Choosing The Right Bourbon For Beginners
By Richard Thomas
For many whiskey enthusiasts, a common question from friends and family is “I want to try this bourbon thing, so where should I start?” Yet that question is not always so easily answered. Other people don’t know a diehard bourbon fan they can ask, and are left finding their own way through the myriad brands available blind.
Most experts recommend a tasting or putting together a flight including several bourbons, a sure way to provide a broad range of experience for the novice. Another way to introduce someone special to bourbon is to pick a bottle and give it to him or her as a gift. Or a novice can go to the bar, pick bourbons off the shelf, and put together their own starter experience. Whatever route is taken, The Whiskey Reviewer has recommendations to guide you, drawing on the advice of whiskey experts, food bloggers and notable enthusiasts.
Don’t Reach For The Top Shelf
The central rule of bourbon for beginners is to not go for the pricey premium stuff, and couple of reasons support starting with reasonably priced whiskey. The first is that avoiding rarefied whiskey means staying within the realm of what is approachable for novices. “You want people to have a sense of what bourbon is about and, if they like it, a way to get it,” said Steve Ury, the blogger behind Sku’s Recent Eats. “That means nothing cask strength or too obscure.”
Although she insists “starter” shouldn’t be synonymous with “cheap,” singer-songwriter Katie Buchanan warned “The higher you go, the more intense character you’re likely to find, which isn’t the greatest for a starter.” What constitutes “reasonably priced” is a matter for debate, but staying within the $20 to $40 range works for everyone we spoke to.
Another reason to stay with reasonably priced whiskey is to encourage follow-up. As Los Angeles-based food and drinks blogger Jenn Wong put it, ” I don’t want to turn someone on to something that is difficult to find or is so expensive that they’ll only think of it for special occasions. […] Then when they’re hooked they can try to seek out other brands & feel like they ‘discovered’ it.” The bottom line is that if a bourbon is affordable and readily available, the beginner who likes it will come back to it.
In terms of characteristics, the emphasis should be on keeping things simple and easy-going. Katie Buchanan described the starter flavor as “Smooth and balanced: nothing too sweet, nothing too smoky, nothing too anything really.”
“A good starter bourbon tends to be lower proof with an abundance of vanilla and caramel notes which are more approachable to the novice bourbon drinker,” said Patrick Garrett of Bourbon & Banter.
That is not to say there isn’t a place for Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old or Four Roses Mariage in all of this. “At the end of every tasting, I’ll break all of these rules and bring out something special, just to give people a taste of what’s out there,” said Steve Ury. So as part of a larger experience, a little taste of some super premium bourbon might be appropriate, but only in that larger context.
Starter Bourbons By The Experts
Basil Hayden: This member of the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection is noteworthy within that group as the one with the lowest proof (80, or 40% abv) and the lightest body, two qualities that will make it more approachable to the novice drinker. Another selling point for making this a starter bourbon is that it is an example of a “high rye bourbon,” or bourbon with a boosted rye content in the mashbill (30% in this case). As part of a starter flight, Basil Hayden is a good candidate for showing how the grains used in making bourbon play out in the flavor.
Eagle Rare: The reason for using Eagle Rare, the 10 Year Old single barrel from Buffalo Trace, as a starter bourbon is simple. It’s a fine example of a middle of the road (90 proof) bourbon, one that is enormously popular with casual whiskey drinkers and enthusiasts alike.
Maker’s Mark: Like Eagle Rare, Maker’s Mark has the advantage of a middling proof of 90 (45% abv). The bourbon is also one of the easier brands to get, both in the United States and abroad. Finally, the whiskey is one of the most familiar brands around that uses a wheated mashbill, where red winter wheat replaces rye in the grain recipe.
Wild Turkey 101: As with Maker’s Mark, part of the reason for starting a novice on Wild Turkey 101 is because it is so readily and widely available. The particular contribution this whiskey makes as a starter bourbon is it represents a step up in strength, with a 101 proof (50.5% abv). Indeed, Turkey 101 is the strongest of the mass market bourbons, and as such it can show how stronger whiskey doesn’t necessarily mean harsh or overwhelming.
Woodford Reserve: Part of the argument for using Woodford Reserve is the same as with Eagle Rare: it is very popular stuff. Another part is the same as Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey 101. Drinkers in U.S. should never have trouble finding it, and internationally it has a good presence as well, if not as good as Turkey and Maker’s.
The final reason is that Woodford Reserve is the only major bourbon around made using Scottish style pot stills, instead of the more efficient column still. The argument goes that column stills usually take some of the taste out of the whiskey, and most experts agree that the use of those Forsyth’s copper pots to distill Woodford has a real impact on the flavor.