As a whiskey aficionado I’m often asked “what’s the best bourbon?” It’s an impossible question to answer. There is so much variety, so many different types of bourbon and so many different budgets. You can buy a very decent bottle of bourbon for less than $10 and you can buy a bottle of bourbon for $250 or more.
If you’re just starting to drink whiskey and want to learn more about it I don’t suggest you go out and buy a $100 bottle. Everyone is talking about the various Van Winkle bourbons but because they are so popular they are very hard if not impossible to find at any price. Remember that the youngest Van Winkle bourbon is 10 years old and the oldest is 23; you can’t just make more of it overnight.
Herewith my suggestions for three “bang for the buck” bourbons as well as one Canadian which I can recommend to beginners:
Bargain bourbon, low end: Evan Williams black label ($8.99 at Montgomery County DLC Stores): 86 proof (43% alcohol) and aged 5 to 7 years. It’s bottled in batches of hundreds or thousands of barrels mixed together so it is pretty consistent from one bottle to the next. It has a nicely assertive nose of oak, corn, and char but a short finish. Very dependable, great in mixed drinks (there is no point in spending $75 on a bottle of bourbon to mix with Coke or ginger ale) but can be enjoyed on the rocks as well.
Bargain bourbon, mid-range: Old Weller Antique ($18.99 at MoCo DLC); 107 proof and aged around 7 years. Bourbon by law is made from at least 51% corn but a typical bourbon “mash bill” is around 75% corn and 12.5% each of rye and malted barley. Old Weller, like Maker’s Mark and Pappy Van Winkle, is a “wheated bourbon” which means it uses wheat instead of rye. This produces a somewhat sweeter and less spicy whiskey. Old Weller Antique is significantly cheaper than Maker’s Mark, much higher in proof and more assertive. If you like Maker’s you might like this better, but if you drink your bourbon with water or ice you might want to add a little more to compensate for the higher proof. This is the very same whiskey which is aged a few more years to become Pappy Van Winkle.
Bargain bourbon, high-end: Knob Creek Single Barrel ($31.59 at MoCo DLC): 120 proof, 9 years old. “Single barrel” means that the bourbon in your bottle comes from one particular barrel rather than being a mixture of several barrels. Single barrel bourbons are not automatically better just because they come from one barrel; but they tend to be pretty good because you can’t cover up an “off” tasting barrel simply by diluting it in a larger batch. The flip side is that there is some natural variation from barrel to barrel so the bottle you buy today might not be exactly like the one you bought six months ago.
Knob Creek starts out as the same bourbon which becomes Jim Beam but it is aged for nine years (as opposed to four for the standard Jim Beam) and selected from particular warehouse areas which are known to yield outstanding barrels. Knob Creek “small batch” (a mingling of 100 barrels or so) has been around for a couple of decades at 100 proof; but recently the Beam folks added a “single barrel” at 120 proof for only about $5 more and well worth the extra cost. At 120 proof very little water is added at the bottling plant (Beam bourbons tend to come out of the barrel at 125 to 130 proof) and the nose of this bourbon is almost like being inside the bourbon warehouse. The flavors of vanilla, cinnamon, maple and fruit are very intense but for such a high proof bourbon the alcohol burn is not overpowering. Can be consumed neat or with a little ice or water. Don’t waste this in a bourbon and Coke though if you are making a cocktail where the whiskey is prominent (like a Manhattan) this would be a good choice.
Bonus “Bang for the Buck” Canadian Whisky
Forty Creek Barrel Select ($18.55 at MoCo DLC): Canada is the only major whiskey-producing nation that produces only blends. We often call Canadian whisky (their preferred spelling) “rye” although in fact, like bourbon it has corn as the predominant ingredient. When whiskey is produced, the higher proof it comes off the still, the less flavorful it is (think vodka); if you buy a bottle of 80 proof bourbon it came off the still at around 125 proof but then was cut with water so it is still pretty flavorful. Most Canadian blends mix very flavorful low-proof rye whisky with cheap, high-proof but low flavor base whisky made mostly from corn. This is why Canadian blends are relatively cheap and fairly mild in flavor.
Forty Creek is produced in a way which as far as I know is unique to this distillery. Like bourbon, their whisky is made from corn, rye and malted barley. But whereas American distillers ferment and then distill a mash of all three grains, Forty Creek’s John Hall separately produces whiskies made of 100% corn, rye, and malted barley, and ages each in the specific barrel and for the length of time he thinks is appropriate to that particular spirit. Then he blends them and re-barrels them for another six months or so to marry the flavors.
The result is a spectacular whisky for the price. Forty Creek Barrel Select is not as sweet or as woody as most bourbons(since it is aged in used barrels whereas bourbon barrels must be new) but overall it has a similar profile. If you think bourbon is too sweet, Scotch too peaty but Canadian whisky lacks flavor, you will probably love Forty Creek.