September is Bourbon Heritage Month in America. Demand for bourbon has come a long way since the 1970s, when distillers were doing embarrassing things to get people to buy their product. Fortunately the country came to its senses.
Increased demand and the rise of limited-output craft distilleries and boutique bourbon producers are driving bourbon prices into the stratosphere. Two years ago I did a survey of bourbons for under $30. Regrettably, some of the bourbons I listed no longer qualify. Old Grand Dad Bonded jumped from $18 to $24. The old man didn’t jump alone, either.
I accepted the challenge. This column sets the price bar even lower—a sampling of 10 genuine bourbons, all purchased locally, priced at under $20 (non-discounted, pre-tax) for a 750 ml. bottle. I tried all of them neat, in my hardworking Glencairn glass.
McAFEE’S BENCHMARK OLD NO. 8
I read somewhere Benchmark was originally intended as a budget-priced competitor for Maker’s Mark. Like Maker’s, Benchmark can be found everywhere. As with all bourbon, it needs time in the glass to open up. The nose offers peach, apricot preserves, honeycomb, earth, wood, a little menthol and butterscotch. I could taste sweet tea, prune, juice from canned fruit, and a pear and dried fruit finish. It drinks just fine on its own.
Reportedly the favorite whiskey of U.S. Grant. The first time I opened the bottle I couldn’t get any kind of nose. I tried again a week later and detected a faint orange peel scent, followed by tea with orange and honey, cardboard and paper. The tea and honey continue on the taste, with fruit cocktail, Halloween taffy and a little pepper. Old Crow would be a great choice for an old fashioned Boilermaker—with PBR or Rolling Rock; don’t invest in cask-conditioned Abbey Ale or anything from Oregon.
Like Old Crow, Zackariah Harris is shy at first sniff, then gives up a little orange peel, pickle brine and unsweetened tea. The taste starts with vanilla and burnt tobacco, softening with more air, then becomes bittersweet. Not much else.
TOM SIMS 6-YEAR-OLD
Sampled beside the Harris. It’s darker, fuller-bodied, a bit chewy. The nose gives up dry sherry, nuts, brown sugar and tea. The sherry nuttiness carries over into the taste, along with vanilla and sweet pickle spice.
EVAN WILLIAMS 1783 SMALL BATCH
Give it air and you’ll smell dry, nutty, papery cornmeal. More oxygen yields grape and Bit O’ Honey. The taste is more promising—jammy, fruit candy (Lifesaver or Jolly Rancher), grape jelly aftertaste. The finish ends quickly.
J.W. DENT BONDED
The label has been described as something out of Phillip Marlowe’s desk drawer. There’s warmth here, so give it air. The nose is faint burnt orange and cornmeal, pretty light. The taste is sweet, corny, medium-bodied and low on burn once it’s aired, gentle almost. There’s honey and vanilla, more sweetness, with a dry little touch of wood on the finish.
The rooster decal on the label reminded me of Cockspur Barbados Rum (known in the macho Caribbean as “the Bionic Cock”). Let this chicken breathe—I scented apple peel, cut wood, burnt sugar, varnished wood, earth and taffy. The first taste was hot but resolved itself into burnt sugar, toffee apple, more fruit, then buttery vanilla. Despite the frat boy label, this is fragrant, tasty whiskey, especially for the price.
OLD GRAND DAD
With lots of air, the 80 proof nose is a lower-key version of the bonded—orange, grapefruit, grape juice, fruit drops a hint of spice. This would be a good candidate for “Kentucky Iced Tea,” a tall drink with one part whiskey to two parts water. It’s hard not to think of this as the lightweight brother to the bonded, but it kinda is. It’s about seven bucks cheaper and easier to find.
A few more bucks, and a bit higher proof, seem to buy more in this case. Old Forester smells like wood (one would hope so) and sweet fruit—a pleasant swirl-and-sniff liquor. It’s medium bodied (good for mixed drinks). I tasted caramel, toffee, dried fruit and nut bar and sweet sherry, which continues to a toasty, lingering finish.
FOUR ROSES YELLOW LABEL
Nose is citrusy, varnished wood, fruit cocktail. The taste starts dry, then there’s menthol and a hint of orange peel on the finish. No burn, could be nursed along for hours with ice and water. This is the least interesting of Four Roses—for $10 more, the Small Batch is worlds better.
Of the above, I’d give the value prize to Benchmark and Fighting Cock.
Long live bourbon…whatever the cost.