Here in the run-up to Christmas, 2020 (yikes), I’m going to TRY…TRY, okay? – No guarantees – to post daily on some of the truly stunning things I’ve tasted during our Great National Masked Insanity.
This website has gone almost criminally neglected since that first stay-at-home order and I really need – like right now – to do what my sainted Grandfather used to tell me: “Shit or Get Off The Pot.”
Wish me luck.
One thing I have undertaken is a comprehensive list of really SOLID Value Whiskey choices. This is long overdue, I think. As Whiskey drinking, which has never really ebbed much, soars to new levels of interest and acceptance, people who make less than Joe Biden’s $400K yearly sorta NEED options. Whiskey reviews have become my Numero Uno requested topic and I am happy to oblige. With the kindly, self-serving help of about a dozen PR firms and distilleries, I’ve tasted a flock o’ cheap Whiskeys in the past eight months and found over a dozen that really pushed all my boozy buttons.
We start with two of the current stunners.
Carlyle Blended Scotch Whiskey Master Blender’s Selection juggles the elegance of Scotch and that magical Scottish terroir with a size, depth, and breadth that has more to do with Kentucky than any of the multiple Scottish regions from which the massive blend of 20 different whiskies arises. The fact that it’s aged in American Bourbon barrels furthers hammers in that aesthetic, with a somewhat Un-Value Scotch-like nose of hazelnuts, warm chocolate, pink peppercorn, and notes of smoky wood and vanilla bean. In yer piehole, you get a satiny plume of caramel, subtle woodsiness, orange zest, that arrogant oak, malt syrup, and a dash of tree fruit. It has heft that is totally uncharacteristic of most value Scotch and, maybe most surprising, a long, lazy finish that delivers a splashy exit of rum liqueur, mild cocoa, and intimations of nutmeg and cinnamon.
Is this the best Scotch you will ever taste? No, probably not. But you almost certainly will sustain a large-ish bruise or two in your wallet to get one more friendly and this one will wear very well, making it a great choice for sipping, Rusty Nails, and anything you use a nice Scotch for. And it is $19.99! Let me repeat that: NINETEEN NINETY-NINE…Jaw-dropping Bargain! 90 points
Back here in America, Evan Williams, a Welsh immigrant, moved to the US and settled in Louisville, Kentucky, and started making whiskey. His was literally the first distillery in Kentucky (**some historians dispute this but what seems clear is that Williams gave a LOT of people a Big Idea in 1783, even if his own commercial distillery didn’t become a reality until some time later) and started what is, by 2020, a 147-year boom in Kentucky distilling that’s become, along with horse racing, what Kentucky is mainly famous for. Now owned by Heaven Hill Distillers, Evan Williams has become what I call a “ghost brand”; one of those names we all see so often that they tend to vanish in the static of a constant stream of New Shiny Objects and begin that slow descent to the dreaded Bottom Shelf.
In fact, a recent trip to Total Wine revealed that this bottle of genuine, legit Bottled In Bond, 100 Proof Kentucky Bourbon was Down There, around my ankles, and took me about ten solid minutes to find.
That is a minor tragedy.
For those not conversant with “BiB” Whiskey, think of the federal certification required to put those words on the label as America’s first consumer protection law. Back there in the late 1800s and early 1900s, American spirits’ gigantic popularity spawned a whole stealth industry that saw cheaper, unaged spirits being tarted up with additives like glycerine, caramel coloring, wood chips and sometimes even formaldehyde, to faintly approximate genuine Bourbon and Scotch. Kentucky distillers rose up and hounded the government to designate a way to tell the Real Stuff from the crap. “Bottled In Bond” was the result and getting the license to use those words REQUIRES that the spirit “must be aged for at least four years and bottled at precisely 100 proof (50% abv). It must be made by one distiller at a single distillery in one season, then aged in a bonded (read: open for government inspection) warehouse“.
This Whiskey is somewhat and properly legendary. BiB fell out of favor for decades, as American drinkers of the latter part of the Twentieth Century moved away from higher-alcohol spirits. Booker Noe, eminence gris of Jim Beam, the country’s largest distillers, revived the certification about six years ago and those neglected bottles began to climb up off the bottom shelves and into shopping carts.
This Evan Williams is a Whiskey which has had critics and drinkers alike fumbling with adjectives…and explanations. And not a little abashed guilt. The young fan and reviewer, Taylor, writing on malt-review.com, admitted that this one’s little brother, Evan Williams Black Label, was his go-to Bourbon and grappled with heaping praise on yet another value Bourbon:
“This is tough to get my head around, but in a good way. Just when I think I have a handle on this, it shifts into a different aroma or flavor entirely. There’s a breadth here that is beyond that of the Black Label, but also a tension that energizes this and makes it a great deal more fun to taste…As I’m in the habit of docking a point for poor value, it seems only fair that I could add one back for very good value, wouldn’t you agree?“
Yep, Taylor, I flat-damned would. There’s pine needles and roasted nuts and whole-grain toast on the nose and all that on the palate, plus caramel, tangerine peel, cocoa, crisp citrus, sweet herbs, and a texture something like dissolved powdered sugar. It is NOT sweet but gives a subtle impression of it and finishes with a hint of teaberry, graham crackers, and cinnamon toast. Its burn is mild and pleasing – for a perv like me, who really enjoys an alcohol singe, it’s close to perfect – especially considering that this stuff is a bona-fide 100 Proof or 50% ABV.
And it costs…FOURTEEN NINETY-NINE, regular price, on most better retailers’ shelves.
In QPR terms (Quality to Price Ratio), this is one of the best buys on anything with alcohol in it on US stores shelves. Even I, dedicated skinflint that I am, had a moment or two of thinking, “Can – or should! – I get all ravey about a fifteen-buck Whiskey?” BUT…I took a blood oath, when I started this batty enterprise, that when I started to worry about my credibility, I would quit writing it and I’m not ready to, right now. And, no less importantly, at some point you have to drop all the parameters and just consider What’s In The Glass and this Whiskey stands up credibly to a LOT that cost three, four, five times more.
Brilliant, insanely drinkable, eminently blendable, high-octane hooch, from a distillery who has had more practice than just about anyone. 93 Points