Saturday, August 7, 2010

Advice For The Bourbon Beginner.

Many people who are new to bourbon don't know where to start. Some turn to books, magazines or web sites like StraightBourbon or BourbonEnthusiast for recommendations. But it can be confusing.

I'm on record, in my book and elsewhere, as not thinking very much of rating systems. Their basic flaw is that they give a sheen of objectivity to something inherently subjective.

I had a long conversation about this with Jim Murray once and his conclusion was, "we owe it to people to give them some kind of guidance."

Point taken.

Here, for example, is a pitfall to avoid. Newcomers do themselves no favor by trying to find a consensus 'best' bourbon or other whiskey as if they can learn all they need to know by tasting 'the best.' Unfortunately, products enthusiasts rave about tend to be atypical and hard to appreciate if you are still learning the basics.

My recommendation for a beginner is to work your way through the leading brands from the major producers -- Jim Beam white, Jack Daniel's No. 7, Evan Williams black, Wild Turkey 101.

Compare them to each other, get to know them.

Taste them the right way. Start your journey by developing your tasting technique. I recommend tasting everything both neat and diluted with room temperature water.

Remember that smelling is a crucial part of tasting.

For the next round, pick the two or three of the first group that you liked best and figure out what that producer's step-up is. If you like Wild Turkey 101, you might want to step up to Russell's Reserve, Rare Breed or Kentucky Spirit. Which one? It doesn't really matter, though budget might play a role as Kentucky Spirit costs twice as much as Russell's Reserve.

After that you should be able to fly solo.

Most of all, resist the lure of short cuts. They're a waste of time because they don't work. You don't become a bourbon connoisseur just because you drank a bottle of Pappy 23. That's probably the hardest thing to get across to young people so I'll repeat it, because they love it when you do that. Short cuts don't work.

Okay, vets. What are your tips for beginners?


Unknown said...

Chuck, I think you nailed it with this post. I spend a boatload of free time reviewing and rating bourbons and american whiskey. I do it because I love it, and also because hopefully, as Jim Murray said, it provides someone with just a touch of guidance on where to spend their hard earned money.

But reading my or any other person's ratings is no substitute for digging in and trying different bourbons on your own and finding what style you love best. Starting where you recommended is a perfect way to do it.

I would also add that any beginner should use water and/or ice as their friend. When you are first starting, if you aren't used to straight spirits of 40%-50+% alcohol by volume (80-100+ proof), a splash or two of water can really help get the alcohol content to a point where you can enjoy the product more.

I don't subscribe to a theory of getting it to a specific percentage like other might. Just treat it like seasoning food: you can always add but you can't take away. Start with a teaspoon or two of water on lower proofed bourbons, maybe a tablespoon or two for higher proofed spirits.

I do recommend you nose and sip a bourbon "as is" to get a sense of what it's bringing to the table before adding anything to it. The style of a specific distillery may come across a bit stronger than another, even at the same percentage of alcohol.

As long as it tastes good to you, you are drinking bourbon right. It sure is a fun journey to try bourbons and develop a taste for the stuff.

Happy sipping!


Crash said...

If someone is really serious and wants to "get into" Bourbons right away, I suggest the following:

Old Weller Antique – high wheat recipe.

Buffalo Trace – low rye recipe.

Four Roses Single Barrel – high rye recipe.

Rowan’s Creek - 114 proof, best expression of the Heaven Hill mashbill.

This is, of course, for someone who has had the basics (Jim Beam 4-yr 80-pf, Evan Williams, Old Granddad, Wild Turkey 101, Old Fitzgerald, etc..) and wants to better understand recipes.

I don't think that someone can really appreciate the special releases and trophy bottlings until they are exposed to the breadth and depth that Bourbon can offer.

After this, I think that someone should learn about the lineage of mashbills and recipes and why that's important. For example, if they like Basil Hayden, they might really appreciate Old Granddad bond at a fraction of the price, given that it's the same Bourbon, only younger and higher proof. If they like Jim Beam 7-yr, 80-pf, then a perfect gift for them might be a bottle of Baker's - same age, same mashbill, just much higher proof.

Okay, time for me to climb down off of my pedestal before I get a nosebleed. ;)

sku said...

Great post Chuck! When I first started in on Bourbon after a few years of drinking Scotch, I went right for the Stagg. Why mess with anything but the best, I figured. Big mistake! I didn't have the tasting history or knowledge to appreciate its complexity and recognize what made it great. Subsequently, I went back to the bottom (though not quite as low as you suggest) and worked my way up so that I could understand what makes great Bourbons unique.

Now when talking to someone who is new to Bourbon, I usually recommend starting with Maker's, Woodford, Buffalo Trace and a good straight rye. I guess, along the same lines as Crash's comments, I try to recommend basic representations of different styles and mashbills. I wish someone had done that for me when I was starting out.

DavindeK said...

Hi Chuck,

You are so correct in saying there are no shortcuts.

If I could add two things, they would be:
1. enjoy the tasting experience and don't stress yourself trying to find every nuance. It will taste different the next time you taste it anyway;
2. do not be surprised if you disagree with others' published tasting notes, even if they are experts. You have your own palate, learn to trust it.


Greg said...

Chuck - almost verbatim my advise to new bourbon drinkers. If a friend says "I'm not really into bourbon, what do you suggest?" I tell them Makers Mark or maybe Jim Beam White. I start them off with something mainstream and low proof. Once they get hooked, I'll start feeding them more interesting samples to keep the interest alive.

Robert said...

This is all great advice for the beginner. I'm not that far from being a beginner myself, and this would have been a very welcome post and comments thread when I was just starting out.

I would only add what I learned the hard way - start off with the inexpensive bourbon. It's good, and it helps build a base of knowledge that will enable you to appreciate the pricier stuff. If you go straight to the pricey stuff, you'll miss what makes it special. The differences between a $20 bottle and $60 bottle can be very subtle to someone with little or no palate training under their belt. They're still often lost on me, even years into drinking bourbon.

My second addition is related to the price issue - this also means getting over the notion that unless it's got a cork and not a screw cap, it must suck. I've heard many folks say they won't drink any whiskey with a screw cap. That's absurd, in my opinion.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Thanks, everybody, for the great comments so far. Keep them coming. What do you wish someone had told you at the launch of your bourbon journey?

Greg said...

What do I wish someone had told me? Get a second job, you're going to need it.

My two bottles (WT101 and Kentucky Spirit) that I carried in the pantry early on turned into silly amount of bourbon residing in the bunker. Now I'm very interested in Scotch and Irish....there's no end.

Unknown said...

I find when introducing people to bourbon to start out with Four Roses. One the three variants are all still called Four Roses so people are not confused, second it is lighter on the palette of someone not use to drinking Bourbon.

I would have liked what distiller produced what Bourbon to better get a sense of what I was drinking. The Heaven Hill whisky I drink isn't called Heaven Hill. It wasn't until I did the bourbon trail a lot of the brands became clear as to what distillery they came from.

Martini said...

My advice would be "drink a lot." I'm fairly new to this, and I found that I can't trust the reviews I read for exactly the reason you mentioned - subjectivity. The only true way to learn is to experience as much as you can, yourself. That's what I'm doing now.

Herb Allen said...

Before shelling out an obscene amount of money on Pappy or BTAC, I'd advise newcomers to get their hands on whatever store picks they can find. These private selections are often sourced from honey barrels that are noticeably better than and generally cost the same (or close to the same) as the standard offering. Four Roses store picks are legendary, but others can also be very, very good: Knob Creek, Eagle Rare 10, Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, and Smooth Ambler, among others. Many much more experienced bourbon drinkers than I have given up drinking the much-hyped limited releases in favor of these picks. Cheers!

jfarr63 said...

I started with Buffalo Trace and Makers Mark. Then I gradually went over to Makers 46 and Wild Turkey 101. I got into Blanton's (still my favorite) and Four Roses. I am not a fan of Jim Beam white label. It is pretty off putting for me, so I think I would have turned away from Bourbon if this was my first go to.