When I met Patrick Marran, it was a cold December night in New York City. My girlfriend and I had just given up on trying to break through the crowd at Rockefeller Center to see the big tree and we were in desperate need of a drink. We made our way down 49th Street to escape the masses, rounded the corner of 10th Avenue, and there it was, our saving grace, a whiskey bar.
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We were immediately drawn to its low-key lighting and relaxed atmosphere, so we walked in, took off our coats, and Patrick, the bartender, immediately greeted us with a hearty “Welcome to On the Rocks.” The bar itself isn’t a big place, but it’s overflowing with every kind of whiskey you could ever want served neat, up, on the rocks, or even in specialty cocktails. And their goal at On the Rocks is simple: they want you to try whiskeys you’ve never tasted before. Marran will ask you what you’ve had and what you’ve liked, then try to show you a better version of your affordable go-tos. After sampling a few glasses of Japanese whiskeys and American ryes I’d never heard of, I was sold, so I asked Patrick if he’d help me offer some useful recommendations to other whiskey fans out there who are looking to upgrade.
Like Maker’s Mark? Try W. L. Weller Antique
What most people don’t understand about their bourbon preferences is the ingredient percentage. Marran explains that Maker’s falls under the category of “wheated bourbon,” which means that after the required 51% corn, wheat makes up a majority of the other grains used during the distillation process. It makes wheated bourbons a very smooth, accessible drink. That’s why W. L. Weller Antique (Old Weller Antique) from Buffalo Trace Distillery is the perfect upgrade for Maker’s fans, and it’s a great stepping stone toward the mythical Pappy Van Winkle. It’s not too expensive either. You can find bottles for around $30.
Like The Macallan 12 Year? Try the Yamazaki 12 Year
The Japanese have been crafting award-winning whiskey for decades, forcing die-hard Scotch drinkers to take notice. Marran says that the Yamazaki almost always wins the blind tastings he does at the bar if someone asks for a Scotch whiskey flight. I’ve had a couple bottles of the Yamazaki 12 myself and can attest to its superior quality. Grab a bottle for around $100.
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Like Jameson? Try Some Green Spot
Marran describes Single Pot Still whiskey as a bridge between blended Irish whiskey and Scotch whiskey, and Green Spot from Mitchell & Son is an affordable way to dip one’s toes into the quality improvement over regular blended whiskeys. Marran says:
So many people stroll into a bar and dismiss the Irish whiskey as somehow inferior. That’s about as wrong as snow in July. This is my hands-down favorite option to break someone’s misconceptions.
If you want to go up in price from there, Midleton’s Redbreast isn’t a bad option either. You can find bottles of Green Spot for around $70.
Like Bulleit Bourbon? Try Michter’s US 1 Bourbon
A lot of people enjoy Bulleit bourbon and regard it as one of the best, but Marran suggests Michter’s US 1 Bourbon is a little more balanced in its taste. It’ll cost you a few more bucks, but Marran says it’s ideal for bourbon fans who know that a high-corn ratio in the mash bill is their “problem with whiskey.” And if you’re interested in a whiskey education, he recommends their Rye and American varieties to give you a good example of how different whiskeys taste. You can usually find bottles between $50 and $60.
Like Four Roses Yellow Label? Try Sons of Liberty Uprising or Stranahan’s Yellow Label
If you’re always on the lookout for a “super smooth whiskey,” Marran suggests you stay away from bourbons and go for some American single malts. Both Sons of Liberty Uprising and Stranahan’s Yellow Label will have you covered for younger, full-bodied whiskeys that always go down smooth. You can find a bottle of Sons of Liberty Uprising for around $50 a bottle (hard to find in the West), and you can find Stranahan’s Yellow Label for about $65 a bottle.
Like Laphroaig 10? Try Bruichladdich Octomore
According to Marran, Laphroaig Scotch seems to be the go-to for most novice peaty (type of smokiness) drinkers, but there are a dozen other Islay distilleries that deserve your attention. Bruichladdich Octomore is a higher-end smokey whiskey that comes in a few styles and showcases the artistic way the distillers make the flavors pop. Marran recommends you have it neat or with a few drops of water (even an entire ice cube is too much for the peat). You can find a bottle of Bruichladdich Octomore for around $60 to $80.
Like Dewars or Johnny Walker? Try The Shackleton Whiskey
This blended Scotch is easy to spot thanks to its robin’s egg blue box and label. Marran describes it as a blended whiskey that’s “designed” to taste like a single malt, so it’s the perfect whiskey to help ease your transition to a single malt palate. It has a full body, but it’s smooth on the tongue and easy going down. Plus, the recipe has some interesting history behind it. It’s based on the Scotch Sir Ernest brought with him during his 1907 expedition to Antarctica. You can find it for about $40 a bottle.
Like Old Overholt? Try Ragtime Rye
If you’re a rye kind of guy (or gal), Marran says the jump from a basic well rye to a three-year rye is going to knock your socks off. New York Distilling Company’s Ragtime Rye is part of a new whiskey movement in New York City where nine different distilleries are rolling out ryes that are 75% rye compared to the required 51%. This is your chance to upgrade to a “real rye,” as Marran puts it. You can find bottles for around $45.
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Like Bulleit Rye? Try WhistlePig Farmstock
According to Marran, people like Bulleit Rye because it’s an affordable, mellow rye that eases them into the world of decent whiskey after their college whiskey shooting days. If you’re ready to upgrade to something that’s just as mellow, but with more rye and a better bite, WhistlePig’s Farmstock is the way to go. There are notes of vanilla and toasted honey, and runs for about $90 a bottle.
Already like Yamazaki 12 Year? Try Amrut Single Malt Cask Strength
If you’ve already tasted the greatness that is the Yamazaki, Amrut should be your new best friend. Marran says it’s something all whiskey enthusiasts should try:
Whether you’re in it to show you know more about whiskey, or you merely want to continue building your exotic Single Malt collection, this single malt from India is a must-have in order to see why so many companies are taking the barley approach from Scotland and giving it a whirl.
Amrut’s whiskeys are a bit younger than others, but they’ve got full flavor and have been winning awards. You’ll probably have to order it online (prices can range from $60 to $100 a bottle), but it’s a tasty international whiskey that you can definitely show off to your friends.