How to Choose Whiskeys for Your Home Bar, According to a Pro

At the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, star mixologist Alba Huerta led a tasting of some of her favorite whiskeys.

There has never been a better time to be a whiskey drinker in America. From exceptional craft bourbons to rare Japanese whiskies, the market continues to expand and diversify, leaving the consumer in somewhat of a bind: Which whiskey to choose?

During her whiskey tasting at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, star mixologist Alba Huerta walked attendees through some of her favorite bottles on the market. Huerta, who is the owner of the award-winning bar Julep in Houston, Texas, has never been more impressed with the average drinker's knowledge of whiskeys, in part due to the pandemic, which forced many people to become their own bartenders.

Whiskey with ice on a dark table against the background of bar bottles
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"I've seen the consumer become more educated than ever," she said. "You've taken the Zoom classes; you've purchased your own bar at home. You have your own selection of spirits."

If you'd like to continue filling out your collection, follow her tips below for choosing the perfect whiskeys for your home bar.

Pay attention to the history

Part of the fun of whiskey drinking is learning the unique history behind each bottle, so make sure to fill your home bar with bottles that tell stories. One of the highlights of Huertas' tasting was Uncle Nearest whiskey, which is made in the "Lincoln County" process. The Tennessee whiskey is named after the formerly enslaved man, Nathan "Nearest" Green, who taught Jack Daniels how to distill.

"He never got credit in history or American distillation," she said. "And now through Uncle Nearest coming into the market and becoming a huge success, we're able to tell the story of the man who taught Jack Daniels."

Huerta served the whiskey in a tart, frothy cherry bounce sour cocktail, made with aquafaba instead of egg whites.

Don't forget Japanese whisky

Huerta sang the praises of Suntory, Japan's first and largest whisky brand, founded in 1923. To kick off the tasting, she started with a Suntory Whisky Toki, served in a refreshing low-ABV cocktail.

"The beautiful thing about this whisky, and one of the reasons I wanted to put it on the table for you is that it really is an example of moderate ingenuity," she said. "Japanese distillation has really been around for about a hundred years. This particular product is just really beautiful." Huerta loves to use the Toki in cocktails, particularly blended with aromatized wines.

Choose whiskeys with diverse range of ABVs

If you plan on making cocktails, you'll want to have a variety of whiskeys not only with different flavor profiles, but also different ABVs. At Julep, Huerta factors in the strength of the whiskey when crafting cocktails. "I use the Toki for cocktails that are gentle and fine," she said. If she's looking to make something heftier, she'll seek out 100 proof. She noted with a laugh, "I think the tolerance levels are up because there's like 13 months of people being their own bartender."

Go for an American single malt

This is a category that Huerta is particularly excited about. "It's a fascinating category that's been growing for quite a long time here in the United States out of the Pacific Northwest," she said. "Westward Whiskey has been really behind the movement of putting American single malts into your hand." The term refers to whiskey that is distilled by a single US distillery, using 100 percent malted barley.

Based out of Portland, Oregon, Westword Whiskey is the highest rated American whiskey.

And remember this rule for cocktail-making!

"I'm going to tell you two things that are not big secrets, but are pretty good rules about making drinks," she said. "If it has juice or citrus, you shake it, and if it doesn't, you stir it. I'm having to say that should always be the rule, but that's the case 99% of the time."

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