As any man knows, getting the attention of a bartender can be tricky. So, when the mustachioed and suspendered guy finally arches his eyebrow in your general direction, it pays to be ready. Most often you’ll know exactly what you want. But there will be other times when—thanks perhaps to the Sofia Vergara lookalike down the bar—your mind will have gone blank. For such occasions you need a reflexive call, a go-to brown liquor that’ll save you from the embarrassment of indecisiveness.
If you’re a Scotch whisky man (and you’ll note that we’ve changed the spelling to “whisky” for this section), ask for the commonly found and uncommonly good single malts from Highland Park and Glenlivet. Big spenders may be tempted by 25- or 30-year distillations, but you’re better off with a 15 or 18. “Don’t be seduced by age,” says Mark Gillespie, of the whisky website WhiskyCast. “Most serious whisky snobs would tell you the sweet spot of a Scotch is between 15-18 years: after that only a few get better with age while many get worse.”
If you prefer your brown liquor domestic, nod toward the row of bourbon whiskies. Bourbons, like the name says, traditionally come from Bourbon County, in the heart of Kentucky. (There are some non-Kentucky bourbons, but we’d recommend staying in the bluegrass state.) By law, all bourbons must be aged for a minimum of two years in new American Oak barrels. These barrels are charred, which imparts to the liquor their signature smoky/sweet flavor (each distillery has its own signature combination of char levels.) Price is less an indicator here of quality than you might imagine. “Since there are so many laws surrounding bourbon,” says Brad Danler of Brooklyn’s whiskey bar Char No. 4., “they’re all made relatively rigorously, so you can get something with a very good price that is very delicious.” If you like your whiskey on the sweet side and tannin-free, try Elmer T. Lee Buffalo Trace. “It’s 90 proof so it has some heat, but also great caramel, toffee and sweetness based on the time it sees in wood,” says Danler. Another favorite is a rye-heavy Bulleit Bourbon from cult distiller Four Roses. “It’s got a bit more sharpness and spice,” according to Danler, “more so than sweetness.”
As for how you like your whiskey, when choosing between neat or on the rocks, go with neither. The reason many people opt for ice—it makes the drink go down easier by freezing the aroma and dulling your taste buds—is exactly why you should avoid it. Meanwhile, neat whiskey benefits from a splash of water, which, says Bob Dalgarno, master nose at the Macallan, “releases a whole range of flavors you normally wouldn’t get.”
Of course, if you’re a Rolling Stone and it’s the seventies, you’re totally fine to swig straight from the bottle, too.