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10 Solid Bourbons Under $50

10 Solid Bourbons Under $50

by Nat Harry, Spirits Buyer

Good bourbon doesn’t have to be expensive. Louder for the peeps in the back … you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get great bottles!Here are some of our favorite values:

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Where There's Smoke, There's American Whiskey?

Where There's Smoke, There's American Whiskey?

It seems as though more and more whiskey drinkers are venturing over to the land of Islay single malts lately. American palates are changing, especially in the little bubble that we call the Bay Area. Instead of 80 proof sherry-aged Speyside easy-drinking drams, the demand is now for cask strength, stronger flavors, and bitter finishes. And more consumers are drinking mezcal in their Margaritas instead of tequila. That may seem unrelated, but my fascination with mezcal is what turned me into the smoke seeker I am today. Roast agaves in underground pits, covered with wood and stones, and the rustic, savory result...

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Roll Out The Barrel

Roll Out The Barrel

When you’re talking about bourbon, the discussion usually starts with grain. It’s got to be 51% corn, that’s the big rule you’ll hear first. After that you can have a combination of grains including rye, malted barley, and wheat. And of course, it has to be made in ‘Murica! You’ll also learn that it has to be aged in new, charred oak. A fact that doesn’t sound all that interesting; I can’t remember the last time I was at a party and struck up a conversation about cooperage (challenge accepted!). But once you start leaning into the science of aging whiskey, you’ll find that it’s one of the most fascinating aspects of bourbon production.


Almost all of the American white oak for Kentucky bourbon is grown in the Ozarks. One tree typically yields two 53 gallon barrels (the industry standard size for most distilleries), and the trees are typically harvested at around 100 years of maturity. That’s pretty crazy right? Now think about the fact that there are more bourbon barrels aging in Kentucky than there are residents of the state. That is a metric heck ton of trees ya’ll. (And you better believe they’re planting just as fast as they can.)


What makes the wood so important? American oak has hundreds of flavor compounds, and as those interact with the distillate over time, the liquid absorbs those qualities. Vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, allspice, coconut -- none of those flavors come from the distilled grains themselves, these are all a gift from the wood.


To access those flavors, you must first char the barrel. That involves a very hot flame that essentially cooks the inside of the barrel, caramelizing the sugars from the sap. The most intense form of char that many distilleries use to accomplish that “classic” bourbon profile is called Alligator char (No. 4.) Imparting color as well as flavor, this is where your white dog officially becomes bourbon. Now you can see why the type of wood used is so important, and why using it is mandatory for the spirit to be labeled as bourbon.


And then we go down the rabbit hole. What about other kinds of wood? How do they affect the spirit they interact with? Where do we start? Probably with French oak, the next most commonly used wood in barrel making. But Limosin or Monzelum black oak? Then we have native woods such as Mizunara in Japan, Garryana (a type of white oak) in Oregon, Chestnut in Germany, Amburana in Brazil. Each has its own specific flavor profile, and those profiles can be changed based on how much you char or toast the wood. It’s not just the salt and pepper, it’s the dry rub and the sauce. What comes off the whiskey still is raw, savory and sweet, and not at all unpleasant. But it is immature, and lacking in depth. In the life cycle of whiskey, this “new make” is the caterpillar, and what emerges from barrel is the butterfly.

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Drink Like An Italian

Drink Like An Italian

All the old amari on the bar
They collect dust, don't you know
And all those grappas no one drinks
It’s kinda sad that people think they’re gross.

Ay oh whey oh, ay oh waaay ohhhhhh
Drink like an Italian...

Maley Aperitivo Sidro Pommerbe, Valle d’Aosta

Bottle of Maley Apertivo Sidro Pommerbe

It’s not a vermouth, it’s not a cider, it’s Pommerbe! The next time you find yourself heading to a dinner party, bring a chilled bottle of this along with you for aperitif hour. Impress your friends with your knowledge of esoteric spirits. Produced by the only cider maker in Northern Italy’s Valle d’Aosta (ever since that pesky Mussolini considered cider to be too French and outlawed it), Pommerbe is a fortified apple cider infused with herbs and spices. Coming in at 18% ABV it’s light and easy to drink, just serve over ice with a twist of citrus or have fun with it in cocktails. Either way, prepare some space in your fridge for a bottle.

Nardini Tagliatella, Bassano

Now infused with more pasta! J/k. This is an aperitif that you could describe as a cocktail in a bottle, ready to drink with some ice and an orange peel, just top it with a splash of soda water, tonic, or a dry sparkling wine. This fruity aperitivo drinks like a cross between rosso vermouth and a sweeter amaro and weighs in at a respectable 35%. It’s a one-liter bottle, for those inclined to share with friends, but no one will judge you for keeping it all to yourself.

Amara Amaro, Sicily

Approachable and citrusy, and a killer cocktail ingredient. Made from Sicilian blood oranges sourced from Mt Etna, it’s both rich and bright, while retaining a nice bitter finish. Fans of Amaro Montenegro might enjoy sipping this, as would those who enjoy a nip of Grand Marnier. Lots of citrus peel and zest. And while it’s quite nice to sip after dinner, I would also recommend this as your new go-to orange liqueur for Margaritas (made with mezcal of course).

Bresca Dorada Mirto, Sardinia

Bottle of Maley Apertivo Sidro Pommerbe

It’s not surprising if you haven’t tried Mirto before. A staple of the mediterranean island of Sardinia, this liqueur is made from the berries (and sometimes leaves) of the myrtle tree. There are very few commercially produced Mirtos in existence, so to find one in the states is a treat. Typically this traditional spirit is made in Saridian households from family recipes, or in restaurants as a house specialty. The producers of Bresca Dorada got their start as honey producers, so it was natural for them to add the local honey as a sweetener to their Mirto, giving it another layer of depth. Enjoy after dinner as you would an amaro or Limoncello.

Bonnollo Grappa Amarone Barrique, Moderna

A lot of people think of grappa as passe, harsh, and possibly a distant relative to paint thinner. Just like with bad tequila, a bad grappa experience can be haunting. Let’s get you acquainted with an underappreciated category that’s been tainted by a few bad apples. First, start with a fresh pomace. The remnants of winemaking, this can include the skins, pulp, stems and seeds leftover from pressing the grapes. Using them immediately for distillation, rather than letting them sit and oxidize, makes a tremendous difference in quality. Add one extra step, barrel aging in large Amarone wine casks, and you get an elegant, after dinner sipper that will blow away all your misconceptions about the much-maligned spirit.

By Nat Harry, Spirits Buyer

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Whiskey Business

Whiskey Business

Usually, if I had to pick one spirits category to throw shade at, it would be Bourbon. It just so happens that bourbon is also one of the --- if not the most --- popular spirits in the US right now, no thanks to cult bottlings that I won’t name here. (Maybe that’s why it’s so fun to pick on; it’s no longer an underdog.) It’s the cool kid at school right now, overvalued yet underrated, as collectors drive up prices, yet rarely stop to consider what’s in the bottle, where it came from and the people who made it. If I’d walked up to bourbon in the lunchroom a few weeks ago, I’d have said, “whiskey, ya basic.”

But then I went to Louisville to get a look behind the curtain, and found myself warming back up to the spirit like a Kentucky hug. It’s the drink of bootleggers and grandparents. Nothing fancy about it really. The base is simple: corn, rye, barley, sometimes wheat. The charred American oak, imparting its rich color and flavor. Legally, the minute that juice hits the inside of the barrel it can be called bourbon. That means a good producer must have integrity. Whiskey takes time and patience, heat and cold. Standing in a rickhouse, hundreds of barrels aging above your head, the whole things starts to feel more complex. And then of course you have the people who make it.

The charming thing about the folks who are involved in the whiskey business in Kentucky is that they’re proud of what they do, even a simple task like hand labeling a bottle. They also have stories, like any good Southerner. Some of it’s American history, the good and the bad. A haunted building, stones held together with mud and horsehair, supposedly haunted by a long dead colonel. The people who ferried barrels down the Ohio river, connecting with the Mississippi, onward to New Orleans to deliver rye whiskey that would later create the Sazerac cocktail. They left their families for two years, lives always in danger from pirates and marauders.

And Freddy, our tour guide at Buffalo Trace, whose father also worked at the distillery his whole life. Freddy’s dad rolled out a very special milestone barrel of Pappy Van Winkle (I had to say it eventually) the day he retired, shared a bottle with his son and taught him the importance of living in the moment. His dad passed away shortly after. Freddy wanted to pass that message along: to not save things, but to enjoy them in the moment. These are the little stories that made me warm back up to bourbon; the history and the people, every bit --- if not more --- important than the liquid in the glass.

By Nat Harry, Sprits Buyer

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Why Is Mezcal So Darn Expensive?

Why Is Mezcal So Darn Expensive?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a customer’s complete shock upon picking up a bottle of tobala (a wild agave used to make mezcal) and checking out the price. Compared to tequila, mezcal can be significantly more expensive, and without much background on the process, it can be hard to understand why. Mezcal is a complicated spirit, much too complicated to explain in just one post or article--it’s a spirit that involves hundreds of years of Mexican culture, family tradition, and countless socioeconomic factors. It is misunderstood and often taken for granted. I won’t get into all of that here, but I will tell you why that $150 price tag is worth every last simoleon. First, mezcal production is the most labor intensive spirits process you will ever encounter; from start to finish, this is about as “farm to bottle” as you get. Witnessing first hand the work that it takes to grow, harvest, trim, and transport the agave is mind-boggling. All this effort just for the plant and we haven’t even gotten to the cooking, fermentation, and distillation! Many different species of agave can be used for mezcal production, unlike tequila, which uses only one (blue weber). The average blue weber plant takes (depending on the land and other factors) 7-10 years to reach maturity--in the world of mezcal, the closest relative is espadin, which reaches maturity in a similar time frame. From there, the wait gets much longer. You have dozens of agave varietals to choose from, with an average age of 15-20 years at harvest. And then you have plants like the wild tepeztate that can take up to 30 to 35 years to reach their peak! Imagine purchasing a bottle of 30 year old whiskey for under $200. Makes you think, huh? There are no machines involved in traditional harvesting, just good old fashioned elbow grease used to power a machete and an axe. Each tenacious plant is removed from the ground by hand. Donkeys and horses are often used to carry the heavy piñas from hard to reach spots, as many areas are not accessible by truck. The leaves of the plant are trimmed off, a very specialized job also done by hand that can have a big impact on the flavor. The agave is then roasted in an underground pit for several days, before being crushed either by a stone wheel called a tahona (often pulled by burro or horse) or with a machete. The cooked agave is transferred to large wooden vats for fermentation that lasts for several days, or even up to a week. Finally, the last step is distillation. The stills are rustic and heated by wood fire. Don’t expect any fancy gauges or even a thermometer; the mezcalero (distiller) does everything using intuition and the knowledge passed down from previous generations. WIth many spirits, distilling can be the most important part of the craft, but with mezcal, each step is equally important. And a heck of a lot of hard work.
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What To Drink Now: Japanese Rice Whisky

What To Drink Now: Japanese Rice Whisky

Two years ago, the most popular toy on the shelf was a bottle of Yamazaki 12 year. It moved fast, and there was plenty to be had. And if you were a fan of Japanese whiskey before the articles and reviews and ratings that made it highly sought after -- dare I say trendy! -- I wish I had some good news for you. Japanese single malts are an endangered species, and not just in whiskey-thirsty markets like the Bay Area; stock are dry everywhere. For those of you late to the party, you’ve heard countless times, after asking for age statement bottles, “that’s no longer available.” Even the non-age statement whiskeys are slowly disappearing. But some good has come from this; you just need to be up for a bit of...

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