The “Go To” Bourbons
The only thing rising higher than the popularity of American Bourbon these days is its price! Relatively unknown bourbons are now demanding sky-high prices, and others that were easily obtainable a few years ago have seemed to vanish from the retail shelves. As newbie and long-time bourbon drinkers hunt and pay though the nose for these bourbons I like to call “unobtanium” for their scarcity, the savvy whisky drinker is exploring other options. Although I might be disowned and have my secret bourbon society membership card revoked and burned, I’d like to key you in on my top five “go to” bourbons that not only impress, but don’t involve a loan shark to purchase. I’ve set the max price at $50, but most of these whiskies you can find for a good deal cheaper than that threshold. Also, I narrowed my list to five whiskies that you are likely able to find in any good liquor store and most bars with a decent Bourbon list. So, without further ado let’s get going!
FIRST UP is Russell’s Reserve 10-year-old 90-proof Bourbon. Father and Son Master Distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell hand select each barrel from the choicest locations in the rickhouse after they have been aged for at least TEN years in a heavy charred American oak. These exceptional barrels are then brought together in very small batches. The whisky has this beautiful copper hue that has an almost reddish tinge, and aromas of weathered oak sprinkled with spice of cinnamon are very apparent. Flavors of wood and vanilla mixed with a hint of amaretto sweetness dance over your palate as you sip. All of these bold flavors finish very nicely without much of an alcohol burn. Stands up well on its own, but at a price to make some high quality mixed drinks!
SECOND, although these are not in order of a ranking system, is Basil Hayden 80-proof Bourbon. This bourbon is part of the Jim Beam Small Batch Bourbon Collection which also includes Booker’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek. When a bar, restaurant or liquor store is entering the premium bourbon category they usually start by stocking Basil Hayden and this is for good reason. Basil Hayden is lighter and lower in proof than its Small Batch Collection brethren, but its flavor is all about fine subtleties rather than a sledgehammer approach. This bourbon also uses more rye (about twice as much) as the rest of the Beam line-up, so you’re going to be dealing with more spice components than your average bourbon. For me this bourbon falls into the dry side of the bourbon profile, so don’t be looking for a sweet bourbon out of this expression. Basil Hayden is a nice compromise between a rye and bourbon character with a quick finish that leaves you asking for more! I enjoy this bourbon straight up on the rocks or in a well made Manhattan.
THE THIRD SPOT in Five Under $50 is Larceny 92-proof Bourbon. This bourbon is what enthusiasts like to refer to as a “wheater”, since the second grain after the 51% corn it must have to be called bourbon is wheat. Now, Larceny has a nice back story about John E. Fitzgerald who was a Treasury Agent back in the days when only U.S. Agents actually had the keys for the rickhouses. Well, suffice it to say that Mr. Fitzgerald liked bourbon a lot, to the point where he would steal whisky from only the best barrels! Hence, the name of the bourbon is Larceny. That’s a true story, but I’m sure you’re more interested in the bourbon. Now, even though there is no age statement on the bottle, this small batch bourbon is comprised of barrels ranging from 6 to 12 years old. The color of this bourbon is that of a shiny new copper kettle with a fragrant nose of fresh milled wood and vanilla pods. The taste is reminiscent of fresh wheat bread topped with notes of salted caramel, mixed with a little vanilla citrus to boot. Some of the older-aged whisky in the batch adds to the long finish of woody goodness to balance the sweet tones. For the money charged, this bourbon is a steal at twice the price!
COMING IN AT THE FOURTH SLOT would be a bourbon from…you guessed it, Four Roses! Before we can discuss the bourbon I picked, a little background is needed. Four Roses Distillery has two mashbills (recipes) for their bourbons; one is a low rye and the other is a high rye. This means that the main ingredient after the 51% corn is rye grain; the first (low rye) has less rye than the second recipe (high rye). Now couple this with the fact that the distillery uses five different yeast strains to create the whisky and you have 10 different bourbons that are produced by Four Roses! In fact, the Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon 90-proof is a blend of four of the ten recipes. Upon pouring this bourbon, you will notice the scents of vanilla, oak and even some maple caramel coming from this warm amber-colored whisky. The sweetness that you taste upfront as you sip mingles with cinnamon spice and woodiness as you swallow. The finish to this fine bourbon is long and dry with a slight hint of black pepper. I’m going to let you in on a little secret I’ve found with this whisky. It seems to get better every time you come back to it! If you drink this as your regular bourbon you will notice that the finish actually gets sweeter on the third or fourth day after you opened the bottle.
THE FIFTH AND LAST bourbon on my list is from the smallest producer of the five. Johnny Drum Private Stock 101 proof is a charcoal filtered Kentucky Straight Whisky. The whisky label says it’s from the Johnny Drum Distilling Company, but that is really an alias for Kentucky Bourbon Distillers who are famous for the Willett Family Brand. Now there is a fanciful story of how Johnny was a drummer boy during the civil war and found an ingenious way to use the excess corn from his farm after he returned home, but really who cares? We’re talking bourbon here, so the important part is how it tastes! This whisky is a true bourbon lover’s dream with notes of oaky spices mixed with nutty caramel hitting you smack in the nose as soon as you sniff. It follows up with a full-mouth feel that lacks any sharp edges on the tongue. But what really hits you is the intensity of flavors of toasted sugar, cinnamon and toffee. The finish is long, dry and leaves you amazed that this is a higher-proof bourbon! On second thought, forget I told you about this whisky (more for me)!
Malt of the Moment
Often hyped in its ads as “big and untamed”, this little beauty has been one of the most popular expressions of whisky from Islay for years. Ardbeg Ten is a non-chilled, filtered 92-proof (46% abv) 10-year-old whisky that is deceptively clever as you pour it into your glass. It is pale in color, straw to almost clear, and you might be thinking that there will be little flavor coming from this light whisky. Then all of a sudden your nose will flare and become engulfed in the smoke that made Islay famous. The aromas coming off this whisky, however, are not one-dimensional. Yes, there is the smoke, but there is also the earthiness of the peat and whiffs of salty beach air. As you taste this whiskey, the smoke, peat and salt air mix, and an almost bacon-y (if that’s not a word, it should be) flavor emerges. Those first favors are followed by citrus and then a definite sweetness. The whisky finishes warm with both the smoke and the sweetness lingering. Is this whisky for everyone? Probably not, but sooner or later it will make its way into your collection because it must be experienced!
Whiskyjourneyman Rating: 90 points in $40-$60 range