The Great Mediocre Bourbon Tasting

So I’ve been drinking bourbon for a long time now. And loving it for a long time. But I have decided something: bourbon has a limited range.

There is good stuff and bad stuff, of course, and I like the good stuff better. I love Blanton’s. My favorite bourbon by far is Garrison Brothers. Neither of those are cheap. But unlike, say, scotch or wine or beer, it’s not like the best stuff is hundreds of times better than the average stuff. There are limits here, mostly because there are limits to the variables which go into a bottle of bourbon. Or, at the very least, Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which is what you should be drinking.

You must have 51% corn. It has to be in the same sort of barrel. It has to be distilled to no more than a certain proof and barreled at no more than a certain proof. Obviously what constitutes that other 49% matters, as does the time it ages and things, but we’re not talking about the subtle complexities of other spirits.

Which is fine because I like bourbon as an everyday thing, not as some Statement of How Tasteful I Can Be. It’s a democratic spirit for the common man who likes to sit on his porch and think about who should be up against the wall when the revolution comes and I enjoy it for that reason. If I want to be fancy, I’ll drink something else. And risk being thrown up against the wall.

This realization has caused me to branch out recently. To try other, cheaper bourbons to see how far down the shelf I can go while still getting everything I want and need from a bourbon.

I haven’t gone really low let. Bulleit has become my everyday home pour. That’s not drastic because it’s still very good stuff. Recently we brought a big bottle of Old Crow Reserve. Not as good – certainly not as fun, more of a mixer and definitely a shelf lower – but totally serviceable as a “drink over an ice cube or three as I watch TV” bourbon. If I gave it to most people they wouldn’t notice it was cheaper swill, mostly because most people I know still aren’t really bourbon people.

Tonight Allison and I took it a step further. We were at the grocery store and needed bourbon and couldn’t make up our minds so we decided to just buy two random bottles of stuff we’ve never had, with the only condition being that it was cheap, as we are volume consumers. The choices: Old Ezra 101 and Wild Turkey 81. Both under $20 and nothing the nouveau-bourbon enthusiasts would be terribly proud to break out among friends. When we got it home we decided to do an impromptu tasting.

Allison poured three glasses – Ezra, Wild Turkey and the Bulliet which we had left over – hiding their identity from me in blind-taste-test fashion. Note the fancy Martini glasses, which work perfectly for bourbon, I have decided:

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The bouquet was noted by an expert nose:

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Since George is not yet 21 I did the tasting. I made my notes and my guesses as to which one was which:

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Not the most sophisticated notes ever, but I don’t claim to have a great sense of these things. I definitely thought #1 was the most complex and had the highest rye content, which is something I’ve come to like an awful lot in bourbon, even if I’ve stopped short of leaving bourbon for full-blown ryes. This is partially why I like the Texas bourbons like Garrison Brothers and Ranger Creek so much and why I don’t buy Maker’s Mark – which has a lot of wheat, which means sweet – as much as I used to. Just more grit and less sweetness is my thing these days.

How did I do?

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Woo hoo! 100%. Not that it was the most difficult thing ever. The better stuff was more complex and fun and I knew it had more rye in it so it was more identifiable. The higher alcohol stuff also had the sweetest taste to it. It surprisingly was smoother than the 81 proof Wild Turkey, which just underscores the notion that alcohol content is not a be-all, end-all when it comes to booze.

Allison left the room and I switched the numbers around. Then she tasted:

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She also hit it 100%  Her favorite of the batch was the Wild Turkey, which I think is in keeping with what I’ve observed about her sweet vs. rye tendencies. A little more on the sweet scale from me but not into the truly sweet things (she’s also been off of Maker’s for a while and into the rougher stuff too).

Takeaways? Beyond the guessing game portion of this I think that my notion that there aren’t day and night differences as you go down the shelves is accurate. I like the good stuff better but I feel like all of the things one should love in a bourbon can be found in the cheaper stuff too. The Ezra and the Wild Turkey scratch the itch.

So I guess that means my next purchase is Old Granddad?

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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