In commerce, hype is everything. Nowhere is that truer than in the market for booze. I grew up drinking Stag beer, which many people said was crap, but I always thought actually tasted like beer, being yeasty and full bodied compared to Budweiser or PBR (the redneck favorite). I never understood the popularity of Coors, which in 1975 was THE beer to drink.
So it is with Whiskey. The new thing is expensive single malt American whiskey. You can spend a lot of money buying premium names like Bullett and Woodford Reserve, and I have to say they are wonderful drinking. But I am cheap and I am a contrarian, so I have begun exploring less expensive alternatives.
I was paging through the complementary play book for the 1960 Democratic National Convention (my brother found it at a yard sale) when I spotted an advertisement for Old Crow, touted as a premium American whiskey. This makes it clear that at one time in our history certain American brand products were regarded as “premium” regardless of whether they failed over time to maintain that brand identity. Today, many people would have you believe they are crap. In fact, those whiskies are still here, untouted and ignored, sitting in the cheap seats waiting to be appreciated.
Old Crow is named for the gentleman who first distilled it in Kentucky back in the day. Mr. Crow is distinguished for being the first distiller to actually apply basic quality control to his product so that one bottle tasted pretty much like the next. The passage of time has not been good for the brand, and it has been hard to find. The industry blogs report that the original Old Crow is what is now sold as Jim Beam White Label, which I can report is a pretty passable drink. Recently, however, I found a bottle of Old Crow Reserve which sells for about $14 a quart, and am here to report is it good stuff… maybe my favorite among the old American masters. It is rich, dark and flavorful. I like to thin it out with an ice cube or two. Here are some others I have explored.
Jim Beam Black Label is about $22 a quart and quite respectable. It’s smoother than Jack Daniels but maybe not as rich. Also two ice cubes. (I am very fond of Black Jack, and it’s more expensive single malts. It is probably the gold standard among American whiskies, but because it has not lost it’s brand presence, I did not consider it a part of the research project.) As I mentioned above, Jim Beam White is a most pleasant drink. Light and smooth, with a little of the caramel you get with the Black Label. You can take this one neat. It’s about $16.
Old Granddad regular and Old GrandDad IV both deserve a little respect. The IV, which retails for around $25 is the richer of the two, thick and nutlike and in definite need of ice. Old Grandad regular is has a little bitter root with the nutlike flavor, and can be taken neat, although one ice cube is good. It sells for about $16.
One other whiskey will l get special mention… Old Overholt, about $16 a quart is silky and subtle. It’s one of the original American rye whiskies and deserves better respect than it usually gets. It’s fine neat.
I started the research project more than a year ago and have had an opportunity to sample many fine American bourbons and ryes. I only found one I did not abide… Rittenhouse. I did not dip into the bottom shelf too much. For example, Ten High has been avoided, as has anything that sells in a plastic bottle.
Some other names that have been appreciated include: George Dickel, W.L. Weller, Evan Williiams and Eliah Craig. I also tested some Canadian whiskies, including Canadian Club and Seagrams 7, both of which are fine. I have in mind to extend the research project to a special Canadian edition. Maybe next year.
I should note that whiskey research is best conducted in the company of friends. Thanks to Brady and his lady, Uncle Hat and Dick E for their invaluable support.