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Bourbon: A love story

photo(6)“Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough.” – Mark Twain

I started drinking whisky for all of the wrong reasons.

I chalk it up to youth, mostly. You see, once I reached legal drinking age, I realized that it was time to put away childish drinks. Once I could purchase a six pack at stores that actually looked at your ID, I bid adieu to Natty Light and anything with “ice” in the name, and set out to broaden my horizons with real beer.

My taste in liquor was also due for some refinement, which was limited to whatever mixed well with some sort of carbonated sugar water or readily available fruit juice. And I made the decision early on that I wanted to learn to drink whisky.

I couldn’t shake this romanticized vision of myself later in life, perhaps having a cocktail in a smoky bar after work, or at some posh soiree, sipping a glass of straight whiskey. And in this image, I was always wearing a suit, usually with loosened tie. I wanted to be Don Draper, except this was years before Don Draper existed.

Simply put, I wanted to drink like a man, and whisky is a man’s drink. Or at least, I thought I would look cool drinking it.

But as I began to train myself – at the time, even smelling whiskey that wasn’t mixed mostly with coke would make me gag – I had a revelation: There was more to bourbon than handles of Jim Beam at a tailgate. There was a whole world of good whiskey I hadn’t discovered.

The first time I tasted true sipping bourbon, it was a glass of Woodford Reserve on the rocks. I remember looking down at the glass in disbelief. Lost in the rich amber liquor, with complex notes of vanilla, spice, caramel, and oak. The smoky sweetness, and the warmth that spread through my chest. I loved this stuff, and wanted more.photo(5)

Obviously, I grew out of the whole “coolness” appeal, and began drinking the most American of cocktails for all of the right reasons. I still savor that first sip of a good glass of bourbon, the one that makes you close your eyes, smile, and exhale slowly, relishing the last hints of oak and heat on the tongue.

Fast forward into my thirties, and I’m a full-fledged bourbon snob. I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite bourbons and bourbon related things. I’d love to hear from other bourbon aficionados with your favorites as well.

Best bang for your buck: Buffalo Trace

Best “must have at all times” bourbon: Blanton’s

Best “you gotta know a guy to get it” bourbon (And best overall): Pappy Van Winkle, 15 year

Best bourbon selection in Atlanta: Local Three

Best bourbon-based cocktail: Manhattan, with a properly made mint julep a close second.

- By Jon Watson, Food & More blog

82 comments Add your comment

East Lake Ira

April 13th, 2012
7:50 am

In my mind, the best cheap bourbon is Ten High even though it’s now technically whiskey and not bourbon. We use this for Old Fashions, B & Ginger Ale & Whiskey Sours.

Sipping Bourbon fave is Wild Turkey.

Robert

April 13th, 2012
8:36 am

Ditto on Buffalo Trace. The best deal on it is the 1.5L bottle at Total Wine – I think about $32. The same maker’s Eagle Rare is a good one too but about 6 bucks more a 750ml bottle. Woodford Reserve is the one that got me interested in bourbon again also – it’s still one of my favorites.

Bourbon FREAK!

April 13th, 2012
8:46 am

Four Roses Single Barrel is Sublime.

The True History of the old Four Roses brand and it’s ties to Atlanta is interesting (Though it has nothing to do with the modern product)

http://www.atlantaga.gov/index.aspx?page=429

DMA82

April 13th, 2012
9:13 am

Rebel Yell…..14 Years before the Glorious Victory at Chickamauga. It goes down like a pack of razors and once ruined the finish on my car.

William

April 13th, 2012
9:35 am

Mount Gay Rum neat from Barbados, West Indies.
The world’s oldest rum.
If you ask for a rum and coke/Cuba Libra they will give you another brand.

Doc Hollidawg

April 13th, 2012
9:39 am

Ahhhh…..bourbon warms the Doc’s heart. My favorite is Black Maple Hill. $42 at Total Wine. A fantastic sipping bourbon. My interest is peaked though on the Buffalo Trace. Have not had that. Ditto on Local Three’s bourbon selection. Fantastic.

Wow I’m thirsty.

Susan

April 13th, 2012
9:41 am

Every year for my birthday I buy myself a bottle of Woodford Reserve. mmmmmm

FM Fats

April 13th, 2012
9:41 am

Wathen’s is the favorite in our house. Excellent small batch bourbon at a semi-reasonable price Resolution High Rye Bourbon makes a really nice Manhattan, too.

CT Gutz

April 13th, 2012
9:48 am

Agree on Four Roses and Buffalo Trace. Both are high quality and good price points. Local Three is awesome, but don’t forget Holeman and Finch, both the bar and the bottle shop. They know their bourbons and whiskeys! And get yourself some good ginger ale if you like a splash. Blenheim can be found at Fresh Market.

Marine 1

April 13th, 2012
9:54 am

Bullet Brand, small batch rye, 95 proof and Bullet Bourbon, 90 proof, small batch, about $32.00 each.Great straight.

Westside Resident

April 13th, 2012
9:56 am

My personal widely-available sipping favorite is Basil Hayden’s. I know it doesn’t have quite the burn that many bourbon aficionado’s crave, but for me the easy drinkability and smooth vanilla/caramel flavors make up for it. If you haven’t tried any of the Woodford special editions (Four grain, Sonoma aged, etc.) you really should. All are in very limited quantities, but worth the roughly hundred bucks you’ll spend.

Brad Kaplan

April 13th, 2012
9:57 am

We’re fortunate to have so many great bourbons at affordable prices. My favorite entry level is Four Roses Yellow ($14 or so?). For $23, Elijah Craig 12 year old is an excellent choice. For $28 or so, Elmer T. Lee is a knockout.

Toby Miller

April 13th, 2012
9:57 am

Black Maple Hill is the best bourbon I have ever had. Simply delicious as it is sssooo smooth and goes down like butter.

JPK

April 13th, 2012
9:58 am

Four Roses small batch and single barrel are both excellent. Elijah Craig 18 year is also high on my list. Best value to me is Bulleit, though the price has gone up a bit over the last couple of years.

Smokewagon

April 13th, 2012
10:01 am

I married into a Kentucky family and the one’s that drink “government” liquor drink Makers Mark. Myself, I prefer the smoothness of a Crown on the rocks.

DJ

April 13th, 2012
10:10 am

Crown? Seriously?

Pretty good list Jon. Buffalo Trace is excellent and affiliated with PVW. I also love Blanton’s and the Black Maple Hill Black Label (mentioned above). For a true value bourbon, I go Old Forrester. Ask a Brown-Forman rep to explain the difference between Old Forrester and Woodford Reserve. Regarding best overall, I prefer the 20 year PVW Family Reserve. I like it even more than the 23. The fall release of PVW was light, but the spring release was good. I gobbled up 2 15’s and 2 20’s. That should take care of me for awhile (and by awhile I mean 3 months).

angela

April 13th, 2012
10:17 am

Love this and agree with all of your selections. I love the bourbon wall at Local Three, especially when the sun shines through and the leaves are falling in bourbon colors behind the glass. I would add Black Maple Hill and Willett as great sippers.

Bluegrass Babe

April 13th, 2012
10:17 am

You forgot Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve as a close second. And best bourbon drink, the perfect cocktail, is Maker’s and Ginger.

The Walrus

April 13th, 2012
10:33 am

Old Overholt is a great value for rye.

bryan

April 13th, 2012
10:33 am

Just had a bourbon tasting at Southern Art and Bourbon bar. Four Roses and the (somewhat) new Maker’s 46 were both amazing.

Bourbon lover

April 13th, 2012
10:37 am

Bookers is a great bourbon too.

FoodFan

April 13th, 2012
10:47 am

John, reading your story, I feel like we live parrallel lives! Same love of bourbon as you, however, after years of drinking that, I have now moved on to scotch. Found bourbon to be increasingly too sweet for my tastes. Now that there’s a whole world of blends, single malts, peaty, non-peaty, smokey, cask finished, etc. etc. to explore, I haven’t gone back.

Throbson

April 13th, 2012
10:52 am

Bulleit is the best bang for the buck. Old Pogue is fantastic, but harder to find in GA. http://www.oldpogue.com/ Great Article. My path to bourbon snobbery has been very similar to yours.

PapaDoc

April 13th, 2012
10:55 am

A professor at Sewanee was known for his passion for Pappy’s. When some student secretly put a bottle in his casket, my thought was that he was thinking it was a waste of good whiskey.
I enjoy a Basil on the roof garden of Eddie’s Attic. Regularly drink Makers. Have to try Black Maple.
However when I am on the porch of my cabin overlooking the Cartecay, it has to be Pappy.

MD

April 13th, 2012
10:57 am

Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey 101, Rebel Yell (once gone in a single afternoon). All neat. Getting thirsty too at 10:57 AM!

Rusty

April 13th, 2012
11:04 am

1792 is great and very affordable too! Very spicy note right off bat! Cant beat Pappy when you can find!!
Makers ialways good standby for those old fashioneds and manhattans….. A great site is The cocktail spririt with Robert Hess. He has great bourbon cocktails. Also Bourbonblog.com is awesome too!

True Burbon Lover

April 13th, 2012
11:18 am

I concur with most of the comments, however I would suggest for everyone to try George Dickle. It is one of the best kept secrets for a smooth, gentler varity of that other Tennessee Mash. I love Knob and Woodford but for the money Dickle hit the spot.

New to Me!

April 13th, 2012
11:30 am

The news about Four Roses being distilled in Vinings is Really cool!! Why is this not known?! Or is it?

Either way, Thanks, “FREAK”!

PTC DAWG

April 13th, 2012
11:31 am

Remember all Bourbon is Whiskey, but not all Whiskey is Bourbon.

On my rotation, Jim Beam Black, Turkey 101, Buffalo Trace, Woodford, Knob Creek.

IF you’re on a budget, Costco Liquors sometimes has a Kirkland Branded Bourbon, it’s not a bad drink. One little known factoid, you do not have to have a Costco Card to buy in their 2 liquor stores. Cash/Debit/AM EX only though..

JRHD

April 13th, 2012
11:32 am

What does everyone think about Knob Creek Single Barrel 9yo? Someone gave me a bottle as a gift. To be honest I would rather drink the moonshine I got from a friend in Ila. Bourbon is my spirit of choice and I typically reach for Makers or Jim Beam. I am interested in Buffalo Trace now after first seeing it last week at the Partridge Inn in Augusta.

Bhorsoft

April 13th, 2012
11:49 am

Just got back from a trip to Berea, KY last weekend for a couple of night’s in the historic Boone’s Tavern Inn. Great place with a great restaurant.

While there we made the hour drive north to visit the Woodford Reserve and Four Roses distillery. Samples at both, with samples of all of the 3 Four Roses brands. Of course, the Woodford Reserve was just as mentioned in the article, but the Four Roses Single Barrel was just as tasty. I was impressed. Their Select Blend is also very good. I’ve been a Bulleit man for the last couple of years, but I think I’m moving the Four Roses.

I also highly recommend both tours, but I liked the Four Roses better. Nice explanatory video at the start and it’s free (Woodford charges 5 bucks for the tour). If you’re in the area, you can do both plus the Wild Turkey distillery in a day.

Jon Watson

April 13th, 2012
12:27 pm

Great suggestions everyone. If I’d put up an “honorable mention” category, the list would be longer than the rest of the post. I wholly agree with the votes for Four Roses Single Barrell, Maple Hill, Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Wathens, and Willett.

I’d started out interested in whiskey, but quickly discovered I preferred bourbon over the rest. PTC is right…not all whiskey is bourbon. Nothing irritates me more than when I ask what Bourbon a bar has and they list Jack Daniels.

@CT GUTZ- H&F has a fantastic bourbon selection. My go to drink order there is “bartender’s choice, something with bourbon.” It is a great way to discover new bourbon cocktails, especially because rye lends itself to cocktails better than the sweeter bourbon.

Mia

April 13th, 2012
1:17 pm

A little more pricey but Bookers or Eagle Rare are my 2 favorites!

Buffalo Trace, Makers, Knob are all great too. Just a slight step down from the two above.

chef

April 13th, 2012
2:02 pm

For and expensive burbon I reach for Blantos so I agree with you 100%. For an affordable choice I go for Four Roses Small Batch.

Patrick Garrett

April 13th, 2012
2:34 pm

Great story Jon! I love hearing how people made their way to bourbon and how it plays a role in their lives. I think whole traditional aspect of bourbon is one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. I actually wrote a post about my own bourbon journey a few weeks ago.

http://www.bourbonbanter.com/bourbon-banter/my-bourbon-journey/

Cheers,

Patrick

Jackson

April 13th, 2012
2:42 pm

Mentioning the word Blanton’s makes me drool. Great list and great article.

SteveBM

April 13th, 2012
3:51 pm

Best bang for your buck: Just found Evan Williams 1783 for $9.99 – a must try if you like bourbon on the cheap and have a sawbuck lying around.

Best “must have at all times” bourbon: Four Roses Single Barrel and Basil Hayden

Best “you gotta know a guy to get it” bourbon (And best overall): Pappy Van Winkle, 20 year

Best bourbon selection in Atlanta: Holeman & Finch Public House

Best bourbon-based cocktail: Old Fashioned.

Bob

April 13th, 2012
3:54 pm

Try MARK TWAIN Slow Old-Style Mash Kentucky Straight Bourbon, definitely number 1 in the “Best Bang for the Buck” category, if you live in a state where it is available!

And if you can’t get Mark Twain whiskey, remember his words, “Taking the pledge won’t make bad liquor good, but it will improve it.”

Bob in Decatur

April 13th, 2012
4:20 pm

Best whiskey for under $20- Rittenhouse Rye 100; favorite bottom shelf bourbon- Evan Williams 1783 (especially with the 10 year age statement); favorite top shelf bourbons: Four Roses Single Barrel, Maker’s Mark 46, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey Rare Breed. Best hard to get- PVW 15 or 20, of course! Best/favorite place to drink whiskey of all types- Mac McGee’s on the square in Decatur. My wife and I did the entire Bourbon Trail last summer and also ate at Boone’s Tavern in Berea referenced by an earlier writer…loved it. Thanks for this blog post, John!

Amy

April 13th, 2012
4:29 pm

Became a bourbon afficionado when my sister moved to Louisville about 10 years ago. Made it my personal mission to find the best. My husband bought me 6 bottles of single barrel bourbons for Christmas this year. Spent the holiday morning tasting. May have a new tradition…

Anyway, the (very) surprising winner was Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. I was shocked, ‘coz I’m a loyal Buffalo Tracer. Having said that, #2 was Eagle Rare. Buffalo Trace makes Eagle Rare and Blanton’s, as well. Best distillery tour on the bourbon trail is Buffalo Trace. Really nice people, generous tastings, super-educational, beautiful grounds, and they permit photography.

Tobin

April 13th, 2012
4:47 pm

Blanton’s definitely my fav. Elmer T Lee is my best bang for buck. Buffalo Trace is perfect for manhattans IF, BIG IF you use a higher quality vermouth. Dolin Rouge or Carpano Antica are AMAZING sweet vermouths that will take an average bourbon to new heights. You don’t want to waste Blantons in a manhattan thats for sure. The reason most folks don’t like manhattans is because of crappy vermouth. 2 oz BT, 1 oz Dolin, 3 drops angostura bitters and some whisky re-hydrated dried cherries (made a week in advance). Put the kids to bed and give the wife a free pass for ladies nite. Its just you and your new best friend. Oh, and Bulliet Rye for old fashioneds.

Greg

April 13th, 2012
4:56 pm

I’m glad to see that bourbon makes everybody happy – does that to me too.
One comment about Boone’s Tavern in Berea, Ky… it’s in a dry county – you have to bring your own.

Art

April 13th, 2012
5:54 pm

Great topic Jon! Rowan’s Creek is another keeper.

Rick

April 13th, 2012
7:31 pm

Good article, great to see there are so many bourbon fans. In my humble opinion:

Best bang for your buck: Elijah Craig 12 yr or Elmer T Lee

Best “must have at all times” bourbon: Bakers or Wild Turkey 101

Best “you gotta know a guy to get it” bourbon (And best overall): More emphasis on best overall than hard to find, but Parker’s Heritage or Jefferson’s Presidential Select

Best bourbon selection in Atlanta: Mac McGees on the square in Decatur

Best bourbon-based cocktail: This is blasphemy. Drink it neat.

James

April 13th, 2012
10:14 pm

Best thing about the Food and Wine tasting tents last year was the bourbon section. Agree with Rick about Jefferson’s presidential select – had it there, and it’s unreal (was a solid first place for me).

Abj

April 14th, 2012
12:05 am

So nice to see there are others out there who share the romanticism of bourbon! I’m 44, and have always enjoyed a good drink of bourbon. I’ve drank Old Charter 8 or 10 y.o. with Sprite or Ginger forever. However, something came over me this past Fall, and I REALLY developed an almost insatiable thirst for bourbon. Like you, I really wanted to go further down the rabbit hole. So what to do? Take a trip to bourbon country, of course! So my father and I went to Frankfort the week before Christmas to drink bourbon and tour of couple of the distilleries. At the top of our list was the Buffalo Trace distillery, located right in Frankfort, KY. The night before our scheduled tour, we made our way down to the hotel bar to begin imbibing, and in a huge stroke of luck, met a guy who happened to be the Director of Parks, Recreation and the Historical Society for the city of Frankfort. This is the guy you’d pray you met in an unfamiliar city…..the guy that knows everyone in town, can pull a few strings and can show you the ropes. After striking up a good conversation and finding out we were there to drink bourbon for the next two days, he promptly announced “You’re with me,” and proceeded to take us to the nicest restaurant in town, a wonderful place called Serafini. Upon grabbing three seats at the bar, meeting the bartender and being awestruck at the selection of liquor (bourbon, in particular), he announced to him that we were in their fair city to drink the best bourbon in the world, and proceeded to order us each a Pappy Van Winkle 20 y.o. on the rocks, filled all the way to the rim. Long story short, it was damn near orgasmic. A whole new level of bourbon…..period. We ate fantastic food, had great conversation with a new friend, and drank the best bourbon in the world that night. The kind of night you don’t want to end. The best part? He even unexpectedly picked up the check!!! Still trying to figure out what we did to deserve something like that. We spent all the next day at Buffalo Trace, and toured Maker’s Mark the following day. Both tours were good, but we really enjoyed the “unpolished” aspect of the Buffalo Trace tours more. They really take you into the heart of the process, dirty areas and all, and we really liked that. Highly recommended. We did the hard hat tour in the morning and the standard tour later that afternoon. Anyway, we were treated like royalty by (for all intents and purposes) a total stranger in Frankfort. It was without question the trip of a lifetime, and restored our faith in humanity to a degree. I’d highly recommend visiting the city of Frankfort if any of you are interested in touring some of bourbon country. We’ve never been treated with such appreciation and kindness in a strange city. After tasting PVW for the first time and finding out how hard it is to come by, we went on the hunt. Called Total Wine in January and got on the list for the Spring release. Glad I did! I now have a bottle of 15 and 20 y.o. :-) So, if I’m mixing, it’s Old Charter all the way. But if not, Maker’s 46, Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, and PVW 20 y.o. (only on very special occasions) are my current favorites for sipping neat or on the rocks. Almost done with building my dream bar, so when it’s complete there are MANY more on my list to try. But whatever your favorite, remember: It’s about the journey, not the destination, so enjoy the ride!

Billy T

April 14th, 2012
12:21 pm

Can’t believe Ezra Brooks(90 proof) hasn’t been mentioned. OK not a true sippin’ bourbon but when mixed you get a bang for your buck. $22 for 1.5 bottle. Based on your article I will give Buffalo Trace a shot.

suwanee guy

April 14th, 2012
12:55 pm

After years of drinking expensive bourbons, I discovered George Dickel and Evan Williams and never looked back. Of all the boutique bourbons, Booker Noe is hard to beat.

Covert Hops Society

April 14th, 2012
12:57 pm

I love rye.

Also, I had an Old Pogue at Mac Magee’s last week that was off the charts.

HST

April 14th, 2012
12:58 pm

I must say, I enjoy Bourbon. My favorite for sipping on the rocks is Jim Bean’s Devil’s Cut. If I’m not sipping, I prefer Wild Turkey. No matter what I try, Wild Turkey always seems the best, IMO. There’s something honest about taking a swig of Wild Turkey.

I’ve tried them all and every single time I feel like I get ripped off if it’s not Wild Turkey or Devil’s Cut.

FTR, I prefer my cars and Bourbon from Kentucky.

Everyone have a good weekend and a great drink – cheers.