It certainly is an exciting time to be a bourbon drinker. Liquid from every corner of the country, spanning every conceivable price point makes a dizzying degree of choice. But there’s a flip side to all that excitement. With so much to choose from there are many opportunities to be led astray. Marketing is more persuasive than we often care to admit. Even if you know better than to judge a book by its cover, a sexy, shiny bottle is merely one way in which you can be lured into purchasing a product that doesn’t actually suit your specific tastes. In order to avoid some of the less obvious pitfalls of booze buying, heed some advice from the experts.
Read the Label
“The biggest mistake folks make when choosing a bourbon is failure to pay attention to the details on the label,” warns Justin Thompson, co-owner of Justins’ House of Bourbon—a vintage whiskey retailer in Lexington, Kentucky. “The name or the bottle shape sometimes distract them from the very obvious on there.”
Seems simple enough. Until it isn’t. The wording on a label can be very misleading and—sometimes secretly—reveals an awful lot about the liquid inside. For example, it can read “made by” or “produced by,” but the liquid inside could still be sourced whiskey—that is, whiskey procured from a distillery other than the one presented on the bottle. The only way to know that it actually came from the distillery listed on the label is if it uses the words “distilled by.” Tricky stuff, indeed.
Don’t Avoid Sourced Whiskey
And just because the liquid is sourced, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth your time. “A mistake people are making today, is to assume the brands that are coming out of MGP in Indiana are an inferior product than the Kentucky distilleries,” Thompson explains of America’s primary source of contracted whiskey. “Mostly known for their rye whiskey, MGP has been supplying some very solid bourbon on the market as the older Smooth Ambler offerings and the Boone County brand can attest to.”
Consider a Whiskey’s Proof
Thompson also recommends zeroing in on something completely unexpected. “What I think is the most important information provided on the label is the proof,” he contends. “This is especially important info to know when you’re a beginner drinker. Usually, the early drinkers will like a lower-proof bourbon, one that’s in the 80-92-ish proof range. Makes sense, since that lower alcohol content takes away some of the bite or punch that the alcohol provides.”
At 80-proof, Basil Hayden, for example, is a sweeter, easier drinking bourbon. If that’s your go-to, Thompson cautions against diving into, say, Old Forester 1920—a 115-proof whiskey with intense spice and a prolonged, oak-laden aftertaste. “Know that with a huge proof difference [there’s] going to be a big difference on the finish,” he notes.
Frank Giresi echoes the advice. At Whiskey & Wine Off 69, one of New York’s premiere bottleshops, he frequently observes newcomers making the mistake of choosing a high octane selection, particularly as barrel strength whiskeys become increasingly on trend. “I find that most beginning bourbon drinks prefer a bourbon that’s not so hot,” he says, pointing to 40-percent alcohol as the optimal entry point.
Embrace Less Expensive Whiskey
In Manhattan’s swanky Upper East Side, Giresi also urges his patrons to resist buying solely based upon price. “Don’t be fooled by the Pappy Van Winkle craze,” he says of the most notoriously exclusive American whiskey. “It’s an expensive status symbol and nine out of 10 people that buy it don’t even know what bourbons are made out of.” That would be (at least) 51-percent corn, if you were wondering.
Everyone’s palate is different, of course. And so a certain amount of trial and error is the best way to isolate your own preferences. Whiskey & Wine provides experiential lessons in the form of regularly scheduled tastings. Many neighborhood liquor shops offer the same. Giresi suggests signing on to your local retailer’s email list to find out when and where they’re happening. When you’re ready to put your cash on the table, he encourages you to “start inexpensive and work your way up.” The only way to ultimately arrive at the most educated decision is by tasting through a lot of bourbon. And as Giresi fondly points out, “That’s not a bad thing to have on your to-do list.”