Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Best-Kept Secrets in Bourbon Are Hiding in Plain Sight


There are some really terrific bourbons out there that most people overlook. In many cases they are old brands that the manufacturers sell but don't support. Some offer a chance to taste something a little different, others are among the best bourbons you can buy, and all are great values. While a few have limited distribution, many are hiding in plain sight at your neighborhood whiskey monger.

A prime example is Weller 12-Year-Old. This wheated bourbon from Sazerac is right up there with the very best bourbons available today, and it costs less than $30 a bottle in most places. A few years ago it was in very short supply but now seems readily available. If you are pining for Pappy but have never had Weller 12, what's wrong with you?

At the other end of the spectrum is Very Old Barton, another Sazerac product. It is a 6-year-old, rye-recipe bourbon that used to be sold only in Kentucky and a few southern states. In Kentucky, it is very popular and competes head-to-head with Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's. It is now more widely available but not national. Unless you drink 1792 or Ten High, you've probably never tasted a bourbon from this distillery. Very Old Barton is a solid, reliable, standard bourbon that usually sells for less than $20, often a lot less.

Old Forester is the brand that launched Brown-Forman 143 years ago. It was the first bourbon to be sold only in bottles. It has the same recipe as Woodford Reserve. The 86° proof (43% ABV) is usually about $20 and the 100° proof (50% ABV) is usually about $25. Again, it is just a good, solid, dependable rye-recipe bourbon at an excellent price.

Old Grand-Dad, discussed here on Monday, is one of the few high-rye bourbons and definitely the least expensive one. Its bonded expression has long been the best-selling bonded bourbon in the country. The bond usually sells for about $20, the 80° proof (40% ABV) is about $17. It's made by Beam.

Also from Beam is Jim Beam Black Label, which is 8-years-old, 86° proof (43% ABV), and about $22 a bottle. Compare that to Knob Creek, which is the same juice at 9-years-old and 100° proof (50% ABV), and about $30. Even though it carries the Jim Beam name, or perhaps because of it, many bourbon fans overlook this superb value. It's available everywhere.

Evan Williams Black Label is Heaven Hill's flagship brand and the #3 best-selling American whiskey, after Jack and Jim. Again it's a good, solid, standard rye-recipe bourbon, selling in many places for around $10.

No one who really knows bourbon would turn their nose up at any of these.

38 comments:

Bozkurt Karasu said...

Great post... Great list...

The Chowfather said...

Yes! The Weller is my "house" bourbon

Anonymous said...

Chuck,

Right on (as we used to say in the 60s)! Each of the bourbons you list is of first quality. If I lived someplace where only these bourbons were available, I'd save a heap of money yet still be drinking among the best. Of course, I'd miss one brand in this mythical realm of limited selection - Buffalo Trace. To my taste, there is nothing better at any price. And the price is comparable to some you mentioned in your post. Fact is, excellent bourbon is widely available at really low prices. But sometimes it's fun to spend a lot more. The resulting lightness in your wallet leads to anticipation of lightness in your head as the pricey stuff is consumed. Plus, you get to post pictures of your expensive booze bottles on your favorite bourbon forum site.

Tom Troland

weller_tex said...

They are likely going to revoke your account over on sb.com for recommending Old Forester and JBB!

Spot on with the recommendations.

Anonymous said...

Add Evan Williams 1783 to your Heaven Hill product list.

Benchmark from Buffalo Trace Distillery excellent bourbon with high rye mash bill.

Mike said...

I completely agree on the Weller 12. Fantastic bourbon, and unbeatable at $21-23 in Central Texas.

I recently picked up a bottle of Very Old Barton 86 proof. Only one bottle on the shelf at a store I stopped at while driving by (never been in before). It was $12. I picked it up, remembered that other reviewers liked it, put it back down because "it can't be good for only $12?!?", and finally grabbed it again. I'm glad I did. It has a good flavor profile and progression, but everything is just "shortened."

I didn't care for my airplane bottle of Old Forester 86 Classic.

Thanks for highlighting the other labels. I'll check them out.

JDL said...

I completely agree with what you said. I would have added the new expression Larceny to your list. If you go the next step up in good value, I would put Four Roses Small Batch and Elijah Craig 12 year old.

imbibenc said...

Great list! Two other common ones under $30 are Four Roses Small Batch and Elijah Craig 12, which I find new things to love each time I try them. Old Fitzgerald Bonded is one of the best cheap bourbons out there as well.

Anonymous said...

On the Tennessee whiskey side, George Dickel No. 8 is a great whiskey for a great price.

McKinney said...

I agree whole-heartedly about the Weller 12yo, the bonded VOB, and the bonded OGD. I love that I can find bottles at these prices and sip some of the best on the cheap.

I'm okay with the EW Black Label, but for another $12 or so I can get the vintage EW. I consider that and the Dickel No 12 and the Rittenhouse BiB to be the holy trinity of whiskey value.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I didn't intend my list to be definitive. These are all good additions.

Anonymous said...

Gary said:

Completely agree . . . with weller_tex . . . Mods are reviewing your account as we speak ;-)

And agree with the post overall. I've found it to be a lot of fun to buy/try different labels. You don't find a gem under every rock, but you also don't find them unless you're looking.

Lazer said...

I really hope nobody is reading this post. I don't want to see prices go up on these. At the same time, I don't want to see them discontinued either.

Damon said...

Great list everyone. Its nice to do some bottom feeding (on price) and not sacrifice taste. The Weller is a favorite of mine too. Both the 12yr and the Antique 107 are wonderful.

Is the barrel aging (and final proof) the only thing that separates JB Black and Knob? Are they near each other in the rickhouse? I'm definitely going to line these two up for a taste test.

Jason Ferrara said...

Weller 12 is a great bourbon. Used to be my "house" bourbon until CC turned me on to VOB. I'll dig into these others, too.

Anonymous said...

Just a small correction, Beam Black is 86 proof these days. It was 90 proof when it was 7 years old.

Crash said...

Love this piece, Chuck, but my Jim Beam Black bottles read 86-pf, not 90. The "Distiller's Series", is 90-pf and 7-years old (the bottle with Fred Noe's smiling face on it, for anyone not familiar with it)

VOB 6-yr, 100-pf is the most amaing Bourbon bargain in the world, I think. I sell it for $13.99. Hope I didn't just jinx it!

Crash said...

Oh, and I'd have to add Ancient Age 100-pf; seriously good juice.

Mark C said...

The Weller is quite good and I picked that for little over $20. Tremendous value. I would add Rebel Reserve to the Good Value list. Very smooth and also around $20.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Thanks, everybody. I fixed the Beam Black proof.

Greg said...

Weller and Barton are ones I like to keep around. Another one I find is quite good is the Evan Williams BIB running at about $12/750.

David D said...

Let me tell you something, "Chuck," I KNOW good Bourbon and until they release a $20 Stitzel-Weller Bourbon, I will not be buying any of these. Consider my nose turned UP!

Imbibe Hour said...

Couldn't agree more. Lots of people like the chase the rare, but there's lots of good bourbon to be had that's much easier to get, and easier on your WALLET!

Serendipity said...

You can't forget Elijah Craig 12 at $24, and Elijah Craig 18 when it was available was a steal at $48! I mean how many good quality 18 year old bourbons can you get for under $50? Unfortunately, the answer today may be zero

Waiahi said...

If you wanna talk value, let's look at Costco's Kirkland brand Bourbon...aka Knob Creek aged 7 years instead of 9, and bottled at 103 proof.

Oh, and it's 1 liter, not 750 ml, for under $20.

Can I get an amen?

Justin said...

These are all great offers at great prices. In OK, the VOB is $11 a bottle. At that price it is the best bang for your bourbon buck on any shelf. I keep bottles of this bunkered and decant it into a nice crystal decanter when company comes over. NO ONE ever guesses that its not a "top shelf" bourbon.

Anonymous said...

The Weller 12 is an excellent value. Luckily my local store has a good stockpile as well as OGD 114 and BIB. I still have my eye on a 17yr Vintage on a local shelf for $65. Just can't pull the trigger when I've already got an unopened bottle on mine.

Anonymous said...

One Word ------> Dickel

"Filtered" Bourbon with 84/8/8 mashbill.

Four Variations.....Cascade Hollow, #8, #12, Small Batch

Smooooooth !*!*!

McKinney said...

Oh, I had forgotten about the OGD 114. I have a bottle tucked away that I expect will be opened tonight.

That's one of the things I love about this sort of post: Chuck gets a great list started, others weigh in, I learn more and maybe remember a bottle I have hidden from the wife, ...er, tucked away at the back of a higher shelf and had forgotten. Happy Friday.

SlimTiggly said...

One of my favorites not yet mentioned is Old Charter 10 yr. I get all slobbery just thinking about a glass of it served neat, or maybe splashed with the tiniest bit of water. And as for "David D.," maybe vodka is more his thing.

Anonymous said...

There's always the highest rated bourbon in the country, Angel's Envy. Even though it's moderately priced at $45 a bottle, it just got 5 stars from Paul Pacult.... Enjoy responsibly my friends!

Tank said...

Spot on recommendations Chuck! EW Black is what I always buy. Inexpensive, widely available, and consistently good. That is my go to sippin' whiskey!

Anonymous said...

"Old Forester...was the first bourbon to be sold only in bottles."

What, did some Bourbons used to be sold in sheep-bladders or something?

Chuck Cowdery said...

No, but perhaps you've heard of oak barrels.

Mark from Montana said...

Mr Cowdery, great list. I have been a bourbon drinker for years and have just discovered the whiskey blog world. Man, am I learning stuff. I have a question for you. Is there a "family tree" of bourbons anywhere? It weems that one label aged a year or two more becomes another label and another price.

Chuck Cowdery said...

For a whiskey family tree, go over to Straightbourbon.com, to the discussion forum, and search for "Whiskey Tree."

Anonymous said...

Hi Chuck: I think I might do a roundup of these "great bourbons you may have overlooked" on the menu this Spring at the Flatiron, brought to you by Chuck Cowdery. It's a really fun list. Thanks. Heather Greene

DeanE said...

Interesting article. Of those originally listed, I like the Weller 12 far above the others. VOB is solid for it's price point. I don't really care for OGD, OF, or JBB, but that's more my preference than their quality. I propose one other contender - Wild Turkey 101. I don't think it holds up well after opening and getting dusty on a shelf, but out of a new bottle, it's got lots of likable character.