Ah Christmas, that magical time of year where if you’re anything like me – a week before the big day means you have 6 days to go before you have to worry about getting any Christmas shopping done. No matter how organised you’ve been or how early you’ve gotten the finger out, what is there to do when your loving partner, brother, sister, or co-worker, has waited until almost the last moment to drop the hint that they’d like to try “some of that American whiskey they’ve heard so much about” or a family member has suddenly began getting fancy with their cocktails? How do you handle buying an amazing gift for the novice or veteran whiskey drinker in your life who is typically impossible to buy for – especially now that you’ve missed the ‘Guaranteed delivery before Christmas’ cut-off dates for online shopping?! Well to you I say worry not, the answer may be simpler than you imagined! Luckily for all, the Irish bourbon scene has continued to consistently gain momentum over the past year meaning there’s finally something decent that you can pick up in your local supermarket which is also different enough to make for a great gift. I’m talking about that bottle of bourbon behind the counter that you’ve squinted at in the past whilst queuing to buy your 10 items-or-less of course!
Yes, America’s finest export is finally on Irish soil in large enough quantities and variety that if you can’t make it to an independent off-licence, picking up a fantastic Christmas gift is still as easy as nipping down to the shops for milk and a sliced pan. Now you might be wondering, “ Yes, but which local supermarket?” and “Will this American stuff cost me a fortune?” These questions and more are exactly what this guide will strive to answer. Contained below are 6 of the best bourbons and 6 of the best rye whiskies (with further recommendations) that can be sourced with reasonable ease, and the best part is many come to under €50 a bottle (some significantly so!) So, let’s get to it because Christmas Eve will be here any day now!
The origin of bourbon as a distinct form of whiskey is not well documented and is subject to many conflicting legends and claims, with some being more credible than others. However, what we do know is that distillation was brought to the US by early 18th century settlers and bourbon developed into its present form in the late 19th century. By law modern-day bourbon must be made in America, be aged in charred, new oak barrels, cannot have any flavourings or colouring added, and must come from a mash containing at least 51%, with the remainder typically being grains like wheat or rye for added flavour, and malted barley for enzymes. Bourbon whiskey that has been aged for at least two years and has not been blended with other spirits may be further designated as straight, as in “straight bourbon whiskey”. Flavours like caramel, vanilla, and cherries, are typically characteristic of bourbon whiskey with the brand new charred barrels adding a deep colour and removing nasty flavours via it’s charred surface.
#1. Buffalo Trace Bourbon – 40% abv – €37 Dunnes Stores
First on the list is a straight talking bourbon from the longest operating distillery in the US, Buffalo Trace bourbon. With over 200 years of experience under their belt Buffalo Trace aim to create the best bourbon they can and are so happy with the result they name the bourbon after their distillery. This bourbon is a mid-shelf classic among bourbon drinkers of all levels and is made using Buffalo Trace’s #1 bourbon recipe (featuring 10% or less rye as a flavouring grain). A smooth and very flavourful bourbon, this bourbon combines sweet caramel and vanilla, and delicately balances it with an oak spice that offers it’s drinker a true bourbon experience that they won’t want to end. Currently available in all Dunnes Stores with a premium spirits fixture for the absolute bargain price of €37 and has been known to dip as low as €34 on special offer.
I’m looking for something that really shouts ‘USA! USA! USA!’
If the mighty Buffalo doesn’t quite do it for you and you’re looking for something with a bit more majestic flair that both hits just under the €50 mark, and ups the game significantly, then why not pick up a bottle of Eagle Rare instead? Also from the Buffalo Trace distillery, this 10 y.o. age-stated bourbon comes from exactly the same recipe as Buffalo Trace bourbon, but what it picks up in those added years of ageing is lots more vanilla and sweet caramel – not to mention it clocks in at a respectable 45% (5% more than Buffalo Trace). Currently available from the Celtic Whiskey Shop for the bargain price of €49.99 here!
#2. Bulleit Bourbon – 40% – €35 Tesco & Supervalu
Second on the list is a bourbon that looks more like it belongs on the wild Frontier than the shelves of Tesco and supervalu, Bulleit Bourbon. Owned by spirits giant Diageo, Bulleit bourbon is a high-rye bourbon that packs notes of citrus, caramel, baking spices, and a touch of smoke. The hallmark of Bulleit is that high rye grain content which gives this bourbon a bold and spicy taste with a warm, delicious finish. A great bourbon for anyone looking to expand their tastes to something with a bit more rye spiciness, and fits perfectly into your favourite whiskey cocktails. Currently available from both Supervalu and Tescos on special offer for €35 (usually €42) until the 27th of December.
This is nice, but I prefer something with a higher calibre.
The newest bourbon to grace Irish shores, Bulleit 10 takes your standard 6 shooter and replaces it with a Glock 45. This straight shooting bourbon is aged a full 10 years and offers a much-improved flavour experience over it’s non-age stated younger brother. Currently available from the Celtic Whiskey Shop for €57.95 (above budget but well worth the extra few euros)
#3. Maker’s Mark – 45% – €45 Tesco
Probably one of the most famous bourbons in the world, Maker’s Mark with its square-shaped bottle and it’s iconic red wax dip is the perfect present for that special someone who likes a present with a bit more bang! Made from a recipe that uses winter wheat this bourbon is a lot smoother than traditional high-rye bourbons and offers a sweet earthy experience where the wheat is the star of the show. This bourbon is one of the best wheated bourbons on the market and it’s no surprise given that, since opening in 1953, the distillery has only ever made three expressions; Maker’s Mark, Maker’s mint julep, and Maker’s Mark 46. This means they’ve been perfecting the art of making a great wheated bourbon for over 50 years and it shows!
Already tried this and loved it, but I want an even better-looking bottle, more wax, and even more complexity – it’s Christmas for goodness sake!
Already have a fan of Maker’s Mark that may be looking for something with even more style and flavour? Well here you have it, Maker’s 46. Whilst the standard Maker’s Mark is a fantastic wheated bourbon, Maker’s 46 is a whole new level. Taking the standard Maker’s Mark, which is around 6-8 years old, the geniuses at Maker’s mark then insert charred French Oak staves into the barrels before further ageing the bourbon for approximately another 2-3 months. What the addition of these oak staves and extra ageing does is it takes all those great Maker’s flavours and adds in a whole pile of further complexity and wood notes that balance it perfectly whilst making it sweeter. This bourbon is so good that it’s on Julian Van Winkle’s (the creator of the legendary Pappy Van Winkle bourbons) list of bourbon to get if you can’t get Pappy, and that’s all the endorsement needed! Bottled at 47% abv (2 more than standard Maker’s) this beauty is available in limited quantities from Mitchell & Son for the decent price of €50.
#4.Woodford Reserve Bourbon – 43.2% – €43 Dunnes Stores & O’Brien’s Off Licence
The fourth bourbon on the list is Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. Featuring a blend of triple-distilled pot still and column still bourbon, Woodford Reserve has a unique mellow taste that gently beckons without overwhelming its drinker. Long hailed as the perfect bourbon for introducing those that already have a taste for Irish and Scotch Whiskies, Woodford shows off classic bourbon flavours of caramel, vanilla, baking spices, and a crisp maltiness that smells like cherries dipped in dark chocolate. Despite having a high percentage of rye in the recipe (18%) there’s a lot more balance when it comes to Woodford reserve and all the flavours combine to create a very well rounded bourbon that’s smooth and easy enough to drink on its own, yet carries its flavours well enough to hold its own in a whiskey cocktail like an Old Fashioned or Whiskey Sour.
Please sir, can I have some more?
Want more Woodford goodness but not sure how to get it it? Luckily the good people over at Woodford Reserve have heard your call and have come back with a solution: Woodford Double Oaked. If ageing in heavily charred barrels gives bourbon those fantastic caramel and vanilla flavours, then imagine what another few months in a cask that’s very lightly charred but heavily toasted will do. Without going too much into the technicalities of it, toasting a barrel brings out all the wood sugars and vanilla flavours from the wood whilst mellowing out any harsh flavours a barrel might add. This bourbon is the standard Woodford Distiller’s Select that has been aged further in virgin oak barrels with a heavy toast and a light char. The results are a bourbon that is darker, richer and has an amazing taste of toasted wood and maple syrup that really rounds out the traditional Woodford Reserve experience at the same abv of 43.2. Personally, I always end up going for the Double Oaked over the Distiller’s Select, and luckily this bourbon is now available exclusively from the Celtic Whiskey Shop in limited quantities for €65.95 and is well worth the price.
#5. Wild Turkey 81 – 40.5% – €28 Tesco & Dunnes Stores
The final bourbon on the list is Wild Turkey 81. Regardless of your level of previous experience in whiskey, I’d argue that anyone should be able to enjoy a pour or two of Wild Turkey 81. However, for this guide, I’m going to aim this bourbon specifically at the newcomers to the bourbon table. Newcomers typically want something that is flavourful, well-balanced, and easy to drink both neat or in a cocktail, but doesn’t overwhelm with a crazy high ABV content. This sounds easily done but it’s important to remember that the lower the ABV, the more water in the mix, and the more water in the mix the more you’re dampening those incredible flavours that bourbon is famous for – but not this time! Thanks to Wild Turkey’s way of doing things you’re getting a fantastic blend of 6 – 8 year old bourbons with all the flavour trimmings at a respectable 40.5%. ‘What is this dark magic?!’ you ask? This miracle of bourbon is made possible through the use of heavily charred casks (more flavour) and a high-rye recipe (even more flavour and earthy, spicy balance) which combine to give you huge flavours even at a low ABV (take a bow Wild Turkey!). Always a great choice and currently €28 in Tescos? You’d almost be mad not to!
It wouldn’t be Christmas without a proper Turkey, now bring out that 19 lb big boy I see in the back there!
Already a few months into a relationship with Wild Turkey 81 and ready to take the next step? Then Wild Turkey 101 is the big Tom for you! Big and bold bourbon flavours await all ye who dare to pass. Wild Turkey 101 was my first taste of bourbon and to this day, all bias aside, still remains one of the best bourbons I think you can spend your money on. Choosing this over the 40.5% Wild Turkey 81 is similar to the difference between listening to your favourite song on a standard car radio versus seeing the performer live, and being blown away by how much better it is, i.e., you’re in for a big surprise in the best way possible. This Wild Turkey expression has those same flavours found in the 81 but at a whole new level. For many the 10% ABV jump might seem like a lot but once you taste this bourbon you’ll be happier for it – trust me! The catch is that this expression isn’t the easiest to source but a quick google search turned up the promising result of it being in stock at the Celtic Whiskey Shop for €45 – again well below the initial budget.
The Rye Whiskies
America’s pioneering spirit, rye whiskey was the first whiskey produced by early settlers from excess grain. In the US, rye whiskey, by law, is made from a mash of at least 51 percent rye – with other ingredients in the mash usually being corn and malted barley. Like bourbon it’s aged in charred, new oak barrels and rye whiskey that has been aged for at least two years and has not been blended with other spirits may be further designated as straight, as in “straight rye whiskey”. According to many, rye whiskey is the great bridge between Scottish whiskey, Irish whiskey, and a American whiskey with toffee, baking spices, and cinnamon being the characteristic flavours.
Rye whiskey in Ireland is a relatively new category and as such can only be found in good off licences. They may not favour the last-minute shopper with wide availability, but the effort it takes to find the right bottle of rye will always be rewarded with an amazing American whiskey experience. Most if not all of these rye whiskies are available from the Celtic Whiskey Shop, L. Mulligan’s or any independent off licence with a decent selection of American whiskey. Here are my thoughts on the rye whiskies available in Ireland!
#1. Michter’s US☆1 Single Barrel Rye
The newest American whiskey to enter the Irish market, Michter’s Distillery is based out of Kentucky and produces a wide range of whiskey styles under their flagship US☆1 range. The crown jewel of this range, Michter’s US☆1 rye whiskey is a great example of a very well made Kentucky rye. Coming from a single barrel and bottled at a modest 45.7% abv Michter’s style is a whiskey that is both packed with flavour and very easy to drink – with this rye being no exception. As a rye whiskey it’s a perfect balance of rye’s green apple character, white pepper, a touch of tannins from the barrel, and a great proof. An interesting element is that this is a single barrel offering which means there’s no hiding inferior whiskey behind good blending. As a flagship rye whiskey, Michter’s have truly set the bar very high with the level of quality you get and this one is very hard to beat. For a true show-stopper ask about their 10 year old rye which is currently in Celtic Whiskey shop!
#2. Templeton 6 y.o. Rye Whiskey
Coming from a distillery situated in the small town of Templeton in rural Iowa, Templeton rye is a sourced rye whiskey and the only brand that you will get an age-stated rye whiskey from without breaking the bank. At 6 years old this whiskey towers over its 4 y.o. little brother and boasts a recipe of 95% rye with rye-forward notes of red fruit and baking spices galore. It fits seamlessly into cocktails (Sazerac anyone?), begs to be enjoyed neat, and was sourced from a distillery that produces some of the most renowned rye whiskey in America – MGP. With a very reasonable price and bags of flavour in every drop this is another you won’t want to miss regardless of your level of rye experience.
#3. Sazerac Rye
Another whiskey from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, Sazerac rye traces its roots back to New Orleans and symbolises the tradition and history of New Orleans dating back to the 1800s. Albeit not age –stated this is understood to be around 6 years old on average and is the 90 proof version of Thomas H Handy Sazerac Rye from the coveted Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Known for its versatility, crisp rye notes and solid oak backbone, Sazerac Rye Whiskey was used to make the original, first and only branded American cocktail—The Sazerac. Whiskey aside, the bottle is one of the best looking in the business and makes a great-looking, great tasting stocking filler.
#4. Woodford Reserve Rye
Another Kentucky-style rye, Woodford Reserve’s Master Distiller approached this whiskey with the same laser-keen focus on flavour as with all their other releases and spent the better part of a decade perfecting it. Made with only 53% rye this is another easy-drinking and delicious rye whiskey for those treading the shallows of what rye whiskies offer and is again perfect for beginners or those taking the brave step outside of their particular whiskey comfort zone be that Scottish whiskey or Irish whiskey. Bottled at a decent 45.2% abv this rye whiskey will not disappoint any recipient and comes in Woodford’s iconic flat bottle shape.
#5. Town Branch Rye
Named after the river that cuts through the city of Lexington, KY, the Town Branch Distillery was founded by Irish businessman Pearse Lyons (ring a bell?) under Alltech and has been producing bourbon, rye, and American single malt since 2012. Bottled at 50% abv Town Branch rye is the heaviest hitting of the rye whiskies and gives a traditional rye whiskey that’s aimed at those who have already wet their feet with rye. This rye whiskey is delicious and goes well into anything be it a Manhattan cocktail or just neat into a glass.
#6. Bulleit Rye
Another whiskey from the Bulleit Distillery, Bulleit rye is also sourced from MGP and again features their 95% rye mashbill. Aged around 4 years it goes best into rye-based cocktails but still tastes great neat. Another solid entry-point for those who want to explore some of the best rye whiskey that’s on the market without breaking the bank or without requiring any previous whiskey experience. This one particularly goes down very well with Scotch and Irish whiskey drinkers who are curious about other whiskey styles.
So there you have it, 16 of Ireland’s best American whiskies with many being readily available for less than €50. I’ve even made some further recommendations (most within the €50 budget) for those that will have access to independent off-licences such as the Celtic Whiskey Shop or others in the run up to the big day. Like I said, most of the bourbons featured in this article are some of the best you can buy for a €50 budget, and now with easier access than ever before there’s no reason for any whiskey lover or newcomer to be left disappointed on the big day when they realise Santa Claus has overlooked their much anticipated bottle of bourbon or rye whiskey.
Should you still find yourself wondering what to get your whiskey lover before the big day I would highly recommend a trip or a phone call to the very helpful people over at the Celtic Whiskey Shop. The reason these guys show up so much in this article is for the simple reason that they have probably the best Irish bourbon and rye selection on the shelves at the moment (especially the more premium bottlings), and their staff are very knowledgeable when it comes to recommending something for even the most difficult of people. Now go forth with the confidence that the perfect Christmas present may be as easy as taking a trip to your local supermarket, and remember to sip responsibly this Christmas (try not to spill any – I’m sure it’s a sin).
Nollaig Shona Daoibh!