The Whisk(e)y Whimsy group recently held “Battle of the Bottom Shelf”: a blind tasting of nine of the most ubiquitous, <$20 bourbons in PA state stores. It was Jon’s brainchild, and we did it in a really nifty cabin which Dave acquired for us:
The point was to discover those bourbons which give the most bang for your bottom shelf buck, and to do so blindly in order to eliminate preconceived preferences and prejudices. Some results were surprising.
Now, in the world of bourbon, the <$20 line is admittedly arbitrary and unhelpful, because (unlike scotch) for only a few dollars more you break into significantly better bourbons. For instance, in the low twenties you can find such delicious mid-range bourbons as Elmer T. Lee, Elijah Craig, and Weller Special Reserve; and, in the high twenties you can find such world-class contenders as Eagle Rare and Evan Williams Single Barrel. Still, for the purposes of our “Battle of the Bottom Shelf,” the <$20 line was functional.
Allow me to share my own, personal comments and rankings. Remember, I did not know what I was tasting when I made these comments–my goal was not to provide a proper review for others, but to jot down brief notes-to-self for the sake of my own ranking. Also remember that I am not listing these in the order in which we tasted them, but in the order in which I ultimately ranked them (before their unveiling):
Evan Williams Black Label
My ranking out of these nine: #1.
Blind note-to-self: “higher quality nose and taste.”
My ranking out of these nine: #2
Blind note-to-self: “plenty of flavor, tad drier than I prefer, bit woody.”
My ranking out of these nine: #3
Blind note-to-self: “dull watery nose, warm tingly mouth feel, maybe slightly floral thing, cheap sweetness, thin, no finish except white orange pith.”
My ranking out of these nine: #4
Blind note-to-self: “likable if weak standard bourbon nose, very mellow palate, inoffensive, eh, don’t love it but good one to start someone on.”
Jim Beam White Label
My ranking out of these nine: #5
Blind note-to-self: “weak standard bourbon nose, fine bourbon palate but with hints of grain like blended scotch, more finish than some others, but the finish is not great”
My ranking out of these nine: #6
Blind note-to-self: “nougat nose, hot sharp palate, mild balanced sweetness, one simple note. Nah.”
Old Grand-dad Bonded (100 proof)
My ranking out of these nine: #7
Blind note-to-self: “standard bourbon nose, hot palate, some flavors I don’t like. Not contender.”
Four Roses Yellow Label
My ranking out of these nine: #8
Blind note-to-self: “not contender”
My ranking out of these nine: #9
Blind note-to-self: “hint of paint thinner – nope”
Unanimous Agreements Among All Ten Tasters
- Evan Williams Black Label and Bird Dog are the two best whiskeys of the bunch. 8/10 blind tasters ranked EWBL #1 and BD #2, and 2/10 blind tasters ranked BD #1 and EWBL #2. Those who preferred EWBL admitted that BD was a very close second, and those who preferred BD admitted that it was a very tough call for them.
- Four Roses Yellow Label and Old Crow are the two worst whiskeys of the bunch. All ten tasters ranked FRYL #8 out of these nine whiskies, and all ten ranked Old Crow the very worst.
- Bird Dog being in the top two whiskies, right alongside Evan Williams Black Label. Who even knows who makes Bird Dog or where it comes from? We expected it to be a red-headed step-child in the bunch. We were shocked at the unveiling.
- Four Roses Yellow Label ranking so poorly. It’s often listed as one of the greatest values among budget bourbons, but all ten of our blind tasters thought that seven other budget bourbons were considerably better.
My Personal Recommendations
- Evan Williams Black Label, Bird Dog, Old Forester, and Rebel Yell are all worth buying. You may rank these four differently than I do; so, if you’re into bottom shelf bourbon, try all of them.
- If those four are unavailable, Jim Beam White, Ezra Brooks, or Old Grand-dad Bonded (100 proof) may be acceptable. I’d be willing to buy one of these three if I really had to buy a bourbon in this price range and could not get any of my top four. But, assuming that one of my top four could be had, I can’t think of a reason ever to buy any of these three.
- I’d accept Four Roses Yellow Label for free. It’s not as though it’s undrinkable. Maybe it mixes well, if you’re into that (I’m not). But it’s sub-par bourbon, even by bottom shelf standards. I wouldn’t buy it.
- I would actually pay to never drink Old Crow again. It’s truly terrible stuff.
- There are other bottom shelf bourbons, of course, which were not included in this experiment. It’s possible that we’re missing a noteworthy addition. One of the more glaring oversights is Old Grand-dad 80 proof. Perhaps it would have fared better than its 100 proof big brother did. Another glaring oversight is Wild Turkey. Ah well.
- Bird Dog is the oakiest of the lot. If you’re looking for a bottom shelfer that shows some wood, this is it.
- Old Forester was the most divisive bourbon of the lot. Some of us considered it a close third, while others put it quite a bit further down the list. I myself like the sweet and floral character couched in warm tingle. Although its style is overpowered by that of Bird Dog, when they’re put side-by-side, I bet that it’s really a tie for second (just of a very a different style). But, others’ mileage varied.
- Rebel Yell’s mellow softness really is remarkable, when put next to other bourbons. The flavor is run-of-the-mill, but the feel would be more accessible to some.
- If you like nougat, you should like Ezra Brook’s nose. There’s no complexity–just a single note–but, I really like that single note. Unfortunately, the palate is not what the nose leads you to expect.