Drinking the Bottom Shelf Vol. 1: American Whiskey – Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Old Thompson

Good whiskey can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are bargain bottles that are enjoyable and offer considerably higher quality:value ratios than more expensive options. Today we pore through the “bottom shelf” bottles in order to find whiskeys that are enjoyable yet affordable while attempting to steer drinkers clear of the ones that still aren’t worth the price.

Let’s start with a look at three lower-cost American whiskeys.

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon (White Label)

It’s important to read the label closely when purchasing bottom shelf whiskeys. Jim Beam’s most inexpensive whiskey is White Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon. To advertise itself as a bourbon, a whiskey must adhere to certain rules, the most important of which state that it is: (1) made from at least 51% corn, (2) aged in new oak barrels, and (3) aged at least four years if it is to call itself “straight bourbon.” This means that, as inexpensive as Jim Beam is, it lives up to the minimum requirements of a
demanding labeling system.

The payoff for following the legal requirements to label a whiskey “straight bourbon” are apparent when sampling this one, which is simple and straightforward, but drinkable. The nose offers soft notes of corn mixed with candy corn. There is a touch of spice, but it isn’t a particularly enjoyable smell as it carries a slightly medicinal quality. On the palate, Jim Beam is quite smooth. Notes of of corn and candy corn appear again but are very light. For the serious bourbon fan, the taste is too smooth, even watery, as it hints at bourbon’s possibilities without delivering the goods. But for the novice, this might be a good start. The finish is long and smooth, and introduces some of the oak that this whiskey aged in for at least four years. None of the unpleasant flavors appear which tend to mar the finish of some inexpensive whiskeys. As an affordable mixer, Jim Beam is a great choice. See additional coverage here.

80 proof.

C+ / $14 / jimbeam.com

Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon

Evan Williams Black is also a Kentucky Straight Bourbon, and it is aged around 5 years in new oak barrels and bottled at a slightly higher alcohol level than most bottom shelf whiskeys, 86 proof. The higher alcohol presents in the nose, but not so strongly as to be off-putting. It is accompanied by pleasant smells of caramel, vanilla extract, and a bit of mint. The palate is corn sweetness mixed with caramel and brown sugar, but it is not cloying. For such an inexpensive bottle, the flavors are surprisingly balanced. The finish is medium in length, ending in wood, but not bitterness. This is a great starter bourbon, and one I wouldn’t hesitate to drink neat. For those on a budget who appreciate the taste of bourbon, Evan Williams Black is tough to beat. See additional coverage here.

86 proof.

B- / $14 / evanwilliams.com

Old Thompson American Whiskey

Old Thompson is not a bourbon, but rather a blend of whiskeys coupled with neutral grain spirits (vodka). If you’ve had Seagram’s 7, you know the deal. The blend strictly follows the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations which requires that a beverage contain at least 20% whiskey (aged at least 2 years) to be labeled “American Whiskey.” The consequences of just barely staying within the legal definition of American Whiskey are immediately apparent. The nose is almost nonexistent with hints of gasoline and nail polish remover, along with the slightest whiff of what might be corn sweetness. This makes sense considering that 4/5 of the product is unaged grain alcohol. On the palate, Old Thompson is harsher than its proof would suggest and offers an unpleasant sweetness that doesn’t seem to draw from the whiskey in the product. These flavors are followed by a short finish and lingering bitterness. Perhaps Old Thompson works as a mixer since it is mostly grain alcohol, but I would recommend an inexpensive vodka instead.

80 proof.

D- / $8 / sazerac.com

Review: Heritage Distilling Rye and Bourbon Whiskies and Crisp Gin

Heritage Distilling makes a veritable ton of spirits in its Gig Harbor, Washington home, and by that I mean it actually makes them. This isn’t sourced or finished whiskey and gin, it’s the real deal, bringing in grains from the Pacific Northwest and Canada, mashed and fermented on site, and distilled in a copper column still. In other words: Everything here is a legit craft spirit.

Today we take a spin through a selection of Heritage’s product line, including five American whiskies as well as one of the company’s four gins.

Heritage Distilling BSB Brown Sugar Bourbon – Made from a mash of corn, rye, and malted barley, this whiskey is aged for less than two years in new American Oak charred barrels, then cut to 30% abv, with natural brown sugar and cinnamon flavors added. Pure Christmas on the nose, with intense cinnamon, vanilla, and nutmeg notes, plus a clear brown sugar overtone. The palate is very sweet, just shy of being overwhelming, and the cinnamon and sugar notes are omnipresent from the start. This of course comes at the expense of being able to taste any of the whiskey itself, which is common with heavily flavored spirits like this, although there’s a nutty, lightly corny character on the back end that at least hints at the underlying spirit. No “fireball” heat here, mind you — the experience is closer to a liquified gingerbread house than anything approaching red hots. 60 proof. B+ / $34

Heritage Distilling Elk Rider Bourbon Whiskey – Made from a mash of corn, rye, and malted barley (likely the same as in BSB), then aged for less than two years in new American Oak charred barrels. This whiskey comes across as a bit more mature than it actually is, though the very dry, popcorn-heavy nose pushes the focus to the barrel char underneath. On the palate, again it’s quite dry, with pushy lumberyard notes, forest floor and tree bark notes, and hints of gingerbread, Christmas cake, and dried fruit notes lingering as those pushy, wood-driven notes start to fade. The finish is a bit nutty — keeping the theme from the BSB bottling — but the lack of any real sweetness causes it to fade away a bit too quickly. This is clearly a well-made spirit, though it’s simply bottled too young. Would love to see this as a four year old. 92 proof. B / $30

Heritage Distilling Elk Rider Rye Whiskey – Made from a mash of rye and barley (no corn), aged less than two years in charred oak barrels. While the Elk Rider Bourbon may be dry, this rye is over the top dusty, a sawdust-infused monster that offers a nose of spice-dusted lumber and a palate of the same. Here, the body takes those intense cloves and heavy barrel char and complements them with notes of menthol, bitter roots, rhubarb, and wet wool. Clearly a work in progress. 92 proof. C+ / $33

Heritage Distilling Dual Barrel Collection Bourbon Whiskey – (These are sometimes denoted as the Double Barrel Collection but are otherwise the same.) The next two whiskeys start out much like their Elk Rider brethren above, but are then barreled for a second time in barrels that were previously used to age 15 pounds of pure vanilla beans. Lots of butterscotch on the nose here, with just a hint of barrel char and some surprising peanut butter aromas emerging. The palate offers considerably more sweetness than Elk Rider, and also more of those candylike notes, with notes of chocolate and Snickers bars layered atop toasty notes of brown butter and charred marshmallows. The wood-heavy barrel notes finally get their kicks in on the drying finish, which is equal parts sweet and savory. Overall, this whiskey is quite a surprise, and one of the better craft bourbons you’ll find on the market today. Exclusive to Total Wine. 92 proof. B+ / $29

Heritage Distilling Dual Barrel Collection Rye Whiskey – Aged the same way as the Dual Barrel Bourbon above. This whiskey is softer and sweeter than the Elk Rider version, though it still carries a modest barrel-driven character (particularly on the nose) as a backbone to a body that features plenty of that classic rye spice, heavy with cloves, spearmint, and some licorice character. This segues toward notes of caramel and milk chocolate on a finish that otherwise tends to keep things close to its barrel-driven roots taking the whiskey out with a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. Exclusive to Total Wine. 92 proof. B+ / $29

Heritage Distilling Elk Rider Crisp Gin – Distilled from 100% Washington grains, with traditional (but largely unrevealed) London Dry style botanicals. Especially medicinal on the nose, with heavy notes of camphor. Very herbal on the nose and on the tongue, it isn’t until the finish that some citrus notes finally push through, offering a touch of sweetness against what is otherwise an overwhelmingly pungent and savory experience. A tough nut to crack but one which might find the right home in, say, a Negroni. 94 proof. C / $28

heritagedistilling.com

Review: Peach Street Distillers Tub Gin

Peach Street Distillers in Palisade, Colorado is well known for its whiskey, but it also makes a complement of gins, including this limited edition expression called Tub. The gin is hopped and includes “plum spirits,” but otherwise the company keeps the botanical bill and production information close to the vest on this one.

The hops are light on the nose. What comes forth aromatically is more of a light blend of evergreen notes and fresh tobacco, some hospital character with overtones of overripe oranges and peaches.

The palate never fully gels either. Very dry, it starts off with only a modest character of perfumed white flowers and some light baking spice. Then, just like that, it is all whisked away by notes of lavender, some funky earth (driven by the hops), and a very dry and bitter finish. The juniper and strong citrus peel notes of a classic gin aren’t here at all, and while I understand Peach Street was aiming for something else entirely different from a London Dry, what they’ve ended up with doesn’t ever really engage, either on its own or as a mixer.

80 proof.

C+ / $33 / peachstreetdistillers.com

Review: 12 Beers from New Belgium, Early 2017 Releases

Today it’s a little bit of “something old, something new” from New Belgium, which released no less than 12 beers on tap for us to experience over the last few months… including a bizarre collaboration with none other than Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.

Read on for reviews of everything…

New Belgium Pilsener – A “Bohemian style” pilsner, this lovely lager kicks off with mammoth notes of fresh bread — almost pizza crust-like — before finishing with a touch of sea salt (giving it a pretzel-like character) and just the mildest hint of bitterness late in the game. As straightforward (and enjoyable) lager I could imagine. 4.8% abv. A-

New Belgium Whizbang – Described as a hoppy blonde ale, this is an interesting hybrid style of beer that starts things off with a brisk (Mosaic-driven) bitterness before moving on to a maltier, meatier middle. Imagine an IPA stripped of fruit, with a chewy, bready character in its place, and you’ve got this interesting oddity just about figured out. 5.7% abv. B+

New Belgium Citradelic Exotic Lime Ale – This is a different beer than New Belgium’s older Citradelic, which is flavored with tangerines. As the name implies, this beer has lime as the focus — Persian limes, plus coriander and a little black pepper. Neat idea but, unfortunately, the lime here comes off as a bit plastic, slightly chemical in tone with just a hint of that coriander to give it a little spin. That said, it’s as drinkable as a Corona with a couple of lime wedges stuffed into it, for better or for worse. 5.2% abv. B

New Belgium Tartastic Lemon Ginger Sour – Not a “sour” in the sense that beer snobs think of it, but very acidic and lemony and not really all that pleasant, with an intense vinegar aftertaste that feels a little like the experience one gets when he has motions contrary to swallowing. 4.5% abv. C-

New Belgium Dayblazer Easygoing Ale – The name should tip you off that this is a session brew, a very pale ale that drinks closer to a lager than an IPA. Lightly sweet and malty, there’s an edge of slightly citrusy bitterness that takes it into ale territory. Easy to enjoy and light on its feet. That said, 4.8% abv is on par with the “regular” beers in this roundup. B+

New Belgium Accumulation (2017) – The 2017 release of a wheat-barley hybrid (a “white IPA”) we reviewed last year. Again it’s a chewy, hoppy encounter that offers ample and tart fruit notes and lemony notes on the finish. Heavily bready from start to finish, it’s an appropriate ale for the wintertime scene that appears on the label. 6.2% abv. B+

New Belgium Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ale – As gimmicks go, this one’s out there — a blonde ale dosed with chocolate, brown sugar, and vanilla to give it indeed an ice-cream like character. It’s better than you’re thinking, its malty undercoating giving it a bit of malted milk character, and the chocolate/vanilla notes providing sweetness, but not too much. Lots of vanilla on the back end. It’s surely not something for every day, but it’s an approachable novelty for sure. Proceeds help Protect Our Winters. 6% abv. B

Voodoo Ranger is a sort of sub-brand from New Belgium, where “Voodoo Ranger” is larger in type size than the name of the brewery. Here’s three from the company…

New Belgium Voodoo Ranger IPA – A straightforward IPA expression, aromatic and piney up front but with some curious chocolate syrup notes on the back end. Both aromatically heady and burly on the palate, its alcohol level keeps things rolling without overwhelming the palate. 7% abv. A-

New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPA – Ample malt backs up this dense, almost gooey IPA, which is heavy on the pine and forest floor elements, with a quite limited citrus profile. Quite bready on the back end. 9% abv. B

New Belgium Voodoo Ranger 8 Hop Ale – An octet of hop varieties gives this pale ale a bit of a scattered character, with intense bitterness fading into a muddy, forest-floor-laden back end. The finish is lightly vegetal, causing this beer to take a back seat to better-realized multi-hop beers. 5.5% abv. B-

And two collaborative offerings from New Belgium’s ongoing Lips of Faith series…

New Belgium in Collaboration with Anne-Francoise Spiced Imperial Dark Ale – Aged on “white oak spirals,” this Belgian collaboration is a deep and dense, dry-hopped beer that is flavored with the essence of the forest, including spruce tips and grains of paradise. Warming and malty, the wood-driven vanilla melds nicely with the sprinkling of baking spices, while a hoppy bitterness eventually finds its way to the finish. So much going on here, plan to spend some time getting to know this brew before figuring it all out. 9.5% abv. B+

New Belgium Clutch Collaboration Wood-Aged Imperial Sour Stout – Brewed in collaboration not with a brewery but with a band, Clutch. This is a blend of 70% stout, and 30% dark sour wood-aged beer. Results are straight-up crazy, the beer kicking off with sour apple and grapefruit peel notes that slowly trickle down into a melange of bitter roots, chocolate, coffee, cacao nibs, and oxidized wine. The mouth-puckering introduction that slowly turns rounded, burly, and bittersweet is nothing if not unique, but rather than developing over time, I feel it wears out its welcome fairly quickly. 8.5% abv. C+ / $13 per 22 oz. bottle

$17 per 12-pack unless noted / newbelgium.com

Review: Louis Jadot 2015 Chablis and 2014 Pinot Noir Bourgogne

And now: Two budget bottlings from Burgundy giant Maison Louis Jadot.

2015 Louis Jadot Chablis – This is an incredibly fresh Chablis, brisk with green apples and pears, with just a hint of brown butter and a slight touch of toasty oak. Bright acidity gives the wine legs, though some meaty sausage notes on the back end are a distraction. B+ / $20

2014 Louis Jadot Pinot Noir Bourgogne – Jadot breaks from tradition and puts the varietal front and center on this budget Burgundy, which offers quite tart notes of Bing cherries and some rhubarb. The finish is on the sweeter side — strawberry, mainly — with touches of cherry Kool-Aid. C+ / $18

louisjadot.com

Review: By The Dutch Old Genever and Batavia Arrack

Everything old is new again, not only with classic spirits brands returning to the market but also with the revival of long-forgotten types of spirits, too. Among them are genever and Batavia arrack, a type of gin and rum, respectively, which are both resurging in the industry.

By The Dutch is a new brand founded in 2015 “with the purpose of producing traditional spirits with a Dutch heritage. These spirits are distilled and handcrafted primarily in Schiedam, South Holland, a village known as Genever-Town.” The company’s first two releases, Old Genever and Batavia Arrack Indonesian Rum with the U.S. market.

If you need a little primer on genever and arrack, read on:

The origin of English Gin is Dutch Genever. In 1650, Franciscus Sylvius, a Dutch doctor, created Dutch Genever as a medicine that was used by soldiers in the Thirty Years War. English troops hailed the spirit for its warming properties and calming effects, thus the phrase, “Dutch Courage.”

Batavia was the name of the capital city of the Dutch East Indies, and corresponds to today’s city of Jakarta. Batavia became the center of the Dutch East India Company trading network in Asia and commerce of Batavia Arrack was entirely in hands of the Dutch VOC. Almost all arrack exported to Europe arrived in Amsterdam or Rotterdam in wooden barrels, where it would then be matured and blended to create a spirit of consistent quality and fine flavor.

And now, for some reviews of these specific expressions:

By The Dutch Old Genever – “A handcrafted blend of pure malt wine and a distillate of Juniper berries and other botanicals, made according to a secret recipe dating back to 1942.” Quite malty on the nose, with heavy hospital notes and overtones of melon, banana, and pineapple. The palate continues the ultra-malty, layering in notes of juniper (quite mild), licorice, and some fleeting notes of cloves. The genever is round on the tongue, but the ultimate flavor profile is quite mild and limited in both its overall power and its interest level. There’s better genever out there. 76 proof. C+ / $27

By The Dutch Batavia Arrack Indonesia Rum – This is “a sugarcane molasses-based distillate produced exclusively on the island of Java, Indonesia. Setting it apart from the standard sugarcane rum is the addition of local red rice in the fermentation process. The Master Blender ages Batavia Arrack in oak barrels for up to 8 years, creating an extremely rich rum, deep in flavor, with a lovely, lingering finish.” On the nose: pungent and “rummy,” with big molasses, burnt sugar, and some forest floor notes. The palate is rough and rustic, a hearty maritime style of rum that kicks off with some briny character and leads to some interesting tropical flavors as well as notes of dark barrel char and heavily toasted spices. The finish is lengthy and reminiscent of cooked vegetables and coconut husk. It’s a curious and often intriguind sipper, but that said, Arrack is rarely drunk on its own; rather, it shows up from time to time in classic cocktail recipes — for which this bottle would seem well-suited. 96 proof. B / $34

bythedutch.com

Review: B4 Hangover Preventer

What better time is there to get a sample of B4 than right before Super Bowl weekend?

Billing itself as “what to drink before you drink,” B4 is a vitamin and supplement fueled hangover preventer. B4’s light orange color, mild carbonation, and metallic orange nose signal a citrus base with overtones of fortified vitamin water. The carbonation is nice on the palate, but B4 has a slightly bitter, metallic taste that finishes with the essence of cough syrup and crushed multivitamins, leaving a significant unpleasant aftertaste.

The makers of B4 say that the drink supplies enough electrolytes, amino acids, vitamins, plant extracts, antioxidants, and minerals to protect against alcohol’s effect on your system. If you are out for an all-night binge (and can physically tolerate the high B vitamin levels), B4 could be possibly be very helpful the following morning. I personally did not see any physical benefit, but I think this is designed for a heavier drinker than myself. The best use for B4 might to add the cause to the cure and use B4 as a fortified mixer for sweeter drinks that can balance the flavor out. Also note that it is essentially a vitamin bomb, featuring very high doses of B complexes and other vitamins and supplements well above recommended levels. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you have to be aware of the ingredients just like any other supplement or vitamin you would use, and plan accordingly.

C+ / $4.50 per 8.4 oz. can / drinkb4.com

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