Blend Your Own Bourbon

Or try ours.

Article by Fred Minnick

Have you ever walked into a liquor store and not seen your favorite bourbon? If you’re like me, a knot forms in your belly, you break out in a cold sweat, and you feel the need to stomp your toddler-heavy foot really loudly, fold your arms, and groan: “Why? Oh Lord, why taketh our beloved bourbon away?” You look through the store, and all you see is stuff you wouldn’t normally touch. Some call the brands “value” and others call them “bottom shelf.” Either way, it sure isn’t Blanton’s, Pappy, or even Maker’s Mark. Welcome to Bourbon 2019.

Once upon a time, your eyes feasted upon deal after deal, with people lamenting over the fact that the 2002 dust-laden George T. Stagg cost so much—$70—and the audacity of Elijah Craig 18-year-old at $35. Today, Stagg is so hard to find your best bet is buying in underground markets, and Elijah Craig 18-year-old now costs four times the original price.

Bourbon pricing is more complicated than simple supply and demand because the whiskey must be stored in costly new charred oak, and the evaporation from barrels cuts into the bottom line. Essentially, the bourbon boom didn’t exist 18 years ago, when that precious Elijah Craig 18-year-old was made.

So, here we are now: standing in a liquor store with only a dozen bottles worth buying. When you ask the store manager, “What happened to all the great stuff?” he closes his eyes, trying to hold back what he’d really like to tell you, and says, “This is what we have.”

But fear not, you can control the bourbon in your glass. You can home-blend your own bourbon. That’s right, you can create your own bourbon glory by blending your own stuff. What you’ll need is a measuring device, some empty bottles, and patience. Here’s how you do it.

 

Base Bourbon  When mixing your own bourbon, you must have a base. You want something that you can always find. So this isn’t the place for Pappy. Think Maker’s Mark, Evan Williams Black Label, and Four Roses Yellow Label, all brands relatively easy to find. This base bourbon will be the volume or most dominant in the blend. But you don’t want something that lacks flavor or is easily muted by stronger bourbons. That’s why I really like Heaven Hill Distillery brands: Larceny, Evan Williams, Henry McKenna, T.W. Samuels, Elijah Craig, and Fighting Cock. Each of these stands up to anything.

 

Flavoring Bourbon  This is the higher-end bourbon, one that has so much flavor you’ll taste it no matter how it’s mixed. I love the higher-rye bourbons for this, especially Four Roses and Old Grand-Dad 114. But cask-strength bourbons, like Barrell and Booker’s, can really stand out in a blend because their potency never lets the flavor die. This should be the second most-used bourbon.

 

Finishing Bourbon  When selecting a finishing bourbon, I look for age. These are the bourbons north of 15 years old that are hard to get and often homers to sip by themselves, or can be over-oaked. Think Pappy Van Winkle, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Elijah Craig 18-year-old, or Orphan Barrel series that have 20-year-old and older bourbons. A little goes a long way and can provide structure and finishes. They often do not require much to stand out.

 

Here’s a blend to try:

  • 51% Evan Williams Black Label 5- to 6-year-old bourbon at 86 proof with a strong nutmeg note. This base provides an excellent complement to what’s coming.
  • 39% Four Roses Small Batch A composite of 6- to 8-year-old Four Roses offers a rich cinnamon note that will ameliorate flavor in any blend. This becomes the dominate note.
  • 10% Pappy Van Winkle 23-Year-Old Okay, okay, don’t throw darts at me, but this rich, caramel-forward wonder will provide a buttery mouthfeel and velvety structure you cannot get elsewhere. Trust me.

Tasting Notes: What begins as a baking spice delight—with nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and allspice appearing—turns into a vanilla stronghold. Vanilla custard, crème brûlée, tapioca pudding, and cinnamon-dusted baked apples, followed by buttered popcorn, chocolate ganache, and brown sugar. This feels brilliant on the palate, velvety to the core, and finishes long and strong with a hint of cinnamon.

So, here we are now: standing in a liquor store with only a dozen bottles worth buying. When you ask the store manager, “What happened to all the great stuff?” he closes his eyes, trying to hold back what he’d really like to tell you, and says, “This is what we have.”

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