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Ray Isle wades through the crowded bourbon market and recommends a quartet of good bottles to seek out.
As a longtime Manhattan drinker, I am surprised, confounded, pleased and yet at the same time a little concerned about the current state of bourbon. I’m not talking about the quality level—there’s probably more good bourbon out there than there’s ever been before. I’m talking about the popularity level. The rocket-like rise of bourbon’s appeal makes me think about the cigar boom a decade or so ago, when a grizzled vineyard manager and longtime cigar smoker I knew produced one of his favorite stogies from his shirt pocket and said, “See this? I was paying two bucks for these a couple of years ago. Now the damn things cost me 12 bucks each!”
As someone who not all that long ago paid $85 for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old—a bourbon that now goes for around $1,500 a bottle, if you can find it—I think it’s fair to be a little worried. Plus, it isn’t just the US that’s gone all bourbon-bonkers. Sales hereabouts are rising spectacularly, but what about Colombia? Bourbon sales there have risen 13,250 percent over the past decade. That’s like a person who used to drink a single bottle of bourbon every year deciding he’d be better off if he drank three bottles of bourbon every week. But who knows. Maybe Colombian drug lords are hoarding the stuff. After all, look at what’s going on with Mexico and limes.
To get to matters at hand—that is, to get some recommendations in before the bourbon world goes even more berserk—here’s a quartet of good bottles to seek out.
Bulleit bourbon ($22) Bulleit’s high rye content (about one-third of the mash bill) gives it a distinctive dark spiciness; pronounced oak notes add to that impression.
Weller 12 Year Old ($26) Like the elusive Pappy Van Winkle, Weller is a wheated bourbon—the distiller substitutes wheat for the more traditional rye, giving it a gentler, less overtly spicy character. Like Pappy, it is also made by the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Unlike Pappy, it’s a hell of a bargain.
Four Roses Small Batch ($35) In the soft and sweet zone initially, this combination of four relatively young whiskies (all under seven years old) assembled by master distiller Jim Rutledge ends on a subtle spice note.
Angel’s Envy ($55) Master distiller Lincoln Henderson created this gorgeous, satin-textured bourbon after retiring from his 40-year career with whiskey behemoth Brown-Forman (Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, etc.). Three to six months finishing in port casks gives it a faint but distinctive cherry-maple note.