I've probably written twenty different posts like this in the past, but I've been at work for about four hours so far today and I've already received this question ten times: "I'm looking to get into Bourbon, so what's a good place to start?" It's that time of the year--whiskey season--so we might as well settle in.
There's really no one great place to start when it comes to any spirit, in my own opinion, so I always advise people to try and understand the products of each distillery. Despite the fact that we're sporting more than sixty Bourbons on the shelf, they're mostly coming from just a handful of places -- the others are independently bottled.
So where to start? Why not start with Four Roses? We have the...
-Four Roses Yellow Label -- a marriage of all ten Four Roses formulae, soft and mellow
-Four Roses Small Batch -- a marriage of three Four Roses formulae with more spice and richness
-Four Roses Single Barrel -- one single barrel (and one recipe) of Four Roses at a higher proof (50%)
Once you've mastered those three and diciphered the differences why not move on to Wild Turkey? Wild Turkey only makes one Bourbon recipe (a high-rye formula) so the various flavors come from the location of the barrel, the marriage, the age, etc. You can choose from:
-Wild Turkey 101 -- the classic $20 bottle
-Wild Turkey Rare Breed -- A small batch with loads of richness and baking spices. Love it.
-Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit -- A single barrel version.
-Russell's Reserve 10 Year -- A more mature, yet mellow marriage of flavor.
-Russell's Reserve Single Barrel -- A blast of cloves and cinnamon at 55%
-Wild Turkey Unforgiven -- A marriage of rye whiskey and Bourbon whiskey by accident.
That's already a hefty load of homework, but if you're the studious type you might want to keep pushing. Check out the huge Buffalo Trace portfolio:
-Buffalo Trace -- The standard recipe.
-Eagle Rare 10 -- The same standard recipe but from a 10 year old single barrel.
-Elmer T. Lee -- The high-rye recipe from a single barrel.
-Blanton's -- Also the high-rye from a single barrel, yet richer than Elmer
-Weller Reserve -- The wheated recipe at 90 proof (about 6 years old)
-Weller Antique 107 -- The wheated recipe at a higher proof
-Weller 12 year -- The wheated recipe at about twice the age.
There are a ton of other limited and harder-to-find Buffalo Trace items, but focus on these for now. Once you're done with Buffalo Trace, why not head over to Bardstown and Heaven Hill's facility? If you tried to taste every Heaven Hill product you'd be here for months. There are so many labels that don't make it to California floating around that facility, but let's stick to these for now:
-Elijah Craig 12 -- The standard recipe.
-Evan Williams Single Barrel -- The same high-rye recipe from a single barrel.
-Old Fitzgerald 12 Year -- The wheated recipe, similar to the Weller 12 from Buffalo Trace.
-Larceny -- A younger wheated recipe, comparable to Maker's Mark.
There's obviously all the Jim Beam stuff, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, and Maker's Mark, along with Tennessee producer George Dickel. We can cover those later. If you want to get "into" Bourbon I would print out this list and start checking them off one-by-one. If you can taste the differences between these four distilleries then I think you'll be in pretty good shape.