Back to Basics: Bourbons

One of the great things to happen to whiskey over the past decade was that a decidedly more-serious group of drinkers came forward and told the public, "We should all be sipping this stuff, rather than just shooting it."

"Bourbon? You mean like Maker's Mark?" people asked.

"American whiskey may be inexpensive," the experts said, "but that certainly doesn't mean it's cheap. Let's treat it with the respect it deserves." The nation responded. All of a sudden, American whiskey found itself back on top of the market, getting the respect it deserved, and developing a hardcore following of collectors, enthusiasts, and general Kentucky fan boys. Production increased, new marks were released, and a better understanding of the process helped lead consumers towards better products. It was awesome.

Then, one of the worst things to happen to whiskey over the past ten years happened: people started taking their consumption waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too seriously.

"What's good right now?" some customers asked.

"How about Buffalo Trace?" retailers said.

"You mean Buffalo Trace Antique Collection? Sure! I'll take five of each!"

"No, I mean just the standard Buffalo Trace for twenty bucks."

"Fuck that shit, man! Who do you think I am, Joe Schmoe? I need something good, not that $20 bullshit. I'm gonna sip this, not shoot it."

Sipping, not shooting, one's Bourbon had taken on an entirely new context. There are other ways, however, besides sipping expensive Bourbon out of a Riedel-designed glass, to enjoy your whiskey experience. Pouring a large measure of Bourbon over ice is not disrespecting whiskey. Taking a shot of Four Roses Yellow with a cold can of beer is not failing to appreciate your Bourbon. Buying a $20 bottle of American hooch doesn't mean you're a cheapskate who can't (or won't) spend more. Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and just about any other whiskey cocktail can be made to perfection with a number of inexpensive brands that have continued to show their attention to quality in this new renaissance. Anyone trying to grasp just what exactly makes all the limited edition Bourbons so special should definitely start here first.

I just reopened a number of basic distillery flagship expressions to refresh my memory concerning what's available in the sub-$30 price range. These were the five whiskies that stood out to me; not necessarily because they were "the best", but because they are decidedly different from the rest of their peers:

Maker's Mark Bourbon $22.99 - You can get Maker's Mark at just about any bar around the world and any store that sells alcohol. That's a good thing if you travel frequently. That means no matter where you go you can drink something affordable and tasty. Using a mashbill of 70% corn, 16% winter wheat, and 14% barley, Marker's Mark was at one point the standard of excellence for many Bourbon drinkers. If you've ever hit the road with an old school industry veteran (like I have many a time), you'll usually find them in the hotel bar at 5 PM with a glass of Maker's Mark on the rocks (even in Mexico, my 82 year old pal Lou Palatella wouldn't stray from his daily afternoon habit). Today, you'll hear modern drinkers poo-poo its softness, its general lack of explosiveness, and its mild-mannered flavor. Thirty years ago, however, that was exactly what made it so beloved. Even now, it still stands out from the pack. Maker's Mark doesn't taste like any of its competitors. It's decidedly different than the other four whiskies in the photo above. At 45%, it's very soft with an easy-going profile that plainly says: just drink me. It shows hints of butterscotch and a dainty woody finish, but never the big bold oak spice and spicy rye character that modern drinkers love to indulge in. It's a throwback whiskey for an older way of booze appreciation, but it's definitely something you need to try before moving on to the big guns.

Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon $20.99 - The Kickin' Chicken, as WT101 is lovingly referred to, is the polar opposite of Maker's Mark in terms of flavor. Rather than a soft, mellow, easy-going Bourbon, the standard Wild Turkey is a spicy, explosive whiskey that starts with a bit of creamy corn before thinning out into a rye-dominated, herbaceous, and peppery profile that finishes dryly and with vigor. For those looking to avoid the sweetness and the intense woodiness associated with Bourbon, this is the bottle for you. Personally, I prefer the WT101 for Manhattans because the lack of sweetness and extra proof provide a great counterbalance to the sweet vermouth.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon $22.99 - As a straight sipper, I'm not sure that any of the five Bourbons mentioned in this article are going to win any awards, but the Evan Williams offers all-around quality for a variety of different needs. The creamier body, the baking spices, and the fruitiness of the whiskey offer a little something for everyone. The Evan Williams single barrel is the product of one particular cask, as well as one particular vintage (in this case 2004), so the results can vary. But Heaven Hill distillery's best bang-for-your-buck is always this guy, in my opinion. Some might prefer the Elijah Craig 12, or Old Fitzgerald (both also great choices), but this is the winner for me.

Four Roses Yellow Label Kentucky Bourbon $19.99 - The first bottle of Bourbon I ever purchased was Four Roses Yellow, so it will always hold a sentimental place in my heart (in fact, if you click on the link you can read the novice review I wrote about it in 2008 before I was the buyer here). I personally like corny, grainy whiskies that taste like the product from which they were distilled. Four Roses Yellow is a marriage of all ten whiskies made at the distillery (with the two mashbills and five strands of yeast). It's the lowest in proof and lightest in flavor of the five Bourbons mentioned here, and it's the easiest to handle. There's a mellow corniness on the entry and a flurry of rich vanilla on the finish. If you've never been a fan of Bourbon, or found it too intense, this it the best expression to cut your teeth on. You can sip it, shoot it, mix it, dump it over ice, and it's going to taste great.

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon $21.99 - When I think of classic Bourbon flavor—the unmistakable note of sweet corn and charred oak that reminds me of sneaking shots out of my parents' liquor cabinet—I think the standard Buffalo Trace is the best expression of that particular flavor. It is an absolutely great whiskey for an outstanding price. Like the Evan Williams, it's the most complete Bourbon experience I think you can get for the money. There's a softness on the entry that's easy to like, a flutter of cinnamon and clove on the mid-palate, and a healthy dash of rye spice on the finish to balance the equation. If you're looking to chase down George T. Stagg, or some of the other beloved rarities of the Sazerac portfolio, but have never started at the bottom, I think it's time you did yourself the service. Regular old Buffalo Trace is still the gold standard of $20 bottles, in my opinion. It's indispensable to any serious bar.

Five different Bourbons. Five different flavors. One consistently average price. One consitently high level of quality for your $20.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll