Welcome To The Bourbon School Of Bourbon

Last night, cracked open the ol’ bottle of [correction: Laphroaig, need more coffee] 18-year Scotch, had a couple fingers of the stuff with a friend, drank down that warm smoky gold — I think I could taste the Druids they sacrificed in the bog.

Mmm. Sacrificial booze.

I wouldn’t say I’m particularly well-versed in the hard stuff, but I’ve got my choices. For gin, I love me some Bluecoat. For vodka, it’s Tito’s or it’s a punch to the mouth. Scotch I drink and enjoy more widely: right now, have bottles of Lagavulin, Balvenie Doublewood, and Johnny Walker in the Lazy Susan. (Yes, I keep all our booze in a Lazy Susan. Or, perhaps, a Lazy Boozan? Shut up.)

But one drinky-drink I’m not well-versed in is bourbon.

Few times I’ve had it in the past I found it to be a lot harsher than Scotch — instead of smooth and warm we’re talking razors boiled in distilled water — but that tells me I’m just not drinking the right stuff.

So, bourbon nerds, come together.

School a brother on your lovely drink.

What should I be drinking?

What should I be avoiding?

What don’t I know about the stuff?

Bourbon: It’s What’s For Dinner.

35 comments

    • @Julie —

      I really liked Elijah Craig as the new Bond. I hope he gets to reprise his role!

      … uhh, wait.

      No, thanks, that’s a good start.

      I will add, in the hands of a powerful barkeep, I like high-end booze in mixed drinks. They know how to showcase the unique properties of a good booze in a cocktail. But lesser mixologists (i.e. me) are better off using the cheaper stuff so as not to taint the quality of the better.

      — c.

  • I don’t care for bourbon, but my husband tells me that you can’t go wrong (or broke) with Maker’s Mark or Knob Creek.

    He also suggests you drink it over ice, which (I’m paraphrasing), should blunt the blades.

    • It’s interesting to see the preferential line between whether or not you should dilute a whisky/whiskey with water — some say a few drops of distilled water opens up and changes, say, a good Scotch. (It’s why it tastes different after a few sips, because your saliva and the enzymes within I guess play a little bit with the drink itself?)

      Some say ice, some say no ice. Some say a couple drops of water, some say none.

      I say, drink it how you dig it.

      — c.

    • @Elizabeth:

      “Brown Sugar On Fire.”

      I like that description. I may use it, with your permission, as the title to my autobiography. “Brown Sugar On Fire: The Wendig Story.” :D

      Booker’s. Got it. Will seek it like a bourbon-hungry missile.

      — c.

  • The only time I drank a bit of bourbon, it was Maker’s Mark. My brother-in-law, who is a BIG bourbon drinker, loves it.

    All tastes like jet fuel to me. Uh, not that I’ve ever drank any.

  • Wear it in good health. (Since I’m an Islay drinker, and I see you singing the praises of Lagavulin upstream, I suspect we’re on the same page whiskey-wise.)

  • Evan Williams 1783 is something I heartily recommend. Don’t laugh, I’m 100% serious. For the price, you can’t beat it. At around $10 a bottle, I’d say it’s easily the equal of old standbys like Wild Turkey and Jim Beam. Since it’s cheap, you won’t feel bad about mixing it. I’m actually shocked I don’t have a bottle of it right now.

    Three Roses is pretty good. When my bottle of 1792 Ridgemont Reserve (which I don’t especially recommend since I think it’s a bit overpriced for what it is) is gone, I’m going to replace it with a bottle of Three Roses as my straight up sipping whiskey.

    Along those lines, I also recommend Eagle Reserve (nice and smooth), Knob Creek (kinda buttery and caramel-y), and Booker’s (which is definitely cask strength and I find the “brown sugar on fire description rather apt).

    I’ve sampled a lot of various single barrels because of my two friends who are bourbon fanatics, but none of them really spoke to me except for Old Rip Van Winkle. It was delightfully complex.

    Things I don’t much care for include Maker’s Mark and anything that belongs in a well drink.

    On the topic of adding water, I think that a few drops of distilled or filtered water in a glass of cask strength whiskey can really make the flavors pop since it will keep your taste buds from being overwhelmed by alcohol burn.

    On ice, I have a set of Whiskey Stones, but I have discovered that I don’t like my sipping bourbons chilled. It cuts down on the aromatics and sort of blunts the taste. I find myself using them mostly with Canadian Whisky and Irish Whiskey because their flavors aren’t quite as complex.

    Basically, I would recommend getting a few different pint bottles and seeing what you like best. To me, that’s the fun part of bourbon since there are so many distilleries making so many different kinds these days because they want to make an American answer to single malt Scotch. I, for one, am glad for that!

  • My great friend Julie posted your article to Facebook and I simply HAD to dive in.
    Chuck, you with Scotch, That’s me with Bourbon :)
    Most of the time, I’d start out folks slow with Bourbon due to the higher proof and taste profiles, but seeing as you’ve been swilling that bog water (I kid, I kid, don’t write me scathing missives), you are ready for prime time.
    All of the recommendations you’ve received so far are excellent. Just as you’ve got your different style of Scotch, so it is with Bourbon. It’s all in the mash bill. I’m a Maker’s Mark Senior Ambassador, so I give that a solid vote. Bourbon has to be 51% corn, but Maker’s uses a high percentage of Red Winter Wheat, which does give it a softer mouthfeel, verry little bite and flavors of deep caramel, vanilla, and orange peel, it’s 90 proof and about $24.
    The new installment from the Maker’s people, Maker’s 46 has a similar flavor profile, but adds a new spicier element from a new process of adding, adding french oak staves to the inside of a barrel of standard product, and then aging for another few months, it’s a little hotter at 94 proof and typically about $10 more than the run-of-the-mill Maker’s.

    EBear mentioned Booker’s and, I may have to marry her now (is polygamy cool with everyone?), as it’s one of my all time faves. Booker Noe was The Colonel James B. Beam’s grandson. He joined the whisky angels back in 2004, but he produced a superlative Bourbon in his days on Earth. I have a dusty old bottle here that is 126 proof. That’s right, read it again. This is really fantastic stuff, with hard candy, burnt sugar, orange peel and bananna. Sooooo goood, around $50 a bottle.

    I’ll leave you with one last whisky, Evan Williams Single Barrel. Look it up, it wins awards people. It also can be found cheap, or could be. $21 or so could get you a wonderful Bourbon that is 10 years old that smacks of honey, vanilla, and kitchen spice. 86.6 proof

    I’m personally a neat Bourbon drinker with a Ginger Ale for intermittent sipping. But, I concur with the sentiment above. Drink it how you like it. That may take some experimentation, but I’ve always been willing to make a sacrifice for science….

    Get to it Chuck. Report back.

    • First: Whiskey Stones. Huh.

      Second: This is awesome. All of you are good people.

      Totally thinking a little Booker’s is a good place to start. But Maker’s, too — nice.

      — c.

  • Rory,
    I don’t beg, so I will just have to differ. I won’t lambast you for being a snob, ’cause I am one. Bourbon, Belgian style beers, cigars, these are my metier. Seems you prefer a spicier note in your Bourbon, as evidenced by your Four Roses affection, and I’m good with that. (NOTE, Four Roses had been one of the cheapest Bourbons for years, many used it for paint stripper in the 50’s and 60’s. It’s true you could look it up. I visited the Four Roses facility a in 2008, I prefer the Four Roses Single Barrel myself)
    Maker’s only became a speed rail item in the last 5-7 years. Probably for a few reasons, but quality of the product isn’t one of them.

  • @ Robert: I can’t believe I wrote Three Roses when I meant Four. How embarrassing for me. Oops.

    Yeah, Four Roses was definitely a joke until its distillery was bought up by the Kirin people. Now it’s like bourbon, only smaller and more efficient. Or something. The Single Barrel is definitely the one I had in mind (since that’s the only one my local ABC store seems to stock). It’s clearly a bit early for me at this point. I’ve been on vacation for a little too long at this point. But, yeah.

    I’m not outright knocking Maker’s Mark. It just doesn’t suit my palate. But, hey, more for y’all!

  • For everyday drinking, Maker’s is the way to go — particularly if what you’re hankering for is something smooth and clean. Booker’s is indeed fantastic, but it’s not likely to be your bourbon Rosetta Stone; it’s more Laphroaig than Macallan.

    My personal bourbon faves are Blanton’s and George T. Stagg. Both marvelous. And if you ever find yourself in the presence of Michter’s US1 Unblended American Whiskey, buy it buy it buy it. It’s not technically a bourbon (on account of it’s made predominantly of grains, not corn), but it’s the easiest drinking whiskey you’ll ever taste. Its recipe dates back to the Revolutionary War; apparently, it was included in our soldiers’ rations. (Fair warning: should you polish off a bottle you may find yourself with a sudden urge to toss off the yoke of British oppression.)

  • My wife and I like Islay scotches and we’re another vote for Maker’s Mark. There’s a bit of a…minerally (?) flavor to me on the back of my palate. There’s something stoney about it that I like.

    When it comes to bourbon that I’m going to use for mixing, I like Buffalo Trace because it’s affordable, but still something I’d drink neat. But, like you, I’ve never jumped into bourbons much because my wife really likes Maker’s Mark if we buy a bottle of bourbon.

    I know a crotchety old rancher who swears by Booker’s and Basil Hayden.

    • @Chris (Holm) —

      My Scotch habits these days tend to be:

      a) Have something smooth and easy (Balvenie Doublewood, which has that caramel loveliness)

      b) Have something more complex and suited to specific moods (Laphroaig, which tastes like burned sacrificial bog bodies).

      So, Booker’s being a complex bourbon is a good thing, as long as I also have an easy-drinking one hanging around. So far, leaning toward keeping a bottle of Maker’s Mark, and a bottle of Booker’s.

      Still keeping my ears open, though.

      — c.

  • I will just throw in that I am a big fan of Maker’s Mark as well. For the quality and the price its a consistent pick for me.

    Also rather enjoy Knob Creek and 4 Roses, but the latter is more for nostalgia then anything else. It was the house-bourbon at a bar I used to frequent.

  • My writing partner is a huge bourbon guy – Maker’s Mark or Knob Creek. When we meet to work, I always have a bottle on the table for him. I’m good like that. And since he won the Pulitzer Prize, I’m thinking the bourbon might be the key. *pours*

  • Not a big drinker here, but: Old Crow makes good bourbon balls and is fairly cheap (why use high end booze in candy, after all?).

    We’re partial to Woodford Reserve, which comes from the distillery closest to us. REAL BOURBON COMES FROM KENTUCKY. Just sayin’.

  • If you like scotch, try Basil Hayden’s. It’s the scotch-iest bourbon I’ve ever had, a bit like a Speyside type scotch.

    Also, anyone else finding they habitually type “scothc”? Because, seriously, what the hell, fingers. GET IT TOGETHER.

  • As Sarah said, Woodford Reserve. Holy crapmonkeys is it good bourbon. I picked it up at random this week and was very pleasantly surprised. It’s oaky, smoky, has a hint of vanilla, and it’s smooth with just the right amount of bite.

    Another great one is W. L. Weller Special Reserve. It’s a Kentucky bourbon and it’s very smooth.

  • I just ended a five-year self-imposed exile to Kentucky, and I have returned to the East Coast better in some ways, including an appreciation for bourbon. My great-grandmother would burn me with a thousand cigarettes if she heard me say this, but I now like it even better than Irish whiskey. (Ouch, great-grandma’s ghost! Stop it. Uh, what was it you used to say? Right, the Queen is a bastard! The QUEEN IS A BASTARD! Please stop haunting me now.)

    Anyway, of the many bourbons I tried, I liked Knob Creek best. Smoothest of the bunch that I’ve had. Woodford Reserve is also good, but it didn’t stand up to a side-by-side comparison with Knob Creek.

  • I’ve had a love affair with bourbon for something like 20 years now, and this is a subject dear to my heart.

    The votes for Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark and (oh my yes) Woodford Reserve are spot on. These are smooth, flavourful bourbons that I will eagerly drink any day of the week. Bookers is an amazing bourbon, and a long-time favourite, but it is so strong and powerful that I am cautious about how often I drink it, because I’m pretty sure it gave me brain damage back in my 20s.

    One brand that I haven’t seen mentioned, though, is Wild Turkey Rare Breed, which I would have to say is perhaps the finest bourbon I know. Distinctive flavour, smoothly smoky with a hint of sweetness, strong but not too strong. It’s the only bourbon I know that my non-bourbon-drinking friends have enjoyed (albeit in small doses).

    These are all top shelf bourbons, and well worth the money. If you want to get some cheaper, perhaps in preparation for sporting events, roleplaying or other volume-testing occasions, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Wild Turkey or Jim Beam. Cougar is a bit shit, but if you put enough coke in it no-one will notice.

    Speaking of which, purists decry mixing bourbon with water, ice, coke or other such pollutants. And that’s fine for them. But it’s your drink, so you should have whatever the hell you want in it, and anyone who complains can catch the next drink in the eye socket. A little water, as you say, lets the flavour emerge past the alcohol burn. And hell, I wouldn’t have been able to stay up to 3am every night dancing badly in goth and techno clubs during my 20s and 30s if I hadn’t been adding all the sugar and caffeine of Coke to the bourbons I was downing every fifteen fucking minutes. These things serve a purpose.

    …that said, yes, a good bourbon stands alone if asked.


    Patrick

  • I’m late to the game here, but Rory’s suggestions align with what I’d recommend.

    I think only 1 other person mentioned Buffalo Trace, which is one of my favorites. Based on the flavor of your blog, I think that’s the flavor of bourbon for you.

    • Thanks, Jane! Nice to see you here.

      Buffalo Trace. Got it. If a bourbon can capture the absurd, profane flavor of this blog, hey, I’m into drinking it. Does that qualify as drinking my own Kool-Aid? Hrm.

      — c.

  • I’m usually a Maker’s Mark guy, myself. Nice and smooth, and inexpensive enough that I don’t feel guilty about using it for cooking: it makes perfect egg nog, and is excellent in cream sauces. Woodford Reserve is also a respectable potable — in fact, I am having a glass of it right now, inspired by this post.

    It might be fun to see if there are any local bourbons, maybe get a distillery tour. Michter’s used to be distilled in your neck of the woods, but I think that is no longer true.

  • I see Woodford Reserve has been well-represented. I will offer it my personal gauranty. By a bottle. If you don’t like it, I’ll come over and finish it for you, and you can give me your money back.

  • I’m just a little bit ahead of you on that road, Chuck — a couple years back I decided that I needed another spirit in my repertoire and picked the only American one, bourbon.

    Jim Beam makes a fine cooking bourbon, but I wouldn’t mix it with anything I wasn’t going to pour on a hot pan. Same with Johnny Walker Black.

    A buddy of mine recommends Maker’s Mark for mixing or drinking straight (I mix it, but I don’t take it neat just yet), and I can attest with Rory that the Evan Williams is an amazingly good bourbon for mixing despite the fact that its price seems stupidly low.

    I like Knob Creek and Buffalo Trace well enough (more than well enough, indeed) in an Old Fashioned now, but at first I was put off by their intense bourbony-ness.

    For straight sipping, I’ve never found anything better — smoother, sweeter, just plain more drinkable — than Basil Hayden’s. (Ice, no ice, whatever works, man.) I ran into it early in the process and keep a bottle handy just in case I need to write a country song. Hasn’t happened yet, but you just know it will if I ever let myself run out.

  • I’m a whiskey girl by nature (Jamo and don’t even think about adding anything to it) but when it comes to Bourbon, I agree it’s what’s for dinner…and dessert:

    I only drink it once a year for our annual Derby get-together. (I’m in Colorado, and I know dick about horse racing, but one visit to Louisville’s Derby Festival–a week before the race–made me a firm believer in the party.)

    The essence of our get-together is a big-assed bottle of Jim Beam (Grandpa’s favorite). It’s in the chicken, the Derby pie (pecan pie+chocolate chips+you guessed it), and the lethal pitcher of mint Juleps. Do not let the Scarlett O’Hara association fool you, this is lovely-strong and delicious– as long as you use fresh mint to make the simple syrup.

  • My rotgut of choice is Evan Williams – it’s cheap, it’s delicious, and it’s GREAT with some ginger ale/ginger beer (I prefer stomach-scorching ginger beer, myself) or Coke.

    For the more expensive stuff. Knob Creek is damn tasty.

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