Bartenders Tell Us The One Whiskey They Buy To Impress Friends And Family

One of the best things about the modern-day spirits marketplace is the fact that pretty much anywhere you live, you can find a shop that sells high-quality, reasonably priced whiskeys. At the dawn of the 2020s, you don’t have to take out a loan or go on a mythical quest to buy a great bottle of bourbon, rye, or Scotch.

If you’re headed home for the holidays and you want to impress your friends and family with a great bottle of whiskey, you need not worry about the price tag. Price doesn’t even necessarily dictate if a bottle is great or not. You can spend over $100 or $30 and hit some very similar notes. Or you can buy a $300 bottle that tastes like every penny of that price. It’s more about perception, taste, and knowing what to buy.

When Will Witherow, beverage director at Live Oak in Alexandria, Virginia, visits his family, he likes to impress them by bringing a bottle of Evan Williams Black Label.

“Evan Williams makes a wonderful and very affordable Bourbon,” he says. “My family likes a good deal and a good drink. With this bottle you get both.”

Since we’re always willing to accept a little help on the topic of whiskey, we decided to ask some of our favorite bartenders to tell us their go-to bottle to impress friends or family.

Angel’s Envy Rye

Jason Werth, bartender at Motif in Seattle

Angel’s Envy makes a finished rye whiskey that never fails to impress. I usually prefer bourbon for sipping and rye for mixing, but Angel’s Envy Rye is the exception. It’s finished in Caribbean Rum casks that add strong notes of molasses and vanilla to the peppery heat of the high proof rye. I describe it as a dessert rye. I bought a bottle for my dad before he set out on a solo sailing trip down the coast and he liked it so much he bought eight more bottles for the trip.

Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Bourbon

Nick Meyer, beverage director at Ronan in Los Angeles, California

Elijah Craig 18 year. I always give a backstory and context when I’m feeding my family booze, and when it comes to the story of Elijah Craig the Preacher being credited for pioneering charring barrels for aging whiskey, it makes for great entertainment. They love a boozy history lesson. More importantly, it tastes amazing.

High West A Midwinter Night’s Dram

Chris Heinrich, head bartender at Tre Rivali in Milwaukee

If you’re looking to impress your family, do them a favor and pick yourself out a bottle of High West’s A Midwinter Night’s Dram. It’s a blend of ryes and wonderful spice, with time in French oak, transformed by the dark, fruity complexities that time in port barrels lend. It really is a mid-winter dream.

Elmer T. Lee Bourbon

Sam Garcia, head bartender at Boleo Rooftop in Chicago

My granddad was really the only whiskey drinker in our family so I’d probably get him a bottle of Elmer T. Lee. It’s soft but really well rounded. He was a farmer and used to drink it neat after a long day on the pasture and fields.

Templeton Rye

Gabe Briseno, bartender at Employees Only in Los Angeles

If I’m going to impress my family, I’m heading right for rye whiskey. Templeton Rye because of the 91% rye grains, which works great as a base spirit for cocktails.

I.W. Harper 15 Year Bourbon

Patrick Turner, bartender at B & O American Brasserie in Baltimore

My family likes a snazzy bottle, and I.W. Harper’s 15 Year Bourbon may be the snazziest you can find without being gaudy. And it tastes great too.

Hudson Baby Bourbon

Andres Padilla, head bartender of 312 in Chicago

Hudson Baby Bourbon. It’s one of my favorite whiskeys and isn’t as well-known as other brands so I love introducing people to it. It’s aged in small American Oak barrels that give it a unique flavor. It’s very smooth and easy to sip.

Sierra Norte Yellow Corn Single Barrel Whiskey

Taylor Scoma, manager at Stacked Sandwich Shop in Portland, Oregon

I am so proud of my Mexican heritage, so I would definitely go with something new and cool in Mexican culture like Sierra Norte’s Yellow Corn Single Barrel Whiskey. This Mexican corn whiskey is spicy and sweet with a smoky flare. It goes down almost like a bourbon, which my family would be partial to. Even though we tend to drink lots of red wine, something like this would really get the attention of my uncles (and even some Nanas too).

James E. Pepper 1776 Straight Rye

Michelle Hamo, bartender at Brabo Brasserie in Alexandria, Virginia

If I am going to wow my family with a fine bottle of whiskey, it’s got to be James E Pepper 1776 Straight Rye. This is an incredibly sophisticated rye with a number of floral and earthy qualities. There are some non-organic notes that I would expect from an old-world wine. It’s smooth, silky, and almost fatty on the palate. It is a heavy hitter with 50% ABV, but it hits with a slow smolder as opposed to a bonfire.

Willett Pot Still Reserve Straight Bourbon

Mike Krawiec, owner of Silver Light Tavern in Brooklyn, New York

Willett Pot Still Reserve Straight Whiskey. With its unique pot still shape and it’s incredible smoothness — the whole family will be impressed as they polish off a bottle.

Yamazaki 18 Single Malt Japanese Whisky

Charity Johnston, beverage director at Toca Madera in West Hollywood, California

Hands down Yamazaki 18 Single Malt. I worked in Japanese concepts for 10 years and I have a deep appreciation for the culture and the attention to detail that goes into their whisky making. Yamazaki is not only complex, smooth, and elegant but is also becoming more and more difficult to get (like many Japanese whiskies). I think sharing something like this with family is special and makes for some great memories. Also, it’s so insanely delicious.

Charbay R5 Hop Flavored Whiskey

Alexander Carlin, beverage director at Fairgrounds Craft Coffee & Tea in Minneapolis

My family likes when I geek out about small production and “geeky” spirits. Charbay makes a whiskey using the wort from Bear Republic brewing called R5 that is full of smoky richness that expresses a hoppy malt flavor that’s like drinking beer-flavored whiskey- because it is. I also love to show off my collection of Hibiki and Nikka that no one can get. Everyone loves the technical prowess that the Japanese are offering with the elegance of Scotch and the nuance of Bourbon. They are perfect expressions of the best of both worlds coming together.

Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky

Cameron Lang, bartender at Center Hub in Irvine, California

A perfect bottle to gift is Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky. Japanese Whisky is still a fairly new style we as Americans have not fully embraced. The bottle alone on this whisky speaks value, and dresses to impress! On top of the aesthetics, the brand as well is becoming known as a much nicer style whisky to enjoy on more special evenings! I love the smoothness of how Japanese whisky is made. This one has smooth honey notes with hints of floral hibiscus and woodsy finish. Hibiki Harmony speaks for itself.

Jack Daniel’s No. 27 Gold Whiskey

Daniel Burns, manager and bar lead at Elixir in San Francisco

I brought my Dad a bottle of Jack Daniel’s No. 27 Gold back from Lynchburg and his poker friends are still talking about it. Back then you could only get it at the distillery but now that it’s commercially available I’d still go with the Double-Barreled Gold. The maple finish is just too much to pass up.

Starward Nova Whisky

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Starward Nova // Australian whisky aged in red wine barrels

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Rob Boyd, bartender at Dusek’s Board and Beer in Chicago

If I were bringing a bottle home for the holidays to impress my family with, I’d pick Starward Nova. While most of the family might be enjoying wine with Christmas dinner it be an easy transition to talk about Nova and how it’s aged. While many whiskies are finished in wine barrels, Starward Nova is fully rested in red wine barrels from South Australia. For anyone that might be more comfortable with wine tasting over whiskey, the unique characteristics of the Australian wines used truly shine through and make it a flavorful and approachable experience.