Springbank 10 Year Old Scotch Whisky
One of the few Scottish distilleries not owned by an international conglomerate, this family-run Campbeltown distillery isn’t as well known in the States as it should be. The distillery malts, kilns and mills their own barley (a rarity these days) and does not chill-filter. This bottling, their youngest, is lightly peaty on the nose with notes of “a freshly opened can of tennis balls” (in a good way); it’s full of warm spice and a creamy note—which one taster likened to aged riesling—on the palate, all backed up by a long, briny finish.
- Price: $48
- ABV: 46 percent
Glenmorangie The Original 10 Year Old Scotch Whisky
This ten-year-old Highlands expression was a slam-dunk selection in a sea of solid contenders. Aged in first- and second-fill American white oak bourbon barrels of their own design, it leads with savory, umami aromatics. It’s round on the palate with notes of angel food cake and chocolate ganache balanced by bracing acidity and a hint of iodine. An exceptionally well-made, balanced whisky that is a perfect introduction to the category.
- Price: $38
- ABV: 43 percent