These days, bourbon drinkers have a lot of choices in front of them. The big distillers have brought out a steady parade of small batches, single barrels, and special reserves, and they've been joined by a new wave of craft distillers and blenders who are creating premium whiskey on a smaller scale. Trying to separate the worthy juice from the over-marketed impostors can be daunting.
I'm one of the founding members of the Charleston Brown Water Society, which aims to help whiskey lovers navigate this ever-expanding landscape of options. We gather regularly to share good whiskey, especially rare or lesser-known releases, and we host tasting events with distillers and blenders to hear how they make their products and learn more about the history of great American spirits. Our members include bartenders and cooks from many of the top restaurants and bars in Charleston, South Carolina, along with food writers, liquor sellers, and whiskey aficionados from all walks of life.
I asked a few of the Society's members to recommend some bourbons that may not be quite as well known as Pappy Van Winkle but very much deserve a spot in your liquor cabinet.
Dan Latimer, the general manager of Husk Restaurant, is a big fan of the Medley Brothers' Old Medley 12. "It drinks older than it actually is," Latimer says. "In a blind tasting I would pick it to be 15 to 18 years old. It has a unique nutty quality about it, like pecans, that really complements the vanilla and caramel." Old Medley can easily stand side by side against the best higher-end bourbons, Latimer adds, and it offers a lot of bang for the buck. "At $50 retail it's one of the best values on the market."
E.H. Taylor, Jr. Single Barrel is a 100 proof bottled-in-bond whiskey, which is appropriate since it was named in honor of Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr., who helped lead the fight for pure whiskey that culminated in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. It's not just the historical connection but the flavor, too, that makes it a favorite for Greg "Bear" Barrow, a Charleston historian and tour guide. "It finishes a lot like Scotch, in my opinion," Barrow says. "The smoke flavor is rare for a bourbon and shows its true depth in taste."
Craig Nelson, the owner of Proof Bar, looks westward to Texas and Balcones Distilling, where head distiller Chip Tate is turning out a line of whiskeys with distinctive Texas twists. Nelson particularly likes the Balcones Brimstone, which is made with blue corn that's smoked over Texas scrub oak. "It starts off with a heavy smoke scent," Nelson says, "But after a few sips, as your palate adjusts, the sweet and spice notes shine through."
Since they're aged in uncharred oak barrels, the Balcones products can't be designated bourbons, but they can still take a respected place on a bourbon lover's shelf. "They're kind of a nice hybrid for a Scotch or bourbon drinker," Nelson adds, "Wonderful campfire flavors, with a sweet corn and pepper finish."
R.H. Weaver, the head barman at Husk Restaurant, recommends Jefferson Reserve, a combination of four bourbons of different ages created by Master Blender Trey Zoeller. "I really like Trey and what he's doing. I like that he says up front, 'I purchase it. I blend it. And I make it my own way.' That's respectable." The Reserve is a bold blend with rich caramel and toffee flavor and hints of cinnamon and orange. But when you get right down to it, Weaver likes it for one simple reason: "Because it's good."
Duncan Morgan, who works alongside Weaver behind the bar at Husk, guides patrons toward Noah's Mill, a barrel-strength bourbon from Willett Distillery. "It's a fine small batch bourbon and under $50 a bottle," he says. "The proof is 114.3, and it works in perfect harmony with the well-oaked, spicy sweetness of the whiskey." As for how to drink this bourbon, Morgan advises enjoying it neat. "I wouldn't use it in a cocktail because its flavor is too good to mask. Don't let the proof scare you away, because it's an easy sipper."
About the Author: Robert F. Moss is the senior food and drinks writer and restaurant reviewer for the Charleston City Paper and the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution and Going Lardcore: Adventures in New Southern Dining. You can find him on Twitter @mossr.