Posts from the ‘Bourbon Basics’ Category

Drinking Bourbon Responsibly (It’s not just about the Alcohol)

Every time you see an advertisement for alcohol, the advertiser will be careful to remind you to drink (insert booze here) responsibly.  To me, this means a lot more than just consuming alcohol.  Drinking responsibly does mean that when you drink (bourbon in this case), you should enjoy the bourbon for the bourbon.  It spends great time waiting in a barrel for you, so folks ought not to defame it by guzzling it down and puking it all up.  What good is your mother’s chocolate cake if you eat the whole cake and pray to the porcelain gods for the next three hours?

That said, bourbon is a drink that (in my experience) comes with a lot of stigma attached to it.  Many times, I have entered a bar, and been glared at by a bartender for ordering a whiskey neat.  Perhaps I look suspicious, but I think that most people are just suspicious of folks that drink whiskey straight up.  In my opinion, it’s the gentleman that comes up to the bar and announces “Jack and Diet, and keep ‘em comin’,” that I am most afraid of as a bartender.  But, that is just a rant from the bartender in me.

What is most important to remember about drinking bourbon is that what somebody drinks tells you about their taste buds, not their character.  Period.  If you are at the bar while you are enjoying your Eagle Rare straight up, and the person next to you orders a Maker’s and ginger ale (or a Blue Motorcycle, for that matter), you have no right to start hurling homophobic or misogynistic slurs.  Drinking that Eagle Rare neat does not make you more “manly,” “American,” or “Republican” (or any of the other absurd things I’ve heard at the bar).  The ethical thing to say to the person with the Maker’s and ginger is, “If you like Maker’s Mark, you should try out W.L. Weller 12 year some time.  Try it with a bit of water first, and if you like it, give it a whirl neat.”

Drinking bourbon responsibly means respecting the bourbon, but more importantly, it means respecting the people around you while you enjoy that bourbon.

Why Bottle Whiskey at Barrel Strength?

Recently, I have had a few folks inquire as to what is better about a barrel strength whiskey and why a distillery would consider bottling a whiskey without cutting it with water.  So, I thought I would provide the basics as to why distilleries might bottle their whiskey at barrel strength.

First, it is important to remember that “barrel strength” does not necessarily that a whiskey is a monstrous proof point.  Not all whiskeys are George T. Stagg at 140 proof.  Some old Scotches are bottled at barrel strength and are only 85 or so proof.  It all depends on the temperature and the humidity of the site where the whiskey is aged combined with the proof that the whiskey entered the barrel.  In Kentucky’s heat and humidity, a whiskey tends to increase proof in the barrel, whereas in Scotland’s damp, cool environment, a whisky tends to decrease proof in the barrel.

Secondly, not all high proof whiskey burns (I only mention this caveat because it is what some folks immediately think when they see a barrel strength whiskey on the shelves).  When a whiskey is in the barrel, whiskey escapes (the angel’s share) and air enters to soften the whiskey.  That reaction is part of what helps a whiskey mellow over time.  As a result, a whiskey at 80 proof right off the still is likely to be harsher than a barrel strength whiskey that is 15 years old.  There are many barrel strength whiskeys that I enjoy best at their full strength.

From an economic standpoint, bottling at barrel strength does not always seem like the best option because a barrel can go much further with water added before bottling.  This is precisely the reason Maker’s Mark threatened to decrease the proof of their bourbon.  They were running low on their stocks, and they wanted to get more bottled product out of each barrel.  This is also the reason that barrel strength whiskeys are more expensive; there is just less of it to go around.

Even with the economic and stocking disadvantages, there are still important reasons that distilleries choose to sell their whiskey at barrel strength.  Chief among these reasons is taste.  In many cases, barrel strength whiskeys are deeper and more complex because all of the fats and flavors are still left in the spirit.  When a whiskey is at its full strength, there are no tasting notes left out.  Furthermore, whoever is drinking the whiskey has the freedom to add water to his or her liking.  As water is added and the proof is lowered, the whiskey will evolve, giving more and more layers as the drinkers sits and sips.

Essentially, bottling a whiskey at barrel strength allows the full whiskey experience to shine through, allowing the consumer to choose what proof they would most like to enjoy the whiskey.  As an illustration, compare my review of Laphroaig 10 Year with my review of Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength.  The latter packs a level of depth that the former cannot hope to measure up to at a mere 80 proof.  In the bourbon world, a great example is W.L. Weller 12 year compared with William Larue Weller.  The W.L. Weller is a very good wheated bourbon, with soft, sweet flavors of maple sugars, vanilla, and butterscotch.  However, in William Larue Weller (bottled at barrel strength), those sweet flavors are compounded with plums, dark berry fruits, and a rich mahogany woodiness.  Of course, the rub is that both Laphroaig 10 year and W.L. Weller 12 year are very good value, whereas their barrel strength siblings are significantly more expensive and hard to find.  But, if you have ever been curious, take a shot and snag a bottle of your favorite whiskey at barrel strength and let it ride!

What Happens in the Barrel? The Mysterious Relationship between Oak and Bourbon

Photo Courtesy of kentthomas.us

Photo Courtesy of kentthomas.us

Well, I hope everybody had a very Merry Christmas, and is preparing to crack open a good bottle of bourbon to celebrate the New Year.  As something to look forward to for the New Year, I will be doing a month-by-month posting of my liquor cabinet to answer one of the most common questions I get, “Hey Phil, what are you drinking right now?”

Today, I am answering a question my mother asked over the holidays, “Why put whiskey in an oak barrel?”  I realized that I had never explained this wonderful process on the blog.  So, here are the basics.

There are four primary reasons to put the white lightning that comes off the stills into the charred American oak.  First, the oak gives the bourbon its beautiful amber color.  Second, the oak gives the bourbon its flavor.  Third, the maturation process extracts a lot of the impurity and harshness from the raw spirit.  Finally, the oak allows interaction between the outside air and the whiskey.  This fourth reaction is more important in Scotch and Japanese whisky than for bourbon, but it is still an important process of the maturation process.  These four reasons come together to produce the final product that we all know and love.  It is truly mysterious, and it is why I love whiskey so much.

This is a very simple explanation of aging whiskey, but it covers the basics.  If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.  Let it ride!

Giving the Gift of Bourbon

Well, a lot of folks are starting to do their holiday shopping, and there are a lot of people who love to give and receive the gift of bourbon.  Whiskey shopping around the holidays can offer some great deals on holiday gift packages.  A lot of distilleries will issue box sets where you might get a 750 ml bottle with some glassware or some 50 ml samples of other products.  Even if you are just looking to treat yourself, holiday box sets are always good fun.

Woodford Reserve's holiday gift set includes two Woodford glasses.

Woodford Reserve’s holiday gift set includes two Woodford glasses.

Before I get into my recommendations for the bourbon lovers on your list, I need to issue two disclaimers.  First, if you are a bourbon lover like myself, that does not give you the right to supply others with bourbon in hopes they will give you half the bottle because they don’t like bourbon all that much.  Secondly, taste is personal, and your favorite whiskey might not be tolerable to somebody else. That said, do some research on the person you are giving the gift to and the bottles you are thinking of buying to give the best gift possible.  Of course, that is where I want to offer some helpful suggestions that won’t break the bank.

For the bourbon newcomer on your list:  This is the person on your list who has never had bourbon (or any other whiskey) before, but they have put bourbon on their holiday wish list.  Don’t get them anything over 90 proof, and don’t get them anything will do dense a flavor profile.  My main recommendation is Four Roses Yellow Label.  It is light, and it gives a good introduction to whiskey without it being too complex.  It is also a great value buy.  If you are looking for something a little fancier, try Basil Hayden’s.  It is also a light, well-balanced whiskey.  Both of these presents will leave the recipient craving another bottle of bourbon.

For the bourbon novice on your list:  This is the person on your list that has been getting into some starter bourbons of late, but he/she looking is looking to enjoy some craft bourbon.  My recommendation (if you can find it) is Elmer T. Lee.  It is a single barrel bourbon that is indicative of what bourbon should be.  It won’t break the bank, but it is a monstrous step up from Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark.  However, Elmer T. Lee is hard to find.  If you can’t lay your hands on that one, Buffalo Trace is a great alternative.

For the bourbon admirer on your list:  This is the person who has been casually drinking bourbon for a few years, and it is one of their favorite drinks.  This person is one of the easiest people on your list because they will probably like your gift.  That said, here are a couple of the quintessential craft bourbons that make great gifts.  Eagle Rare 10 yr. and Woodford Reserve are two readily available bourbons that always make great gifts.  If you can find it, Four Roses Single Barrel is a great offering if you are willing to spend a few extra dollars.

For the bourbon connoisseur on your list:  This is the person who loves bourbon, and gives a lot of thought and attention to their bourbon.  Among bourbon connoisseurs, there are a few whiskeys that you can rarely go wrong with.  If you find anything from Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, Stitzel-Weller/Buffalo Trace’s Van Winkle Collection, Heaven Hill’s Parker’s Heritage Collection, or Four Roses Limited Edition Collection (and you can swing the bill), pick it up.  It is a rare occasion that I read a bad word about any of these bourbons, but they are all pretty hard to find.  That said, barrel strength bourbons are always a great gift for the bourbon connoisseur on your list.  Noah’s Mill, Booker’s, and Willett Single Barrel (barrel strength) are all great gifts to open and great bourbons to drink.

In case this guy is on your list...

In case this guy is on your list…

For the vain bourbon drinker on your list:  This is for that bourbon drinker that likes to sit in a smoking jacket with a $100 cigar while they enjoy their bourbon.  Hardly a value bourbon drinker, but for somebody like this, appearance is everything.  So, I would recommend a bourbon with a cool bottle and a long, uppity-sounding name.  My first recommendation is Willett Pot Still Single Barrel Reserve.  The bottle looks like you paid $100 dollars for it, but you didn’t even spend half that.  What is in the bottle is pretty good, too.  My other recommendation is the fancy horse-stopper of Blanton’s.  It is a solid, all-around bourbon that has a very distinguished bottle.

For the rye whiskey drinker (looking to get into bourbon) on your list:  This is for the rye drinker on your list that has mentioned wanting to get into bourbon.  I would definitely recommend a rye-heavy bourbon.  If you are thinking of a light, drinkable, full-flavored rye-forward bourbon, look no further than Russell’s Reserve 10 yr.  If you are thinking monstrous, full-bodied, intense rye-forward bourbon, look no further than Wild Turkey 101.  Both these bourbons are great choices for rye lovers.

For the Scotch whisky drinker (looking to get into bourbon) on your list:  This is for the Scotch (I’m thinking Speyside) drinker on your list who normally finds bourbon too heavy and sweet for their palate.  The bourbon to give to them is Four Roses Small Batch.  It is light, floral, and fruity, but it still possesses a lot of bourbon qualities.  Basil Hayden’s is usually a good gift here, too. Wild Turkey American Honey

For the liqueur drinker on your list:  The best bourbon-based liqueur on the market is Wild Turkey American Honey.  Hell, even I drink it every once in a while on a hot summer’s day.

Those are my thoughts on buying bourbon for the holidays.  If the person on your list falls outside any of these categories, leave a comment or shoot me an email at thedagupeir@gmail.com.  Let it Ride!

The Best Bourbons to Cure the Common Cold

If you ever had a cough, a stuffy nose, or any symptom of the common cold in my presence, you have probably heard me suggest bourbon as a remedy.  Of course, folks are always asking me what type of bourbon they should be drinking.  I’m here to answer that question.

First off, I want to explain how I believe bourbon should be used as a cure.  I do not suggest drinking bourbon when you are actually sick, especially if you have an upset stomach.  Bourbon will not help that at all, and it will usually hurt it.  In addition, drinking too much bourbon is always bad.  Don’t be your own irresponsible doctor.  However, if you feel yourself start to get a little stuffy, or if allergies are hitting you hard, then a small dram of bourbon can do just the trick.  It works by clearing your palate and your sinuses to allow you to go through the day with a clear head.  Just so we are clear, I am not a medical doctor; I just go with my gut and past experience.

For curing the symptoms of a cold, I would recommend a high-rye, high proof bourbon.  I would also recommend not wasting a great whiskey on a cold.  My choices for cold remedies definitely start with Fighting Cock 6-year.  At 103 proof, it has plenty of bite, and it really zings hard on the finish.  If this doesn’t clear out your sinuses, I’m not sure what will.  If you want the same bite, but you want a little more complexity and character, reach for Wild Turkey 101.  It is one of my favorite winter whiskeys for just this reason.  If you want something really cheap, try Old Grand-Dad Bonded.  It is a pretty drinkable whiskey (even at 100 proof), and I have found it for as low as $15 a bottle.

All that being said, find the whiskey that works best on your cold, and let it ride!

The Ideal Value Liquor Cabinet (Autumn Edition)

Well, autumn is upon us, and it is time to start planning your fall liquor cabinet.  Quite frankly, fall is one of my favorite seasons to drink great value whiskey.  As with my summer edition of the ideal liquor cabinet, I think a quality liquor cabinet should have variety, and it should have a few key components.  Building a quality liquor cabinet is like building a house; once you have a foundation down, you can go anywhere.  Of course, like anything pertaining to whiskey, it all depends on your palate.  Since my palate varies depending on the season (and sometimes the day), the possibilities for an ideal liquor cabinet are endless.  For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on an awesome fall liquor cabinet on a budget.

You should have a solid staple.  My summer suggestion for a great staple was Buffalo Trace, and I will stand by that whiskey as the leaves begin to change.  https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/03/31/buffalo-trace-review/

You should have a solid seasonal whiskey.  Since fall is such a great time to enjoy whiskey, there are many options for my favorite fall seasonal whiskey.  For the money, I think the best option is Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond.  It is spicy and sweet, like good pumpkin pie.  Plus, it is a great value buy.  https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/07/28/rittenhouse-rye-review/

You should have a mixer.  Not everybody that comes over to your house for dinner will want their whiskey straight up, so it is important to have something in the cabinet that you don’t mind seeing go into an Old-Fashioned, Mint Julep, Manhattan, etc.  For fall, I recommend Old Grand-Dad Bonded.  It is a fine whiskey that I enjoy sipping straight, and it has a nice rye zip for a cocktail.  However, it costs under $20, and it is not the best whiskey in the cabinet, so I don’t mind if somebody throws a splash or two in a cocktail.  https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/08/17/old-grand-dad-bonded-review/

If I had a little money left over, I would probably go for a couple of my favorite bottles of whiskey that fit the season well.  These are the ones that come out on special occasions and will last me into December.  If I were me (with a little extra dough), I would get a bottle of Aberlour A’Bunadh and a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask.  I have yet to review either one of these whiskys, but they are both fantastic Scotches around $60 a bottle.  The Aberlour is sweet, full, lightly floral, and oaky.  The Laphroaig Quarter Cask is a lot like the 10 yr. (https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/08/25/laphroaig-10-year-review/), but the former has more complexity, more balance, and a bigger influence from the cask.  Don’t worry, though, it still has monstrous helpings of peat and smoke.  As my rooomate, Chris Broadwell, says “If you can’t go camping this fall, drink Laphroaig.”

Those are my thoughts on the ideal autumn liquor cabinet.  What whiskeys did I leave out?  Which ones did I get right?  What does your autumn liquor cabinet look like?

My Favorite Whiskeys by Price Point

I am often asked, “What’s your favorite whiskey?”  Honestly, that is like asking me to name a favorite child, favorite beer, favorite song, or favorite movie.  I have many favorites, and many of these depend on my mood, and the money in my wallet.  However, I have recently had a request from my good friend, Kate at http://www.kateampersand.com/ for some recommendations for how to give the gift of whiskey.  I have reviewed about 40 whiskeys on the site so far, and here are my favorite whiskeys out of those 40 at different price points.  The prices used are the approximate prices for 750ml of the whiskey.

Best Whiskey under $20:  Old Grand-Dad Bottled-in-Bond (https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/08/17/old-grand-dad-bonded-review/).  This is a very good, rye forward bourbon, with a lot of power.  It doesn’t have the complexity of some other high rye bourbons, but it is hard to beat for $18 a bottle.

Runner-up under $20:  Four Roses Yellow Label (https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/03/14/four-roses-yellow-label-review/).  In comparison to the power of Old Grand-Dad (bottled at 100 proof), the Yellow Label is a delicate rye-forward bourbon.  There is a lot of light spice that tingles the tongue and the nostrils, but it doesn’t quite have the depth of Old Grand-Dad.  Nevertheless, Four Roses Yellow Label is a great buy.

Best Whiskey under $25:  Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond (https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/07/28/rittenhouse-rye-review/).  Not only is this whiskey a great value, it is a great whiskey.  There is a ton of complexity, ranging from spiciness to sweetness to a rich earthiness.  If you want to impress somebody, buy them this whiskey for their birthday.  Trust me, they will think you spent a good amount on it (especially if you put it in a fancy decanter since the bottle design is not especially flattering).

Runner-up Under $25:  McClelland’s Speyside (https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/07/30/comparison-review-scotch-styles-mcclellands-speyside-vs-mcclellands-lowland/).  This is a fine single-malt Scotch for the price.  It has all the delicacy of a Speyside, with the craft necessary to give it some soft chocolate and smoke flavors that give it character.  (It should be mentioned that if you can find Wild Turkey 101, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare 10 yr. Single Barrel, or Jim Beam Devil’s Cut for under $25, they are even better.  However, I live in Boston where I am not quite so lucky.)

Best Whiskey under $30:  Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond.  It still reigns supreme; it’s just that good.

Runner-up under $30:  Buffalo Trace (https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/03/31/buffalo-trace-review/).  It is the bourbon that turned me on to bourbon a number of years ago, and it continues to impress.  It is not overly sweet, leaving the vanilla to be blended perfectly.  It is like eating a perfectly balanced cheesecake (sort of).

Best Whiskey under $35:  Russell’s Reserve 10 yr (https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/07/12/russells-reserve-10-year-bourbon-review/).  Finally, Rittenhouse was dethroned.  Every time I drink Russell’s Reserve, I am amazed at how wonderfully structured it is.  It is like reading a great novel, where the plot unfolds precisely when it should.

Runner-up under $35:  W.L. Weller 12 yr (https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/08/28/w-l-weller-12-year-review/).  This is exactly what a wheated bourbon can achieve.  It is sweet, but complex, demonstrating the many phases of a sweetness.  It reminds me of eating buttermilk pancakes smothered in cinnamon sugar and maple syrup (except not as filling).

Best Whiskey under $40:  Four Roses Single Barrel (https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/08/14/four-roses-single-barrel-review/).  Although this is a single barrel whiskey (meaning there will be some difference between batches), I’ve never had a bad batch of this whiskey.  It is plainly brilliant.  It has the all the spicy rye character of Four Roses Small Batch, but it demonstrates a whole other layer of complexity with a sweet, dark palate.

Runner-up under $40:  Russell’s Reserve 10 yr.  It has rightly remained high on my list even at a higher price point.

Best Whiskey under $50:  Bunnahabhain 12 yr (https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/08/22/bunnahabhain-12-year-review/).  This is really a brilliant Islay whisky.  The sherry influence is strong, but the Islay peat hangs around to provide a perfect balance.  Although this is not a traditional Islay whisky, it is my favorite value.

Runner-up under $50:  Four Roses Single Barrel.  Yes, it can compete with whiskeys that reach above its price point.

Best Whiskey under $60:  Booker’s Small Batch Bourbon (https://bargainbourbon.com/2012/06/21/comparison-review-bookers-vs-noahs-mill/).  This is my favorite whiskey to date, and it should only be given to a true whiskey lover who you love very much.  It is a full, robust whiskey, providing a complexity and intensity rarely seen elsewhere in the bourbon world under $60.  (I have seen Booker’s for as cheap as $47.  If you see it around that price, snatch up a bottle.)

Runner-up under $60:  Bunnahabhain 12 yr.  As many of you are aware, Scotch is expensive.  However, I have yet to find a better value among Single Malt Scotch than Bunnahabhain.

I am stopping at $60, because most people that read this blog are seeking value bourbons.  If you like some recommendations for higher price ranges, feel free to email me at thedagupeir@gmail.com.  I would also recommend that you read the reviews of these whiskeys before purchasing them, just to make sure it sounds like something that will truly be enjoyed by whoever is its lucky recipient.  Let it ride!