By Bruce Collier
Since 2007, September has been designated National Bourbon Heritage Month. Like Christmas, it’s a good time to give and receive. Despite the spike in prices and the proliferation of boutique craft bourbons (with even spikier prices), the USA is still the best place to find affordable bourbon.
In years past, I wrote about bourbons for under $30, then under $20. This year I’m lowering the bar about as far down as I can go, without getting into those “blended” whiskeys that are, essentially, bourbon-flavored vodkas.
Here are six examples. Some are values, some are best used for—I don’t know, marinades… Prices are for 750 ml bottles. All were tasted neat, and with a little filtered water.
Said to be “at least” six months aged. Color—clear and pale. Nose—cornbread/muffin; grainy snack cracker scent, sweet, touch of dried peach or apricot fruit leather, cardboard-y. Thin, not a lot of body. A few drops of plain filtered water ramps up the cornbread scent. With water, you smell and taste roasted peanut shells and skins, breakfast cereal, Cracker Barrel’s air freshener (whatever that may be), ye olde country store, grass and hay. Papery aftertaste. For the price you can do better, but at 90 proof it should brighten up your soda or cola highball.
Strictly speaking not bourbon, but Tennessee whiskey, charcoal filtered like Jack Daniel’s (which sued for the resemblance in bottles and labels). No age statement, but it is distilled and aged in Tennessee. Darker color than the Hayes. Sweet smoke on the nose, wood and graphite pencil shavings. First sip is warm and sweet, trails off quickly. Second sip is smoother, with more body. Slight taste of burnt sugar, like charred marshmallow. Quarter teaspoon of water brought out a varnished wood scent, which more water opened out into a sweeter, corn muffin and barbecue aroma. The taste got sweeter and a little waxy. More character than the Hayes, and at a lower proof.
Produced (likely not distilled) in Princeton, Minnesota, aged 3 years. Light color. Nose indicates to me a good dose of rye in mash bill, nutty cereal scent, apple peel. Taste first sip—dried apple, a little cinnamon. More time in glass amps up the apple and spice—kind of a fruit pastry. It’s delicate and a little faint, but there’s a cleanness and straightforwardness about it that I liked.
If it were a dollar or two cheaper, I’d say it’s a bargain buy. I’d like to taste it at 90 or even 100 proof. More water brings out more of the pastry dough scent, and a fragrance of pear.
This is a good one to have short with a single cube of ice, or highball style, with more ice and plenty of water for a “Kentucky iced tea.” Very drinkable.
“Straight bourbon” means at least two years old, and this is reportedly between five and seven years old. Darker in color, more reddish. Nose is wood, menthol, pencil shavings, honeycomb, vanilla extract. Taste—sweet on the entry, smoothly warm, bittersweet honey or syrup. A few drops of water didn’t add or subtract much. Good to know if you want a bourbon and water that still tastes like bourbon.
A limited edition (honoring the 85th anniversary of Prohibition Repeal in 1933), so price and availability could vary; I bought mine under the price limit. Golden honey color. Nose is sweet and honey-like, candied pear, pickled ginger and spices, burnt sugar. Taste is sweet, warm, then trails off. With a few drops of water it sweetens and gets much more woodiness on the nose. Water brings more out in this bourbon than in others.
Bonded whiskey is the product of a single distillery in a single distilling season, aged at least four years old and bottled at 100 proof. Darker, slightly reddish copper color. Nose is honeycomb, burnt sugar, candied orange peel. Taste is warm honey, a little dried peach or nectarine on the finish. With a few drops of filtered water you smell baked cornbread, waffles and syrup. More water brings out the scent of orange peel and pith. This is a lot of bourbon for the dollar—Best Value Pick.