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Making Cheap Bourbon Sing

March 4, 2011

Somehow my priorities got all out of whack. Last night I had the rare opportunity of partaking in Mrs. Fussy’s coveted bottle of Macallan 15 Fine Oak, and I said no.

The title of the post betrays me.

Instead of having something wonderful, I opted for something pedestrian: cheap bourbon. But it wasn’t just cheap bourbon, I was going to do a cheap bourbon tasting. Really I prefer to do tastings with four similar but different items, but last night I had to suffice with just two.

These were the two bottles of bourbon that came in from the Astor Wine & Spirits mega order a couple of weeks ago, and had yet to be opened. The anticipation was killing me. After all, one of them was recently named the Best Buy Whiskey of the Year by Malt Advocate. I needed to know, is it any good?

But first you may be asking yourself, “How cheap is cheap?”

Well, a one liter bottle of Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams set me back a grand total of $11.99. It just so happened that I spied a bottle of Cabin Still, which was the same price for the same size and coincidentally also a member of the Heaven Hill family.

One of these was the best value of the year. The other one wasn’t. Would I be able to tell? Absolutely. The Cabin Still was lighter in color, thinner in body, and had a dry ethereal finish. The Evan Williams was darker, weightier, and contained a rich sweetness and a lingering spiciness.

Mrs. Fussy swore she could smell cinnamon and cloves coming from the Cabin Still, and preferred the nose of the lesser whiskey. I thought she was nuts, but after a few additional minutes of aeration I finally picked up a whisp of cinnamon oil. I also got a bit of banana peel, which I wasn’t crazy about and tried to reclassify the aroma as tropical fruit.

All of this time, my mother-in-law was watching us with interest from the couch. And while she had no interest in drinking, we made it look like so much fun that she asked for just a little bit.

The only problem was that she found the Cabin Still to be awful.

For the record, I don’t think it’s awful, it’s just not very good. But luckily I also got a bottle of Domaine de Canton, French ginger liqueur. Like all liqueurs it is fundamentally sweet, but that sweetness is contrasted by the spiciness of the ginger. All it took was a splash of the Canton (I attempted to eyeball a 4:1 ratio) for the whiskey to make a metamorphosis from something bad to something wonderful.

The Evan Williams on the other hand, may not be something to write home about. But when put up against something as light and fleeting as the Cabin Still it looks magnificent. When the Evan Williams is mixed with the Canton it still maintains its identity and you know there is bourbon in your cocktail. I can’t say the same for Cabin Still.

I guess that’s why Evan Williams won the prize. It’s not terribly impressive on its own, but would do well in some mixed drinks.

The good news is that we need a lot of mixing bourbon on hand to go with the bottle of Canton. Because when you buy a liqueur that is used only a tablespoon at a time, you need a lot of base spirit if you ever expect to make it through the bottle. Luckily ginger liqueur will also come in handy when spring finally breaks, and I can once again start pouring gin, squeezing limes, and building long drinks with seltzer and plenty of ice.

But those springtime cocktails will have to wait until the snow is lower than my waist.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2011 11:42 pm

    I’ve been slowly working my way across the bourbon shelf at Empire Wines on Central. The “problem” is that they keep adding new varieties of bourbon so it is an endless mission. Something seems to happen around the $25 (for a 750 ml bottle) price point. In my opinion, there is a significant jump in quality. Below the line are bourbons like Jim Beam and Evan Williams (Black Label). Near the line you are moving up to Maker’s Mark. Just above the line you’ve got something like Eagle’s Rare which I think is a pretty good value.

    Another observation, around that $25 price, the bottling moves from screw cap to cork. No idea if that has an impact on the bourbon or not.

  2. Barlee permalink
    March 13, 2013 3:54 pm

    I agree that “quality” jump normally happens in the $25+ range. (although I too find that some of the “lower end” bourbons equal many of the higher priced ones.) So unless I’m looking for a pure neat sipper, as a mixer EW or Benchmark, etc. do just fine.

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