You don’t hear a lot about straight corn whiskey, but when you do, there’s a 99.9% chance Heaven Hill’s Mellow Corn comes up. But don’t let this bottom-shelf Kentucky mainstay fool you. What it lacks in style and specs, it surely makes up for in utility.
Pour: Mellow Corn (Bottled in Bond)
Age: at least 4 years
Color: apple juice
Nose: vanilla, confectioners sugar, apple pastry
Taste: butter toffee, candy corn, spiked simple syrup
Finish: moderate length – caramel, light apple, faint oak char
Overall: I didn’t always think highly (or speak kindly) of Mellow Corn. What can I say? I was a jackass. Mellow Corn is a no-frills, sweet yet spartan, whiskey. It’s not complex. It’s not extraordinary. But that’s not the point. If you know, you know.
Rating: Hella Mella.
Google “best cheap bourbons” and you’re unlikely to find Evan Williams White Label taking a spot in the highest ranking search results. A bottled-in-bond Kentucky straight bourbon for $15? Seems like a no-brainer. Yet, outside of enthusiast circles it’s seldom celebrated.
Pour: Evan Williams White Label (Bottled in Bond)
Age: at least 4 years
Nose: vanilla, fresh-cut corn, grainy spice
Taste: caramel candy, nutty oak, confectioners sugar
Finish: moderate length w/ light toffee, nutmeg, hints of oak char
Overall: If you’re expecting hype, you’ve come to the wrong place. Evan Williams White Label tastes exactly as it should – like 4-year, 100-proof bourbon. It’s not great. It’s not underrated. It’s precisely where it belongs – a stalwart of the bottom shelf.
Rating: Budget buy.
Ah, orphan barrels – the great oxymoron of American whiskey. Yet they exist, or so Diageo would have you believe. As for 2014’s Barterhouse, a 20-year $75 bourbon (reportedly distilled at Bernheim) isn’t exactly something to shake a stave at. Hell, it was a steal.
Pour: Barterhouse Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey
Age: 20 years
Nose: dark cherry, fragrant oak, honey-maple, leather
Taste: chocolate-covered plum, vanilla bean, charred oak
Finish: moderate length w/ cola, licorice, sweet clove & sassafras
Overall: Delicious. While I wouldn’t classify Barterhouse as complex or layered, it’s rare to find 20-year bourbon so damn palatable. I particularly enjoy the contrast between its woodiness and dark cherry/plum sweetness. A noteworthy study in mature whiskey.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel, also known as McKenna Bottled in Bond, McKenna 10, and Ascot Gold. Once an inexpensive and attainable bottle ($25 in 2015) … Good times, Minnick, good times. I’ve had great barrels and so-so barrels, but never one worth chasing. Let’s revisit.
Pour: Henry McKenna Single Barrel (b. 9105, 3-19-08)
Age: 10 years
Color: rich honey
Nose: German chocolate cake, brown sugar, faint citrus
Taste: toasted caramel, English toffee, baked nutmeg
Finish: moderately long – dense oak, maple syrup, sweet tobacco
Overall: Well now, this is one beast of a pour. Henry McKenna Single Barrel is hitting all the right notes for me today. And German chocolate cake? Are you kidding me?! I don’t think I’ve ever sensed that note on a whiskey. Have to say, worth the $60 paid.
Rating: Fred’s Savage.
If you’ve ever wondered how bourbon aged in Scotland might taste, Single Cask Nation has you covered. Of course, the real question is: Is it any good? Twelve years in Kentucky followed by twelve years in Scotland … that’s a long time for barreled cornwater. This could get oaky.
Pour: Single Cask Nation KSBW (undisclosed distillery)
Age: 24 years
Nose: vanilla bean, heavily steeped herbal tea, blood orange
Taste: smoky caramel, pipe tobacco, cherry cordials
Finish: moderate length – sweet oak char, black licorice, leather
Overall: Damn, that’s complex. Curiously easy on the palate too. For a rumored “pre-fire” bourbon, SCN’s 24-year rarity isn’t exactly dusty in profile. It isn’t modern either. It’s gracefully confounding: robust, delicate, dense, intelligent.
Rating: Heavenly hills of flavor.
Elijah Craig is one of the few bourbons I can think of that immediately improved after its age statement was dropped. Some may disagree, but that’s the way I see it. I was never a fan of the 12-year iteration – a rather woody, mildly tannic pour. As for its successor …
Pour: Elijah Craig Small Batch
Age: at least 4 years (reportedly 8-12 years)
Nose: vanilla, honey-butter, orange peel
Taste: salted caramel, sweet oak, butter toffee
Finish: moderate length – buttered cornbread, peppery spice
Overall: Remarkably solid. I’m sure I’ve recommended other bottles as “starter bourbons,” but I’m beginning to think Elijah Craig is best suited for the task. Not that it should encompass a single role. It’s just damn good mellow whiskey for $27.
Rating: Butter than ever.
Riding the fringe of Old Fitzgerald folklore is Larceny, a non-age-stated wheated mash bill bourbon produced by Heaven Hill. It’s not as talked about as its barrel-proof namesake, but to its credit, the original 92-proof iteration is affordable ($25) and widely available.
Pour: Larceny Bourbon
Age: at least 4 years
Nose: vanilla, fresh dough, maraschino cherry
Taste: silky caramel, mellow oak, honey-butter
Finish: moderately short – mild baking spice, faint leather
Overall: Entry-level wheated recipe bourbons are a mixed bag. Maker’s Mark is sweet and lively; Weller Special Reserve is sweet and buttery. As for Larceny, the sweeter notes find suitable balance with the oak. It’s just overly mild and uninspiring.
Rating: Eye-roll smooth.
Of all the Evan Williams expressions, the 80-proof “green label” is as bottom-shelf as bottom-shelf bourbon gets. Strangely, it’s priced about the same as the spec-superior Evan Williams Black Label. Maybe they’re complementary to one another? I doubt it, but here goes anyway.
Pour: Evan Williams Green Label
Age: 36 months
Color: light amber
Nose: buttered corn, vanilla, confectioners sugar
Taste: brownie batter, plywood, salty dough
Finish: short – fresh-cut oak, grain, college
Overall: Not very good at all. That being said, it’s not near as cheerless as Benchmark “Old No. 8.” (At least there’s no repulsive sour notes.) Evan Williams Green Label is drinkable, albeit barely, and best suited as a backyard burger marinade.
Rating: Safe for cooking.
My experience with toasted-oak whiskey is rather limited, but generally speaking I’m not the biggest fan. I am, however, a fan of staying open minded. So, when I saw Elijah Craig’s latest special release, a straight bourbon touting a toasted-barrel finish, I rolled the dice.
Pour: Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Bourbon
Age: at least 4 years
Color: rosy copper
Nose: French toast, densely sweet oak, ripe plum
Taste: roasted marshmallow, brown sugar, caramel chews
Finish: moderate length – vanilla bean, tobacco, black licorice
Overall: Look, I’ll admit, this bourbon isn’t for everyone. But, for those seeking a uniquely sweet and dessert-like whiskey without a cloying or artificial quality, Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Bourbon is right up your alley. For $50, I’m satisfied.
Rating: Sweet success.
When it comes to recognizable whiskey names, Evan Williams shares a stage with Jack Daniel and Jim Beam. The affordable “black label” is the brand’s flagship offering. Often overlooked by eager whiskey enthusiasts, many long-timers consider it a “Swiss Army Knife” bourbon.
Pour: Evan Williams Black Label
Age: at least 4 years
Nose: vanilla, buttered popcorn, whole grain bread
Taste: caramel drizzle, honey syrup, Golden Delicious apple
Finish: moderately short – confectioners sugar, mild oak & spice
Overall: As simplistic as Evan Williams may be, it’s simplicity proper. This is easy-sipping, no frills, no horseshit Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. It’s no Wild Turkey 101, but it pummels Benchmark and puts a fair shiner on Jim Beam White Label.
Rating: Worth admission.
When Larceny Barrel Proof was first announced, whiskey fans went nuts. A barrel-proof 6-8-year wheated bourbon? Sounds like a winner, right? In a world of Pappymania, you’d think. Unfortunately, Heaven Hill has seldom shone in the wheated department. Maybe batch B520 will.
Pour: Larceny Barrel Proof Bourbon B520
Age: NAS (reportedly 6-8 years)
Color: dense copper
Nose: toasted butterscotch, oak char, brown sugar
Taste: nutty vanilla, roasted marshmallow, black licorice
Finish: moderately long – salted peanuts, English toffee, sassafras
Overall: I hate to label this as a one-trick pony, but inevitably, that’s what Larceny Barrel Proof B520 is. Not that it’s a boring bourbon. It’s just a handful of similar notes trekking and trotting within a hefty, yet easily sippable high-ABV whiskey.
Rating: Bold Fitz.
They say it’s one of the best values on the market today. They’re not wrong. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is a full-barrel-strength, 12-year Kentucky bourbon behemoth typically found for $70 (often less). Impressive? Damn right. But how does it taste? Funny you should ask …
Pour: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof C920
Age: 12 years
Color: dense rosy copper
Nose: rich molasses, vanilla bean, heavily steeped black tea
Taste: burnt brown sugar, sweet charred oak, peppery toffee
Finish: chocolate caramel corn, thick honey-maple, tobacco, sassafras
Overall: Wow. While I’m not as well-versed with ECBP as others, I’ve had my share. Batch C920 is no slouch. No ma’am, no sir. Notable maturity, intense complexity (doesn’t hurt to add water), and balanced in spite of it all. Y’all still chasing Geo. T. Stagg?