Bourbon is Good Whiskey, Suh!
Several tasty whiskeys that I enjoy, and a couple of my whiskey theories
I've been a bit preachy lately, so I'm getting back to the food p0rn aspect of this wonderful website. Spirit crazes come and go in the States, and while I stayed clear of the 'single malt Scotch' craze, the 'Tequila' craze and the more recent 'bespoke Gin' era, about five years ago I fell right into the Bourbon craze and currently that is my complete Sphere of Drinking. I have a few favorites that I'd like to recommend to you today, but as always I feel the need to set up some backstory before I go off spouting commandments about how you should drink (the hypothetical) X Bourbon.
If you see me drinking, most likely I will be drinking a bourbon Old Fashioned. I like bitters.
Maize (what we call 'corn') is the most plentiful grain found in or near Kentucky so its whiskies are distilled primarily from it. There are some rye varieties and blends. The so called 'law' that Bourbon whiskey must be made in Bourbon County in the state of Kentucky is nothing more than marketing blather. But thus far, everything I do like is produced in or near this County. I am not going to mention any of the six or seven most popular American whiskies, because they suck. I will list what I do like in terms of price from low to high, which approximates with a couple of exceptions my level of delight with them.
The red wax seal: the symbol of minimum competence
As low as I will go, what the market calls 'lower-mid'
Bulleit ($8 neat), Knob Creek ($10), and Makers Mark ($8) are all usually available at airport lounges, 2nd rate chain restaurants with a liquor license, and at all but the most divey of dives. I must have smoothness; I see no point in having to work to ingest a beverage nor do I wish to develop a tolerance to something that is unexceptional. These bourbons are described as 'smooth', most likely by people who have destroyed their own throats choking down Jim Beam or Jack Daniels. Maker's does have some caramel notes while Bulleit has vanilla. It's not what I'd start with as my first Bourbon drink but they're ok in a pinch. Maker's Mark 46 is a step up from the bottom, but generally if somebody has 46 then they also have some of my go-to faves, below.
This is what I got myself for a Christmas present
My general wheelhouse, the so-called 'mid-market' bourbons
These are what I buy to drink at home; typical prices are between $30-40 a bottle although I only buy them at discount when available. A decent pub or restaurant should have one or more of the following: Buffalo Trace ($8); Basil Hayden's ($11); Woodford Reserve ($12); and Four Roses Small Batch ($10). All these are not only full of complex flavors and a clean, easy finish on the back of your throat, but won't get you in trouble with your accountant/spouse/whatever at the till. Basil Hayden's, which is my go-to, starts out oaky with vanilla following. You don't mind letting these linger long enough in your mouth in order to taste the whole thing. These bourbons sit in my sweet spot in that they can be used to make superior quality cocktails without the resultant guilt that I wasted a lot of money to dilute my whiskey with mixers.
My highest tier, the 'high-mids'
These whiskeys go for $40-75 a bottle in the store before any applicable discounts, so unless someone who really likes me gives me one as a gift, I'm probably not going to have it on my shelf. But they aren't ridiculous top shelf show-off drinks like your Pappy Van Winkle or your Macallan. My ceiling is Blanton's which is around $20 in a bar drink. Honestly, it's good but I enjoy Buffalo Trace almost as much as Blanton's and both are made in the same place.
If you and I are in a place together where one of these is standing around, chances are we too will be standing around it
A few highly enjoyable next-tier bourbons I have sampled for one reason or another are Angel's Envy ($15), Blade and Bow ($16), and Michter's Small Batch ($15). Every so often I come across Angel's Envy in a 'drink special' which I always glom onto. It might be a bit much in a cocktail, but a special is a special. If your local is serious about its bourbon it will have one or more of these available. They're a touch more lively even than the mid-tier offerings, inviting you to linger over a bit more to try to capture secondary or, if you're fancy, tertiary flavors. Michter's for example claims caramel, vanilla and dried fruit notes.
To conclude, a couple of my bourbon theories:
Might I ask your help with a question or two?
Number one: consider two groups of people I associate with. Group A, who I will call, hypothetically, 'my blood relatives' think I am a snob because I can't hack a shot of Wild Turkey or Jack Daniels. Group B, my 'chosen friends', appreciate my taste for refined things. Above I mentioned my reticence to 'work at' drinking. I have a much better time drinking with my 'friends' than I do drinking with my 'kin'. Am I a lesser being because I am intolerant of cheap whiskey? Am I a whiskey snob?
Number two: each and every one of the whiskies mentioned about are aged at least six (6) years at their respective distilleries of origin. So follow along: when a craze hits, say a certain handbag, the manufacturer can shift production into overdrive to meet demand. But that really isn't possible with a product that has to undergo an aging process. If a bourbon brand has substantially increased demand, how does its manufacturer meet it? Do they have to anticipate, six or eight years out, when sudden demand might hit? I remember when the 12-year-old single malt Scotch craze hit, and presto, all sorts of 12-year-old Scotch came out of the woodwork. How did they do that? I've never understood how that worked.