mightyflynn asked: I've come to enjoy bourbon more regularly over the past couple of years. Maker's Mark, Basil Hayden's, and Knob Creek are the usual suspects, George T. Stagg on special occasions. I only name-drop to give you an idea of my palate. (An incident during my high school years put me off Jack Daniel's for life.) I prefer my whiskey neat or with a few cubes of ice. Lately, I've branched out to rye whiskey. Though the marketing and name annoy me, I like Rī. But it's pricey. In an effort to cut costs, I tried Russell's Reserve Rye. Unfortunately, it tastes like bad black pepper to me. Do you have any recommendations in the area of inexpensive rye whiskeys, or bourbons that don't need a mixer to be enjoyed?
This is an excellent question, and one I am only about halfway qualified to give you a good answer on. The sad truth is, many of my bourbon-purchasing habits are fairly suspect, formed not by taste and careful consideration, but by sentimentality and a dubious sense of humor.
For example, there are two bourbons in particular I always try to keep on hand on the S. 12th liquor shelf: Cabin Still and Heaven Hill. Not because they’re good (they’re not, really), not even because they’re cheap (they are), but instead for these reasons:
- “Cabin Still” can very easily be spoonerized into the phrase “Stab ‘n’ Kill.” If you came into my living room, and I poked my head out from the kitchen and asked “Would you care for a splash of the old Stab ‘n Kill?” could you say no? Of course you couldn’t. You’d chuckle and say “Of course, Andy.” We’d clink our glasses in a toast, and then we’d make out. Or talk about some “project” we are supposedly working on, or whatever it is people do in my living room.
- In 1996, the Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, about fifty miles outside Louisville, burned to the ground. 90,000 gallons of bourbon were lost, and you could see the plume of black smoke from miles away. It was a dramatic event, and one that imprinted itself on the memory of everyone in town. Now Louisville is full of two types of people: people that get sentimental about bourbon, and people that play in bluegrass bands. Bluegrass bands are not known for original topical songwriting, because not much happens in the day-to-day lives of contemporary bluegrass musicians that would be good subjects for songs. A distillery burning down, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of thing that actually sounds like it might actually happen in a bluegrass song. So within six months, every bluegrass band in town had written a song about the distillery burning down. They all sounded the same: “I remember when that old Heav’n Hill distill’ry burned down / Folks could see that tower of smoke from ev’rywhere in town.” But it was a really unifying event. It seemed to bestow some kind of credibility on people that had never seen a country baptism or a coal mine disaster — at least they’d seen a distillery fire. So every single time I pour a glass of Heaven Hill, without exception, I will say something like, “You know, I remember when the old Heaven Hill distillery burned to the ground.” Then I get a far-off look in my eye, and say, “Seems like every bluegrass band in town wrote a song about it.” Seriously, every single time.
See? These are aren’t reasonable criteria for judging the value of bourbons. That said, there are some top-shelf bourbons I like to get when I can: Ridgemont Reserve 1792 is perhaps the best bourbon I have ever had. I am a big fan of Buffalo Trace for easy mid-price sipping, as well. My friend Dave swears by Four Roses’ various lines, many of which were only available in Japan for many years.
Rye whiskey, on the other hand, is something I have only recently come around to, and almost always for mixing Old Fashioneds in the classic (i.e., non-Wisconsin) sense: rye whiskey, sugar, bitters, maybe a little soda water and a lemon slice. I would tend to trust the distilleries I know, and go with their rye brands. Buffalo Trace makes a nice Thomas H. Handy. They also own the Old Rip Van Winkle brand, which makes a very fine reserve rye whiskey, as well. Plus, I guess there’s always Old Overholt, which is old and cheap — if it can’t be good, I usually think, it should at least be old and cheap. Plus, derelicts used to call it “Old Overcoat,” I hear. So perhaps there’s that.