The Ranger who introduced me to the world of whiskey did so through a blended Scotch, which I liked very much, and a single malt Irish whiskey, which I did not like very much at all. So for years I would keep a bottle of Dimple Pinch or Famous Grouse on hand and enjoy a nightcap every now and again. Nothing wrong with a nice blended Scotch whiskey.
Then, many years later I happened to be working in the heart of Bourbon Whiskey country, and found that I liked what many of the bourbons better than Maker’s Mark (too flat on the tongue) or Jack Daniels (yes I know they like to call it Tennessee whiskey, but it’s not much to drink) or white label Jim Beam had to offer. Being in the heart of the bourbon trail gave me the opportunity to taste things I really liked, and things that were novel but not something that I’d ever buy. Good times.
Somewhere along the line bourbon hit the hipster culture and people other than hardcore alcoholics started buying Old Crow again (which really does taste like it was made only for medicinal purposes). I think this is because there really aren’t that many distillers and manufacturers of bourbon, despite the many many brands on the market. So yes, Old Crow will taste a bit like Jim Beam White Label, and Jim Beam Black Label (double aged) will taste quite a bit like Knob Creek 9 year. Older whiskey’s do get some novel flavor components, but the bulk of the caramel, cinnamon, cherry, and oak notes come in the few few years of aging.
So…in the spirit of needing a good bourbon for an ingredient, I reached for a sub 10 dollar bottle of bourbon, the infamous Military Special Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. I figured if it was just awful I could still use it in meat marinades for grilling, or maybe throw in some flavoring agents like a vanilla bean, roasted coffee beans, and spices like anise, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg and use it to preserve fruitcakes…
So I was pleasantly surprised when this cheap hooch had a nose full of cherry and fruit notes, a taste that was pleasantly sweet, and a lingering aftertaste of caramel and oak. It ain’t Maker’s 46 or Blanton’s, but it tastes better than a few bottles that cost more than twice as much. So I can see why people would call it a good value.
In fact, despite the schtick that these fellas play up the “good old boy” routine rather hard they do a decent review of Military Special Bourbon.
Now “Military Special” brand booze is just wholesale hooch that is bottled for the U.S. Government to sell to GIs. At one point the supplier for the Military Special Kentucky Straight Bourbon was identified as Heavens Hill, which makes Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Old Fitzgerald bourbon whiskeys. That’s not exactly a lineup to be ashamed of, in my humble opinion. Previous suppliers of the Military Special Kentucky Straight Bourbon have been rumored to include Bartons, which has a reputation for being a very good buy for a bourbon in the “Very Old Barton’s” lineup of 80, 86, 90, and 100 proof varieties.
Now, that’s not to say that Military Special is an amazing deal. A 1 Liter bottle of Very Old Barton’s 80 proof is currently priced at 10.99 at totalwine.com, which is only a dollar and nine cent difference from the Military Special Kentucky Straight Bourbon I purchased. But the Class 6 didn’t have VOB, and it did have the store brand. Totalwine also lists a 750ml bottle of Heavens Hill white label bourbon for 9.99. Various offerings under the Evan Williams brand can be had for well under twenty dollars.
So, the value bourbon market is pretty saturated with decent whiskeys. And this is great because whiskey has a lot of flavor to add to meat marinades, baked goods, and even to chocolates (and served neat or on the rocks). I’ll still give away premium bottles as gifts, and enjoy premium bourbon with a friend now and again, as sometimes it’s easy to taste the good stuff. But I think I’ll explore the lower end price range of the market for a bit and see what else I like.