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Bourbon, The Brownest of the Brown Liquors

Radley Balko points us to a New York Times article about bourbon and the American bourbon industry.

Being currently located just north of bourbon country, I consider myself blessed by the whiskey gods.  I have Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, and Woodford Reserve within an easy drive of the house.  What this means to me is that I have an opportunity to taste and enjoy a lot of different bourbons that most everyone else either can’t get or pays a lot of money for.  What you have to go to a premium liquor store for in Manhattan, I can usually get in the Kroger liquor mart.

Funny anecdote #1 – When Irish Woman and I were first dating, she invited me over to make and eat barbecue chicken.  She was making her barbecue sauce, and noticed that her bottle of Jim Beam was almost empty.  She asked me to, and I quote:  Go to the store and get a bottle of whiskey.  Being an innocent bourbon neophyte, I went to the liquor store and returned with a bottle of Jack Daniels.  I returned to the house, and was met in the driveway by my lady love.  She looked at what was in the brown bag, put it back in my car, then drove to the liquor store to get herself a bottle of Jim Beam.

That was the day that I learned that Jack Daniels, while a wonderful Tennessee whiskey, is not bourbon, and Irish Woman cooks with and drinks bourbon.  We use bourbon in much the same way that others would use vanilla or liquid smoke.  Bourbon adds a sweet, smoky flavor to whatever you cook with it.

Funny anecdote #2 – When Irish Woman was making our first Thanksgiving meal, I noticed that the level in the bourbon bottle was going steadily down.  The turkey had a bit of bourbon poured into the cavity for flavor, the country green beans with ham and onions had a drop or two of “blessing*”, and Irish Woman herself was having a nip or two.  I joked that everything cooked in Kentucky had a blessing.  Later that day, we went to her aunt’s house for dessert, and I found that I really liked the pumpkin pie. I commented on it to the aunt, who innocently admitted that she used the recipe off the can of pumpkin, but added a good amount of bourbon to it as well.  Irish Woman almost had pumpkin pie come out of her nose as she burst into laughter.

I’m not a bourbon connoisseur any more than I’m a beer or a wine connoisseur.  I can’t afford the really good stuff with any regularity, and to be honest, I’ve found what I like in my price range.  My palette isn’t good enough to sense too many notes in whiskey, beer, or wine.  Hey, I was raised on Mogan David, Christian Brothers, and Hamm’s Beer, what do you expect?

Bourbon, like every potable made by man, has its dregs and its ambrosia.  The trick is to try a bunch of them and find the ones you like.

So here are my favorite bourbons, just to add to what the Times is discussing.  Now, remember, I like all of these bourbons.  I cast no aspersions on any of them.

  • Jim Beam – Lowest shelf bourbon we use.  Honestly, Jim Beam is to bourbon as cooking sherry is to wine around here.  Yeah we’re spoiled.  
  • Maker’s Mark – A great bourbon for mixing or cooking.  Irish Woman lerves her some Maker’s and Coke.  Up until a couple of years ago, this was usually the best bourbon you could get outside of Kentucky in most places unless you really searched.
  • Maker’s Mark 46 – A new entry from Maker’s.  I tried this this past January, and it’s much richer, darker, and smoother than original Maker’s Mark.  This one definitely goes into the rotation.
  • Elmer T. Lee – This is a small batch from Buffalo Trace.  Mr. Lee was a master distiller for BT, and this is one of my favorites.  It’s very smooth, and is considered a good value for top shelf bourbon.
  • Woodford Reserve – Our sipping standard.  A little Woodford with a drop or two of water in it will usually fix what ails you.  Funny Anecdote #3 – During a January campout with my guys a few years ago, we were all huddled around the bonfire-of-massive-proportions, with several bottles of happiness making their way around the circle.  The bottles of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam usually went from person to person quite quickly, and took two or three trips ’round the fire to empty.  The bottle of Woodford, on the other hand, crawled around the circle as each of us kept it to take more than a sip or two, and it was almost dry by the time it got back to where it started.
  • Knob Creek – A little harsher than my other favorites, but has a really good flavor and color.  Also, what gun guy wouldn’t like a whiskey with the same name as his favorite outdoor shooting range?
  • Eagle Rare – Also a good sipper.  Comes in a very distinctive bottle that can’t be mistaken for anything else.  Good sweet notes with minimal burn at the end.  Makes a good gift to friends who are learning bourbon.

I’ve tried a few of the new flavored bourbons, and they’re good.  I like Woodford Reserve’s Maple Finish, and Wild Turkey’s American Honey is quite nice on a cold night.

So, what do you all like?

*We call it “Blessing” because the way you measure it is to pour it out long enough to cross yourself.

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  1. Unfortunately I figured out in my military years that I can't drink bourbon – it goes straight to the part of my brain that makes me want to get in a fight, but bypasses the part which might know how to win the fight. I figured why get my ass kicked for $5 a shot, when people would do it for free?

    It is interesting though to see the appreciation and variety starting to develop around the drink – think people are realizing more that it has nuances just like scotch & others.


  2. I have a bottle of almost empty Knob Creek Small Batch 9 year old on my desk. Very nice, but a little harsh unless you let it mellow over a couple of ice cubes.

    I agree with your assessments on Maker's Mark, Eagle Rare, Woodford and Wild Turkey American Honey. Weller is also a good one.


  3. Oh, so that's how you measure it! I'm going to have to go get the husband to teach me how to cross myself.

    The Maker's Mark 46 is fast becoming the second-in-rotation behind the Van Der Hum for Wife Destressing around here. The fact that it's a bit sweeter, and a little lighter on the burn puts it over the Elmer T Lee for me, personally. On the other hand, I note the bottle of Lee has been going down at the level of misery hoarding, not unlike some of the home country liquors we can't easily import, so not everyone in this house shares my sweet tooth. 🙂 Thank you for introducing us to it, and being part of a wonderful weekend in Kentucky!

    We have a bottle of bourbon below the Maker's Mark level – but I won't dignify the name; it's medicinal bourbon (as in, if you drink this, you must be sick), that gets used now and then in recipes, and won't be replaced when it's gone. The only reason it hasn't gone yet is because everything else I want to drink, instead of cook with. It'll get replaced with Jack or Jim.


  4. Don't feel too bad. Send me out for whiskey, I'd have come back with Jack as well.

    I keep thinking I need to learn to drink bourbon, so this list will be handy. Small bottle of Makers might have to follow me home soon.


  5. I've enjoyed most all that you have mentioned,

    I am slightly partial to the 20-year from
    Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery
    113 Great Buffalo Trace
    Frankfort, Kentucky 40601


  6. I'm with Shepherd K – I like W.L. Weller, from Frankfort, KY. $13.99 here in the Atlanta area. Word has it that they slashed their price to compete with Maker's Mark and that crowd, but it's insanely good for the price.


  7. I know absolutely nothing about Bourbon… I use Jim Beam for cooking, which seems to the consensus here. I did pause in front of the Bourbons at the liquor store last night and recognized the few you have listed here.

    Thank you for the info… maybe I'll pick up a bottle of Eagle Rare to ring in the New Year.

    How would you recommend a newbie to first try Bourbon, on the rocks, straight up with a splash of water?


  8. Coop, for a newbie, I would recommend either a splash of water or on the rocks unless you are not really into hard liquor in which case it is marginally permissible to add Coke or 7-UP to Beam or lower shelf bourbons (however, don't do that with the top shelf stuff). I alternate between sipping it straight or on the rocks myself. If you sip it straight, take smaller sips and let it roll around in your mouth without sloshing until you get used to the alcohol burn. For all that is holy, do not do shots with top shelf bourbon.


  9. Shephard K, thank you!


  10. Shepherd K is spot on. If you're just starting in bourbon, only thing I'd add is to start with one of the sweeter brands like Makers. Once you've learned how to enjoy it, you can branch out into whatever other brands and methods you like.


  11. I'm not much of a bourbon guy, I'm all about the Irish when it comes to Whiskey (or Whisky if you prefer). The following is pure opinion (an' not a humble one at that) so just remember what they say about opinions.

    Jack Daniels is crap, unless you're talking about Gentleman Jack, which is quite tasty.

    Jim Beam (a wholy owned susidary of Fortune Brands Co.) is crap, unless you're in the mood for a pure Rye Whiskey (though there are better rye whiskeys). Also I hear good things about Beam's Red Stag, even if it is for kids.

    Maker's Mark is suitable only for stripping cosmoline.

    Knob Creek (another wholy owned susidary of Fortune Brands Co.) is suitable only for stripping paint.

    Wild Turkey is acceptable, even if it's roughly equivilant to Jet A in octane. Wild Turkey's Rare breed is worth poking someone in the eye over.

    Elijah Craig is a damn fine tipple and highly reccomended.

    If you've a mind to try the Irish, I highly reccomend:

    Bushmill's: The strainght stuff is excellent, the older you get, the better it gets. The 21 year single malt is worth starting a knife fight over. Historical note: Bushmills is the oldest licensed distillery in the world, in continuous operation since 1608.

    Michael Collins: From the only Irish owned distillery still in production. not quite as good as Bushmill's, but better than Redbreast.

    Redbreast: A pure pot still Irish, available in 12 year, cask strength and 15 year. Not quite worth a knife fight, but worth a damn strong argument, for certain.


  12. Rauobjorn, I enjoyed your opinions even if I disagree on some points. What do you think of Jameson and Tullamore Dew since you brought up the Irish?


  13. ShepardK, allowing that they're made by the same people, I find little difference. I note though, that Tullamore comes in a single malt which is inherently superior to Jameson's blended whiskey.

    All Irish whiskey is good, but some are better than others. Look for single malt and pure pot still whiskeys and you'll be in the finest kind.


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