If you’re looking for recommendations on the best brands of booze to buy, ask a bar manager. This person is typically responsible for both making the drinks and ordering their ingredients, and must simultaneously stay on top of trends while keeping an eye on the bottom line. So for National Bourbon Heritage Month, we asked four top Southern bar managers for two favorite bourbons—one affordably priced, and one where the sky’s the limit. Here’s what they recommend.
Compère Lapin, New Orleans
A former off-Broadway actress, Abigail Gullo got her start in bartending in Brooklyn, working at Fort Defiance for St. John Frizell, whose New Orleans stories (he attended Tulane and lived there for eight years) helped convince her to move to the Crescent City in 2012. She’s won many accolades since, including last year’s national championship at the Heaven Hill Bartender of the Year competition.
Budget pick: Released late this summer in honor of the Willett family’s eightieth year making bourbon, Willett 80 Year Anniversary ($30) carries a reasonable pricetag. But with only about 5,400 bottles available, it’s sure to disappear fast. “If you can score a bottle of this, you have scored the deal of the century,” Gullo says. “It has fresh minty pine and citrus notes and a full, long finish. I am naming my firstborn, male or female, Willett.”
Splurge: Gallo’s higher-end recommendation: Elijah Craig 18 ($120). “This used to be my everyday bourbon—ten years ago when there was plenty of it and it was less than $40. Word must have gotten out because they ran out,” she says. “Now it’s back (with a higher pricetag). Smooth and rich, it makes a perfect julep with its solid sweet base and light caramelized-citrus finish.”
The Crunkleton, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Gary Crunkleton has been tending bar in Chapel Hill for more than twenty years, since he was a student at the University of North Carolina. And he’s served up the city’s finest cocktails at his eponymous establishment since 2006. With a bourbon-heavy list of more than 500 spirits and a sophisticated mixed-drinks menu, the place consistently makes lists of best bars in the country. Later this winter, Crunkleton will be expanding his empire, opening a second location in Charlotte.
Budget pick: Henry McKenna Single Barrel ($35), Crunkleton says, “is one of the best values readily available on the market.” It’s from the Heaven Hill distillery, which also makes beloved brands like Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, and it’s bottled one barrel at a time, which means each batch has a slightly different flavor and proof. What doesn’t change is that all the Henry McKenna barrels age for at least ten years, giving them deep, rich flavors that are rare at this price.
Splurge: “I did a blind taste test years ago with some guests between Old Medley 12 ($65), Van Winkle Family Reserve, and Blanton’s,” Crunkleton says. “Old Medley was overwhelmingly the crowd favorite. It is a great bourbon.” The Medley family had made bourbon in Kentucky for generations until they sold their distillery in the 1950s; this bottle represents the modern rebirth of the historic brand, created by a new generation of Medley family members.
One Flew South, Atlanta
One Flew South at Hartsfield-Jackson is widely known as the best airport bar in the U.S. To keep harried travelers happy, you have to be a master of hospitality, and that’s just what Devon Eagle is. She took over behind the bar last summer and offers spirits of all kinds, but bourbon is Eagle’s personal favorite.
Budget pick: “W.L. Weller 12 Year ($30) is the true gem of the Buffalo Trace Distillery,” Eagle says. The soft and sweet bourbon is made from a similar wheat-heavy mash bill as Buffalo Trace’s legendary Pappy Van Winkle brand, but with a much more agreeable price. “Its balance, smoothness, and perfect spicy/dry finish make for a perfect bourbon to sip on any time of year. I like to enjoy mine with a single rock, but it also makes a spectacular Old Fashioned.”
Splurge: Eagle loves barrel-proof bourbons—powerful whiskies bottled without any watering-down, like Booker’s ($75), made at the same distillery as Jim Beam and typically bottled between 120- and 130-proof. “It’s perfect for use in a variety of cocktails, both stirred and shaken, but it also remains surprisingly easy to sip,” Eagle says. “If drinking straight, I definitely recommend adding in a couple of drops of water to help open the whiskey up so you can fully taste all of the wonderful vanilla and raisin notes.”
Columbia Room, Washington, D.C.
Derek Brown is a master of mixology: Just this summer, his Columbia Room—arguably the most famous cocktail bar in the nation’s capital—was named the best American cocktail bar at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.
Budget pick: Brown makes no bones about his favorite: “Pretty much everyone who knows me well knows that I’m a Wild Turkey man and almost exclusively drink Wild Turkey Rare Breed ($45),” he says. “I love the deep rich wood notes. Peppery and spicy, it has a sweet undercurrent that lingers on the palate.” Rare Breed is a barrel-proof version of Wild Turkey’s beloved standard bourbon, so it packs a punch, to boot.
Splurge: “If I’m going to spend the money,” Brown says, “George T. Stagg ($90) does the trick.” It’s part of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, a set of extra-long-aged limited-release bourbons that can be tough to find. George T. Stagg varies slightly from one bottling to the next, but always ages at least fifteen years and goes into the bottle straight from the barrel. “Overall,” Brown says, “it remains a powerhouse bourbon—rich and high-octane without the burn.”