A weekend with some very Reconstructed family members and the requisite amount of Kentucky gold that it required to get through that ordeal has me in the mood to write a fun piece. I am one of the better versed imbibers of bourbon in Identity Dixie and I cannot tell you how often I see the uninitiated discuss Southern Ambrosia as if they know what they’re talking about.
So, I figured what the hey, I’ll make a handy-dandy ID guide to bourbon. This comes with the caveat of de gustibus non disputandem est (there is no disputing taste). The opinions herein are mine and have been garnered from many years of drinking a lot of bourbon. There are obviously more varieties than I have included at each tier but I’ve tried to limit my focus to the ones I find most quaffable. I hope y’all enjoy.
It’s worth noting that almost all of the high-end labels are owned by brand names that are familiar to anyone who surfs the bottom rail at your local public house. If I say something is of poor quality and use a major name, e.g. Evan Williams, I’m referring to their lowest offering. EW, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, they all have higher quality varieties which are quite tasty – if someone else is paying. What I’m saying is that you can get a better bourbon for less, one in which you are not paying for having the familiar name affixed to a liquor that is above the usual quality. In some comments, I’ll include brief mentions of different varieties that aren’t worth their own full entry. Others, I will offer a full blurb for.
What makes a whiskey Bourbon?
For those who may not know, a few words about what a bourbon is and what it isn’t. By congressional edict, to be called bourbon, a whiskey must be made in the United States. They did not limit it to the state of Kentucky, but I have found only a few varieties that don’t come from KY that are any good. Where bourbon deviates from other whiskeys most significantly is in the variability of its mashbill, or the makeup of what goes into the barrel prior to distillation. Corn, barley, rye, and wheat are the grains which make bourbon, but the only hard and fast rule is that it must contain 51% corn to be considered a bourbon. The rest is up to the distiller.
Bourbon used to be standard proofed at 100. Anything you see that is “Bottled in Bond” is a guaranteed 50% alcohol by volume. This is a holdover from the old days when distillers would test how potent their hooch was by burning it. If it burned the wrong color or too quickly, the proof wasn’t right. Too high or too low, depending on the issue.
When vodka and gin took over the alcohol market in the 1970s, because they were perceived as smoother drinks, many bourbon producers lowered the proof to the more familiar 80. As popularity has returned to the official water of Kentucky, so too have the number of offerings which are higher proof. A barrel or cask strength bourbon is one which is over the 50 mark, I’ve personally had as high as 63%, which is more than a shot and a half of vodka in a single shot volume. That said, bourbon is meant to be sipped, not shot.
Allocated Bourbons and the Secondary Market
Anything marked with a star has hit allocation status. With regards to the most popular bourbons, the distillers allocate a specific amount of each variety to whatever store one shops at. Some are worth paying a slight markup. Most, I’d walk away.
Beware the secondary market. If you see any of the unicorns out in the wild (i.e. on the shelf at your local liquor store), pull out your phone and check the manufacturer’s suggested price. Many stores have taken to selling the rare/popular bottles anywhere from slightly north of MSRP to the full secondary market price, which can be in excess of a 500% markup. As Julius Van Winkle III himself said,”If they’re dumb enough to pay that much, that’s their prerogative.” Point being, I personally won’t overpay by a wide margin. I buy bourbon to drink it, so I’d rather have more on my shelf than less – dropping 300 dollars for an Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Yr that I would drink once in a while versus 8 bottles of Four Roses which I could drink anytime. Gee, let me think. Most of the unicorns are damn fine whiskeys. I’ve sampled all the Pappies save the 23 and not regretted it in the slightest. But they’re worth what Julius recommends they be sold for. Not the secondary price. Which, if you’re wondering, is just shy of 3000 dollars for the 23. An astonishing markup from a list price of 269.99.
The secondary market is an unfortunate afterbirth of the huge boom in bourbon popularity. Most of the allocated varieties used to sit on the shelf collecting dust until Yankee hipsters discovered that they liked bourbon. Would that they would move on to something else. Without further ado, here are some of my favorites.
Kill Yourself, Scalawag
Old Crow: There is only one whiskey I’ll put here. Ironically, this one used to be one of the kings of Bourbon. So much so that it was the favorite of Yankee sot in chief, Ulysses S. Grant. It’s now among the cheapest of the cheap, but that alky would probably still guzzle it by the gallon. So yeah. Don’t drink this. It’s bad juju.
Cuckery at its Finest
Rebel Yell: It’s not that this one tastes bad. For what it costs as a bottom rail whiskey, it’s pretty decent. But the bottle used to be adorned with Rebel flags. Those have been stripped for the usual reasons. If you can find a bottle of the old variety, it’s something of a collector’s item. Drink and enjoy or sell to a fellow traveler for a profit.
Johnnie Walker: Okay, this is a blended scotch rather than a bourbon, but they recently put out an advert in support of that insipid women’s march BS. Saw it and said “Cool, I’ll go right on not drinking JW.” As far as a critique of the actual whiskey, blended scotches are usually to be avoided. By the time you start getting far up enough the charts where they taste good, you could find yourself a better single malt. Johnny Red and that Game of Thrones cross promotional whiskey are pure shite. Black is okay. Green and Blue are nice – if someone else is paying. Like I said, by the time you’re spending a hundred or more on a bottle of blended scotch, you should be drinking single malts.
This is for whiskeys which are of poor quality but are cheap. They’ll get the job done if you’re on a budget or are so hammered that you don’t care.
Evan Williams Green Label: I personally try to avoid this one whenever I can, just because I’ve had some really bad nights with it. As in I don’t think I ever avoided sacrificing to the porcelain god when this one was consumed. It’s cheap. It’s rough. But there is a certain charm to old EW. The bottled in bond and the single barrel are quite nice, but do cost a fair bit more than the base model.
Old Grandad: This one has a bite to it, but it’s pretty good for what it is. Probably my favorite in this group. Cheap, drinkable, packs a punch.
George Dickel No 12: In general, Tennessee whiskeys are not smooth (apologies to George Jones) and are inferior to those produced by their neighbor to the north. The first time I sipped this one I almost spat it out. Because it was the first drink of the evening. But 3 or 4 of these, or better yet, a drink or two of a better whiskey to prime the pump, and this’ll do just fine. The single barrel is okay but not worth the price.
Mass Produced Mediocrity
Jim Beam: Beam owns half of the bourbons I truly love, so I can’t hate the label. But the base offering is overly sweet and nothing more than average quality (sorry Fulwar). In a bar with limited offerings, I’ll take JB over Jack Daniels any day, because it’s still drinkable without dousing it in Coca Cola, but yeah. Novelty brands like Devil’s cut? Not worth it. Higher end offerings such as black label? You can find a superior quality for less money. Stick with the basic if you’re going to go JB.
Maker’s Mark: The baseline offering is another one that is very sweet. It’s technically a craft whiskey, in the same way Sam Adams is a craft beer: it was the first non-major production on the scene but later grew too large to truly be considered a small batch whiskey. Aka a severe twisting of the English language is required to achieve the desired result. I truly love their Cask Strength and their Single Barrel offerings, but the regular one is just okay. This is usually the go to at a place which has better than the big two (Beam and Daniels) but not by much.
Fight Me in the Applebee’s Parking Lot
Wild Turkey 101: I like this whiskey. It doesn’t so much like me. It gets its name from the fact that a wild turkey is a nasty sombitch. Drink a few of these and you’ll want to fight someone. It is to whiskey what Samuel Jackson is to beer in that Dave Chappelle sketch. It’s inexpensive and it’s potent (50.5% by volume). Consume with caution.
Old Granddad 114: 57 percent by volume, delicious, and cheap. It was tough not to put this in cheap and great, but hell. If you drink 4 or 5 of these, you’ll want to knock heads at Applebee’s. A bit harder to find, but if you see it on the shelf, GRAB IT!
Cheap and Great
Bourbon is funny. Price points are very influenced by what’s hot right now. Mediocre whiskeys can be very overpriced if the Yankee hipsters get their hands on it. Others sit on the shelf collecting dust even though they’re great. This is the category for whiskeys which I think offer a great bang for the buck. If you’re tying one on, shift to these as the night wears on. Conserve thy finer bourbons, Southern man.
Buffalo Trace: This is a bottle made up of the leftovers of a variety of different whiskeys. Thus, you can get two bottles which taste very differently. The best of these are the store picks* which are a limited edition allocation. But even the standard one is very good, and not very expensive. I just finished draining a handle of this beauty. Price: 30-35.
Bulleit: I like the bourbon and the rye, and they’re both VERY affordable for what they are. 20 for a 750. 35 a handle. And the quality is quite decent. Good for a mixed drink or straight. If you like an old fashioned, try the rye. You won’t regret it. Stay away from the 10 year, which Is overpriced for what it is.
Larceny: I discovered this one more recently. If you ever took Econ 101 and recall the intersection of price and quality graph, this is it. Used to be occupied by Elijah Craig 12 year, but EC decided to drop the age statement and move to a blended variety over a single barrel. Since that day, Larceny is about as good as it gets for the low price.
Moderately Priced Go-To’s
The whiskeys in this category are usually the ones I start the evening with. A pour or two and then it’s off to something cheaper, rather than getting saucy on the more expensive stuff. Trust me, you won’t really be appreciating the difference in quality by the 3rd or 4th rounds.
Four Roses Single Barrel: FRSB is about a 40 dollar bottle. Not cheap, but it packs a punch at a proof of at least 108, which varies from bottle to bottle depending on which batch it came from. The mash bill can vary from bottle to bottle. You’ll see a 4 letter code of letters on it which tells you which one you’re getting. All are worth trying, but if you like this whiskey, there are some bottles you many like better than others. Make a note. The yellow label is just okay, but about half the price. Small batch is in between the two in terms of quality and price. Both of the lower offerings are not cask strength, so they are your standard 80-90 proof.
Basil Hayden: Another 40 dollar bottle that is good to the last drop. The regular bourbon is my favorite of their offerings, though if you’re in to ryes, they’ve got a couple of seasonals that are decent. Have not yet tried the 10 year, as that is a tough one to get a hold of.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed: 45 bucks for a cask strength that will put some hair on your chest. Probably my favorite that Wild Turkey makes, simply because Master’s Keep is too damned expensive at 140 a bottle.
Special Occasion Only
Expensive bottles that I have a pour from every so often. It makes the liquor cabinet look more impressive to have these lying around, but it hurts the wallet to drink them often or heavily in one sitting.
*Blanton’s: Quite possibly my favorite bourbon of all. MSRP on this one is 55 a bottle, making it a steep hill for many. But it’s the smoothest whiskey on the market and is great for sharing with friends (Asheville, what what). Trouble is, it’s an allocated and high demand has sent the price higher than it was supposed to be. I was seeing around 70 a bottle at various liquor stores around town, and just couldn’t pull the trigger. Fortunately, I have family members who are more profligate than I.
Maker’s Mark Barrel Select*: Only available once a year, these are bottles that are specially selected by the liquor store. Not every store gets a barrel, but if you see this guy for around it’s MSRP of 60, it’s well worth it. Nigh on 60% by volume, it might need a drop or two of water to open up the flavor profile, but Lord have mercy is it a good one.
Noah’s Mill: Another high proof whiskey that I’m a big fan of. A bit smoky with a bold flavor profile. It’s expensive at 60 a bottle, but a dram here or there is well worth it.
Unicorns (Low Grade)
Unicorns are what we bourbon aficionados call a whiskey that is rarely seen on shelves. Typically, when a store gets an allocated shipment, the bottles never see the rack, but are held in the back for regulars. Many stores will have email lists that you can get on to find out when and if that store has received some rare breed. As hard as it is to find these, it’s even harder to find them for MSRP. Liquor stores know what they’ve got, and they make you pay for it. I leave it to the consumer to decide whether the markup is worth it.
Weller: This comes in a number of different varieties. The best bang for the buck, if you can get it for what it’s supposed to cost, is Weller 107. Weller 12 is also a good one. The reason this label has exploded in price is due to the fact that it has the same mash bill as Pappy Van Winkle. It’s been dubbed the “poor man’s Pappy.” Most of us scoff at this moniker, because liquor stores couldn’t pay to get rid of this stuff 10 years ago. Not worth the secondary price, nor even a significant markup. If you can’t get it at cost, move on.
E.H. Taylor: Another one that comes in a number of different makes, ranging from the Small Batch ($40) to the Four Grain (69.99). I haven’t had a bad one from this distiller, but another one that I wouldn’t pay a substantial markup on. For the record, the Four Grain is currently being listed at 500+ on the secondary.
Unicorns (Mid Grade)
Elmer T Lee: When I find this, I love drinking it. But because it was Boyd Crowder’s bourbon of choice on Justified, those times are few and far between. A great Bourbon made super popular by Hollywood. Dammit.
Stagg Jr: The MSRP on this one is around 55 bucks, but it’s hard to find for less than 70. The plus side on the price point is that it really packs a wollop at 67% by volume. While I tend to drink my whiskey neat, as God intended, this one definitely needs an ice cube to mellow it out.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof: The rarer Elijahs almost always come with a hefty markup but are worth the price of admission. Not so of the regular one, which has greatly diminished in quality since they made it a blended whiskey without an age statement. It was a sad day when I finished my last bottle of Elijah 12. The Barrel proof clocks in at 65% by volume and does not disappoint.
Unicorns (High Grade)
I’m not even going to bother discussing the Van Winkle collection. They’re all excellent, and even if you can’t afford them, buy them if you see at or near MSRP. Trouble is, unless you go to an ABC or Total Wine raffle and win, you simply are not going to find these for below the secondary cost, which is astronomical. Even if you aren’t interested in bourbon, it might be worth your while to show up to said raffles, which sell at MSRP, and then turn around and sell it for profit elsewhere. There’s a raffle next week at my local store, and honestly, I don’t know what I’d do if I won the right to purchase something like a Pappy 23. Three grand is a lot of money!
George T Stagg: This is the daddy of Stagg Jr and it is a damned fine whiskey. MSRP ranges 80-100, secondary up to ten times that. If you’re paying more than 200, you’re a danged fool, but that’s my opinion. Maybe you’ve got old cotton money and I’m just jealous.
Elijah Craig 21: Very, very hard to find and equally as expensive, but ambrosia has nothing on this one. The rare bottle which is aged a long time and still tastes great. Pappy 23 is the only one that does it better.
William LaRue Weller: The king of the Weller line. A truly excellent pour, but another one that the hipsters have dug their manicured fingers into and made unattainable for most.
These are bourbons from outside of Kentucky that are good, but I find their price point to be a little absurd for what they are. This is largely because the way the federals tax liquor: the distiller must pay a tax annually for the value of the booze. For something like Jack Daniels that is aged 2 years, no biggie. For Pappy 23, that’s a lot of taxes. Startups will thus overcharge for young whiskeys to keep the lights on as they age their stocks.
Garrison Brothers: A good, not great whiskey, at an insane price point. I’m intrigued with what they might come up with around the 10-12-year mark, which is still a few years off from their foundation. At 90 dollars a bottle, it just ain’t worth it. But then, I’m not a Texan. All you have to do is slap the word Texas on a product, and they’ll buy it. Know thy market.
High West: This is a distiller out of Utah of all places. The lower end offerings of High West are tasty and cost effective. The truly excellent one they make, Campfire, has spiraled out of control cost wise. It’s a unique and delicious whiskey, mixing a bit of Islay scotch (my favorite kind) into the blend. When I first had it, it was 40 dollars and worth every penny. Now, I seldom see it for less than 80 and always say pass.
Joseph Magnus: A distiller located in the vile Federal District, you wouldn’t think they could make a good whiskey. A buddy of mine bought some and shared it with me, and I was pleasantly surprised with its quality. At a hundred bucks a bottle though, eh. You can find something else. And not support DC urban hipster trash.
Well, that brings an end to what wound up being much longer than I thought it would. The master of the house will probably be quite upset with me, given that I’m at 3500 words. I hope the reader found this treatise enlightening. It’s certainly less confrontational and controversial than my normal fare. Questions, comments, and recommendations are appreciated in the comments.
By the grace of God, my blood has been Southern since the 1620s. Virginia. Kentucky. Georgia.