Sunday, August 29, 2010

Specific Recommendations For The Bourbon Beginner.

A few weeks ago I posted here some "Advice For The Bourbon Beginner." It attracted many good comments, so be sure to read them if you go back and check it out.

As for the advice itself I see now what was missing; specific suggestions about what to drink. A correction follows. I'll also explain why each recommendation is on the list in terms of what it can teach you.

It's a question I'm often asked, what product do I recommend for the bourbon beginner? I usually suggest Maker's Mark, so let's begin there.

Maker's Mark. A litmus test, really, because if Maker's Mark is too much for you -- "too strong" -- then it is likely bourbon whiskey will never be your drink. Arguably, wheated bourbon is bourbon for people who don't like bourbon, assuming that the characteristic they don't like is the sharpness and heat that is typical of rye-recipe bourbon. It also has the advantage of being in most bars so you don't have to buy a whole bottle to take the test.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage (any year). I have argued that older bourbons aren't necessarily better than younger ones, just different, but I have to concede that most experienced drinkers prefer the older to the younger style, myself included. While the single barrel and vintage things are fun, the best part of Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage is that it is simply the best whiskey Heaven Hill makes in any given year and Heaven Hill makes a lot of whiskey. For Heaven Hill, at least, the perfect age appears to be nine years, though in fairness barrels for this product are usually pulled from parts of the warehouse that age the whiskey most aggressively.

Jim Beam Black. Similarly, this is the easiest of the Beam company's bourbons to love. It's old enough that the foxy yeast notes of the younger Beams have mellowed and nothing stands in the way of all the caramel and vanilla the spirit has absorbed from the barrel. Booker Noe always said the standard Beam mash bill is 15 percent rye but the company says the mash bill is a secret. (Booker did whisper it in my ear the first time.) Based purely on the taste you would think it contains less. Beam's Knob Creek, for a little more money, has a little more edge but is also easy to like. Try them both to see how different two whiskeys from the same producer that are very similar on paper can taste.

Wild Turkey 101. The idea here is to take it up a notch. Many bourbon drinkers and all loyal Wild Turkey 101 drinkers believe bourbon should burn a little going down. Not a lot, but it's like a scotch drinker who believes scotch has to have at least a little bit of peat. Also, while many bourbon brands talk about making bourbon 'the old-fashioned way,' in terms of its overall style Wild Turkey most nearly does. If 50.5% alcohol is too much for you feel free to add water (to all of the above as well) but stay away from the 40% alcohol (80 proof) bottling.

Old Forester Signature. Although Wild Turkey is made very traditionally, the brand is only 70 years old, has had several owners, and has only been made exclusively at its present distillery for about 40 years. Old Forester, on the other hand, is 140 years old and has had only one owner (Brown-Forman), though it did switch distilleries about 30 years ago. Although Old Forester is a bargain today, it really represents what a finer bourbon tasted like back before today's super-premiums existed. It is simply a very good, solid, reliable, traditional bourbon. Unlike with Turkey, here I don't object if you'd rather try the 43% alcohol expression instead of the 50%.

After the above I suggest you dabble in some extra age, perhaps with Weller 12 or Elijah Craig 12, and try a straight rye like Jim Beam Rye, Wild Turkey Rye, or Rittenhouse Rye. This would be a good time to add a Tennessee whiskey to the collection, Dickel 12 or Jack Daniel's Single Barrel, though if you've never had it you really should try Jack Daniel's No. 7, since it is the most popular whiskey in the world.

That should hold you for now.


Anonymous said...

I'm a long time reader of you blog and am saddened by your assertion that "wheated bourbon is bourbon for people who don't like bourbon....", equivocations notwithstanding. I grew up on a wheated bourbon in college, Maker's specifically. I now prefer wheated bourbons (pappy, WLW (antique), etc.) because of this early exposure and "palate conditioning."

Chuck Cowdery said...

Please don't be sad. I love wheated bourbon.