Bourbon’s gotten out of hand.
The everyday person can’t find the luscious, rich, caramel-laden whiskey they craved.
In the past decade, folks learned of this holy promised land and started plucking once mainstay brands off the shelf. Now, Weller, Stagg and Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch are friggin’ lottery picks at your state’s largest liquor store, and Elijah Craig is on allocation in some areas.
But there’s light at the end of barrel.
You can still find nice bourbons.
That’s why I recently reached out to my listeners on the Bourbon Pursuit Podcast. I asked them: What are your go-to everyday sippers? I had no guidelines other than that these bottles had to be available. Some may be harder to find than others, but you should be able to find them and at a decent price.
The initial feedback was about what I expected: Many nominations for Henry McKenna 10-year-old, Russell’s Reserve 10-year-old and Old Forester 1920. From then on, the nominations were all over the place, from Baker’s to Old Elk. But two nominations genuinely intrigued me: Jack Daniel’s Barrel Proof and Old Ezra 7-year-old Barrel Strength.
I tossed all five into a blind tasting, so I wouldn’t be influenced by brand name.
Going into the tasting, I had an inkling Henry McKenna would win over my palate. I’ve been in a very McKenna mood lately. It won the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, of which I’m a judge. Would it win this, too? Or would my other love—Old Forester 1920–take the crown? Perhaps, it was one of the two late entries.
Let’s find out.
With Glass No. 1, I found it to be extremely alcohol forward and was stunned how imbalanced it was. The nose simply breathed alcohol, and the palate was so corn forward that I could barely get the slight hint of vanilla it offered. I didn’t know what it was, but was positive that Glass No. 1 would rank dead last in this competition.
Glass No. 2 was a lovely step up from the previous taste. Its maltiness, caramel and dried fruit were charming, and I earmarked it to be a contender.
In Glass No. 3, its beautiful mouthfeel dripped down the jawline like butter, and the baking spice explosion just rocked the back palate. However, it lacked finish, and I hate it when a whiskey teases the senses and brings you to the edge with so much promise only to fall off a cliff with no finish. I just hate that.
But then, everything I had hoped for, the complexity you’re always wanting in whiskey—Glass No. 4—brought it. I’m talking baking spice, caramel, marzipan, dried fruit and more. It was complex, had depth, a brilliant mouthfeel and a long-and-engaging finish with hints of chocolate. At first sip, I felt like 4 was the clear winner. But I had one glass to go and needed to compare No. 4 to the rest.
That’s when No. 5 really offered a heavy dose of caramel, bourbon’s patented note. Sometimes, caramel comes and goes, with a trickle of other notes. And sometimes, like with 5, the caramel just lingers. Could this emboldened note be enough to unhinge No. 4?
To find out, I had to begin my comparative.
My lowest two scores were No. 1 and No. 3. I tasted them first to see which I liked better, immediately moving glass No. 1 to the last spot. No. 3, while it lacked a finish, it certainly had some beauty to it and went to fourth place.
From here, it got tough.
The more I tasted No. 2, the more I liked it. The creamy mouthfeel with lingering sweetness just carried to a long finish. But No. 4’s complexity and No. 5’s caramel bomb were as equally impressive. I decided to put No. 5 in third place, because, while I absolutely loved it, the other two bourbons left standing just had more going on. This was not the day for one-noted bourbons
And so, it came down to the contrasting styles of No. 2 vs. No. 4. I felt No. 2 had an amazing concentration of fruits and a maltiness I couldn’t quite get over. I loved its delicate palate with lingering flavors. By contrast, No. 4 was a big, bold, in-your-face complex kind of bourbon that was edgy, yet smooth, and it made me want to pair a cigar or food with it.
That’s why No. 4 edged No. 2 for my Best Everyday Sipper: While great in nose, taste, mouthfeel and finish, it left me wanting more, wondering what cigar to pair and how a juicy ribeye would taste next to this beast. But it was close enough that I can accurately say No. 2 might win on another day.
See, blind tastings are tricky. One day you like one bourbon, the next day you like another. And I’m just one person. You shouldn’t take my word for it; you should take yours. Go buy and try:
Fred Minnick’s Best Everyday American Whiskeys
5. Jack Daniel’s Barrel Proof, $60
4. Henry McKenna 10-year-old Bottled-in-Bond, $30
3. Old Forester 1920, $60
2. Russell’s Reserve 10-year-old, $30
1. Old Ezra 7-year-old Barrel Strength, $40
So, there you have it. Old Ezra 7-year-old is my pick for Best Everyday Sipper of 2018. It will now go on to compete against some major heavyweights for my Best American Whiskey of 2018. Will it win?
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More Info: forbes.com