Well, normally. This year it’s July 15, because 🦠😷🏠💸. But still…
Tax Day. Always a sobering moment. Sometimes it pays off. Sometimes you just pay. Kinda like when buying whiskey…!
However taxes go this year, even with the extension they’re going to be even more stressful for everyone given the rolling global impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. So it seems a round of budget conscious bourbons might be of use.
For this flight I selected three bottom-shelfers: a dusty age stated offering, a rumored next-big-thing, and a stalwart ol’ standby. I have arranged them here in order of proof from lowest to highest. For these notes, I tasted them in that order as well, only on different days rather than together as a formal flight. The intent here is not to rank them, but simply to experience them each on their own terms.
JIM BEAM BLACK DOUBLE AGED
8-year age-stated 2012 bottling
MASH BILL – 77% corn, 13% rye, 10% barley
PROOF – 86
AGE – 8 years
DISTILLERY – Jim Beam Distillery
PRICE – $24
BUY AGAIN? – Likely not. But happy to have this bottle.
This bottle is the dusty of the group. Jim Beam launched their Black Label in 1978 as an 8-year, 90-proof premium offering. The proof was eventually dropped to 86, and by early 2015 the age statement had also been dropped, further downgrading the label’s status. Bourbon in general was in the midst of its rapidly blossoming boom, and expectations around the term “premium” were in flux. The vague subtitle “double aged” remains, indicating it is generally older than the standard Jim Beam White Label, itself aged 4 years and bottled at 80 proof.
Tasted in a good ol’ standard tumbler about a week after cracking the cap, here are some notes in brief on this 2012 age-stated bottling:
COLOR – variations on clear, pale honey, orange, and copper
NOSE – a bright and fruity example of that good ol’ Beam herbal funk, laced with caramel and a sprinkling of fine black pepper, all very forthcoming
TASTE – smooth, thin, yet flavorful with black pepper, bright caramel, vanilla saltwater taffy, some oak providing a bit of savory weight
FINISH – a surprisingly nice lingering warmth from the 86 proof, a bit of the caramel and vanilla, a just slightly bitter tannic edge from the oak
OVERALL – a perfectly decent value bourbon: serviceable, basically tasty, forgettable, okay neat and an easy mixer when you want a savory edge to your cocktails…
I’m guessing the age on this gives it an advantage over its contemporary non-age-stated revamp. Without those years to ground it a bit more in the oak, this could be a hard pass. But this 2012 bottling does have those years in the oak, and they provide a nice foundation for the brighter, lighter aspects of the flavor profile to bounce on.
There is a thinness to this overall that holds it back. I’m so curious how this 86-proof revision compares to the original 90-proof release. Already low proofs typically get lowered further as a cost saving measure. Mmmmaybe they thought at 90 proof they’d missed the flavor mark, and determined 86 proof to be tastier. But I’m doubtful.
I greatly prefer that 2018 limited edition bottom-shelfer, Jim Beam Repeal Batch, which was also 86 proof but half this Jim Beam Black’s age, and, crucially, bottled non-chill-filtered. That last detail gives the Repeal Batch a fantastic depth despite its youth and proof. Repeal Batch remains near the top of my bottom-shelfer faves list, priced at $15 on average and still popping up in stores two years after its release.
Why Repeal Batch didn’t sell better I can’t say. It’s a great everyday sipper and excellent party bourbon. Whereas this 2012 Jim Beam Black Double Aged 8 Year, though not bad, comes off like the Repeal Batch’s more subdued, less interesting, and less interested sibling—a little out of date, not quite as groovy on the dance floor, and less likely to want to go out and party in the first place.
But for $20 on average? Fine.
EVAN WILLIAMS BOTTLED IN BOND
MASH BILL – 78% corn, 10% rye, 12% barley
PROOF – 100
AGE – 4 years
DISTILLERY – Heaven Hill Distillery
PRICE – $20
BUY AGAIN? – As a good daily sipper/mixer, absolutely!
Evan Williams Bottled in Bond has been getting enthusiastic nods from the likes of Fred Minnick and It’s Bourbon Night in the past year. Bourbon diehards who enjoy the label fear it may be the next value bottle to go the way of Henry McKenna or Heaven Hill BiB 6 year. After years of sleeping quietly and affordably on bottom shelves, in 2019 Henry McKenna won an award and promptly joined the ranks of allocated unicorns with jacked up price tags. Heaven Hill BiB 6 Year was a $15 mixer until it was discontinued in 2018, only to rise Phoenix-like in 2019 as the new Heaven Hill BiB 7 year. With only one more year in the barrel and a new label design, now it sells from $40 to even $100.
So one can understand why Evan Williams Bottled in Bond fans might feel uneasy about whiskey journalists and social media influencers touting the brand. I’ve come to look at it this way: if Evan Williams one day goes the way of the unicorn, some other bottom-shelfer will rise to take its place. There will always be scads of bourbon options on the bottom, middle, and top shelves. There is simply no such thing as a shortage of bourbon, and favorites come and go.
So what’s it like? The brief notes first:
COLOR – a clear burnt orange
NOSE – cinnamony baking spices, bright caramel, a nutty herbaciousness, a whiff of boozy orchard fruits like apples, apricots, and peaches…
TASTE – creamy and peppery at once, good buttery caramel, roasted peanuts, those orchard fruits now sweetly baked with a nice dusting of the baking spices
FINISH – medium length, leaving the cream, roasted nuts, baked orchard fruits, and sweeter aspects of the baking spices to gradually fade…
OVERALL – It’s basic, bright, and legit tasty. And for the price? A no-brainer.
I absolutely understand why this brand is getting some notice, and why, now that Heaven Hill Distillery’s fabled Henry McKenna has been knocked up a shelf or two, drinkers are taking notice of this other longtime Heaven Hill standard. Both are bottled in bond. At four years old the Evan Williams lacks the depth that can come from Henry McKenna’s decade in the barrel. But even at four years, this Evan Williams’ 100 proof pulls flavors forward into the light, just like McKenna.
I find Evan Williams Bottled in Bond comparable to Evan Williams 1783, itself bottled at a lower 86 proof, and, though non-age stated, rumored to be aged roughly 7 years on average. Both taste like a bargain without tasting like the basement. I’d have to try them side by side to determine which I prefer. But in a way that determination is irrelevant. Both bottles go for $15 to $20 on average, are tasty in their particular ways, and are quite readily available—for now!
Despite Heaven Hill Distillery’s scammy conversion of their namesake Bottled in Bond 6 Year into its recent 7-year reboot, it’s good to know they still offer a couple of affordable bottom shelf labels with enough integrity to accommodate both sipping neat and mixing into cocktails.
WILD TURKEY 101
MASH BILL – 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley
PROOF – 101
AGE – NAS (~6 to 8 year blend)
DISTILLERY – Wild Turkey
PRICE – $25
BUY AGAIN? – Absolutely
The great stand-by of stand-byes, Wild Turkey 101. Can it ever fail? Not in my experience. One might have a preference for this versus that year’s batch. But year after year, Wild Turkey 101 always gets something right. At its signature 101 proof, it’s kickier than many bottom-shelf bourbons, which tend to hover in the mid-80s on average.
Here are some notes in brief:
COLOR – a nice sunset orange copper
NOSE – cinnamons, creamy caramels, baked cinnamon buns, some dusty oak
TASTE – nice creamy caramel, nice blend of cinnamon and baking spices, soft oak, just a touch of oak tannins at the end
FINISH – sparkly warmth from the proof and rye, a dusting of herbal rye grasses, the caramels and fresh oak…
OVERALL – This 2019 bottle isn’t quite up there with some recent years, yet it’s still the dependably delicious all-purpose pour I expect it to be…
What can be said about Wild Turkey 101 that’s not already been said? David Jennings over at Rare Bird 101 will have a much more informed answer to that question than I, and I encourage you to follow his blog if you don’t already. Wild Turkey 101 has been the gateway Turkey for many a bourbon enthusiast, and Jennings arguably continues to chart the Wild Turkey pasture in more detail than the distillery itself.
I’ve written already about legendary master distiller Jimmy Russell, and won’t repeat his history and impact here. I’ve compared the 101 to other Wild Turkey products, and likewise won’t get into doing so here. Here I’ll just say that Wild Turkey 101 is the steadfast product of expertise, developed over time through hands-on experience and an insistence on consistent quality unmatched by many distilleries. Jimmy Russell is almost consistent to a fault. Wild Turkey products seldom surprise. They’re always good and taste familiar. One year’s batch of 101 may be richer or more herbal or sweeter or dryer than the last and next. But in any variation it will be solid.
Even as I sit here, sipping on a second pour of this freshly uncorked bottle and writing these notes, it gets better and better with time and air in the glass. The various flavors begin to pronounce themselves with more gusto. The doughy cinnamon bun aspect, redolent with fresh bread and caramelized sugars and baking spices, rises from the glass like an old-school pastry chef’s best effort, free of science and packed with time-earned good taste.
If I ever did have to pick a desert island whiskey, Wild Turkey 101 would be the easy choice. I’d load my raft with as many cases as it could hold. And when the zombie apocalypse comes and the banks have all been wiped away, it will be this bottom-shelfer I invest in. Such dire perspectives are likely coming to me because I’m writing this on a weekend of self-quarantine amidst the Coronavirus pandemic. While others are loading up on more than their fair share of toilet paper, I myself am already stocked by habit with an array of whiskeys worthy of some high-end bar. Yet it’s the classic cheap-ass stalwart, Wild Turkey 101, that I reach for. This weekend gives me a small taste of what basic pleasures are still achievable in a dire circumstance. In such moments we reach not for decadent chocolate cakes and over-elegantly bottled rarities, but good old-fashioned baked goods and the common “kickin’ chicken.”
I hope your taxes have gone (will go) well. I hope you and your family are healthy during this pandemic moment. I hope you have a tasty whiskey nearby to keep you warm in this cold time. As an older retired couple I know—one a composer and the other a painter—recently said while raising a glass to the insane year 2020 is already turning out to be:
There will always be enough money. There will always be enough time. There will always be enough love.
Arguably it’s the latter that will make the first two possible.
To you and yours, and with best wishes for your health—and your tax returns!