A Fistful of Bourbon arrived at my door about mid-August and I stared at it in puzzlement. To begin with, I usually get an email from a PR firm, letting me know that a sample is coming and roughly when. I got NOTING about AFofB. Also, oddly, I had already seen it in my local boozemonger’s and bought a bottle. I was Whiskey shopping and the name got me tickled and I bought it. So, I had tasted it, a full four months earlier. Weird.
This review could have already been written and almost was. But I took the usual mid-summer hiatus and decided to save it for this time of year, because I thought it would be a great, fun bottle to give as a gift and it’s reasonable enough that you could buy a couple to give away AND get yourself some, too, without feeling like some goof with poor impulse control.
And, by the way, you will want to buy a bottle for yourself.
A Fistful of Bourbon is actually made by William Grant & Sons, the biggest maker of Scotch Whiskey in Scotland and, therefore, the world. (This is pivotal, so remember…) It is a blend of five purchased Bourbons, made in the US, and selected by Grant’s new rock-star Master Blender, Kelsey McKechnie, who – if she was a Bourbon or a Scotch – would hardly be old enough to bottle. She graduated from the Applied Biological Sciences School at West Scotland University in 2013, and was sent to the US to make a tour of Kentucky (and Other) distilleries that make Bourbon, to find and buy batches with which she could craft this surprising bottle. “Surprising” because Grant is synonymous with “SCOTCH!” (exclamation point included), with such brands as the flagship label, Glenfiddich, along with Grant’s, The Balvenie, Monkey Shoulder, the classic Scotch liqueur, Drambuie, and merging brands Aerstone, Hazelwood, and Ailsa Bay. They have lately diversified into Rum (Sailor Jerry and O.V.D.), Gin (The brilliant Hendrick’s), and Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey. Grants does everything well. They started their distillery in 1887, with Glenfiddich, and are now the easiest Jeopardy clue ever: “My name is William and I make Scotch“, answer: “Who is William Grant, Alex.” Bang, $1000 and you have the board.
But in tasting this lovely stuff, I thought, more than once, about the Tullamore. Some Irish folks got a bit, uh, testy when Grant’s acquired C&C Spirits, back in 2010, and wound up with Tullamore, an old and honorable name in Irish hooch. They rightly feared that Grant’s would change the recipe or methods a bit, adding their kilt-wearin’ barbarian aesthetic, and screw up a perfectly fine whiskey. Instead, Grant’s did NOT kill the goose that laid the golden egg and Tullamore, at least to my palate, tastes just as it did fifteen, twenty, forty years ago. I wondered, opening the box for Fistful, if Grant would similarly honor the traditions of Kentucky Bourbon as they had with Tullamore.
The answer is…Yes. And No.
Yes, the Whiskeys used in this blend are made in the United States. Yes, they are aged in real American oak and filtered the way we do here. Yes, they started out, at least, as All-American flag-wavin’, Good Ol’ Boy distilled spirits, imbued naturally with that inherent magic that makes Bourbon the Number One spirits drink HERE, in the US. But far more Scotch Whiskey is enjoyed across the world than American, Canadian and Irish whiskies combined. Grant’s as a company and Kelsey McKechnie – all Scottish. So…when a Scottish distillery conglom and a Scottish Master Blender make a Bourbon, what happens?
Something kinda, uh, wonderful.
In the past, Scotch geek that I am, I drank Scotch from age 18 on and turned my nose up and Bourbon. Bourbon was too sweet for me. This is from an article I wrote for the old Washington Times in 1972, back when I was mainly just a green little pedant with a Scotch habit, a part-time byline, and a rabid yearning to escape my Southern roots: “There is no real comparison between Scotch, with its graceful textures and nicely balanced flavors and its rather elegant lack of rough edges and Kentucky Bourbon…Bourbon is SWEET, often cloyingly so, and often packs an alcohol wallop that’s like sucking the tailpipe of a nitro-fueled funny car. That’s not to say that there are not nice Bourbons around but if you want one, you’re gonna spend some serious Jack on it, often as much as $30 to$40. You can get a fine bottle of Scotch for twenty bucks.” Yeah. 1972 prices. Can’t beat ’em.
Along about 1995, I had a little Come To Jesus experience with a bottle of what was then the newly-released 80 Proof Four Roses Yellow Label and had an entire weekend to live with and experience that gift bottle. My head was yanked sideways by the 4F depth and richness and clarity and total lack of the flaws I had found in ’72. I didn’t dive headlong into Bourbon but I bought some new brand, now and then, and bought the Four Roses Yellow three or four times a year. I still do. It remains among my tip three house whiskeys and that leads us back to Fistful…
The net result of a Scottish distiller with a Scottish blender making a blended Bourbon is…a pretty, wildly drinkable Bourbon that speaks with a distinct and rather emphatic Scottish accent.
The main difference between Scotch and Bourbon is that signature hint of sweetness and a round richness in the American booze versus a broadly complex, silken, gorgeously balanced drinkablity, in a lighter texture, in the Scotch. To a degree, it’s the difference – and the similarity – between Ginger Ale and Ginger Beer. Intensity. That mouth-filling immediacy that sets Bourbon apart. And Scotch distilleries tacitly acknowledge that Bourbon is ahead on the depth score, as MOST contemporary Scotches are aged in used Bourbon barrels. Glenfiddich 14 Year Old Bourbon Barrel Aged Scotch is a highly sought-after spin-off of the mainline Glenfiddich, the world’s largest selling Scotch. Examples you may have seen/tried include Auchentoshan. Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, and almost every other brand you’ll find in your local shops.
According to the Bruichladdich Islay distillery database, a staggering 97% of all Scotch Whiskey is at least partially aged in American oak Bourbon barrels.
So, given a few generations of this symbiosis, a Scotch palate, set to the task of making a blended Bourbon, could rightly be expected to wind up with something that carries Bourbon characteristics but blended to suit Scottish tastes.
A Fistful of Bourbon is unmistakably American in origin but carries that lighter, leaner Scotch profile that emphasizes breadth and complexity over depth and hedonistic luxury. In many ways, is it the best of both worlds. I have taken a fair amount of static for admitting this but, when I have bought a Scotch that lacks a little oomph on the mid-palate or especially on the finish – and I am just drinking for pleasure, versus reviewing – I’ve often added a quarter to half ounce of a good Bourbon to it, just for my own tastes. I have also taken a bombastic, simple Bourbon and dosed it with a good Scotch, to add complexity and sand off rough edges.
Fistful is, to me, a marriage of a very fine upper-mid-range Kentucky straight Bourbon, with an upper-mid-range Highland or Speyside Scotch. The classic Bourbon caramel, dried fruits, cinnamon, roasted nuts, and bramble notes are the bedrock, with a – dare I say it – elegant overlay of Scotch-ian woodsmoke, lanolin, leather, citrus, figs, tobacco, and vanilla. That adds up to a Whiskey that you’ll find infinitely versatile and appealing for straight, meditative sipping by the fire, evenings at the beach, and mixing liberally in your fave cocktails.
PLUS – the price! Grants COULD have, with a project as travel and time-intensive as Fistful, slapped $60 price tag on it and pushed it out the door. And maybe that will happen, yet, if it is as big a success as it surely deserves to be. But, for right now – and as one of the most delightful and different Christmas gift ideas for Whiskey Geeks in at least twenty solid years – A Fistful of Bourbon is not even a palmful of green: right around $23 wherever good Whiskey is sold.
What the hell is not to like? TRY this. It’d not just good…it’s a damned Fistful of Good. 94 Points