A go-to is great, but the ride might be better.
Story by Kevin Gibson
It’s taken me a while to fully understand that not all bourbon is created equal.
But if I try a straight Kentucky bourbon, I have a good idea from the start what I’m likely in for, at least in a ballpark sense. If someone says it’s a high-rye bourbon, yep, I have a good idea what’s coming. And a straight rye, absolutely, with all its distinctive spiciness.
But I recently tried a 100 proof straight bourbon that turned the tables on me. I mean, it was an award-winning bourbon, and the aromas I got were enticing and familiar, but the liquid itself was not at all what I was expecting, teeming with unrelenting ethanol. I won’t even go into naming the distillery, but it didn’t hit me in a positive way and sent me running back to my current go-to of Russell’s Reserve 10 year.
But what I am learning about bourbon as I continue my foray into the flavors and culture is that I could have any number of go-to pours, depending on my budget at any given time. And what pleases my palate might not please another’s, which is all part of the fun.
For instance, I meet plenty of people who rave over Johnny Drum, a moderately-priced product bottled and sold by Willett, and I admit, it’s a solid bourbon. But it isn’t on my list of favorites. In fact, while it’s certainly affordable and easy to find, I would still rather have the far-more-affordable Old Forester 86 for its versatility. Or the ultra-accessible Buffalo Trace.
That said, if, for instance, I could get my hands on Weller Antique on a daily basis, well, that might just become my go-to. But where I’m going with this is that the fun comes in finding out along the way. Taste as much as you can, and enjoy the ride even if you aren’t necessarily bowled over by the bourbon of the moment.
Since I began selling pours and bottles of bourbon part time, I’ve probably tried 40 new bourbons. Some with big reputations have underwhelmed my palate, while some I’d heard little of surprised me with their nuances. Whiskey Row from Kentucky Artisan Distillery is a small batch blend that pleased my palate, while Down Home, aged 12 years and bottled at 129 proof, packs a punch but comes with a rich and spicy flavor profile that made my taste buds happy. And pretty much everything I’ve tasted from Peerless Distilling has been spot on.
Jefferson’s Ocean is one I’d heard about and assumed was just a gimmick – and then I tried it, and was taken aback by the briny salt infused by the months the barrels spent at sea. It hit me as being almost like an oyster shooter made with bourbon instead of beer (OK, not really, but that was my initial thought). My first reaction was that it was an interesting bourbon, but not one I would care to drink much of.
And then I tried it again. And now I keep eyes peeled for it wherever I go, simply because I find it so intriguing. I probably won’t ever buy a bottle, but I’m damn glad I tried it.
And so, whenever a customer comes into the tasting room where I work and asks, “What’s your favorite bourbon?”, I have a stock, if cliché, answer for them: “Whichever bourbon is in the glass I’m holding.”
They always chuckle, but what I am telling them is actually true. Sure, we all have our go-to whiskeys, but the real fun and ultimate reward is in finding your next go-to. And the next. And the next.
Kevin Gibson is a free-lance writer who writes for numerous publications, including Bourbon+ magazine, Thrillist, and Alcohol Professor. He also is author of Louisville Beer, Secret Louisville, and several other books. In his three decades as a professional writer, he has won numerous awards but doesn’t know where most of them are now (they’re probably in the basement). He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his dog, Atticus.