Unlike a good single malt Scotch, which will set you back at least $40 – $60, and can run up into the hundreds (or even thousands) for something in the 18 – 30 year age range, bourbon is an incredible bargain. Some of the best bourbons in the world cost only $45 – $70, and there are many great buys to be had in the $20 – $30 range, which is where I recommend you do the bulk of your purchasing at first. There’s plenty of drinkable American whiskey below $20, including stuff you could mix or pass off on your unsophisticated friends for less than $15, but for just a few dollars more you can drink really tasty stuff, so why settle for less?
If you’re new to bourbon, stick to bottles labeled Kentucky Straight Bourbon (or Rye) Whiskey. This means the whiskey will adhere to the minimum standards for good bourbon, and will come from the state where it originated and was perfected.
No age statement on the bottle is fine, or any age statement 6 years or greater. Like Scotch, longer aging of bourbon is generally a sign of quality, but many bourbons today are losing their age statements to keep up with demand for their products, which means they’re likely including some younger whiskey than they did before. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because a distilleries’ #1 priority for their product is to keep the flavor consistent.
Another reliable marker of durn good bourbon is the words Single Barrel. Unlike Small Batch, which is essentially meaningless, Single Barrel means that the whiskey was made from one distilling ‘season’ at one distillery, and came out of one particular barrel. The ‘Single Barrel’ version of a particular brand should be a particularly tasty barrel, which is why the master distiller has chosen it for a special bottling. For example, Evan Williams black label or the bottle-in-bond version are nothing special in my opinion, but Evan Williams Single Barrel is delicious stuff, and a fine value at around $20.
Bottom shelf/Entry-level: It’s worth tasting a couple of these after you’ve bought a few of the Middle Shelf options so that you can appreciate paying a little more for the jump in quality. Try at least one of the two best selling bourbons* in American: Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams black label or Jim Beam’s white label. Four Rose’s yellow label is actually quite tasty, and worth buying. Stay away from the really bottom shelf stuff including Ten High, Ancient Age, and Old Crow. (On the other hand, these are worth a taste for comparison, but just a taste: I wouldn’t want to be responsible for drinking a whole bottle…)
*Jack Daniel’s is the world’s best-selling American whiskey, and not bad at all, but technically it’s a Tennessee whiskey, even though process & taste-wise it’s practically identical to bourbon.
Middle Shelf: There is some great value here, and it’s where I spend most of my bourbon budget.
- Sazerac’s Eagle Rare continues to be a steal at 10 years of age and $25. Smooth, sweet and reasonably complex, it’s both a crowd pleaser and a nice dram for the initiated.
- From the same folks who brought you Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace‘s flagship bourbon is also very good ($20)
- From the Beam people, Jim Beam Black Extra Aged is not bad, but Jim Beam Single Barrel if you can find it on sale is excellent. Knob Creek (100 pf) is also very good.
- Evan Williams Single Barrel vintages are a favorite of mine (skip Evan Williams 1783, however), as is another fine product from Heaven Hill Distilleries, Elijah Craig.
- The proprietary yeast used by Wild Turkey in their flagship Wild Turkey 101, or the milder and more-refined Russell’s Reserve 10 year, give their whiskies a distinctive dry spiciness that I enjoy.
- Four Roses’ entry-level ‘yellow label’ is fine to start with, but look for Four Roses Single Barrel if you can find it on sale.
- Old Forester 100 pf is perfectly quaffable, but the really good stuff is in their Top Shelf line listed below.
- Try a ‘high rye’ whiskey like Old Grand-Dad Bottled-in-Bond or Old Grand Dad 114 pf. (Their entry-level Old Grand-Dad 80 pf is supposed to be inferior to the bottled-in-bond, but it’s been a while since I’ve had it, so I won’t pass judgement here.)
- For rye whiskey, try Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond or Knob Creek Rye 100 pf if you can find them for less than $30
Top Shelf: These whiskies make a wonderful gift for a bourbon aficionado, or a treat for yourself (but don’t waste them on the uninitiated.) Move on to them after you’ve decided that bourbon really is your thing with the Middle Shelf purchases.
- Kentucky Spirit from Wild Turkey if my favorite bourbon to date (around $45 – 50)
- Booker’s is reputed to be excellent, and is made by Jim Beam.
- Blanton’s is Buffalo Trace’s top shelf bourbon, and comes with a collectible plastic horsey on top…
- Old Forester 1897 Bottled-in-Bond is delicious, and has the distinction of being my father’s favorite bourbon to date. They also make Old Forester 1920 and Old Forester Statesman, all of which are supposed to be very good. The entire fancy pants Old Forester collection is in the $40 – $60 range.
Tasting whiskey is similar to tasting wine & beer. Pour a small amount (0.5 oz) in a small, aroma-concentrating glass and stick your nose in there to smell it gently at first, and then more thoroughly. (Try to be as obnoxious as possible about it. You’ll enjoy the whiskey more that way.) Next, take a small sip and swirl it around your tongue before swallowing. You can also do the wine thing and breath in through your mouth while you do it, but don’t choke!
Next, dilute the whiskey down to around 30 – 35% abv (60 – 70 proof) with a little room temperature water. Cold water or ice won’t allow you to taste the whiskey quite as well. Use a pipette or small creamer pitcher to make sure you don’t pour in too much water too quickly. (Pipettes are perfect for hosting a tasting since everyone can have their own, and you can just toss them afterward.)
After diluting, take a bigger sip and hold the whiskey in your mouth longer this time, getting it all over your tongue, including the back and sides, before swallowing. Notice the initial flavor, the body or ‘mouth feel’, and after swallowing, notice which tastes linger and for how long. At the right strength, the alcohol should neither burn while it’s on your tongue nor be so watered down that it doesn’t have much flavor. Pour a little water in, sip, dilute more if needed, repeat until you get it to your taste. For me, I tend to keep diluting as I taste, perhaps because the alcohol on my tongue starts to accumulate as I keep sipping. You can always add more whiskey if you get too much water in there…
As bourbon expert Chuck Cowdery told me, “there’s a difference between tasting and drinking”, so once you’re done tasting, feel free to relax and just drink. I often find that I need to have a full glass of a single bourbon to really get to know it, which is a very convenient excuse to give to your wife. (You can get to know her after another glass.) For good whiskies like those in the Middle and Top Shelves above, I recommend sticking to adding only a little still water, or if it’s warm out, a small piece of ice. But if you just wanna kick back and make your whiskey a ‘longer’ drink, go ahead and add that single large ice cube/sphere, or even some club soda, but please, hold the Coca Cola.
Enjoy, and tell me about your favorite whiskies in the comments!
(If you missed the introduction to what bourbon and whiskey were all about, check out Part 1.)