I apologize in advance for the photos, some of which seem blurry, not because I had too much to drink but only because I continue to use the iPhone5. At this point its been well documented the older iPhone4 camera is better, and being a professional photographer, I am just too lazy to get out the Canon with 50mm lens when I can snap a shot, add a cheesy, but cool filter and upload it to Instagram for instant gratification. So, that aside… here is my re-discovery of Bourbon…
America’s Native Spirit. Its made from corn. It can’t be called bourbon anyplace else in the world, and, no one else would make it outside of the USA. And, even for me, this left me with some unjust judgments like this was only a drink for hillbillies in the south. Boy, was I wrong. Give me a cellar full of bourbons over the most expensive $100+ bottles of Scotch from Scotland any day. Why? Well, I feel that even though I am not a sweets person, it lends more flavors like vanilla, caramel and honey over the peat, oak and “dry” taste of scotch. Every spirit has its place, but if I have to go with a dark, oak aged spirit, its either going to be rum, or bourbon. Ironically, rum is distilled from sugar, but bourbon from corn is much sweeter. Now, I am not talking about Kool-Aid or cola sweet, its just enough sweetness to take the edge off the bitter.
Lesson #1) Bourbon (along with some other requirements) must be distilled from at least 51% corn;
Lesson #2) Not all bourbon comes from Tennessee, in fact, most of it comes from Kentucky, but it can come from other parts of the USA where corn is grown;
Lesson #3) Classic cocktails that have been around for hundreds of years like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan have similar ingredients, but most rye is grown in Canada in the north which results in whiskey, and corn in the south is more abundant so you will have bourbon. Bourbon is sweeter than whiskey but otherwise has similar taste qualities and you can even mistake bourbon as rye if it is in fact a quality brand;
Lesson #4) No one in the late 1990s would ever think that Bourbon would become so popular. While vodka cocktails were all the rage of the last 15 years, bourbon has become not just a patriotic spirit of the USA, but with all the flavor and complexity of any other spirit like rum, its in demand, so RESEARCH PRICES. I found 3 very different prices from 3 reputable discount chains within a 15-20mile radius. We are not talking $5 or less, we are talking $5-15 difference in price. Research online, research locally, prices will vary by A LOT ($15 will get you an extra half bottle of your favorite). And, with “rare” small batch single barrels in demand, you can still be paying $40 for HALF a bottle. I don’t know that its worth it, I go by taste, not price, but you, as a consumer, should be aware before you get overcharged due to the bourbon trend;
Lesson #5) Jack Daniels is not Bourbon, its Tennessee Whiskey. Tennessee Straight Whiskey is not always bourbon, but sometimes it is. What it means is its whiskey (bourbon or otherwise) from Tennessee, the finer requirements and regulations which become more complex leave a fuzzy gray area as to how it should be labelled, but you can be sure its good. And, if its not sweet enough to call bourbon to your taste, don’t be afraid to mix it with a tiny bit of sugar or honey and/or fresh lemon for a delicious Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour, or even a Manhattan. The way I see it, if a cocktail calls for sugar, whiskey OR bourbon, just use bourbon and reduce the sugar or omit all together.
Lesson #6) The darker the bourbon, the longer it has aged in a barrel and the less sweet the taste. Also, don’t think proof makes a stronger taste, while it can contain more alcohol, some are so mellow and smooth you would not know it was higher in alcohol content. Read the label and proceed with caution (example: 47% alcohol = 94 proof);
Lesson #7) By law, oak barrels can only be used once to age bourbon whiskey. Afterward, they are often sent over to places in Europe like Ireland to age Scotch Whiskey. Bourbon is also often blended with water, not to cheapen the product, but to be sure it has the right flavor and taste. Some might like a splash of water to “open” the flavors of the bourbon, and if you serve it over ice, not only will the melted ice thin the flavor, but too much will bring it to a temperature where you really can’t taste the subtle notes.
The Taste Testing:
Anything aged in an oak barrel, including wine, I wrote off long ago. I think it was that oak taste that reminded me of my teenage years of whiskey, scotch, and bourbon. Oh, I forgot, when I was 19 they switched the drinking age to 21, but that didn’t stop me (us) from drinking, so let’s just call 21 still my “teenage” years. I think the first time I got sick from drinking was Old Crow. It came in a plastic bottle (which, in 1983 was very rare to see anything in plastic), and the screw on top served as a shot glass. Enough said. As many brands have done over the years, once they have proven successful for a period of time, they reinvent, rebrand and redesign all their products, even though the original still sucked, because now, since its stood the test of time, its a “classic”. So, instead of seeing it in wider or flatter bottles you can stick into your jacket, now its in glass and round in 750ml bottles like all other mainstream spirits.
I guess then I moved on to Jim Beam. Now, this was a glass bottle, and square like Jack Daniels, but much less expensive. Well, I guess depending on how you count it. After drinking too much of that, I was sick for 2 days and lost 2 days worth of work, probably making it four times as expensive. But, a teenager cannot judge good spirits. A person of youth is only looking for the bang for the buck.
So, after decades years of not really embracing anything with oak, now I am ready to approach it from the beginning again. This includes wines, both homemade and winery distribution, cognac, whiskey, scotch, even dark rums, perhaps a few tequilas.
- Willet ($38) Smooth, unique, worth the money, however the fluid ounces I could not find listed on the bottle and they are selling “half bottles” of other bourbons at regular price to keep the price point. I am counting the jiggers I get out of it to be sure.
- Blanton’s ($60, but you can get it for $45 if you shop) Great stuff, superior, no doubt, but I don’t find the taste or quality double that of the $30 bottles of bourbon. If I were paying by personal value, I wouldn’t pay more than $40 for it, but it is the best I’ve had so far.
- Basil Hayden ($36) 80 Proof – This was branded when George Washington was still President. It don’t get more American than that, and, its love at first sip. No fire, I usually wait for the bite to subside so I can taste the subtle flavors, but this was great from the start. Yes, lower in proof, but I actually prefer it that way. While some might argue, they are watering it down, the fact is, you are going to add a lot of ice and water (and forbid it if its tap or ice from your refrigerator, I don’t care what kind of filter you have on it), so I’d rather drink something perfect out of the bottle at a lower proof, than a higher proof I have to adjust with water and ice to enjoy in a hit-or-miss fashion.
- Bulleit ($25) I was told this was too sweet, but I did not find that, its good, but I like their Rye better. Its still good stuff.
- Buffalo Trace ($30) Really good. Not too sweet, but very flavorful, and dangerously “delicious” the kind of delicious that makes you want to have more than two or even three.
- Temptation ($25) 82Proof, sweet, smooth, great value and taste for the price. And, at that price you can enjoy it every day unlike most bourbons. This would be my go-to bourbon for anything.
- Elijah Craig ($32) I think this is what converted me from vodka to bourbon. The first time I had this was at The Lambs Club in NYC. It was with lemon juice and honey and called the “Gold Rush”. I immediately had to make this drink for myself, and while I went through a dozen other bourbons, once I had this one again, I knew why I switched.
- Four Roses ($37) I can remember this stuff in my aunt’s house and I never thought it would be a great luxury bourbon, but it is. The strange back story on this is, that it was popular in the 1950s, then got bought out by a Japanese company, and while it was still made in USA, it was only sold in the UK an Asian Markets. Finally its made a comeback here in the USA and if you taste it, you will be thankful for that!
- Knob Creek ($35) At 100 proof, its full of flavor, and punch. Even on ice with a few extra drops of water, you can really tell the difference between this and the 90 proof bourbons. Its good, but not a favorite because of the strength, for me, it takes away from the experience and enjoyment. Like I’ve said, I like more than one when I drink.
- Maker’s Mark 46 ($35) Great taste, not so sweet, not as much vanilla as the regular Maker’s Mark and you can almost taste the corn mash it would seem. Dry,
- Maker’s Mark ($23) This is your mainstream quality bourbon. Its nothing exception, but certainly not poor, its a good, standard, everyday drinking bourbon.
- Eagle Rare ($36) A 10-year old bourbon, 90 proof, much darker in color and smoother in taste from the other Russel’s Reserve (another 10-year old bourbon)
- Elmer T. Lee ($30) It comes from the makers of Buffalo Stock, Bulleit, Blanton, and has a complex flavor, but for me, I almost prefer the Maker’s Mark though it might not be as complex.
- Jack Daniel’s Old #7 ($22) Smooth, not too sweet, and it is more of a whiskey than a bourbon, not just by definition, but in taste as well, Its great for mixing. I can’t say anything bad about Frank Sinatra’s favorite. Its something you can drink straight, over ice, coke, ginger ale, but perhaps not something you would have with a fine cigar. Its a good old standby and will never disappoint.
- Jim Beam ($18) Good stuff for every day, don’t let the low price fool you, this is good stuff, especially if you will mix in an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, have a bottle of this on hand at any and every time, even if its for mixed drinks or a filler.
- Woodford Reserve ($32) Batch #705; Bottle 5814 – I really have to check the next bottle to see if I get a different number. Who is to know if this is actually that bottle number? If they only made 6,000 bottles from batch #705, and there were at least 705 batches, thats over 4 million bottles, does that still qualify as “small batch”? In any case, not too sweet, very smooth, I don’t want to call it bland because it has a good flavor. (90.4 Proof)
- Wathen’s Kentucky Straight Single Barrel ($28) Pretty smooth and mildly sweet for a higher proof (94 proof). Not at all bad, just not my favorite.
- Lexington ($30) 86 Proof, smooth at first, but finishes with a bite. Not terribly flavorful or sweet
- Jefferson’s Small Batch ($35) Not all impressed with this “small batch”. I was happy to find the last bottle on the shelf and when I got it home I saw it was only 41% (82 Proof), that is a good thing, because I like to have more than one drink and not be blasted. However, this also took away from the sweetness and the flavor. Reading other reviews online, I have to agree, its fine, nothing fantastic, but certainly does not have any “bang” for the buck they charge. I will take Maker’s Mark at $12 less per bottle, Bulleit would be even better for $10 less.
- Evan Williams Small Batch ($26) 86.6 proof, smooth, not sweet, tastes more like rye than bourbon.
- Russel’s Reserve 10 Year ($33) Low proof for a bourbon (90), but its got bite. At first sip this did not taste like bourbon, it tasted more like scotch or even whiskey. A few more sips and I missed the sweetness I taste in other bourbons. Since it was aged in the barrel for 10 years, I am thinking maybe the sugar burned off and/or it got more of the oak taste like longer aged scotches? Either way, I am no expert, even 15 bottles into this “research” yet. However, I know what I like, and this is not it. I think I have to spend the extra money to taste another 10 year old bourbon to decide if its the extra aging I don’t like or the brand itself. Coincidently, over Christmas my brother and I drank some Machallens Scotch, a 12 and a 15 year old, and we both agreed the 12 year old was the smoother of the two, and the 15 year was not worth the extra price. To each his own, and his or her own taste, but for me, the longer its aged the harsher it seems, and if you have to add a splash of water to mellow it out or “open it up”, then thats fine, just give me the younger, cheaper stuff.
- Cooper’s Mark ($20) 91 Proof, made in Minnesota, lighter in color, has more of a bite like rye, with even scotch notes, not very smooth. Not horrible, but only looking at the label after tasting, this was not made in the south where temperatures and ingredients are a bit different, and it obviously does have impact on the final product. At $20, it is a great value, and it mixes well in an old fashioned cocktail.
- Honey Jack ($20) I would not even classify this as bourbon but as a “liqueur”, and a bad one, tastes like candy caramel they might top off your Starbucks latte with.
So, as you can see, only a few months into it and I’ve really only sampled 8 bourbons. I don’t count the Old Crow, the Jim Beam, 4 Roses, etc. I drank them years ago and I’d be lying if I said I can remember the flavor profile. I drank them because they were on sale, and I drank them mixed and/or in shots at a bar.
Check back for updates… I try to limit myself to only one new bottle per week and drink only one each day for obvious reasons!