If you are a Southerner, whisky is just something that is there like soul food, mosquitoes, and humidity. In college, we all mixed whisky in a Coke filled stadiumcup. When life got a little more sophisticated, maybe it was into a Presbyterian’s drink with half ginger ale and club soda amongst cracked ice. (Sleek Collins glass, lemon twist garnish and all.) Some of us learned whisky from flasknips in duck blinds or thawing out with our granddad after a wade in a cold mountain stream. We never called it Bourbon, just brown liquor: Whisky. We never called sippin’ whisky Bourbon simply because that is what whisky is to us, simply. And the folks in Kentucky will tell you it has to come from barrels that rested on their hillsides. Of that, it might be hard to argue. Perhaps there is merit in Scotch Whisky and Irish and the blends they make in Canada and we have our mountain white corn whisky– but whisky is Bourbon in the South.
For some reason Bourbon is all the talk. The vodka makers fear the shift of female drinkers to the dark side. Brown liquor is working its way out of the margins of winter and into the seersucker and whiteshoe months. Maybe it’s the huge resurgence of Southern culture. The South is hot– the damnyankees are moving here in droves. Pop-up New York hotspots are serving barbeque and whisky drinks. Whether it’s being a low country squire, a neohillbilly or a greasy delta city beatnik– the east coast is hungry for Southern culture and is drinking it vicariously in our spirits.
So we read about all these Bourbons, in blogs and articles and everyone has a favorite. The brand is very personal to most. Your neighbor has a bottle that is deeper in the cabinet that’s ‘special’. My sister in Northern Kentucky has labels on her shelf that I’ve never seen or heard of. We live in North Carolina and go to the government run alphabet store. All those twisty Southern roads, equally punctuated with little white Baptist churches and shanty shacks with red dots on them– but not in the Ole North State, you take what you can get from the government regulated stores (maybe we can blame moonshiners of yore?).
So with a fixed availability of brands, I figured we could settle down a bit on what is worth taking off the shelf at the old ABC. I thought I’d get a few friends and a few bottles and have a little Bourbon tasting contest. After explaining to the wifeladies that the contestants were the brands and not the men at our supper club, I had a good panel of judges.
So the set up was pretty simple. I piped thirty-two test tubes with a half ounce of eight different Bourbons. I china-markered each set of four with an i.d. number and put them a bucket of ice to chill them. The tasters were not prior-told what whisky was in the lineup. The spirits were eight bottles of whisky that already were in my cabinet. Mostly moderately priced and representative of what you see on the next-to top shelf of a North Carolina ‘alphabet store’– I did leave out Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek (they were wiped out around the end of hunting season), I regret that– so we’ll have to do it again on another day. I resisted the urge to put in higher shelf production choices like Baker’s, Booker’s, and Basil Hayden, because I wanted it to be a test of moderately priced and available stuff. I regret not putting Wild Turkey in the mix because it is so classic. So this isn’t a perfect test– even of the NC available brands and the folks in Kentucky are probably laughing at the things we don’t even know about! In the mix there were three kickers: Jim Beam, every Southerner’s first childhood nip and Bocephus’s favorite; I put in a North Carolina distilled whisky, Defiant, that seems to be gracing the shelves with all the Kentucky stuff these days; and the wrench, the venerable Pappy Van Winkle 15 year that retails for sixty dollars and can be bought around here for 125-200 bucks with a good connection.
When the test tubes had come to readiness in the ice bucket and my panel sat down, it became clear that the wives were going to participate. So the sample size doubled from four to eight. Of the tasters, we had three bourbon connoisseurs, two women that can hold their liquor (the third was disqualified because she said everything was horrible), and a man and woman that were indifferent to whisky and would likely take it in a highball over bourbon and branch given the choice.
We randomly drew the viles and shared the liquor cold and straight with our spouses, scoring each whiskey 0-5 on a card and noting comments on flavor, nose, and finish. Their were utterances ranging from “Dayyum that’s good” to “Dayyum that tastes like shit”. “This tastes like Jim Beam from college.” “Sharp.” “Strong.” “That has vanilla in it”. “Excellent!” “Umm… nutmeg”.
And then the line up was revealed.
- Makers Mark
- Jim Beam
- Michter’s Small Batch
- Pappy 15
- Jefferson’s Reserve
- Four Roses Small Batch
On average, Jefferson’s Reserve and Maker’s Mark earned equally far superior grades to all the other sips. The regular Bourbon drinkers all picked up on the quality of the Pappy, and the less experienced liked its taste profile– but scoffed at the bite of higher proof. The Jim Beam fell right in the average with the others. I personally and blindly gave Four Roses a high grade, again others picked out the higher alcohol content. Bulleit, for all its acclaim, didn’t do as well as expected. Few had the palate to actually swallow the North Carolina made Defiant. It was bad, maybe it isn’t ‘bourbon’ and the sharp flavor stood out defiantly among the rest.
I would be really curious to see how other common bottles perform against our bottles with higher mark’s. We’ll have to run this exercise again to see how Woodford and Knob and maybe Eagle Rare stand up.
It was a pretty damn fun activity for a bunch of couples on a cold winter weekend. All I can conclude is that moderately priced Maker’s is a standby. It is just as good cold and naked as it would be in a football drink cut with ginger ale. Somethings are just very safe and classic, Maker’s is one of those brands. Jim Beam seemed to hold it’s own, despite having a glamourless notoriety. I’ll probally make a few more lawnmover drinks out of it in the summer instead of pouring the pricier stuff in Coke. It seems for a bunch of average guys like us that Pappy is better for tickling our vanity than having value in drinking. Perhaps Four Roses and Jefferson’s Reserve is a pretty good top shelf for an occasional cut glass drink. Sorry to say the North Carolina stuff just wasn’t that good– it was really bad.