Whiskey…I’ve written extensively about the craft and art of fine Whiskey in the old P-I blog and now this website, but the one aspect I haven’t addressed is how to get hold of some of it without raising welts on your Visa card.
Honestly, even I didn’t think a lot about the relative value of Whiskeys until I thought about doing this series of reviews, mainly because I have expensive tastes and have always assumed that I was forced to spend a LOT of jack to get anything I’d want to drink. Of course, for many of those years, I didn’t drink Bourbon at all, which meant that I was mining the small universe of Single Malt Scotch for values, which is akin, for sheer hopelessness, to searching for dwarves in the NBA. In the Scotch Continuum, we’re talking about relative value vs. other Scotches or about Blended vs. Single Malts. Versus Bourbon, almost all Scotch is pricey. As someone who has watched “Local Hero” at least fifteen times, I’m quite happy to prop up the Scottish economy, so I rationalize out my purchases of $75+ Scotch by telling myself that I deserve a treat, every once in a while. (Even though that logic is highly debatable.)
But, as a happy accident, my all-time fave Single Malt is pretty much the perennial champion in the SMS category. It’s listed below and it does work out – even here, with Washington’s extortionist tax base (“liter fee“, my ass) – to less than I’d pay for any real, great-quality Single Malt Scotch.
So, unless you, like me, have that lonely bagpipe running in your hindbrain, you might want to think “Bourbon”, “Canadian” or “American” when you think of the Brown Water. And, below, you’ll find some great ones – legitimately great, not just great by comparison. With the advent of our American Artisan Distillery Boom, there have inevitably been many who priced their products so that normal American working people can afford them. Some of those are listed, here, too. All in all, this is one of the best times in history to find genuine, rock-solid values in Whiskey and that warms my heart like…well, Whiskey warms the belly.
Finally, as I wrap up this series and return to less ambitious projects, I just want to address, for a moment, that issue of liquor taxation to which I’ve now alluded a few times. First, just take a look at this map and notice the absolutely disgraceful, anti-business, head-up-the-ass little brick-colored space in the upper left corner…
That rusty thing is Washington…my home state. I love this place, dearly, and would love nothing better than to spend the rest of my life here. But look at what our numbskull legislature has put upon the shoulders of our in-state distilleries. Our excise tax rate is THIRTEEN DOLLARS higher than the second-worst state, our neighbor to the immediate south, Oregon, which sports a crippling $22.73 cents per gallon tax and people from Washington routinely save their liquor shopping for trips to The Big O so they can save money! Meanwhile, in our son’s home state of Colorado, their excise is $2.28 per gallon…THIRTY-TWO DOLLARS AND NINETY-FOUR CENTS lower than mine. Find your state on the map and take a moment to revel in the fact that you are a booze fan and that you don’t live in this corner of the country. Let me say this directly and with no sugar coating: When we passed Washington Initiative 1183 and privatized our state’s liquor sales, what happened in Olympia was a long, sour, extended pout; a childish and visionless whine that resulted in every idea our state’s spineless, clueless, intellectually-challenged bureaucrats could come up with to PUNISH the voters of Washington for daring to insist that the state get out of the liquor business, which is has always been clearly inept at running and totally incapable of fixing. For five decades at least, Liquor – the notorious “sin tax“ – was Washington’s Cash Cow that meant that nobody in Olympia had to think too hard about how the state’s money was being spent. With us snatching that endless revenue stream away from them, they’ve now cried like babies while sticking their hands into our pockets again and again – or trying to, because we still vote on stuff like new fees and taxes, here, and we keep telling them NO and saying, “Get better at budgeting and you won’t need to play amateur pickpocket.”
Washington had the country’s SEVENTH largest budget for all states in 2013. We are thirteenth in population. You do the math. Yeah, we have to pay for ferries but a lot of states have more expensive things they have to maintain. Here’s the deal and – make no mistake about it – this is a cautionary tale for YOUR state. Your own legislators can and probably will, at some point, have a project they want to pay for and that old, Calvinist mind-set will rear its ugly, stone-dead head because creative solutions require actual creativity and, if legislators were really creative, they’d be doing something more profitable and laudable with their lives than suckling at the public teat. “Let’s just tax liquor!” one of those allegedly-bright suckfish will say, “Nobody can complain about paying more for something shameful!”
Here’s what Washington should have done if they were really in need of all those supposedly-lost revenues: they should have waived the 10,000 square foot minimum for liquor licensees which would allow the people most qualified and most experienced to sell the stuff – wine and beer salespeople working in small retail stores. They should have held the excise tax to a competitive level that would have encouraged Washingtonians to spend for liquor when they want it, instead of stocking up like people from the Yukon outback every time they cross into Oregon or Idaho, where their tax rate is less than one third of ours. They should have trashed the whole idea of the extortionistic “liter fee” before it ever got out of committee and I’d go so far as to say, should have taken the jackass who came up with the idea out into an Olympia alley and left him or her naked and bleeding and Out of Work. They should, if they possessed a working brain among them, have taken a cold, hard look at ALL their beer, wine, and spirits taxes and done something – finally, after decades of making anyone who dared to make the stuff within our borders Grease Up and Bend Over. There are two ways to make money on liquor sales: sell lots of liquor or…extort those who buy it. Guess which one Washington’s whiny retreads chose…
It can happen to you, folks. So be vigilant and stay out of Washington and Oregon, at least for purposes of buying anything you find below…
THE WHISKEYS: The Soulful, Sinful Truth
BOWMORE “LEGEND” ISLAY SINGLE MALT SCOTCH
Style: Islay, Smoked About $30 Rating: “Exceptional“
Bowmore Legend is the lowest-priced Islay Scotch and has become THE go-to Single Malt for lots of fans of the Islay hallmark, the bewitching, forward intensity of peat-smoked malted grains. It has been and continues to be the best value in Scotch, period, and is a staple of my own liquor cabinet for the past twenty years, even before this edition was called “Legend”. Real, hard-core Scotch connoisseurs don’t think much of it but, for me, a guy who tends to really love wines that have a bit of stank on the nose and earthy, barnyard qualities, Legend – and all the Bowmores – are right in my sweet spot. The smoke is immediate and intense and the roasty caramel and grain flavors are presented frankly and even with some rough edges but the whole flavor profile is compelling and wears well over my six-week life of each bottle. This is a Guy’s Single Malt and an absolute pleasure to sip.
LISMORE SPEYSIDE SINGLE MALT SCOTCH
Style: Speyside About $25 Rating: “Highly Recommended“
Lismore is kind of a shadowy project, evidently bottled by William Lundie & Company. Neither the brand nor Lundie has a website, so I’m left with this bottle…which is very nice. I first tasted it about seven years ago, on a whim, while shopping for something more expensive. I expected little and was surprised to find a robust, medium-bodied Scotch with some great character notes: a touch of smoke, which is fairly rare in Speyside Whiskeys, underpinning nice caramel, toffee, honey, wildflowers, citrus peels, anise, and a hint of new-mown hay. As a value sipper goes, this is very hard to beat. In fact, the only reservation I have – and that most reviewers seem to share – is that this is clearly labeled “Single Malt Scotch” but tastes very much like a blend. If you’re not prissy about origins, Lismore is a great bottle of inexpensive, good quality authentic Scotch.
SPINNAKER SPEYSIDE SINGLE MALT SCOTCH
Style: Speyside About $40 Rating: “Highly Recommended“
Spinnaker, like Lismore, has rather vague origins. It’s made by Graeme McLeod & Co., a reputable house but, again, no website for this Whiskey. One thing it does have going for it is a description on the website of their American broker that is actually dead-on accurate for what’s in the glass: “…Delicate on the palate with subtle spice and oak notes with maturation in oak casks has imparted a beautifully floral aroma, intertwined with hints of spice, fresh fruit, woodsy vanilla, and oak.” If you get that in a reasonably-priced Scotch, you’ve hit the trifecta and Spinnaker delivers all that and some nice grace notes like toasted oats, white pepper, jasmine, and treacle. Intrepid shoppers can find this on sale for considerably less than the forty bucks and it’s worth the search for its clean, balanced flavors and easy drinkability. Flat-out GOOD Scotch for a Song.
THE FAT TROUT BLENDED SCOTCH
Style: Blended, no appellation About $23 Rating: “Best Booze Buy“
The Fat Trout does have a website, basically about the romance of Whiskey and their celebrity endorser, Steve Azar, and about promoting the stuff without giving a lot of hard info like how it was made and who made it and proof or even the fact that there are, apparently, two other Fat Trouts out there, a Single Malt 10 and something called “Lowland”, which may just be the Euro label for this bottle. (I may be getting too detailed, here, but I like to know) So, again, in the glass, this is delightful. It’s a three-year old Whiskey that doesn’t taste like it. It’s rounded and a little rich and has a peppery, jazzy freshness that’s a bit surprising and a LOT pleasing. Their tag line is “By Appointment to The Enthusiastic Fishermen of The World”, with “Blended by Experts for Nature Lovers” just below the graphic of…a fat trout. Indeed, I can easily see this bottle tagging along on a fishing trip, adding a bit of conversational lubricant around the evening’s campfire. The palate starts with a lovely, sweet suggestion of burnt sugar, followed by toasted oak notes, toffee, cashews, and grilled bread – a whole LOT of flavor for the bucks. I know “serious” Scotch freaks will probably look askance at this but I found it absolutely solid and flavorful and a surprising level of quality for such a modest price.
JOHN B. STETSON KENTUCKY STRAIGHT BOURBON
Style: American Bourbon About $26 Rating: “Best Booze Buy“
John B. Stetson Whiskey more than lives up to the prestige of the family name that, for over 100 years, has meant the best hats made in the US. This is real, straight Kentucky Bourbon, beautifully made and soaked with an almost addictive caramel-driven sweetness that’s graced nicely by notes of toasted coconut, wet oak, vanilla, black pepper, toffee, cocoa powder, and meadow grass. The intensity is that of a FAR more expensive Whiskey and the finish is long, lingering, and pure. This is, in my book, a truly Fine bottle of American Bourbon and one worth a lot more than its modest sticker price would indicate. Just outstanding.
FOUR ROSES KENTUCKY STRAIGHT BOURBON WHISKEY
Style: Traditional American Bourbon About $20 Rating: “Exceptional“
I know, I know: you’ve seen Four Roses on the shelf a billion times and you thought, “Oh, that’s gotta be Old Folks’ Bourbon.” Boy, are you WRONG. Four Roses has lately experienced a revival, driven by the HUGE and emphatic response to dark ales aged in their still-wet barrels. For me, my first retaste of this stuff in fifteen years instantly recalled the stunning Cavatica Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout that was done up in Four Roses oak. This is arguably, along with Maker’s Mark, the Gold Standard for American value Bourbon. There is nothing about this Whiskey that’s not to like. The aromas is sweet and sexy. The flavors are classic Kentucky: caramel corn, whole-grain cereal, creme brulee, toasted oak, vanilla, lead pencil, and leather. The finish is clean and shows zero off-notes, and the texture is Silk. I felt like standing up and cheering and I’ve enjoyed this as much as any Bourbon I’ve tasted in the past ten years. Terrific Whiskey and a staggering value!
**NOTE: I was also sent two samples of small-production Whiskeys from Four Roses. Both of these were a tad over the price limit for this Round-Up but will be reviewed separately because they are flat-dammit astounding. Look for this post on or about October 13th.
MAKER’S MARK KENTUCKY STRAIGHT BOURBON WHISKEY
Style: American Bourbon About $22 Rating: “Best Booze Buy“
Maker’s Mark was reviewed in The Pour Fool in February of 2012 and you can click here to read the full review, but, for those in a hurry, here’s an excerpt: “Maker’s Mark has always been the sane, affordable, entry-level passage to the world of “serious Bourbon”. It’s unquestionably fine without a trace of prissy. It’s been made exactly the same way for 58 years and it’s the only whiskey the Maker’s Mark folks made…Maker’s Mark got the hang of Bourbon a long time ago and, if their quality has ever slipped, it’s gone unnoticed…For many young Southerners, like the people I hung with in Virginia and North Carolina, Maker’s is the splurge Bourbon, the one you buy when you feel like something a couple of cuts better than your knee-jerk Medley Brothers or Elijah or Evan…I’ve laid Maker’s on several dozen whiskey drinkers who hadn’t tried it, over the past 20 years in Seattle, and most drink it regularly now. And why not? If what you’re looking for in a Bourbon is the classic, time-tested caramel, nut, wood, citrus, and muscle, this stuff has it in spades. But the texture of it is the greatest surprise. It’s impossibly smooth and agreeable; no hard edges, a good ol’ dawg that never bites back. Flavor for days, lovely color in the glass, fine, lingering finish…how in the world could you ever improve on that? Certainly, they were happy with it at the distillery, since they refused to tinker with it at all for almost sixty years.” That’s the story and there is no other Bourbon made today that offers more pure, all-American Bang For Buck.
GEORGE DICKEL NO. 12 TENNESSEE SOUR MASH WHISKEY
Style: Tennessee Whiskey About $19 Rating: “Exceptional“
This stunning accomplishment from the estimable Gerry Webb and Diageo was reviewed in The Pour Fool this past January. You can click here to read the review, or, if you’re in a hurry, here’s a little recap: “…The first impression is smoothness. BIG caramel, subtle coconut, toffee, a sublime nuttiness, a dash of spice, fruit intimations galore, and a lovely, restrained smokiness give this a seamless, contemplative character that probably doesn’t register that well with youngsters who are just drinking whiskey to pah-tay, but for knowledgeable, unstuffy whiskey lovers, this stuff is a revelation, tangible proof that fat, comfortable flavor doesn’t have to come with a car-payment sized price tag. And yes, it IS a bit sweet. Bourbon, Tennessee, American whiskey in general – all slightly sweet and, indeed, that’s one of its hallmarks and virtues. Without that sweetness, American whiskey would be Rough Going. The sweetness helps tame the wild alcohol levels a bit and civilizes The Burn, without which whiskey would be stale cola. We want The Burn but we don’t want to feel like we’re sucking on a propane torch. And Webb and Lunn manage the balance of this stuff perfectly.”
This link will lead you to a YouTube video from the lively, reliable twosome called Bourbon Blind, two Good Ol’ Boys who KNOW whiskey and taste bottles blind, in bags, on camera, thereby risking BIG embarrassment. Gotta love that kind of chutzpah. In this video, the boys taste Dickel No. 12 and guess the price. One guesses $90, the other “maybe $120”. Then they took off the bag. Yeah, George Dickel No. 12 is THAT good.
PENDLETON CANADIAN WHISKEY
Style: Canadian Blended About $26 Rating: “Best Booze Buy“
Pendleton Canadian Whiskey was reviewed in The Pour Fool in August of 2011. You can click here to read that review or, if you’re in a hurry, here’s an excerpt: “…Pendleton, as the kids say, “brings it” – every sip, every bottle, every time…I read several reviews from learned critics – something I very rarely do – and it was split about 60-40, lukewarm to favorable…But it was when I went to read consumer forums about it that I got the eye-opener: the response from Average Joes, folks like you and me who lay down hard-earned bucks to buy something they feel certain they’ll enjoy, it ran easily 95% – 5%, favorable…Its surprisingly subtle flavor profile (I mean, really: do you taste a rodeo-themed whiskey expecting subtlety?) is fleshed out by a bold, up-front caramel/vanilla aroma and flavor, a hint of leather, pecans, smoke, malt, tobacco, pepper, and a flattering touch of citrus on the finish. It’s graceful, in the same way slow-motion photography of rodeo cowboys is graceful. Their website features a whole page of Pendleton drink recipes but I, for one, wouldn’t taint this flavor profile with anything else. It’s just too fully-realized all alone. Unlike a lot of liquors we’ve had at home, Pendleton doesn’t slam shut when kept in the freezer. It is a tad larger at room temperature but, as a warm-weather patio sipper, this is as good a Canadian style whiskey as I’ve ever tasted.“
STEIN “BIG BUCK” AMERICAN BOURBON
Style: American Bourbon About $38 Rating: “Exceptional“
Stein Distillery, located in the tiny town of Joseph, Oregon, was just barreling this stuff when I walked in to taste in 2009. Austin Stein told me that, in its White Dog state, he thought it was really promising and I promised to try it as soon as it came out. I missed the release by a year but the wait was worth it. Big Buck won the Gold for Best American Whiskey Under 7 Years at the 2014 World Whiskey Awards and deserved to. This has a HUGE, gorgeous aroma of hazelnuts, oak, almonds and toast, with rye spice and a cinnamon sweetness that prettily frames white peaches, bitter orange, and hay on the finish. It’s complex and rich and rivaled only by two American Bourbons made outside Kentucky: High West and Breckenridge. This is a stunning achievement in The New Bourbon and a rare bird that’s well worth the search.