Revisiting classic U.S. makers like Old Forester can deliver surprising pleasures. (photo by Joe Hendrickson)

American whiskey has climbed well above its dusty-cowboys-slamming-shots origins. There are very fine offerings of all sorts, bolstered by a perfect storm of market forces (higher tariffs on imports, better marketing, and a massive uptick in interest, among them). Along with a head-spinning number of new brands, and increased experimentation, the shelves in your neighborhood store also offer a reminder not to overlook more classic labels. There is great bang-for-the-buck to be found.

Industry great-granddad Old Forester, no stranger to innovation, produces two award-winning core expressions—Old Forester 100 Rye and 86 Bourbon. The rye is dark and complex, with aromas of intense winter-spice, candied citrus rind, and hints of pine forest. The palate reveals brown-sugar sweetness, notes of lemon and dill, and freshly ground peppercorns, followed by an herbal drying finish. The 86-proof bourbon opens with moderate spice from its high-rye mashbill, with notes of vanilla, caramel, tart cherry, and distant smoke. A slightly oily mouthfeel leads to notes of dark chocolate-covered banana chips, dried tart cherries, strong rye spice, and light molasses. The finish is long and warm, with hints of peaches, apricots fading to burnt brown sugar, more rye, and a drying wave of herbs and black pepper. You can find these for $19 to $26.

Industry giant Jack Daniel’s released an award-winning rye in 2017. This tantalizing Tennessean explodes with vanilla, oak, banana, and background smoke. With just 70% rye in the mashbill, corn influence is still prevalent, contributing a hint of maraschino cherry sweetness and overall balance, although at the expense of traditional rye spice. The finish is relatively short and dry, but leaves a distinct taste of black pepper and dark chocolate. Thus retails for just under $20; I found it on sale for $12! What???

Touting the term “Frontier Whiskey,” Bulleit Distilling has achieved extensive critical acclaim during its short lifetime. While their “95 Rye” garners much of the attention—last I checked, it was the leading rye brand—my unequivocal favorite is still the Kentucky Straight Bourbon. I’m a scotch guy, at the end of the day, but this bottling has earned my attention. It’s complex, with a smoky-sweet-savory-spice aroma. On the palate, it exudes notes of leather, vanilla, and dried black cherry, with a dusty maple sugar sweetness in the background. A long, sexy finish hints at black pepper, cinnamon, and allspice. I contend it’s the mashbill’s fairly high 28% rye, taming the sometimes cloying bourbon cherry-syrup sweetness while contributing the spice. I’ve found it for $22 locally, and (again, the benefit of drinking the big brands)  received an extra 25% off at my grocery store’s sale!

The market’s never been better for American bourbons and ryes—and their fans.