Which Cheap Bourbon Reigns Supreme?

Inspired in part by Jason Wilson’s column on booze tastings a few weeks ago and then a debate at my family reunion about whether all us bourbon boozehounds would really notice if the liters of Jim Beam became liters of Evan Williams, I decided to have a little low-end bourbon tasting. I procured six 750 mL bottles of Kentucky brown you’ve probably never heard of or had once or twice in a pinch and spent about $50 in total. Some of the participants in this tasting said in the end they would drink any of the budget bottles in a drought. Good news since we are left with an absurd amount of this swill.

But the the results! The contenders Like Jim Beam, three bottles were 80 proof: Distiller’s Pride ($5.50); Kentucky Gentleman ($6); Old Crow ($9.50). And like Jim Beam Black, three were 86 proof: Kentucky Gold ($8); Evan Williams ($8.50); Old Grand-Dad ($13).

I’m not sure if there’s a correlation here, but the cheapest option in each category proved to be the worst, and I’d say undrinkable. The Distiller’s Pride was very “one note” and that single flavor was uncomfortably close to gasoline. I’d had high hopes for the Kentucky Gold–the guys at Cairo Liquors said it was as good as Jim Beam–but it too had a mysterious chemical flavor that was off-putting. “More like fool’s gold,” said one taster, but then we saw that it was bottled exclusively for Cairo and I understood the misdirection.

The other bottle that came with a recommendation (sort of) was Kentucky Gentleman. It was an unusual bourbon to see on the shelf at AM Wine Shoppe, so I asked what it was like. “It’s a joke,” I was told in a puzzling sales pitch, “It’s the best of the cheap stuff, the bartenders bourbon.” I paid $15 for the bottle and only got the joke later when I found it at the liquor store for $6. Ha! (Side note: In addition to experiencing the grift, I’ve also been told on my last two visits that they weren’t quite open yet when it was within their operating hours. I won’t be inconveniencing them further.)

As for the taste of the Kentucky Gentleman? “Nothing gentle about it,” said one taster. This bourbon packed a punch, beating out the other two 80 proofs in terms of the balance of caramel and alcohol flavors. It felt like a real drink. Old Crow tasted “cheap” in comparison–more sweet than fire. That said, it would do in a pinch.

As for the 86 proof bottles, Evan Williams was enjoyed by all. The burn and sweet were balanced, but there was very little aftertaste. Seconds after a swallow, it was like it had never happened. This made it feel a little lightweight compared to the Old Grand-Dad, the clear winner and most expensive, er, least cheap, bottle. It was smooth and lively. Sipping it on ice with a little water (we had each bourbon straight and with this preparation), I felt like an adult having a grown-up drink. Next time I’m feeling a little light, my Old Grand-Dad will make a fine guest for happy hour.

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3 Responses to Which Cheap Bourbon Reigns Supreme?

  1. Mumgee says:

    Deftly written post, as usual … but now I’m thirsty!

  2. uncle pete says:

    nice post, but the scientist in me would like to know: was the test blind, and if so, single or double? just curious…

    • Emily says:

      I wanted to do it blind but we were too thirsty and impatient to set that up. I would be biased towards Old Grandad, but I stand by the results.

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