If I had one hundred dollars to spend on whiskey….

A few weeks ago I was asked a question by a twitter follower (@GQuiz) and Sour Mash Manifesto visitor. He wanted to know “if I had $100 to spend, what whiskey(s) would I buy?” Bill over at Modern Thirst thought it would be a good idea to pose the same question to a number of other whiskey enthusiasts, bloggers, and writers in order to get their take as well. The responses are on his website, but below you can find mine.

Over the years I’ve been asked a thousand times to provide a “best” list of whiskey. I’d love to, but that’s just hard. If a whiskey lover can tell you exactly what her favorite whiskey is then I’d say she hasn’t sipped enough whiskey. I sure as hell couldn’t give you a top 10 or 20, much less a top 5. Every whiskey has a personality to fit a certain mood. It’s not much different than having a diverse mix of friends – you enjoy spending time with all of them for different reasons. Even a seemingly innocent question such as the one above becomes very hard when you consider all of the options.

First let me provide some context. There were few rules applied to this question – it could be approached from any possible angle (and I did!). The first constraint I placed on my response was to make certain I only considered American Whiskey. If you’ve visited this website enough I’m sure you know that Made in the U.S.A products are my area of focus. After that, anything goes!

I’ve attacked this question in too may ways. For example, right now I’m sipping a delicious barrel strength Booker’s Bourbon. It’s a delicious whiskey – never fails! If I allow recency bias to go crazy this Booker’s ($55) and Elijah Craig Single Barrel ($35) (for good measure) would wrap this thing up quick (I just cheated but you might want to write those down). Find me on a Tuesday with a hankering for a fabulous American Craft Single Malt, and the St. George Spirits Single Malt 14th release ($80 and a truly incredible pour) along with a handle of Evan Williams Black Label might get the nod (cheated again, but check these out). Get the point? This is a complex scenario. I needed order. I needed a compass to guide me.

The classics are classics for a reason. Can you find better? Perhaps, but you’ll be splitting hairs. The versatility that the classics bring to the table are simply too good to ignore. So, with that, the way I answered this question is I marched into my dining room, which holds hundreds and hundreds of bottles of whiskey, and I looked for the ones I purchased most. What do I buy? Regardless of what I think on a random day, I buy certain whiskeys consistently. And that I suppose is the best endorsement I can give.

If I had $100.00 to spend on whiskey, this is what I’d purchase?

Four Roses Single BarrelFour Roses Single Barrel ($35): If you love whiskey, please do yourself a favor and type “Jim Rutledge” in the search box on the top right of this website. Feel free to read the background on Four Roses and watch the videos I did with Jim, the Master Distiller, a number of years ago. Four Roses is easily a top 3 distillery in the U.S, maybe the best, but that’s subjective. The way the distillery works with recipes, yeast strains, and aging philosophy is completely different from everyone else. The distillery’s single barrel is the flagship of the lineup – fruity, well structured, bold and vibrant, but extremely well balanced. I have a bottle or two of the Single Barrel on hand at all times. It’s a requirement. Typically I’ll drink it neat or with a cube of ice, but don’t hesitate to make a bourbon-forward cocktail. It’s not against the law with such a good whiskey, and rest assured it will certainly stand up and be accounted for.

Rittenhouse Rye Bottled In BondRittenhouse Rye Whiskey ($25): Personally, no home bar is complete without a quality bottle of rye whiskey. Rittenhouse happens to be a bit more versatile than most others. It’s not quite as green and herbal as other popular rye whiskeys, and the value proposition is on point. If you are new to rye whiskey – start here. If you are well acquainted with rye whiskey – stay here. Rittenhouse Rye always delivers.

W.L. Weller 12 YearW.L. Weller 12 year ($30): Forget all of the “it’s the same stuff as Pappy” bull crap. That’s no reason to by it. Buy Weller 12 because it’s an excellent pour of whiskey on its own merit. It’s rich, sweet, but with a healthy oak backbone. Wheated bourbon north of the 10 year mark just becomes special, and Weller 12 exemplifies that. I drink it neat, in an old fashioned, a mint julep, and on ice in the heat of the summer – versatile and delicious. Availability is tighter than the others, but unlike a lot of the limited releases, Weller 12 shows up couple times a year. Talk to your local shop, request a bottle and let me know what you think. I typically by 3-4 bottles a year at my local retailer to make sure I have enough on hand.

Edited Note: While I’ve got a little money left over with the above list, I also took into account price variances depending on area. The above prices are an average for what I see, but Four Roses Single Barrel can push that $40 range at times, and Rittenhouse can move $2-3 north. So the above are ballparks.

There you have it. It may not be sexy, it may not be unique, but it’s what I buy. That is as good a recommendation as I can give. Share with us what you would buy if you had $100 to spend. Just as importantly – tell us why.

Cheers and drink your whiskey!

-Jason

Bourbon Review: Evan Williams 1783 & Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond

As we soldier on in 2015 (it’s already March!) Sour Mash Manifesto continues to take a look at value priced American Whiskey. A few readers provided a great reason (comments section) to take a look at Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch. While purchasing EW 1783 I also locked in on Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond (OHHBIB). Some of you may have seen my review a couple years back of Evan Williams White Label Bottled in Bond. You can check that one out here. Given that OHHBIB is from the same producer (Heaven Hill), and bottled at the same proof, it has some promise.

Before we tuck in here, let’s consider the fact that both of these bourbons are in the $12 range. You may even find them cheaper depending where you live. Price never factors in reviews on this website, but it always factors when determining the value proposition.

Evan_Williams1783_10_Year_Old_Kentucky_Straight_Bourbon_4393939Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch Bourbon, 43% abv (86 proof), $12/bottle
Color: Medium Amber
Nose: Caramel, vanilla, ripe orchard fruits (apple), cinnamon toast, a touch of flint and river rock earthiness. Moderate oak backbone.
Palate: Caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, baked apple, with bitter oak notes emerging mid palate.
Finish: Warm barrel spices and a long lingering finish.
Overall: Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch is an excellent whiskey. The wood influence is greater in comparison to Old Heaven Hill, but still a composed and balanced whiskey. It packs a good deal of depth and complexity of flavor at such a great price. We all win!
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.5 Excellent

20131212oldheavenhillOld Heaven Hill Bottled In Bond Bourbon , 50% abv (100 proof), $12/bottle
Color: Medium Amber
Nose: Vanilla, nougat, almond toffee, banana peel, and a twinge of sour mash. Candy shop aromas abound, but it’s still bright and lively.
Palate: Vanilla, caramel, and toffee up front, warming quickly with barrel spices. Some welcomed bitterness emerges late on the palate. With a splash of water, apple and banana notes are present. Very classic bourbon flavors and well balanced whiskey.
Finish: Bitter caramel, cinnamon and clove spices, some lingering fruit. Moderate length finish.
Overall: In a nutshell, Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond reminds me that there’s some tremendous bourbons available at incredible prices. This is right there with Evan Williams White Label Bottled in Bond and Old Barton Bottled in Bond in terms of quality and value. If you prefer something a little milder and less barrel influenced – you may even enjoy OHHBIB more than both. Excellent whiskey at $12. Again – we all win!
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.7 Excellent

Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch and Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond are two excellent whiskeys at exceptional prices. You cannot mistake the family resemblance between them, but each whiskey has a little different attitude. EW1783, while lower in proof, has a little more zip and spice, with OHHBIB a more balanced whiskey. Pick your poison, or just grab both for the price of one good bourbon these days.

Drink your bourbon!

Review: McAfee’s Benchmark Bourbon

You’ve probably seen McAfee’s Benchmark Bourbon at your local liquor depot. If not, head to the Bourbon aisle, look a couple shelves down from eye level – there it is. As many times as I’ve scanned right over this bottle I’ve never purchased it before. I’ve had it a time or two here and there, and been asked my thoughts, but frankly couldn’t ever remember anything specific. It was time to give it a closer look as a we work to “keep it real” in 2015. Is it a bottom shelf gem or merely a solid cheap pour?

BENCHMARK NO 8 2McAfee’s Benchmark Old No. 8 Brand Bourbon, 40% abv (80 proof), $12/bottle
Color: Light Amber/Gold
Nose: Clean and fruity with notes of vanilla, dried apricot, sweet orange, corn oil, and honey.
Palate: Straight forward – Vanilla, light caramel sweetness and bright fruit.
Finish: Vanilla, fruit and faint spice – finish drops off quickly.
Overall: Benchmark bourbon is a light, bright bourbon produced by Buffalo Trace. It’s an easy, pleasant sip, but doesn’t bring much flavor to the party. While rather cheap, there are other bourbons in the $11-$15 range that are better pours.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.4 (Good)

Review: Pure Kentucky XO Bourbon

Pure Kentucky XO Straight Bourbon is one of the many brands produced and bottled by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd. (KBD) out of Bardstown, KY. If you are unfamiliar with KBD as a company, you will probably recognize many of the whiskeys they produce – Willett Family Estate Bourbon and Rye Whiskeys, Willett Pot Still Reserve Bourbon, Noah’s Mill Bourbon, Rowan’s Creek Bourbon, and numerous others.

KBD operates out of the Willett Distillery, which it has owned since the 1980’s. As an aside, it’s a charming distillery that sits atop a bluff not far from Heaven Hill distillery. The whiskey that makes up Pure Kentucky XO, as well as the others mentioned above, are sourced from unnamed distilleries. KBD has built their supplies by purchasing new make spirit sourced in bulk, and then aged in the Willett Distillery’s aging facilities on property. They’ve also procured fully or partially matured whiskeys that were distilled and aged elsewhere. I’m sure many of you know by now that a lot of this stuff is shrouded in mystery. I’m certainly not going to be able to clear that up – it’s sourced and I suppose that is that.

In January 2012 the Willett Distillery began distillation once again. This past fall the company released their first rye whiskeys that were distilled, aged, and bottled on property. I have bottles of both the 107 and 109 proof ryes (purchased at the distillery). The whiskeys absolutely need more time in oak to realize the complexity and depth that longer aged rye whiskey typically possesses, but Willett has a good foundation with these whiskeys.

Let’s get back on track to the whiskey in question. Pure Kentucky XO Bourbon is a high proof (107) small batch straight bourbon whiskey. It has no age statement (NAS) so we really don’t know how old the whiskey is, but that’s not uncommon nowadays. As recent as 2-3 years ago, Pure Kentucky XO stated the whiskeys in the bottle were at least 12 years of age. We can venture a guess that is no longer the case. Age only matters to a point, and at the end of the day what matters is how the whiskey tastes. Let’s find out….

pure-kentucky-xo-300x300Pure Kentucky XO Straight Bourbon, 53.5% abv (107 proof), $28/bottle
Color: Copper/Medium Amber
Nose: Cinnamon and barrel spices (right up front), toffee, maple sugars, dry dusty oak quality. Faint dried apricot and fruit notes linger on the edges.
Palate: Spicy, rustic, and woody. Cinnamon, clove, and some bitter barrel notes (and grip) make way for oily corn, vanilla, and faint toffee sweetness.
Finish: Warming spice/heat and zip, corn, and a fruit. Long finish.
Overall: Pure Kentucky XO Bourbon is a good choice for those that like spicy and oaky bourbons. It’s not overly sweet, and the price point is good considering the proof. It does take water well, and is recommended to brighten up the party a bit. If it has a fault it’s that it’s not particularly well balanced, but it fits a profile that many may appreciate.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.3 (Very Good)

Sour Mash Manifesto in 2015

Happy New Year! I hope that 2014 was kind to all of you. If it wasn’t –fear not! Simply resolve to make 2015 your best year yet. I’m going to work hard to do the same for me and my family.

There is one a regret I have for last year. I’m very disappointed with my lack of activity on Sour Mash Manifesto. If you’ve visited in the last 12 months you’ve probably read numerous excuses from me. I’ll refrain from making any specific promises, but I do intend to make Sour Mash Manifesto worth your time in 2015. I’m very grateful that you have stuck with me in spite of the snail’s pace of new content.

As I look back on 2014 from a whiskey point of view, I am a little disappointed to be honest. Not about a lack of great whiskey, mind you. There’s some awesome stuff out there. I’m not even overly concerned about escalating prices. Sure, I hate paying more for whiskey, but I adjust my expectations accordingly (probably like you do). What has really disappointed me is all this clamoring for limited releases, rare whiskey, and the constant questioning of “which one’s better, which one should I buy?” The whiskey loving community is so overcome with finding these limited and rare bottles that little else seems to matter. I’m worried we are forgetting to appreciate all that is readily available.

Bloggers must take the bulk of the blame for fanning these flames. I’ve come across as the head of the Pappy Propaganda Parade at certain points over the years (Guilty!). Yes I feel the 15 year is one of the great whiskeys on the planet, I truly do, but it’s all a bit much. Ironically this contributed a bit to the inactivity here. Why pile on to this fervor?

As an aside – I recommend ignoring every review you see on a Van Winkle, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC), Four Roses Limited, etc. If you want to secure these rare releases I’d start making friends with a few local merchants. Find out how the store determines who gets a bottle of these highly sought after whiskeys. Then spend your money with the one or two that you feel give you the best shot. You’ll have to talk to owners and buyers at the stores and get a good “read” on that. Show the store that you are committed to giving them your business, and ask them to do the same. Like anything in life, ask for what you want, but be realistic about it (they can’t satisfy everyone). If the store is one that uses a list – get on it and be patient. When you have the opportunity, buy it.

Back on track……

The answer for me and for Sour Mash Manifesto is to get back to basics. That means focusing the majority of reviews on products with at least some moderate availability. There are so many gems out there that are overlooked while we scan for scan for labels of old men or deer antlers. I’m going to shed more light on those whiskeys. Some limited releases will find their way on the site from time to time, but less often. As a result, Sour Mash Manifesto won’t be your best place to find the latest ratings on the 2015 BTAC or Limited Edition Four Roses. For that information there are a ton of other great resources.

Another area I’ll be looking at more closely is “craft”/“micro” whiskeys. I hate both of those terms, but this segment of the industry continues to grow and evolve into a category on its own. It represents a lot of younger whiskeys, regional styles, and more unique grain bills and recipes. Fear not bourbon lovers – this won’t be a micro-only site, but I do wish to help wade through some of this stuff on the shelves.

Honesty, I’ve never had an original idea when it comes to Sour Mash Manifesto. I just talk about what has my attention. Other bloggers and industry folks have stated the same as I have above. I’m not trying to grandstand or act above the fray, and I don’t begrudge others that feel differently. Clearly people want to know what enthusiasts think about certain whiskeys.

To put my thoughts in perspective, consider for a moment that I’m sipping a beautiful Eagle Rare Single Barrel (private barrel selection) from One Stop Wine and Liquors in Johnson City, TN. It’s easily on the best whiskeys I’ve drank in the last six months. It’s spectacular, but writing about it is pointless due to your chances of securing some. Even still, you probably have a better chance getting this than you do some of the others I’ve mentioned. That’s the problem with all this hoopla, and I don’t need to add to it.

Please consider this a glimpse into where things are going at Sour Mash Manifesto. I know it will allow me to provide more value to the whiskey loving community. Thank you again for visiting.

Happy New Year to you and yours and drink your whiskey!

Jason

Review: High West A Midwinter Nights Dram Rye Whiskey

High West released “A Midwinter Night’s Dram” Rye Whiskey earlier this year. It has taken some time to hit my area sadly, but I was finally able to procure a bottle. This whiskey is of the same blend of straight rye whiskeys that make up the distillery’s Rendezvous Rye bottling. It consists of a 16 year old rye whiskey from Barton distillery blended with a 6 year old 95% rye grain whiskey from Midwest Grain Products (MGP), formerly LDI. The final blended whiskey is then finished in both Port and French Oak barrels.

HighWestMidwinterNightsDramFront900_grandeHigh West A Midwinter Nights Dram Rye Whiskey, 49.3% abv (98.6 proof), $85/bottle
Color: Medium Amber
Nose: Familiar MGP (Former LDI) Rye rounded with more sweet notes. Mint, cinnamon, and gin botanicals meet dried dark fruits and berry aromas. Vanilla caramel sweetness anchors the nose.
Palate: Caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, raisin, and red berry syrup. Nice oak grip and balanced barrel notes.
Finish: The port finish lingers – dark fruits, caramel, and warm spices.
Overall: A Midwinter Night’s Dram is a delicious mingling of rye whiskeys enhanced by the finishing process, not overcome by it. In this case the fruitier, richer aromas and flavors from the port balance the base rye’s bright notes. In an industry that has seen independent bottlers go from sourcing whiskey and placing their label on it, to sourcing whiskeys and shoving it in a finishing barrel, any barrel, it’s nice to see a deft hand with finishing yield an improved product. Well done!
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.2 (Superb)