Last year, a Redditor made a stir in the whiskey world by proclaiming that you only ever need five bottles of bourbon on your shelf. Those included a “daily drinker, impress your guests, cheap mixer, something great, and the saving for a special occasion bottle.” While we’d also include a quality mixer into that equation, it’s a pretty solid way to look at what bottles to always keep around.
Recently, we’ve taken this “five bottles” concept to heart. So much so that we’re going to start asking our friends in the world of whiskey, beer, and spirits to name their picks in various categories. And we’re starting with me, Zach Johnston, Uproxx Life’s Deputy Editor and head Drinks writer.
I’ve been working in hospitality since I was five-years-old, when I used to sort tomatoes and lettuce at my mom and grandma’s luncheonette before going to kindergarten every morning. I worked my way through college in sandwich shops and pizzerias. I started working behind bars in Prague almost 20 years ago, mostly at organic wine bars tucked away in hidden cellars around the city. In the mid-2010s, I began working in Berlin’s high-end cocktail scene and started getting involved in industry events and conventions.
Over the past five years, I’ve been writing about drinks for Uproxx, podcasting about beer, traveling the world to meet the people behind various spirits, and hosting tastings in person (when safe) and on social media. It’s a fun job, as you might imagine. But while I’m lucky enough to get to taste some truly amazing whiskey, rum, vodka, beer, etc., I didn’t have too much trouble winnowing my whiskey collection down to five essentials. Here you go! Click the prices to order the expressions that look best to you!
End-of-the-Day Dram: Wild Turkey 101 Rye
Average Price: $40
Wild Turkey’s signature rye benefits from the brand’s signature move in making all their whiskey. The juice is matured for around six years in heavily charred “alligator” barrels. That heavy char and longer aging imbues a lot into the whiskey before it’s batched, lightly proofed down to the trademark 101 proof, and bottled.
There’s this opening of cedar that leads to, I swear, firecracker black powder. There’s also a sense of savory fruit (think pumpkin) on the end of the nose that works nicely with that black gunpowder and cedar. The taste is a cream vanilla — nearly a mint ice-cream — with hints of Christmas spices next to sweet yet spicy caramel apples.
This whiskey really hits every moment of the whiskey experience just right for me. One, it’s tasty. It’s not an MGP rye, so the spice isn’t the only note you get. It’s complex while still being accessible.
It’s also an easy-drinking whiskey all-around. You’ll get a pure sense of “whiskey” with every sip while not being overly challenged. You can just sit back and let the warmth of that Kentucky hug flow over you, which is exactly what you need at the end of the day.
Mixer: Jameson Black Barrel
Average Price: $40
This is Jameson’s take on double barreling. The whiskey is first matured in old bourbon barrels. That juice is then transferred to another bourbon barrel that’s been doubly charred with a deep alligator skin char. Those barrels are batched and proofed all the way down to 80 proof.
There’s a dark chocolate note that leads to clear vanilla and toffee. This feels very sherried with notes of holiday spice and nuts leading towards an almost cedar note. The end is creamy and smooth.
This is really solid on the rocks whiskey with a serious depth, but it’s that depth and stoutness that makes this such a solid mixer. It never gets lost in any cocktail and will always remind you’re drinking whiskey, even when you’re mixing.
End-of-the-Week Dram: Talisker 10
Average Price: $75
This is one of the most awarded single malts ever. The juice is matured in ex-bourbon casks in Talisker’s warehouse which is literally feet from the sea. The subtly peated malts take on a real seaside feel as those years tick past, creating a whisky that will not disappoint.
There’s a distance to Talisker that draws you in on the nose. I like to describe it as campfire smoke smelled from a few hundred yards down a rainy beach. The sea spray mellows the smoky peat to a fine point as crushed oyster shells dance with almost sandy pears, dried apricot, and rich malt. The end doesn’t overstay its welcome and reminds you of oysters, fine liquor, and that smoldering campfire way off in the mist.
This bottle hits a nostalgic spot for me as it was the bottle my father-in-law used to introduce me to “good scotch” while we were on a trip through Scotland. I never looked back.
I really do drink a fair amount of this stuff. It’s also the dram I order when I’m at a whisk(e)y bar because I know how good it’ll be every time. But it’s the very fact that this is “the good stuff” that I save it for the end of the week as opposed to an everyday dram.
It’s worth the wait and tastes all the better when it’s really earned.
Celebration Dram: Balcones Lineage Texas Single Malt
Average Price: $39
This bottle is from one of my all-time favorite craft distilleries. The juice is a marrying of malts from Scotland and Texas in the mash, which then creates a bridge between those two diverse whisky worlds. The whisky is aged under the intense Waco sun in Balcones’ warehouse in used and new oak for just the right amount of time.
This opens with a nose full of peach peels, vintage cream soda, hot and spicy apple cider (yes, it smells hot, not cold), and a touch of yeasty sourdough sourness. The taste veers into velvet and very fresh honey sweetness, with a hint of soft cedar and salted caramel that ends on an almost reduced and sweet balsamic tang. The end circles back to the spice with a note of hot cinnamon next to a slight black tea bitterness on the slow fade.
This is my go-to party or celebration bottle because it’s both affordable and unique. There’s nothing quite like this and it’s a home run in every aspect from nose to taste to the mouthfeel.
This feels like a bottle I can put out at a home tasting and let people really dive into it to find new depths of whisky and appreciation for craft whisky in general. And again, it’s priced well enough that if we finish one or two bottles while celebrating, I’m not going to cry over my bank account the next morning.
Once-a-Year Dram: Oban 21 (2018 Limited Release)
Average Price: $550
This is a monster bottle (at a very prohibitive price-point). This limited-release from 2018 is bottled from whisky mellowed for 21 years in a second-fill European oak barrel. It’s devilishly simple yet deeply provocative and well-worth the investment if you’re craving something truly special.
Notes of salted cream mingle with a subtle sense of whisky malts and oak. The sip leans into touches of bitter cacao and toasted coconut with a hazelnut underpinning, creating a fatty feel with the cacao. Adding water brings about a counterpoint of fresh mint with the cacao and coconut like a luscious yet light salty-sweet dessert. The end is fascinatingly short, making you want to pour another dram immediately.
This is my birthday/Christmas morning/New Year’s Eve/I got a promotion/I won the lottery dram. That is, I have about three drams from my bottle every year and that’s it.
This is really special to me in that Oban is one of my favorite distilleries in the world. I love visiting and can even see retiring to a town like Oban. The sea, the cliffs, the little pubs, the seafood … it’s all very much in my wheelhouse. Taking a dram or two of this takes me back there.
This makes me think about where I’ve been, how lucky I am, and where I’m going. It’s the perfect whisky.
As a Drizly affiliate, Uproxx may receive a commission pursuant to certain items on this list.