Football is still over 2 months away and while there is some content worth writing about, getting the creative juices flowing is sometimes a challenge. But there are other juices that can help with not only creativity but also have often helped with getting through a difficult Gopher loss. Those juices are America's Native Spirit...Bourbon.
Several of us on the TDG staff appreciate and greatly enjoy bourbon/ and ryes. We often share our favorite distilled grain to kick off our TDG Hangouts. There have been a post or two discussing only bourbon. I have had some special bottles sighted for me from TDG community members and I have returned the favor this past fall. All of that to say that bourbon is part of the community here and to give us a break from writing about Gopher sports we wanted to put together a TDG Bourbon Bracket.
What exactly is bourbon? A quick lesson.
Bourbon is a type of whiskey. Whiskey is a distilled grain that is aged in oak barrels. There are some rules in order to be classified as a bourbon.
- It must be produced in the United States. A common misconception is that it has to be made in Kentucky. Most bourbon is produced in Kentucky, but that is not a requirement.
- The grain mashbill used must be at least 51% corn. The other 49% is a different combination of rye, wheat and usually a little bit of barley.
- The grain mash is distilled and then has to be aged in brand new, charred, oak barrels. There is no minimum age requirement.
- there are a few other, more technical requirements that are less important at this time but you can read about them here.
Scotch is also a whisky, but it is made from 100% barley. Irish Whiskey is also made of barley and typically has a slightly different distillation method. You can also find Canadian whisky (usually mostly rye based), Japanese whiskeys and even some from India. Bourbon tends to be sweeter than the rest due to the high sugar content in corn. Rye is also a whiskey that tends to be a little heartier than bourbon (think wheat bread vs. white bread).
A couple of years ago this really became a passion of mine and I spend far too much time stopping in liquor stores, participating in online groups, hunting down unique bottles and not nearly enough time drinking (that's probably not true I drink a lot). So the 16 bottles below are really going to be some of my favorites, were someone else to put a similar bracket together you would likely see very different pairings. But this is my bracket, my regional groupings and my selection of bottles.
I have created four regions of four bottles in each. The regions are arbitrary groupings that I came up with along with some help from the rest of the staff and a few other internet bourbon friends of mine.
Value Bourbons Region
Considering that my liquor budget is not unlimited and if my wife were to get her way it would be dramatically reduced, I pride myself on finding a handful of bourbons that I think are outstanding and you won't have to empty your wallet. These bourbons are all under $30 and most are relatively easy to find.
When most people think of bourbon they think of Jim Beam or Southern Comfort or Jack Daniel's. These are all cheap and crap (yes, you can call me a bourbon snob). Some liquor stores you walk into will have Jack Daniel's on the top shelf...you can just go ahead and walk out of those stores if you are looking for anything in this bracket. This region is about bottles that are both quality and inexpensive; not just cheap.
Weller 12 yr - the top seed of this region and is an outstanding wheated bourbon. For those of you who are familiar with the Pappy Van Winkle craze, Weller 12 is universally considered an excellent option if you are unable to get your hands on a bottle of Pappy. The grain mashbill (a higher wheat content than others) is the same as the Pappy recipe, just a younger version. It is increasingly difficult to find but can be found at different times throughout the year. If you can find it you'll pay in the $26-30 range.
Elijah Craig 12 yr - my favorite everyday pour. This can be found all over town and there are a handful of stores who have selected their own single barrel of this. $20-25. Not a lot to say about it for now other than I love this stuff.
Evan Williams Single Barrel - this is a 10 year old bourbon and a single barrel. As a single barrel one bottle you purchase at one store may have a different taste than one you purchase at another store, but they should be pretty similar. This again can be found around town and several stores have selected their own barrel. This bottle routinely gets high marks, 2013 and 2014 both received a 93 rating which is very high. And the best part...you can find this bottle for $20-22.
Buffalo Trace - The Buffalo Trace distillery (Sazerac is the parent company) makes several great bourbons. This is their standard bottling but it is surprisingly tasty. Aged 8-9 years and is very good and smooth. Another great value for right around $20. On rare occasion you may find a store with a BT single barrel private selection, if you do...buy it.
Honorable Mention: Four Roses Single Barrel (over $30 but very good), Old Grand Dad 114, Makers Mark 46 (also not under $30 but a good standard pour). Eagle Rare 10 yr is also excellent at around $28-30.
Barrel Proof Region
One trend in the bourbon world is to release barrel proof bottlings. Typically a distillery will take barrels, mix them together and then water them down to a specific proof. When bourbon comes out of the barrel it may be very strong (around 130-140 proof) or it may be weaker (100-120 proof) depending on how long it was in the barrel, where it was in the warehouse and how hot the summers may have been while it was aging. To keep a consistent flavor profile for their regular labels they will water them down to a regular proof. This is why, for example, you see every Maker's Mark bottle at 90 proof.
BUT now the trend is to not water them down and just release them at barrel strength. These bourbons are strong and most will water them down a little bit to tame the beast just a little.
Stagg Jr - Buffalo Trace releases an annual George T. Stagg which is one of the most sought after bourbons (barrel proof) each and every year. It is usually aged around 15-16 years, it is very strong yet still maintains a terrific flavor. Last year Buffalo Trace released some 10 year old barrels of Stagg and labeled it Stagg Jr. It was met with harsh reviews from the experts who were expecting it to taste like the senior version. But once it hit the market people loved it, including this guy. Hard to find, not impossible. First release was around 134 proof.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof - another 2013 new release that got the bourbon world very excited. Elijah Craig's barrel proof is also strong (different releases in upper 120s and low 130s) but it is dramatically different than the Stagg Jr. I'll get into the flavor profile later but this one is thick and tasty. Also hard to find but it is released a couple times a year and not impossible.
Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof - another big boy released by Buffalo Trace but this one is also drastically different in profile from the two above. This one might be my favorite as I find it has a unique sweetness to it's finish. Easier to find than the two above but you'll probably pay a bit more for it.
Bookers - this was the first barrel proof bourbon and has been on the market for about a decade. This is a standard BP and was the idea of Booker Noe, master distiller at Jim Beam. This one can be had around the $40 range at the right store.
Honorable Mention: If you find a store with private barrel selections, they'll often have what are regular offerings but at barrel proof. Four Roses Single Barrel can be found at some stores at barrel proof, if you see it...buy it!
Ryes are not bourbons. Why? Because they are made primarily with rye (again 51%), not corn. But they are similar and I will include them in my bracket. Why? Because I want to.
Most ryes on the market are all made at the same distillery in Indiana. MGP is a large distillery who produces but does not sell under their own label. They have multiple recipes and will sell to other distilleries looking to sell product while the stuff they distilled ages. Sometimes there is a tremendous amount of secrecy and intrigue surrounding these bottles because there are no legal requirements to state who actually distilled the juice. If you see a label that says "bottled by Company ABC" that is usually a red flag that they didn't actually distill it themselves. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but worth noting.
Sazerac - Buffalo Trace's standard rye, this is kind of the best go-to rye on the market. Aged around 7 years and can usually be found for $30-40. There are periods of time when it is difficult to find so don't wait to buy it if you see it. It may be gone soon and not back on shelves for a few months.
High West Rendezvous Rye - High West releases some great ryes, I chose this one to put in the bracket. They also are currently not selling their own distilled rye. They are, however, open about the fact that they are sourcing from MGP with their stuff waiting in barrels.
Bulleit Rye - Also MGP, I told you most of the ryes on the market are not who they say they are. But this still has a distinct profile different from the rest. This is kind of a standard rye that is clearly above the bottom shelf and not going to break your wallet.
Templeton Rye - This one is also sourced via MGP but if you read the label Templeton makes it sound like they have been distilling an unearthed family recipe from before Prohibition. Templeton is an Iowa company that is distilling their own rye, with their secret recipe but current bottlings are sourced. It is very popular and for a time was hard for stores to keep on shelves. But it is from Iowa so...
Honorable Mention: Michter's Rye, this is actually very good. Not as easy to find and going to cost you a bit more. Old Overholt is cheap (I mean CHEAP), like around $12 but for the money I think it is very good. A great rye for mixing your Manhattan and it is drinkable straight as well. Angel's Envy Rye. This is one of the more fascinating ryes I've ever had but I can't tell if I love it or kinda don't like it. It is just really interesting.
Limited Edition Bourbons Region
This is the heavy hitting region. These are all 1-seeds and outstanding bourbons. But these are going to cost you and they are really (REALLY) hard to find. I spend most of the year building relationships at targeted stores with the hope of being able land one of these bottles. These are the ones where if you were so inclined you'd be able to resell these at 2 or 3 times their retail (sometimes more).
Some of you may be familiar with the phenomenon that is Pappy Van Winkle. This is the most limited edition and most sought after bourbon in the world. Buffalo Trace distills this bourbon for the Pappy Van Winkle label and it is annually released in the fall. The most sought after bottles are the 15 year, 20 year and 23 year releases. These are so absurdly hard to get that I chose not to include them. Are they extremely tasty? Yes. Are they worth the incredible hype? That is arguable. They do win awards, which makes them even harder to get. But again, they are so absurd I am excluding them from this bracket. The Pappy 20 is one of my favorite bourbons I've had, this isn't sour grapes for never finding one or not actually liking it. I do like it and I have had my hands on bottles.
George T. Stagg - I mentioned this one earlier, but this bourbon is one of the most sought after in the world. Buffalo Trace releases a Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) annually around the same time as their Pappy release. The Stagg is one of these and is probably my favorite of the BTAC collection. Last year's version came in at about 143 proof, this year was much tamer but both were outstanding. What makes this so great is that it is VERY strong but doesn't overpower and maintains great flavor and smoothness after the initial pop.
Four Roses Lt. Edition (Single Barrel or Small Batch) - each year Four Roses releases their LE Single Barrel in the spring and their LE Small Batch in the fall. The LE Small Batch was Whiskey Advocate's American Whiskey of the Year in 2012 and 2013. The Single Barrel is also outstanding. I'll explain the difference later in more detail, but both are getting harder to get and both are great.
William LaRue Weller - another member of the BTAC, also barrel proof and also amazing. This is a similar recipe to that of Pappy so you'll find some similar characteristics with one notable exception being that this one is barrel proof. The 2013 release was 136 proof, the strongest of this brand since it was first released in 2005.
Parker's Heritage Collection - This is a very different release every year from Heaven Hill's Master Distiller Parker Beam (yes that Beam family, different distillery). Parker picks out something unique every year to be a special and limited edition release. Some years are better than others but they are all unique and some of the older versions can be found online for 4 or 5 times their retail.
Honorable Mention: The rest of the BTAC; Sazerac 18, Eagle Rare 17 and Thomas H. Handy Rye. Old Forrester Birthday Bourbon is also an annual release that is sought after by some.
So there you have the inaugural TDG Bourbon Bracket with a bit of commentary. Feel free to share your thoughts on the bottles below and tell me what I missed. I'd love more than anything to hear what is in your cabinet and what you like to drink on a regular or semi-regular basis.
EDITOR'S NOTE: I am going to be out of town for a week and way off the grid. So be patient, the actual voting in the regions will occur in about a week. But I wanted to get this out to open up discussion.