Whether you are a committed bourbon sipper rounding out a liquor cabinet or are a non-bourbon drinker simply looking for a couple of affordable bourbons to stock for your bourbon-drinking pals, navigating the scores of labels to make one or two picks is a colossal task. It shouldn’t be that tough. After all it’s just bourbon, right?
If you try to base your picks on price or age or proof (alcohol content), you may or may not choose well. It’s a roll of the dice. Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better. Where and how a bourbon is aged can have more influence on flavor than the length of time the whiskey is in the wood.
Proof can be somewhat helpful in choosing a bourbon. Usually the higher the proof, the hotter the flavor. This may be good or bad, depending on your taste. Higher proof often translates into more complex and interesting, but not always. Sometimes higher proof just means a more boozy flavor.
All of this is particularly tricky for non-bourbon drinkers who simply want to offer a decent bourbon to visitors. You can always play it safe and just stock Maker’s Mark or Jack Daniels, but what fun is that?
Here then are three bourbons distilled in Kentucky I have in my liquor cabinet that are affordable (less than $40), cover a wide range of proofs and are accessible (can be found almost anywhere).
Evan Williams Single Barrel
This may well be the most under-rated bourbon on the market. Because of its affordable price, it’s the bourbon I always have on hand for friends who insist on mixing their bourbon with cola, ginger ale or some other flavored mixer. It’s distilled in Louisville, Kentucky’s Heaven Hill Distillery.
Despite my using it for mixed drinks, this bourbon is fine for sipping straight. In fact, it won a blind bourbon tasting I hosted earlier in the year that included some much better-known, more expensive labels. It has notes of oak, vanilla and cinnamon with a finish that leaves a bit of orange citrus on the tongue.
All “single barrel” means is that every drop in the the bottle came from the same barrel of bourbon.
Larceny Very Small Batch
One thing about sipping and talking about bourbon, there’s no shortage of tales and history – some of it based on truth and some, well, they are still excellent stories. Few bourbons have a more colorful tale attached to them than Larceny Very Small Batch. Easy to spot on the shelf, Larceny has a giant key hole on the label and keys on the seal. Legend has it that John E. Fitzgerald, who may or may not have been a federal agent at the time, had keys to the bourbon warehouses in the Bardstown, Kentucky area. He would use them to access barrels of bourbon aging in rickhouses, then give his favorite barrels to family and friends. These became known as Fitzgerald barrels.
Larceny is distilled at the Old Fitzgerald Distillery in Bardstown. It too is excellent for mixing or sipping. Unlike Evan Williams and Old Grandad 114 that use rye in their mash bills, Larceny, like Maker’s Mark or Pappy Van Winkle, for that matter, uses wheat. There’s a load of fruit on the nose. On the palate you may sense cinnamon, honey and bread. The finish doesn’t last long, but the cinnamon and honey linger.
For Larceny, “very small batch” means each bottle is a product of a batch of 100 barrels or less.
Old Grand-Dad 114
Here’s something you might not know, Old Grand-Dad 114 and Basil Hayden share the same mash bill. That is, they begin life with the same mixture of corn, rye and malted barley. By the time they get into the bottle, they are nothing alike. Basil Hayden is 80 proof and Old Grand-Dad 114 is 114 proof. Old Grand-Dad 114 is a big, big bourbon. It’s big on the nose, big on the palate and big on the finish. It’s interesting, tasty and packs a punch.
Like Basil Hayden, it’s a product of Beam Suntory. It’s competitively priced and easy to find. It takes a bit of getting used to, but give it a chance. Let it sit in a glass for 15 or 20 minutes. You can even add a drop or two of water to help open it up. Mostly you’ll only smell the rye on the nose, but may also sense some dark fruit and caramel. On the palate it’s mostly fruit, oak and caramel. A big cinnamon finish lingers long after you swallow.
Russ is a long-time bourbon drinker who also produces the BEER2WHISKEY channel on YouTube.