Drinking the good stuff on a budget

Good whiskey ain’t cheap.  Let’s face it, whiskey can be expensive.  Damned expensive.  If you’re on a budget of Moon Pies and RC Cola, you probably aren’t heading down to the liquor store to buy top-shelf brown liquor.  And now that I’ve mentioned RC and Moon Pies, it is time to hit the convenience store.  I’ll be back in a minute!!


Yes, I know that’s not an RC, but after trying four stores, I settled on a Texas local



As you may have guessed, my budget right now fits more into Moon Pies.  This will, at times, limit the spectrum of whiskey I want to drink.  It most certainly places a limit on the bottles I purchase.  Now sure, there are decent and tasty bottles in the $30 range, but what if you’ve been jones’n to try The Balvenie 21 Port Wood or Belle Meade Bourbon Sherry Cask?  Opening the wallet to splurge $100+ on a bottle of hooch may not be in the cards for you or me at this time.



Well, as you won’t find many airline-sized mini bottles of 21-year-old spirit in the local liquor store (or anywhere), you can go to a whiskey tasting!

If you have yet to attend a whiskey tasting, whether formally presented with a brand ambassador or simply a set up for the weekend at your local liquor store — my friend, you are missing out!

You see, there are a few variations on a whiskey tasting event.  I personally prefer the informal tastings as I don’t need an educational rundown on the world of whiskey ABC’s.  I’m probably in either the KLM or QRS section of “do you know your shit?”.  However, if you are not as experienced, well, get thyself to a formal tasting!  You won’t regret it.  It’s absolutely one of the best (and fun) ways to learn.

Informal Tastings

Simply put, these are one or more whiskeys that have been selected for you to try to encourage you to purchase a bottle and are most frequently hosted by individuals in the beverage distributorship industry via liquor stores.  You may be surprised to learn that many of your local stores will hold informal tastings of spirits they wish to push that week/month.  

The best way to find the most recent and current events for a local store is to go to their facebook page (or their preferred social media account).  In my experience that tends to be updated more frequently than the event calendar on the store website.  And when you drop into your favorite store to pick up a bottle, take note if there are printed postings on the doorway advertising an upcoming tasting.  If all else fails, ask!  These are generally free to anyone who walks in.  The only downside is you get a smidgen of a pour in a little plastic cup.  You simply won’t get the opportunity for a full nosing/tasting experience from a Costco food sample cup.

I’ve also had an informal tasting with a brand ambassador from Laphroaig at a local Goody Goody Liquor.  This guy was a Scottish entertainer in a kilt and carried a flask in his Argyle sock. It’s a bit rare for a liquor store to bring in a distillery brand ambassador, so keep an eye out for the larger stores’ events.  You might be lucky enough to enjoy a quaff with a travelin’ Scot.

Restaurant Tastings

These are my favorite!  Tastings at the bar of an upscale restaurant are becoming a “thing”.  A good thing.  When you have a quality restaurant with a good bar, you not only are likely being offered very good spirits, you will generally also be the recipient of either complimentary h’orderves or discounted (tasty) bar food.  

One of the pioneers of this concept is the Flatiron Room in NYC.  They not only host tastings, they even offer various whiskey classes to up your game.  These are presented by their on-staff, mega-awesome ‘whiskey sommelier’, Heather Greene.   She even wrote a book titled, “Whiskey Distilled”, which is chock-full of helpful and enlightening information.  She knows her stuff.

whiskey distilled

More often than not, these tastings and classes come at a fee.  Most tastings are affordable (say, around $25 for three bottles of nice booze), though the classes will likely ask you to cough up a bit more.

At my local prime steakhouse, Kirby’s in Southlake, TX, they have a monthly whiskey tasting in which the manager works to bring in brand ambassadors from specific distillers for us to talk with and learn from.  I can’t emphasize how fantastic these have been!  Thomas, the manager there, doesn’t always limit the selection to a single distillery each month.  There are times he places focus on a specific region or style involving more than one maker.  When this happens, he will bring in a whiskey representative from a major distributor.  There have been months with three bottles to try — and then there have been up to six expressions (as most recently in celebration of St Paddy’s Day)!  Depending on who’s leading the tasting any given month, there may be some swag to take home courtesy of the brand ambassadors.  

This is a great example of how bars and restaurants attempt to bring in more bar business as well as make pricier drams more accessible to us.

Formal Tastings

Oh, these can be quite fun.  The best one I’ve attended so far was hosted by Thompson’s Bookstore in downtown Fort Worth.  Thompson’s is a bar that resides in a former bookstore that has sat at the corner of Houston and 8th for years. Three floors of bars to serve you!  The 3rd floor is for private gatherings (I’ve not been lucky enough to see this… yet!), the 2nd (main) floor is termed the Library Bar whose ceiling is plastered with pages from books.  And lastly is the Pharmacy downstairs.  There is only one way to enter this bar — you have to know the password to gain access through a bookshelf hiding a stairway.  It’s a speakeasy!

Thompsons ceiling

This tasting was held on their ‘Whiskey Wednesday’ in which most of their immensely large selection of whiskey is 50% off.  How did I find out about this?  By following their facebook page.  All that was required for entry was to register online through Eventbrite.  The beverage manager of Thompson’s wanted to host a whiskey tasting to encourage people to come out, have a good time, and try something new — or at least try whiskey’s they may have been reluctant to order due to pocketbook limitations.  

The tasting I attended here was, remarkably, free.  We had the Pharmacy all to ourselves for the tasting, which was fantastic as there were no outside distractions and we could all learn together.

The selections for tasting that night were The Balvenie 12, 14 Caribbean Cask, 17 Double Wood, and the oldest of the lineup, their 21 year Port Wood.  There was even swag doled out consisting of a barrel-stave pen, free branded glencairn glasses, and keychains.  Also on the offer were free chef-catered appetizers consisting of a charcuterie board, oysters (yes, I said oysters!), and mini meat pies to complement the whisky.

On this occasion was a tasting and discussion with The Balvenie brand ambassador, Jonathan Wingo.  Let me tell ya, this guy was a character and I don’t think he’d had anything to drink before hand!  He was animated, engaging, educated and full of life.  Jonathan likes his job very much and it shows.

Don’t Forget About Distillery Tours!

Most distilleries nowadays offer tours to augment revenues.  100% of the time either during or at the end of a tour you will be given the opportunity to sample their wares.  Now, I personally have never experienced a distillery tour that is free — have you?  Thankfully, most tours are relatively inexpensive, say $10-$15 per person, and you get the chance to sample their signature expression as well as a newer release they may wish to market.

Not only do you get an inside view on the making of their whiskey, you get a better understanding of what goes into distilling in general, the chemistry and complexity of it, and a comprehension of why this stuff isn’t cheap.  I highly recommend you go on at least one distillery tour and check out the process.



If you’ve not had the opportunity to try some higher dollar booze, attending a tasting is a great way to get your hands on some wonderfully crafted whiskey at a cost that may not make your significant other/household CFO kill you in your sleep.  In fact, as my wife does, they may encourage it for that very reason — you’re not spending a large portion of your paycheck to imbibe on a bottle that may cost as much as your cable bill!

I’d love to hear about whiskey tastings you have attended.  Do they fall in line with what I’ve participated in or have you found other ways to get your hands on some pricey expressions? Let me know in the comments below!

Slainte mhath!


Bottoms up!

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