Will Gordon's $20 Bourbon Battle: Wild Turkey 81 vs. Four Roses

Drinking with Will Gordon

Pull up a stool next to your drinking buddy Will.


Today is my wife's birthday, which would be my favorite day of the year if it fell during a more reasonable month. It's hard to be unabashedly enthusiastic about any day with a high temperature of 28 degrees, but it helps when the day in question is spent celebrating the existence of your favorite person. It helps further when the celebration is centered on eating and drinking and giving gifts of pickles and skirts.

The pickles were easy to choose, because although we've yet to discuss whether either of us intends to have children or save for retirement, we settled the pickle score on our first date: Ours will always be a sour house, and if any nontraditional flavors are introduced, they will be of the smoky or spicy variety. The skirt-picking process was a fair bit more fraught.

I am a very poorly dressed man, even by work-at-home-writer standards, because I am a slob but also because men's clothes tend to come in two basic flavors: too boring or too flashy. So at my current gender, I don't even bother to try. But I'm sure I would make for a smartly dressed lady, because women's fashion is so much more interesting. If female me spent time thinking about, shopping for, and keeping mustard stains off of her clothes, she would be rewarded with the chance to look stunning or sexy or sophisticated, or at least purple or pink or for christ's sake even yellow. The best a man can generally aim for is to clean-khaki his way into looking probably not homeless. Not worth the buttons and zippers, I say.

Emily does a very nice job of dressing herself, but when it's my turn to pick out her clothes I tend to favor things a bit more flamboyant than her usual wardrobe. What I'm saying is that I try to outfit my wife like a backup dancer in a Motley Crue video. It's a good look for her, but alas an impractical one for a 9 to 5er who spends more time riding city buses and sitting in office chairs than writhing on Camaro hoods and dancing on bars. While it's fair to speculate that the problem is more in her lifestyle choices than my fashion choices, it is, after all, her birthday, and an inappropriate gift is worse than no gift at all.

That's why I had to find the best possible $20 bourbon to give my friend Panda as thanks for giving Emily a CD full of what I'm told are really nice photos of our wedding. I haven't looked at the pictures yet, because I tend to be much more handsome in my mind than on my computer screen, but I'll trust Emily's claim that we owe Panda a favor, and since I don't know his skirt size or pickle preference, bourbon seems the safest bet.

Wild Turkey 81

I've never loved a Wild Turkey product, but the new 81 proofer has been well received by the whiskey press, so I thought it was worth investigating. The 81 is a blend of 6-, 7-, and 8-year-old whiskies, which makes it older than most of its price peers. The marketing folks say the extended barrel time allows it to evolve into "the perfect mixin' whiskey," but I found it to have plenty enough character to stand alone. The nose is assertive yet nuanced, and it paints an accurate picture of a bourbon that is far more compelling than I remember from past encounters with Turkey. It opens with a spicy lemon note that gives way to a long stretch of caramel before small doses of honey and orange show up on the finish.

Four Roses Yellow Label

The Four Roses Distillery uses two different mash bills and five distinct yeast strains to produce hits such as the Small Batch and Single Barrel, and the budget-friendly Yellow Label is a blend that can include all 10 of the house recipes. Four Roses bourbons are known to be more subtle than some of the competition, and at first sniff the Yellow Label comes across as subdued almost to the point of lethargy, with a faintly sweet smell that suggests vodka almost as much as it does whiskey.

But the flavor comes through big-time once you stop messing around with your nose and get your tongue in on the action. The first impression is of elegant caramel with just a bit of vanilla and not much by way of other barrel flavors; mint, apple, and cinnamon notes emerge with time and persist through the surprisingly long, rich finish. As much as I liked the Wild Turkey 81, the Panda will be getting a bottle of Four Roses Yellow Label tonight—if he shows up to Emily's birthday party before we get too thirsty.