About five years ago a couple friends of mine were sipping bourbon at a party. I was a beer guy at the time. I once drank a dozen Guinness in one sitting and peed black for a week. Beer had not been sitting well with me and I wanted a change. These friends of mine should have been employed by the Kentucky ministry of tourism. They sold me hard on it, but in all honesty it didn’t take much to convince me of its greatness.
The first sip was magical: honey, chocolate, roasted almond, butterscotch, a melding of every delicious treat ever with the added heat of alcohol. I was hooked. I wanted to taste every bourbon on planet earth. There’s something about the brown water that harkens back to a time on the American frontier. When I sip it I have a distinct feeling that William Munny is going to sit down next to me and ask if I want to ghost-write his memoirs.
Over the years I’ve had the pleasure to travel to Kentucky and hike[ref]We had a designated driver.[/ref] the Bourbon Trail. By the end of the day I had a richer and fuller understanding of how bourbon was made. My favorite tour, I’ve often told, was at Four Roses. The lady who chaperoned us through the plant must have had a ravenous affair with Elmer T. Lee and Jim Beam.
My time as a bartender I spend attempting to convert every drinker to a whiskey drinker.[ref]Admittedly I’m a fan of all whiskey; this includes bourbon, rye, and Scotch. It depends the day, but if it’s brown, I’m down.[/ref] The popularity of the liquor has made it more accessible and has caused the price to remain reasonable without sacrificing the quality of the product.
To that end, I give you seven whiskeys below $25.[ref]Prices based on recent trip to Binny’s Beverage Depot. Obviously some of these prices won’t be accurate dependent upon where you are. Finding good deals online, however, isn’t out of the question.[/ref] Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments. These are the ones I turn to, but by no means the end all to the conversation.
Old Weller Antique 107: $24
This is a wheated bourbon. “Wheated” or “wheater” is a bourbon that uses wheat in lieu of rye. Typically bourbon is 75 percent corn, 15 percent rye, and 10 percent malt. A wheated bourbon can have a higher proof—in this case 107—without tasting like fire water. I find this product fantastic for cocktails, but I can sip it with an ice cube and be content for several hours. It’s got some kick, a little pepper on the front end, and a black fruit finish. The 10-year is inexpensive, too, and worth your time.
Evan Williams Single Barrel: $25
This is basically our house bourbon at the restaurant where I work. Evan Williams doesn’t have the best reputation, since its flagship bourbon is considered cheap and mass-produced. But this single barrel is clean, sweet, and full of corn. It is perfect mixed with some cognac, Cointreau, and a little Demerara syrup in what could be one of my all-time favorite drinks.
This drink is called the “Morning Glory #2,” a take on a classic Jerry Thomas cocktail called the Morning Glory.[ref]When people had balls they used to drink in the morning.[/ref]
1.5 oz. Evan Williams Single Barrel
.75 oz. cognac (Pierre Ferrand for something tasty and inexpensive)
.25 oz. Cointreau
.25 oz. Demerara syrup (a 1-1 ratio of Demerara sugar to water will work)
Stir and rinse your glass with Absinthe. It’s like Sazerac but not. If this sounds too complicated, simply visit me at Union Sushi and Barbecue and I’ll make you one.
Old Grand Dad: $18
This bourbon and the next two on the list are always at my house. I prefer to call them “inexpensive” and not “cheap.” This product is actually distilled by Jim Beam. As a side note, Kid Rock is holding a competition to see who will be his personal bartender for his upcoming “Best Night Ever” tour. You had to write a 250-word or less reason why he should choose you. This was my entry: I mix Jim Beam in my scrambled eggs when I wake up in the morning. It gives me strength for my job fighting crime. My suit and cape has a “JB” stitched on them. Jim Beam himself called me James Beam out of respect. Jim Beam is the name of my dog and the son I never had. Jim Beam is Latin for “Nectar of the Beautiful Virgins” and became famous when God refused to turn it into water. “Fortune favors the bold,” Virgil once said, but he meant to say, “Fortune favors those who drink Jim Beam.” Jim Beam could beat up Tyler Durden, bed Joan of Arc, and slay Connor Macleod. Once a woman said to me, “It’s Jim Beam or me.” I’m single. Jim Beam is my hero and it takes a hero to serve it properly. Choose me for the “Best Night Ever” tour. After it’s over they’ll rename the tour “Best Nights Ever.” I’m assuming I will be the chosen one. Unlike Jim Beam, however, I think this product is well-made despite its price tag. Lots of vanilla and not much burn on the latter half. Certainly a mixable bourbon and mint juleps are a perfect summer cocktail. Plus, I love calling it the OGD because it sounds like a great rapper name.
Wild Turkey 101: $22
I think there’s two reasons I love WT so much. First, it is said that this was one of Hunter Thompson’s favorite. Thompson’s one of my favorite authors, and I feel like each time I drink it there’s a spiritual kinship that bonds us together.[ref]I gotta drink less and smoke less hash.[/ref]. Secondly, I remember being younger and my father drinking this on the rocks. For me he was the ultimate man and anyone who smoked non-filter Lucky Strikes and drank Turkey probably was cooler than I will ever be. I guess I continue to drink this in hopes of being a good writer and being as cool as my father.
Four Roses: $19
I lived in Japan for a year and when I was there one of the teachers at the school lived right behind my small abode. He had three kids and lived in a house not bigger than mine. He used to invite me over and we’d drink together. He had a bottle of Four Roses that he was very proud of and anytime I see Four Roses I’m reminded of him. I honestly think he was quite miserable, but whiskey helped him get through. We all need friends. Whose to say whiskey can’t be your best?
Eagle Rare 10-year: $25
I found this bottle at a liquor store in my hometown marked down to $23 and I bought two bottles. Neither made it through the evening, but the price on this stuff is practically like giving it away. It does vary so this price might be a little more so don’t send hate mail if you have to spend more. I find this stuff light, a bit on the sweeter side, and certainly drinkable.
Elmer T. Lee: $25
There’s this taco joint in Chicago called Big Star and a great many of my friends practically live at the place. It has—inexplicably—remained cool despite its overwhelming popularity. It is quickly becoming a tourist attraction. With that said, the reason it remains so popular is that their whiskey selection is top notch. And cheap. One night I remember I took so many shot of Lee he ended up talking to me later in my dreams. I think it tastes like toffee wrapped in wet leather. I can’t be sure whether that’s a turn-off or a reason to drink it even more.