The crime of the century has been solved, although the victim sits on death row.
As you’ve undoubtedly read, heard or swallowed (even if your only source of news is KSR), the mystery of the infamous $100,000 Frankfort bourbon heist has been solved: Nine members of a criminal syndicate/softball team were arrested this month for stealing more than 200 bottles and 18 barrels of prized Kentucky whiskey over a seven year period. Worse yet, authorities plan to destroy much of the seized bourbon, prompting calls for a gubernatorial pardon from Carla Carlton, the self-proclaimed “Bourbon Babe.” Shamefully, my old boss, Governor Steve Beshear, has not immediately spared the whiskey’s 15-, 20- and 23- year old lives.
Still, executives at Sazerac’s Buffalo Trace Distillery must be clinking their bourbon glasses in celebration of the extraordinary publicity they’ve garnered for their signature product at the heist’s center: Pappy Van Winkle. One of the rarest liquors on the market — due to long aging, minuscule production and colossal demand — it’s developed a cult following, name-dropped continuously on Justified and in movies such as Crazy, Stupid, Love and The Internship. Purchasing a 1 and 1/2 ounce drink at a restaurant will generally cost you more than the price of your meal, and premium bottles — which for the average consumer are nearly impossible to find — can fetch up to $25,000.
But while sampling Pappy is a must for any bourbon-lover’s bucket list, unless you are planning to stock up your private jet in the coming weeks, it’s not worth the expense. Instead, if you are planning a Derby party this coming weekend, or are just in the mood for expanding your taste-bud horizons beyond the typical Jack, Jim or Makers, I suggest sampling these five of my favorite moderately-priced whiskeys:
(WARNING: If you are making mint juleps, or prefer to dilute your whiskey with a cola product, stick to the cheap stuff. If you are spending the extra bucks on fine bourbon, please drink responsibly — and serve it neat (straight), or maybe with an ice or two or a splash of water. And don’t you dare drink and drive.)
1. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($50-$70 for a 750 ml bottle)
For years, I felt incredible guilt over the contrast between the Brown family’s incredible support of my political career and my personal failure to identify a Brown and Forman bourbon that I could stomach. Then I became a has-been, and Woodford Reserve introduced what has become my go-to drink — its Double Oaked product. The liquor can best be described as a unique dessert bourbon, that smells like chocolate and caramel, and tastes fruity, like baked apples. Its smooth and sweet character makes it the perfect starter bourbon for someone who’s new to the drink, but it will continue to satisfy snobs like myself in many multiple tastings.
2. Booker’s True Barrel Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($50-$70)
Back in college — after I turned 21, of course — my vice of choice was Jim Beam. Today, due to the inappropriate volumes I ingested in my late adolescence, even a slight whiff of Jim sends sympathetic pangs of nausea and Sunday morning hangovers through my body. However, Mr. Beam’s grandson, Booker Noe, now annually produces a small batch of a distinctly tastier and more satisfying product. Booker’s is sweet, with strong cinnamon and cedar sensations. But watch out — it packs a punch: Depending on the batch, the proof ranges from 120 to 130 (meaning it is 60-65% alcohol content). Not for beginners.
3. Pearse Lyons Reserve Whiskey Single Malt ($30-$40)
When I first learned that a Nicholasville company named Alltech had agreed to serve as lead sponsor of the 2010 World Equestrian Games, like many Kentuckians I wondered what a phone company had to do with horses. As most of us soon learned, however, Alltech actually was an animal nutrition conglomerate that is now serving humans a wide variety of adult drinks. Its CEO, Pearse Lyons, is a charismatic, peripatetic force of nature, an Irishman who has emerged in less than a decade as one of Kentucky’s greatest corporate citizens. And with a previous career as a biochemist in the Irish whiskey industry, he is now mixing his two worlds by aging his eponymous single malt in old bourbon barrels. The end product is sweet like molasses — smooth going down, with a woody bite at the end. Pearse recommends adding a splash of water; I prefer mine straight with a slice of lime.
4. Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon ($35-55)
If your mood favors crisp over sweet, head over to the drink named after the late legendary Master Distiller. I know this sounds like heresy, but I prefer this Buffalo Trace bourbon to its cousin Pappy. And it is certainly much, much more affordable. It smells like an old leather baseball glove dipped in vanilla, and its light and spicy taste has hints of honey. Pretty much every bartender in Lexington has heard me ask for it, because since Lee’s death in 2013, it’s been very difficult to buy retail. So if you find any Elmer T. at your favorite bar or neighborhood liquor store, please tweet at me, and I will be right over.
5. WhistlePig 10 Year Straight Rye Whiskey ($70-$90)
No, this is neither a Kentucky product, nor is it bourbon, but it has close connections to both. And it is an extraordinary whiskey. Made in Vermont under the supervision of former Maker’s Mark Master Distiller Dave Pickerell, and finished in bourbon barrels, the rye with the funny name is the epitome of smooth. The aromas resemble ginger and nutmeg, while the flavors are reminiscent of mint and butterscotch. It’s the only product on the market that’s both 100% rye and 100 proof, and it is so crisp and creamy that at times you don’t feel like you are drinking alcohol. If all you want to do is sip straight whiskey on your front porch swing, this is your perfect drink. Just be prepared to share it with your neighbors.
So KSR Nation — what am I missing? Share you favorite whiskeys in the comments below.