In the spirits world, we’ve come to expect that price correlates with quality. Surely a $495 independently bottled Scotch whisky is superior to a $35 workhorse bourbon? Not so, say the 44 spirits judges at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC) this past March. They picked Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon as the Best in Show Whiskey over some of the best whiskeys in the world.
That’s good news for consumers, but it can still be confusing to choose top-notch price-busting spirits if you’re not lining up hundreds of bottles at a time for a taste test. That’s why SevenFifty Daily went right to the source and asked five of the top spirits judges from across the country to choose bottles under $50 that they’d recommend buyers stock their bars and retail shelves with. Here are their top picks.
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1. Tanqueray No. 10 Gin, $39.99 (750 milliliters)
Recommended by Jackson Cannon, owner, bar director, The Hawthorne, Boston
There are many great gins and more than a few are available for less than $50, but at the top of the heap, the price climbs and it’s hard to know which ones are the best of the best. Spirits judge Jackson Cannon is unequivocal with his pick: Tanqueray No. 10 Gin. “This gin is awesome,” he says. Cannon describes Tanqueray No. 10 as a great citrus-forward variation on London Dry gin: “Orange, lime, lemon, and grapefruit all bounce about atop a platform of subtle spices—notably juniper, licorice, and chamomile.” Cannon doesn’t recommend using it in a gin and tonic but calls it an absolute delight in a classic martini or citrus-forward classic gin cocktails.
2. Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon, $48.99 (750 milliliters)
Recommended by Julie Reiner, co-owner, Clover Club and Leyenda, New York City
Not content to let Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon take the championship belt alone, spirits judge Julie Reiner wants to throw Wild Turkey’s Rare Breed Bourbon into the ring. This uncut, barrel proof whiskey may seem like a hefty dose of alcohol at over 50% ABV, but Reiner says that “it’s surprisingly smooth and gentle despite its proof … [It’s] beautifully balanced with sweet fruit notes as well as spice.” She loves the spirit so much that it has become the base for the signature Manhattan at her Brooklyn bar Clover Club—the Clover Manhattan, which happens to be her favorite drink on the menu.
3. Diplomático Rum Reserva Exclusiva, $41.99 (750 milliliters)
Recommended by Tony Abou Ganim, The Modern Mixologist, Las Vegas
Rum is often considered a value category, but the director of judging at the SFWSC, Tony Abou Ganim, goes a step further and suggests that “when it comes to a bang-for-your-buck, nothing, in my opinion, offers greater value than the aged, sipping rum category.” And the rum he believes best represents that value is Diplomático Rum Reserva Exclusiva. What puts this sipping rum on a par with the world’s greatest spirits, he says, is that “if we compare rums matured in the hot, humid climate of the Caribbean to malt whisky matured in Scotland, or brandy matured in Cognac, rums mature at a rate of nearly three times that of Scotch or Cognac.” That maturation imparts a range of flavors that can be savored on their own or paired with a vanilla bean crème brûlée. Abou Ganim wants us to think beyond Mojitos and frozen daiquiris and appreciate this rum all on its own.
4. Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whiskey, $28.99 (750 milliliters)
Recommended by Jim Romdall, Western regional manager, Novo Fogo Cachaça, Seattle
For many, the bottled-in-bond category of whiskey is an indicator of quality because it ensures a minimum of four years of aging and 100 proof (50% ABV). In that respect, Rittenhouse Rye is no secret. Spirits judge Jim Romdall remembers the days when it cost $12 a bottle—10 years ago—but argues, “This whiskey is easily worth twice that and more.” Rittenhouse is known for its rich spicy notes and proof. Romdall uses it as a go-to for Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. But, he adds, “it’s also tasty enough to drink on its own.”
5. BarSol Pisco Selecto Acholado, $32.99 (750 milliliters)
Recommended by Charlotte Voisey, head of ambassadors, William Grant & Sons, New York City
Pisco is a spirit that isn’t as “well known or widely consumed in the home bars of most Americans as other white spirits, like gin, vodka, and tequila,” says spirits judge Charlotte Voisey. She fears that consumers trying it for the first time will be disappointed if they don’t turn to a quality pisco like BarSol’s. BarSol Pisco is Peruvian and is made from grapes—in this case eight varieties that make up a blended style called Acholado. Voisey describes BarSol as floral and fruity with a well-balanced finish. She adds that it has “mixability,” suggesting that it’s best in a Pisco Sour or in a long drink called the Chilcano, made from pisco and ginger ale.
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Derek Brown is an expert on spirits and cocktails who is based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ideasimprove.