Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Best Bourbons, Ever

Normally, I reject the idea of 'best.' For one thing, it's subjective. What is best for you is whatever you like best. There is no objective 'best.'

That said, here are some of the bourbons that have impressed me the most over the years.

Very Very Old Fitzgerald, 12-year-old. This 12-year-old wheated bourbon made at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery was just about perfect, as in perfectly balanced. It was generally available from the late 50s until about 1990. I’ve gone through several bottles. I have one left.

Abraham Bowman 18-year-old rye-recipe bourbon from Sazerac. This came out in about 2012. It was very limited. Very old bourbons are hit-or-miss. They miss more often than not or are okay but nothing special. Very rarely are they exceptional. This one was. I had one bottle. It is long gone.

A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon, any bottling. This rye-recipe bourbon made by a doomed Pennsylvania distillery during a couple of weeks in 1974 became a phenomenon and is genuinely great whiskey too. Most of it was sold at 16-years-old but even the 20-year-old is terrific. I’ve tasted them all and still have one or two. I also wrote a book about it.

Weller 12-year-old. The closest you can get today to the taste of those great Stitzel-Weller wheaters of yore. Still made and widely available though often in short supply as its reputation as ‘poor man’s Pappy’ has spread.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. On the rye-recipe side of the ledger, Kentucky Spirit stands out as an exemplar. It is simply everything you want in a rye-recipe bourbon. Still made, widely available, and modestly priced for what you get.

Parker’s Heritage Collection Master Distiller’s Blend of Mashbills Bourbon (2012). On paper, it’s just a mixture of Heaven Hill’s 11-year-old rye-recipe bourbon with Heaven Hill’s 11-year-old wheated bourbon. The proportions were never revealed. To me, it is one of the best bourbons ever made and a great example of what a veteran master distiller at the height of his powers can accomplish.


Richard Turner said...

Wast that Bowman release that you mentioned bottled as "Pioneer Spirit", Chuck?
I had a bottle of that, and was massively impressed. I believe that bottle was stated as 18-year; but, memory being less and less reliable as I age 'past my prime', can't say for certain. It too, is long gone.

rarebird101 said...

Impressive to see Kentucky Spirit in such rare company.

Rob said...


Thank you. You are god damn right about these. Now, about those extra bottles you were trying to share some samples of...

Anonymous said...

Chuck - Interesting list of your favorite bourbons of all time! Among them are the Stitzel Weller Very Very Old Fitz 12 year old and any of the Hirsch 1974 Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania bottlings. As you well know, much has been said about the virtues of bourbon from Stitzel Weller and Schaefferstown. Why do you think these bourbons are so highly regarded (apart from the fact that they are no longer available)? Did folks at Stitzel-Weller and Schaefferstown know something about bourbon making that contemporary distillers do not know?

Tom Troland

Chuck Cowdery said...

Stitzel-Weller made a lot of good-but-nothing-special whiskey too, and Schaefferstown made a fair amount of garbage, so I think it was more serendipity than anything else.

Sam Komleniic said...

I'm curious what products you're referring to when you say that Schaefferstown made a "lot of garbage." Their flagship whiskey, Michter's, was a very good product, as was Sam Thompson, the rye they contract-distilled along with Wild Turkey rye, though they did make a line of cordials for another company for a time, as well as some blended stuff, so did most other American distilleries. In the fifteen years I was drinking stuff from Scharfferstown I never encountered any garbage whiskey, anyway.

Sam Komleniic said...

Sorry, I misquoted your initial statement, though "a fair amount" kind of equates to "a lot." I apologize for the error.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Sam, the point was simply that the greatness of the A.H. Hirsch, and Old Fitz, was more serendipity than any special knowledge or talent by those distillers and I stand by that statement. When the distillery failed and many thousands of barrels of whiskey were simply destroyed, it was because no one wanted it at any price, which tells me it wasn't very good.

Sam Komleniic said...

C'mon Chuck, there were plenty of reasons that the whiskey languishing at Michter's in the 90s would have had a hard time being sold besides its potentially being crap. Who wanted to buy whiskey on the bulk market 25 years ago regardless, and especially from a non-Kentucky distiller whose flagship product (taking up most of the remaining barrels stored there) could not even legally be sold as bourbon? Considering that there was no owner of record for the remainder of what was aging at Schaefferstown certainly added to that difficulty.

Stitzel-Weller = Some good-but-nothing-special whiskey.
Michter's = A fair amount of garbage.
See the difference?

To throw out a blanket statement belittling the overall quality of their product without an apples-to-apples comparison is more than a bit disingenuous.

Anonymous said...

Chuck – You attribute the excellence of A. H. Hirsch and Old Fitz to serendipity rather than to any special knowledge or talent by the distillers. What serendipitous factors do you think led to this excellence? In general, all whiskies from a given distillery come off the same stills, so they should be of very similar quality going into the barrel. So what is left to serendipity? Is it the time in barrel? Location in the warehouse? Tornado that removes the warehouse roof? Tom Troland

Chuck Cowdery said...

In both cases, the X-factor was age, and whiskeys that blossomed at the age at which they were bottled, which was pure chance in the case of A. H. Hirsch. But I don't know, it's easier to say what it wasn't than to say what it was.

Frosty said...

Chuck can you tell me please. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit vs Russell's Reserve Single Barrel.

50.5% for the WT & 55% for the RR

Same mashbill, aged in the same part of the warehouse and both are single barrel.

So what's the point here? is the WT older? cause the WT has a pretty bottle but for a hell of a lot more $ for less ABV (more water!)

Chuck Cowdery said...

There is always more to a whiskey than its specifications. No two are exactly the same because each has its own unique profile, chosen by the maker. Why does one cost more? Bourbon is priced like everything else in the world. They charge what the market will bear.

Anonymous said...


Your list started off great, but went downhill quite quickly. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit? This is one of the least impressive offerings by Wild Turkey. A 1980's era 8 year 101 or 12 year "Cheesy Gold Foil" would certainly demolish Kentucky Spirit. How about some National Distillers Old Grand Dad 114?