Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Step In, Step Up


What to try next?
Today, most of what you see and read about bourbon and rye is focused on limited editions, finishes, and other mostly premium expressions. That's fine if that's what you're into, but it's a nightmare for newcomers trying to get to know the category. Too often, things you are told to try, when you try to try them, are hard or impossible to find, or too damn expensive.

On top of that, producers these days are expanding the envelope with different tastes and experiences that may be fine for what they are, but they are such outliers they just confuse someone still trying to understand the category.

What's a newbie to do?

It's easy to make the rounds of the major brands and their main expressions, a little Jack, a little Jim, some Evan or Elijah. There is nothing wrong with that. What I call "Step In, Step Up" is a slightly different approach. The idea is to introduce yourself to a distillery or brand family by selecting an expression that has some or all of the following characteristics.
  1. It is a step-up from the entry level expression.
  2. It is usually available.
  3. It is a decent value.

A perfect example of this paradigm is Jim Beam Black Label. It is significantly better than white label, a little higher proof, usually available in any decent-sized store, and the upcharge is modest. It goes for about $25 a bottle. In most stores, it will be right next to White Label.

In the Heaven Hill family, you can start with the standard Evan Williams Black Label, but the 1783 expression is a little better, a little higher proof, and in that same $25 range. 

These step-up expressions used to have age statements in the six- to eight-year range, but 'better' still usually means more age, which is evident in side-by-side taste comparisons.

If you want to get away from mega-producers, consider The Representative, a straight bourbon from Proof and Wood, a smallish independent bottler. It won a big award from Whisky Magazine. Yes, the liquid is from MGP, but it's bottled in 20-barrel batches at 115° proof, aged at least 4 years, and widely available at about $50. 

I'd like to include more small producers on a list like this but it's difficult because they tend to have limited distribution. There is also the price. No small producer, whether they're a distiller or not, can compete with Beam Suntory, Heaven Hill, or Brown-Forman on price. I used to tell people the challenge was to find something better than Evan Williams Black Label for the same or a lower price. I no longer say that because it can't be done! If you ever want to drink anything other than Evan Williams Black Label, then you'll have to get used to paying more for whiskey that isn't necessarily that much better.

So, back to the mega-producers. Like Jim Beam Black Label, Beam Suntory has other entry-level step ups hiding in plain sight. Basil Hayden is Beam Suntory's version of a high-rye bourbon, but it's the same distillate as Old Grand-Dad. Like Basil, the standard Old Grand-Dad expression is 80° proof, but right there on the shelf next to it is the much better, and only slightly more expensive, Old Grand-Dad Bonded. If you're really lucky, next to that will be the even better Old Grand-Dad 114.

Another old reliable is Brown-Forman's Old Forester. It is the product that launched the company in 1870. It is the same recipe as Woodford Reserve. They make a lot of noise about their limited editions, but standard Old Forester is a solid, full-bodied bourbon, at 86° proof, for about $25, with the step-up to 100° proof for just a few dollars more.

Which brings us to the two Gems of Lawrenceburg that never disappoint, Four Roses and Wild Turkey. Four Roses Single Barrel is about $50, but that's the one you want. Wild Turkey 101, bourbon or rye is hard to beat at about $25. 

This advice, I should repeat, is for people just discovering American whiskey as something to drink. It won't enhance your credibility on Instagram.

But if you have some suggestions for bourbons or ryes that meet the "Step In, Step Up" criteria, feel free to include them in a comment below.


Anonymous said...

Did Buffalo Trace not get a mention because (fine whiskey though it is) there isn’t a single step-up that’s not allocated at this point?

Andy said...

How about a strange "step in, step down"? Looking at Buffalo Trace products: Instead of flagship Buffalo Trace, try Benchmark Full Proof (62.5% ABV). It's like going from Basil Hayden to Old Grand Dad 114 (although unlike BH to OGD 114, I am not certain if the mash bill of Buffalo Trace and Benchmark products are the same).

Chuck Cowdery said...

Sazerac, an outlier in so many ways, does not fit very well with this paradigm but, yes, if you're frustrated by the unavailability of Buffalo Trace, etc., and Benchmark is available, it's worth a nod.

Patrick Skvoretz said...

Your first couple of paragraphs remind me of what I see on social media all of the time. I'm not sure if it's really such a nightmare. Many newcomers to the category post photos and comments about their newfound burgeoning collections, and nowadays, their new 10 bottle collection consists of Elijah Craig barrel proof, Weller 12, Four Roses SB BP, OF Birthday Bourbon, JD 10yo, bottles like that. They don't show the normal entry level bourbons anymore, let alone the step ups. Seems like the fear of missing out impacts newbies as well, so they search for the status symbol whiskies and prices that come with them. They skip the step up and go big for the notable and popular step ups.

TM said...

I love it. We miss what's right in front of our noses. So many good products out there that are just a "step up" compared to slightly inferior (but also good) craft products at twice the price. Yes there are LEs thare are "special" but that's not what this hobby is all about.

Mark D said...

Step in: Very Old Barton; step up(s): VOB 100, 1792. Although, the latter two are the only ones I drink since the price difference is not substantial.

Stacy Thomas said...

Chuck, a note of appreciation for your continued respect for modest-budget drinking of very good quality bourbon. Your nod to the excellence of the products you mention ( especially 101 Wild Turkey) is a welcome acknowledgment of what made bourbon what it is today -- the long commitment of the distillers to making an excellent everyday product, and the customers who were happy to consume the tasty results. For $25-30 a bottle it's possible to savor 80% of the delicious flavor of bourbon that anyone will ever have, even if they pay $100 a bottle or more.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

I agree completely, Chuck. Other than the ones I don't know/haven't tried like The Representative, I think those are all fine choices. I'd add just a couple of things. If you find you like Wild Turkey 101, or one of the other mainstream choices, you might want to price the 1.75 liter bottles. I regularly score my WT 101 for between $30-$35. That's well over TWO 750 bottles!

I also recently found Maker's Mark 46 for $25 (750), if you bought two bottles. That is an unbeatable deal, IMO.

And one more unsolicited piece of advice. Should something a bit more "high end" catch your eye, considering trying it in a bar/restaurant first before you make the splurge. A drink of those typically only costs a very few dollars over the standard stuff so you aren't risking much.

Bill said...

This I guess is accidentally what I ended up doing back in the day! My folks drank bourbon growing up, and I never liked what they drank (Jim Bean white label, Old Grand-dad, eventually Jack Daniel's. But at some point, somebody handed me Gentleman Jack, and I enjoyed it, and years later tried Beam's black label and loved that, and eventually realized after trying a few more that I enjoyed bourbon, just not the original three expressions I had tried.

Junior said...

Wild Turkey 101 is as fine a “house” bourbon you can have. There are many nights I look at my stash of more expensive bottles and just end up grabbing my old standby, WT 101.

If people want to chase exclusives, you’ll get no snark from me, but there are some great, everyday bourbons that you can get at any liquor store that will do just fine.

Anonymous said...

I second the Old Grand Dad vs. Old Grand Dad Bonded. In fact, I would suggest that this is a generalizable principle. Find the distiller's BIB expression and see how they do when there is nowhere to hide. Just be aware that the Jack Daniels BIB that I've seen for sale is a 700 ml bottle, so consider the price accordingly.

mrangryboozeguy said...

I would add the Ezra 99 and the Rebel from our friends at Luxrow. Both under thirty bucks and very tasty.