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Spirits Review: Quality, not quantity, is the name of this game …


Hello … welcome back … so you’ve had your fill with nuts and the like?  Yes … it is time to get back in the swing of things and so we have decided to hit the ground running on a series of reviews, targeting various spirits (together with ongoing Brew and Suds, this will make up a good portion of the next several posts).  We all know how good that top shelf, ultra aged whisky/whiskey tasting experience can be, the one that makes you want to linger, for a long time sipping and sipping.  We all recognize in that experience why the cost is as it is. But it also cannot be the case as it is in say, food,  that lower cost necessarily translates into lower quality.  Therefore, our intent in this latest series of spirits reviews is to focus attention on lower cost (and hopefully, not lower quality) whiskies to see if we can find better, or equal value, at lower price points.

The “Rules” of the Game…

What is our threshold level of “value?”

So we start this latest round of spirits reviews focused first on the kind of “value” we would normally attribute, that being cost.  True, we are not new in this approach as many a source have had their look at “value” spirits, the best bang for your buck if you will, and that is where we start today.  For our purposes we will go with spirits that cost less than $20 (we assume less than $20 price, not including any associated taxes or other costs such as shipping); others may quibble with the artificial metric but who cares … that is our starting point at least for now.

What will we use as comparisons … what is our baseline?

Next, we have to have baseline spirits that will serve as our comparison to the various test subjects.  It wouldn’t be fair, at least we think, to use an aged Pappy Van Winkle or other equally fine super premium bottling as a comparison for a whole host of reasons, so then what to use?  While there are many great spirits out there, most reasonably priced, there are a few which I think offer superior bang for the buck, a few that I come back to over and over again in my own sipping adventures.  As our cut-off for this test is at or below $20, I have three examples of fantastic spirits that are always in my shelf of goodies, that are either just over this price threshold or below.  This seems like a great set of comparison spirits — on their own they offer great value, they stack up to many a higher cost whiskey and so is there anything below the $20 value that would make me want to give up (or at least sub out) one of my favorites?

First up, one of our favorite spirits – Old Grand Dad 114 Bourbon.  At around $26 (local price for me), give or take, I believe that Old Grand Dad 114 offers one of the best sipping experiences you can have (and all for a marginal amount over $20).  Clocking in at this proof P1000407level you would think that your mouth would be set afire, but when properly iced or chilled with distilled water, you mouth is warmed nicely.   The palate is treated to lovely hints of chocolate, toasted nuts and toffee-like candy flavors – these are tempered by amazing charred oak/wood and grain notes.  Just a great spirit to drink over and over again and at a price point under $30, you’d be hard pressed to argue it is expensive in light of its superior quality.

Second, Elijah Craig 12-year Old Bourbon. Priced on average in the low to mid-$20 range (again for me, locally), this bottling of Elijah Craig itself offers a great value. While not as potent a proof as the Old Grand Dad 114, this bottling of Craig packs plenty of great grain and charred wood flavors against a nicely balanced natural sweetness.  At this price point, you’d be hard pressed once again to find a better priced/better value bourbon than the Elijah Craig.

Lastly, an all-time favorite of ours, Four Roses (yellow label bottling). Locally, I can source the Four Roses below $20 a bottle (an average price point for me is ~$18) and so it makes for a great comparison to those we’ll be testing, because I already have a fantastic bourbon in my P1000404rotation that is below $20.  This bourbon offers a somewhat different flavor profile than the previous two comparison bourbons, it is sweeter on the palate (but not overtly so) and it offers more of a dried, hard fruit forward taste profile on the palate; there is to me a nice cereal/grain like character to the taste initially when tasted, that mellows and blends more evenly as the spirit chills a bit over ice in the glass.

So there, our typical sipping spirits that we have on hand, none of which is itself a breaker of one’s bank (and yes, we have many more expensive a bottle on hand …) and as such, we think provide a great comparison to those lower cost options we’ll be sampling.

How will we compare … what are we looking for in these lower cost options

This is pretty straightforward at least I think.  If we were going to add another bottle into our three bottle rotation above and we were looking to add in a (brown) spirit costing less than $20 would we do it with one of our test subjects or would we keep the above three in our rotation and continue to sip that which we already know to be good. Simple, straightforward and I’m sure bound to give us problems.

Now on to the good stuff … a review …

Spirit Name: Rebel Yell, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Spirit Type: Straight bourbon whiskey (wheated)

Distillery:  Distilled and bottled by Heaven Hill at its Bernheim distillery in Louisville, Kentucky (per reference sources)

Purchased Price (paid by yours truly):  ~$18 (pre-NYC state and local taxes); purchased, in NYC

Appearance (in the glass, neat): Golden brown, slight shimmering effect in the glass with ice

Aroma (in the glass, neat): Light on the nose, light wood, light woody/woodsy notes … nothing too profound to smell

When iced or chilled, the smell turned to more of an alcohol type aroma versus any depth

Tasting notes (first round):

Started neat … notes below

“A touch of heat, a bit sweetish …”

“Light cereal-grain notes … but faint … not much there … even when neat”

Tasting notes (second round):

Sampled the next round using at first a dash of chilled water then over ice

“Interesting … I’m not really feeling anything with this one”

“Kinda … unfortunately … blah … it is way too light in flavor profile, with nothing major there to really interest me”

In a drink: As is customary in our spirit reviews we try to use said reviewed spirit in a mixed or stirred drink; this time we decided against.

Wrap-up: Funny enough, prior to writing up this review I was visiting family recently and the Brother-N-Law was raving about a new bourbon he found that he thought was the greatest — when presented a glass, without even seeing the label, I knew what it was within two sips.

The Rebel Yell isn’t a bad bourbon, a bad whiskey; it is pleasant enough.  However, in searching for “value” I’m looking for something that would make me feel like it is not worth shelling out a touch more for either of our two baselines that are over $20, or switch from the Four Roses which is spot on price wise.  In this case, I see no reason to include the Rebel Yell in our rotation.

In “prepping” for this series of upcoming reviews we tested several “value” spirits and I was of two minds as to what to lead off with — and as you can see dear readers we went negative on our first review.

Next time we review — something worth going cheaper — we promise.

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