I drink bourbon, but my father didn't. Not much of it anyway.
There was always a half-gallon of Jim Beam in the cupboard behind the bar for anybody who'd ask, but he drank Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. I don't know why, except he'd been in the service, traveled the world and developed a fondness for Frank Sinatra.
It was just one of his quirks, like the bemused contempt he held for the Beatles (which I suspect he got straight from the scene in Goldfinger where James Bond insists that "drinking Dom Perignon '53 above a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit" is "as bad as listening to the Beatles without ear muffs") and his fondness for the countrypolitan stylings of Jack Greene and Ray Price. (Though my father drew the line at Bobby Goldsboro, I grew up thinking country music was something you could sing in a tux.)
I say this just so you'll understand that I didn't grow up with all the advantages, and that I've had some overcoming to perform. I wandered in the wilderness for years. I drank canned Schlitz as a kid and thought it was cool. I was so clueless in college that I smuggled -- and by smuggled I mean I didn't wave the bottle in the assistant provost's face until after I made it through the turnstile -- a pint of Canadian Mist into Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.
A friend of mine from Vanderbilt says that would have gotten me blackballed from the better fraternities around Nashville. Well, lah di damn dah.
I was probably 30 years old before I settled on bourbon as my drink. And that was after flirtations with Remy Martin champagne cognac (thank you, Pete Townshend, you beautiful old sot), Italian wines (go ahead, quiz me on the old Denominazione di origine controllata) and single malt Scotch (which I liked well enough until I realized that there were people who took that stuff way too seriously).
So maybe you got a head start on me. But who among us hasn't changed majors a time or two? All you without sin, go on and chuck a rock at me (but understand that among the motley regulars hanging about my place hoping to avail themselves of my top-shelf stuff is at least one bona fide seersuckered-up lawyer who owes me plenty).
That's enough introduction. I want to start at the beginning, so to speak, by which I mean where I started. When I was in high school, driving around the dark roads listening to Foreigner and Journey and the original Lynyrd Skynyrd, I might have had a sip or two of Old Grandad or Wild Turkey (that was a little pricey for us back then), but the main bourbon we drank was Old Charter.
(We also bought and drank Pepe Lopez tequila, Black Tower wine and 151 proof rum that we'd pour over Icees. Sophisticated lot, us.)
The way it would work is that, after we'd cruised McDonald's, we'd swing over to Sonic and order 32-ounce Coca-Colas, pour out about half the soft drink and most of the ice, and replace it with about a quarter of a fifth of Old Charter. Because we'd all passed chemistry, we generally went for the 101 proof rather than the standard 80 proof. We preferred the knot of fire it made in the gullet to the roasted vanilla, caramel and honey notes of the 8-year-old standby.
The palate, they say, becomes more refined as you get older. I am not ashamed to call myself a pretty successful semi-professional bourbon drinker, and my tastes have become more rarified.
. . .
But I want to say this about bourbon. It's hard to find a bad one. I like all of them.
(Let's get this out of the way. Bourbon is barrelled corn whiskey. The mash bill must have at least 51 percent corn. It has to be bottled at 80 proof or higher. That's it. It doesn't have to be from Kentucky. They make pretty good bourbon in, among other places, Colorado and Arkansas. It doesn't have to say anything particular on the label. It doesn't even have to be marketed as "bourbon." Those are the house rules. You don't agree with them, fine. I don't care.)
While I like a lot of high-end sipping bourbons and almost always have at least one cracked open at the house, I know there's no reliable correlation between a bourbon's price and its value. I've had 15-year-old Pappy Van Winkle's and it is very good. But back in a more innocent time, I tested 12-year-old Pappy's better than the 15-year-old; and I like the 10-year-old at least as much as the 12-year-old. But I probably like Colonel EH Taylor's Small Batch Bottled in Bond, a whiskey you can often find for around $55, just as much. (Pappy's is currently trading at $599 for a bottle of the 10-year, $850 for the 12-year, and $1,299 for the 15-year.)
Even if I did like Pappy's a lot more than the alternatives, I can't blow a year's liquor budget on a single bottle.
For years, Evan Williams was our house bourbon. It's a little rough around the edges, but I like that. If I made a lot of mixed drinks with bourbon (I'm more likely to use rye) I'd still have a liter around.
Fighting Cock isn't bad at all. At 103 proof, it's got the sort of kick you'd expect, but it's nicely spiced and a whole lot smoother than you'd expect for a product whose trade dress evokes a sultry Saturday night in Cabuyao, Laguna. All I knew about Fighting Cock before a friend slipped me a free sample was that Ry Cooder used to cut off the necks off their bottles to make his slides.
I like Knob Creek; I like the Knob Creek Reserve even more. I also like the popularly priced Bulleit and Tin Cup (which they are calling "American whiskey" with a "bourbon profile," although it meets all the qualifications for being bourbon). Step up a little, and I like Michter's Small Batch, which runs about $45 a bottle.
That's a long way from Pabst Blue Ribbon and those generic white cans with BEER printed on them that we used to drink in college. (That was a real thing, boys and girls. You can Google "Generic Beer Can" and see what I'm talking about.) But hey, we lived without washing machines and proper flatware in those days, too.
I retain some affection for the downmarket Olds -- Charter, Grandad, Taylor and Crow. Maker's Mark is almost too sweet, but it doesn't cross any Rubicons. While there are places I haven't been -- sorry, I've yet to try some of the plastic jugs of brown liquor you sometimes find in out-of-state supermarkets -- I'm inclined to hypothesize that there is no such thing as bad bourbon.
Now there's no scientific basis for this; I haven't gotten a grant to survey all the Heaven Hill brands, or the Monarch line out of Oregon; I don't have to buy the budget products and so I probably won't. I hear some of that stuff is pretty bad (but most of that pretty bad stuff is not really bourbon).
I do know that there's bad Scotch and bad vodka -- and bad bourbon-like products that are dosed with neutral spirits -- but I've never had a sip of bona fide sour mash that I wanted to immediately expel. Maybe that says something about your loyal servant here, but it seems that the distance between the best bourbon and the worst is much shorter than the distance between the best and worse Scotches.
You can help me out with this -- send me your nominations for worst bourbon. That might make a fun column; what's the worst spirit you will willingly drink? What the worst you regularly drink? What is the worst behavior you've ever blamed on the bad stuff you've put in your body?
Expiate your shame by emailing me your stories. I won't tell anybody. At least I won't use your name without permission.
Style on 01/21/2018
Print Headline: If there's a 'worst' bourbon, let's find it