I do love The New York Times, but every once in a while they write something that's so ridiculously effete or wrong-headedly, you know, New York, that my inner Marine or Fly-Fisherman or cranky, sullen Middle-Westerner gets the best of me and I just shake my head.
Tonight it was reading their article, "Bourbon's Shot at the Big Time." There should just never be a sentence about Bourbon written like the following: "We all noted the wide range of flavors in these bourbons, from creamy chocolate and fruity to grassy and herbaceous." This makes a selection of the United States' only native contribution to the bounties of fermentation sound like a party of cows getting it on at the Christopher Street Piers. Bourbon's chief virtues are its clean palate (you should only drink it one of two ways: straight or with one or two ice cubes and a splash of water) and its slightly-sweet, somewhat oak-tinged flavor. To the degree that a Bourbon is smooth and drinkable on that basis, it's a good Bourbon. It shouldn't taste like an old boot dug up from a peat bog or like someone dumped a dairy pail full of potpourri into the barrel. And yes, like Marine, it's always capitalized (even if, like me, you have a mixed relationship with the subject).
Most importantly: no list of essential Bourbon's should exclude Maker's Mark. That's just wrong.
With the exception of a case of beer or so a month, depending on the season—less in the Winter and more in the Summer—all I drink is Bourbon. And here's what I drink, when I drink it, and why.
1. Maker's Mark. 70% of the time. For price/taste/danger value, this is the Bourbon to keep on your desk. I generally drink from about 10 PM until 2 AM, maybe starting a little sooner and ending either earlier or later depending on what's on the calendar for the following day. I start with a couple of ice cubes, a splash of water, and then just keep the bottle on my desk or end-table until I go to sleep. As such, I sip slowly over a long period of time. There are better tasting Bourbons, but none so reasonably-priced, so good, and so unlikely to leave you feeling like someone crawled inside your brain, dug a trench with an e-tool, and took a healthy shit as Maker's Mark.
2. Knob Creek. 20% of the time. Used to be 100% of the time, because among reasonably-priced Bourbons it's the easy champion all the way around. Unfortunately, it's about 20% more expensive than Maker's Mark and about the same amount stronger. Which means that if you drink it like I do—in slow sips over a more-or-less regulated period of time—you're liable to spend 20% more and get 20% more drunk. Flavor is no small thing, but Knob Creek's advantage over Maker's Mark doesn't exceed the algebra in calculating poorer and more-likely-to-be-hungover.
3. Bulleit. 4% of the time. This is a newer Bourbon on the shelves in Minnesota. It's cheaper by 20% than Maker's Mark, and not bad—but it's not as good. Whenever I buy a bottle (and I buy a bottle of Bourbon every week and have done so for the past ten years, at least), I think, "OK. But I'm picking up Maker's Mark next time."
4. Woodford Reserve. 3% of the time. I think this is about the same price as Maker's Mark. Maybe between Maker's and Knob Creek. It's a very good Bourbon. Maybe I should drink it more, but maybe the bottle is just too well-designed. It's true that Duffy here in Minneapolis designed the whole line of fancy Jim Beam Bourbons (Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, etcetera) and did a marvelous job... but at least they had the sense to build the brands around Bourbon-looking themes. Woodford Reserve looks like what Kenneth Cole would design if he was designing a bottle of Bourbon.
5. Evan Williams Single Barrel. 3% of the time. This is a pretty good Bourbon, reasonably priced. Along with Bulleit, though, it's one that I always finish with the thought, "Next time, Knob Creek or Maker's Mark."
A few final thoughts on the New York Times piece: Under no circumstances should you buy Jim Beam Black over any of the Bourbons listed above. It's not better and it's not better priced than the Bulleit or the Evan Williams Single Barrel. Also: Bourbon should never be more expensive than Knob Creek. It's an everyday sipping booze, folks. If you want to drop $100 on something, get a rare single malt, a nice Cohiba, and spend a night getting so drunk and stinky that you don't care that you still smell (and feel) like an old boot dug up from a peat bog in the morning.
Update: Just back from liquor store and it appears that Maker's Mark is the same price as Knob Creek (at least for the 750ml—a little less for the 1.75l). The Maker's Mark has gone up. Just in time for the holidays? You wonder. So I bought Knob Creek and am here to report it's still just as strong and just as good as it was the last time. Like I said: the class-act of the non-ridiculous Bourbons. Also, the Woodford Reserve was a few dollars more expensive than the Maker's Mark and Knob Creek. Curious: is there a liquor distributor in the audience? How often do these prices change/how much to they vary?