Bourbon culture is a lot like sneaker culture. We wait in lines, enter raffles and hunt on secondary markets for bottles with the words “Limited Edition” etched in gold leaf (or we get a Task Rabbit to do the deed for us).
For everyday whiskey drinkers not part of the Instagram #crotchshot generation, frustration can set in. What must the layman do to buy even the most humble of allocated bottles? An answer can be gleaned from the WOPR supercomputer in WarGames — “the only winning move is not to play.”
Maybe it’s time we all embraced the anti-hype: The lower-middle shelf. The bourbon normcore. Because the best whiskey isn’t the stuff flipped for hundreds of dollars on your local Facebook group. It’s in those bottles that are always on the shelf, always reasonably priced and always good. Here are five standbys.
Wild Turkey 101
Age: 6-, 7-, 8-year-old blend
Somehow, someway, the whiskey you drank at college is cool among bourbon bros. It isn’t without reason. Wild Turkey’s high-proof, low-cost 101 blends 6-, 7- and 8-year old whiskeys, and it is made with the same mashbill, barrel char and process as all its other whiskey (both high- and low-end). There isn’t a bottle at you local liquor store that packs more flavor into every dollar than 101. The $20 to $25 bottle, bursting with vanilla, oak and black pepper, is the perfect gateway into high-powered bourbon.
Elijah Craig Small Batch
Age: 8- to 12-year-old blend
After a long stint as an oaky 12-year-old whiskey, Elijah Craig Small Batch lost its age statement in 2016. This wasn’t well-received by the bourbon community, but the bottle has remained the same proof and price as it was then, and it’s better than almost everything it sits next to on the shelf.
The contemporary expression is a composite of 8- to 12-year-old juice. It’s both an excellent table whiskey and appetizer for Heaven Hill’s harder-hitting bottles (namely, the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof). Given the price, you can mix it without guilt, though its flavor is good enough to drink out of a snifter.
Four Roses Small batch
Age: 6-, 7-year-old blend
Five expressions comprise Four Roses’s permanent whiskey portfolio, which scales linearly in price and, to most drinker’s minds, quality. Between the Yellow Label and Single Barrel offerings lies Small Batch, a high- and low-rye blend an 6- to 7-year-old bourbons. According to Four Roses Master Distiller Brent Elliot, the final mix is a dead-even split of two mashbills and a 70-30 split of the distillery’s K (slight spice) and O (rich fruit) yeast strains. The final result is an equally warm, dry, sweet, caramel-forward bottle that’s remained remarkably consistent over time.
Knob Creek Single Barrel
One could argue that Knob Creek’s Single Barrel Reserve doesn’t deserve a place on this list — especially when the standard Knob Creek straight bourbon is a perfectly good alternative. To hell with that.
This carries a 9-year age statement, the allure of the single barrel, near cask strength proof (120!) and an easy-to-like brown sugar taste. All that for $35 to $45 is a steal in today’s bourbon environment, and you’d be a fool not to buy it. Sip Single Barrel straight, with an ice cube or mix into an Old Fashioned — the baking spice richness works nicely with the orange.
Old Forester Signature 100
Age: No age information available
Signature 100 is the modern history of bourbon in a bottle. After the federal government signed the Bottled In Bond Act of 1897 into law, Old Forester juiced its staple offering from 90 proof to 100 proof to meet the new standard. But when drinkers began favoring lighter spirits — vodka, rum and the like — the whiskey category tanked, and Old Forester was forced to blend its whiskey down to 86 proof. As the whiskey industry returned, so did Signature 100 — a stouter, older (though still without an age statement), more flavorful version of the easy-drinking 86 proof offering. Its initial taste and finish are characterized by a caramel richness and fruit sweetness. Find it anywhere for $25 to $30.
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