I HAVE WRITTEN THIS article about bourbon because, when HumbleDollar’s editor previously asked me to write about my travels, I thought, “Hey, if someone wants to pay me $60 to write about travel, I’m in. I’m hoping he’ll next suggest I write an article about drinking bourbon.”
Sadly, this site’s editor didn’t ask me to write about bourbon. But I went ahead anyway.
I “spiritually” came of age when I was 19 years old. It’s not that I was so much more mature than those who came after me. Rather, in New York in 1984, it was legal for a 19-year-old to drink alcohol.
I remember my salad days quite well, drinking in the hospitable confines of bars with such timeless names as Yesterday’s, The Cobbler and [insert Irish name]’s Pub. Then, a few months after my 19th birthday, for some unknown reason, the powers that be raised the drinking age to 21, and my friends and I were back to drinking in the less-than-hospitable confines of a 1966 Buick Special in the supermarket parking lot.
Back then, we all pretty much drank the drink that has been drunk since the first teenager started drinking—cold, cheap beer—though the adjectives weren’t necessarily in that order. This was all before the whole microbrew trend started, though I do remember one of my friends, who thought he was special, ordering some imported crap called Boddingtons.
After more than a few Buds, Miller Lites and Rolling Rocks, our taste buds inevitably matured and we graduated to drinking Screwdrivers, Alabama Slammers and shots of anything that could be poured into a shot glass, which included for some strange reason Drambuie. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the “cocktail” Alabama Slammer or the liqueur Drambuie, consider yourself lucky.
When I subsequently joined the Navy, my palate was most definitely not expanded, unless you count cheap foreign beer and shots of ouzo. And when I started working for Exxon Mobil, I quickly realized that wine was to be drunk when eating ridiculously expensive steak or seafood, but otherwise I stuck to what I knew—and what I knew was beer, though now bought in bottles and poured into a glass.
That all changed when I read Dale DeGroff’s The Essential Cocktail. It was different from any other cocktail book I’d ever read. Instead of being an endless compendium of drink after drink, it was a thesis on how 30 or so cocktails were made, including their history and possible variations.
Perhaps due to its manliness, I was immediately drawn to whiskey cocktails, and quickly became enamored with the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan. Or it could be that, by this time, I’d had my fill of rum (how many rum and cokes can a man drink?) and vodka (see Screwdriver, above).
I quickly realized that I wasn’t alone in my newfound love of whiskey. When I’d squeeze my way to the bar about 15 years ago, that—and microbrews—were all everyone wanted to order. I realized there might have been a slight herd mentality with me and my bourbon-heads, but at least I wasn’t drinking the ersatz gasoline cocktail that’s called a Martini. I need to note that the establishments where I was now doing my drinking were much classier, as confirmed by their names—PX, The Milk Room, the bar at the Ritz—and by their prices.
The one issue I’ve found with drinking whiskey is that the number of choices has now become staggering. In fact, drinking whiskey has become like drinking wine: The prices range from dirt cheap to WTF and, after you find a good bottle at a reasonable price, finding it again can be problematic.
Therefore, in an effort to simplify the decision making-process and reduce expenses, I now categorize all whiskey as follows:
1. The Undrinkable. This group includes the bottom shelf at the liquor store, Canadian whisky and, of course, all Scotch—no matter the price.
2. The Good Stuff. It’s like porn, you know it when you see it, generally due to the price, the cork or the shape of the bottle. Now, don’t buy this stuff yourself. But if you’re on the company’s dime or at your brother-in-law’s house, then of course partake. Not to excess, though: You don’t want your boss or brother-in-law to get too wise.
If you get it as a gift—you lucky dog—do not mix it. Mixing “The Good Stuff” into a cocktail is like ordering a medium rare 22-ounce bone-in ribeye at The Capital Grille and then slathering it with ketchup. Drink it neat, with a little branch water or on the rocks.
3. The Middle Shelf. By extensively sampling this group, you’re looking for the sweet spot between taste and price. A few thoughts: Stay away from Jim Beam, except for the rye. You cannot go wrong with Buffalo Trace. It’s the best middle-shelf bourbon I’ve ever tasted. Unfortunately, the word is out and it has become the unicorn of bourbons.
Stay above 80 proof if you’re going to mix it, otherwise it’ll all just get diluted away. And if you do mix it, mix it with fresh juices, bottled mixers and top-shelf accompaniments like Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth. Remember, your cocktail liquor stipend is better allocated to the accoutrements than to the whiskey.
Currently, I’m partial to Mellow Corn, Old Forester, Rittenhouse Rye and all Irish whiskey. But as I type this, the options are increasing exponentially. By the way, after purchasing, I then sometimes decant it into my father-in-law’s crystal decanter. It makes it taste that much better.
Much like sex and pizza, there’s no need to overpay to fulfill your primal needs. Damn good whiskey can be purchased at a reasonable price. Just follow my above guidelines, be responsible and remember, “Pay medium, drink premium.”
Michael Flack blogs at AfterActionReport.info. He’s a former naval officer and 20-year veteran of the oil and gas industry. Now retired, Mike enjoys traveling, blogging and spreadsheets. Check out his earlier articles.