Feb 7, 2015

A quick (not really) word about Bourbon


Yup. Been so long since I posted that it's echoing with the emptiness in here. No matter, I'll trudge on. The last time you heard from me here I was reviewing horror films the entire month of October. It was an Internet sensation and it was covered by all the major media outlets (it was not). But now it's time to talk bourbon.

As some of you may know, I'm a bourbon guy. It became my adult beverage of choice roughly 6-7 years ago. Before that it was good craft beer and before that it was tequila. I enjoy gin just as much as the next gentlemen, but I rarely keep any at home. Nope, for me it's bourbon with the occasional side venture to rye. I'll get to that in a moment.

Bourbon is a whiskey (with an "e") made here in the United States. Used to be just Kentucky, but now it's produced in virtually every state that allows the distillation of whiskey. It has to be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn. The other 49% can be more corn, wheat, rye, barley or literally any other grain you can imagine. I had a whiskey that used quinoa once. Healthy whiskey. It has to be aged in new, charred oak barrels. It has to be distilled at no more than 160 proof, entered into the barrel at no more than 125 proof and bottled at 80 proof or higher. There is no specific duration that is required for aging in the barrel.

That's it. That's bourbon. Simple, right? Wrong. The variation in bourbon is seemingly endless when you consider the multitude of grains that can be used and the varying lengths of time that it can spend in the barrel. Generally, the longer it spends in the barrel the smoother the whiskey. And pricier because of the duration of the process and the amount of liquid that evaporates (the Angel's Share) during the aging process. But basically there are 3 major types of bourbons on the market today.

  1. Traditional Bourbons. These are what most people think of when they think of bourbon. Made with a mash bill that contains roughly 70% corn with the rest split mostly evenly between rye and barley. Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Evan Williams, Old Crow, etc... These are all traditional bourbons.
  2. High-Rye Bourbons. As the name implies, these bourbons are made with a higher rye content than most. I've found these to be spicier than traditional bourbons. Old Grand-Dad, Bulleit, Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve are all examples of high-rye bourbons.
  3. Wheated Bourbons. These bourbons use a large portion of wheat in their mash bill, resulting in a mild, sweeter bourbon. Maker's Mark, Rip Van Winkle, Old Fitzgerald and W.L. Weller are all really good wheated bourbons. 
Anyway, that's my understanding of bourbon. I'm far from an expert on the matter, so it's possible I got a detail or three wrong in there. There are plenty of places on the Internet where you can delve into the matter more deeply. I highly encourage you to do just that if it interests you.

I'm no bourbon snob. Quite the opposite. I enjoy Jim Beam as I enjoy Budweiser. I usually keep some at home and I'll go to Beam in a pinch when I'm out and about. I enjoy Old Grand-Dad immensely, which is weird to me. It's incredibly inexpensive, but it's tasty as all hell. Uses the same mash bill as Basil Hayden's (who actually IS Old Grand-Dad), but it's aged fewer years and bottled (in bond) at 100 proof. It's a great everyday bourbon. But I also like some of the higher priced bourbons like Bulleit, Wood ford Reserve and Maker's Mark. When I say "higher priced" I mean in the $30-$40 range. Still pretty inexpensive when you consider the cost of many Scotch whiskeys.

One of the tastiest bourbons I've ever enjoyed was Pappy Van Winkle 23-year. That was 4-5 years ago when it was possible to get a bottle without taking a second mortgage on your home. Because of demand, bottles of Pappy Van 23 go for upwards of $2,000 in many markets today. It's great, but not that great. And a friend of mine had a bottle of Old Van Rip Van Winkle 10-year that he bought in 1990 or so. He had one drink and then put it in the closet for 25 years. That was amazing stuff. An unopened bottle of Old Van Rip from back then would be worth a fortune on the brown market today. Still I'm glad that he shared some with me.

I've always leaned toward the high-rye bourbons like Old Grand-Dad and Bulleit, and ignored the wheated bourbons like Maker's Mark. That Pappy Van Winkle bottle I had was a wheated bourbon, but that's a special treat. But I'd been reading about some of the more inexpensive wheated bourbons lately, and I've been interested in trying some. The problem is that they are hard to find in this area. And when you do find them, many stores have marked them up to ridiculous prices due to the demand. Vultures.

But on Thursday I stopped in to one of my local stores and saw that they had a couple of varieties of W.L. Weller for sale. The 12-year old and the Special Reserve. Oddly, the Special Reserve is their lower end product and the 12-year is the one that is more sought after. There is a store about 20 minutes from my house that advertises it for $120 a bottle. The national average is around $59, but the list price is closer to $20. Price gougers like that store I mentioned are the reason the national average is so high.

The bottle I purchased on Thursday was only $22.99! Ridiculously low, especially in this market. When I read up on it on Thursday evening, I knew I had to go back yesterday and buy several more bottles of the 12-year stuff. I hadn't even tried it yet, but I figured I couldn't pass up that price. So I did, and then I told several friends in the area about it so they could get some for themselves.

I tried it last night and it was really good. Not mind-blowing delicious like the Pappy Van Winkle, but really good. Especially for the price. If it is available at a decent price where you live and you enjoy wheated bourbons, you should give it a try.