The Well Bourbon Taste-Off

We love good bourbons, and we’ve had the best of the best–Pappy Van Winkle, Blanton’s, Woodford Reserve Double-Oaked, etc. We almost always have three or four good bourbons of various stripes–something high proof, something with wheat, something with a higher rye content, plus various rye whiskeys, which is fodder for another post. We also usually keep large quantities of something inexpensive but well made because, you know, we’re not the 1% here.

Poet and cheapskate Phil Theibert, who has visited the Whiskey Thief on occasion, is a big fan and proponent of Old Charter bourbon. It’s aged 8 years, but it’s somehow only about $12 for a 750 ml bottle. There is a long story we could tell you about how the distillery probably pulls this off, but the upshot is that Phil is right. A couple of years ago, we did a tasting of the cheapest straight bourbons we could find at ABC, and we agreed, you could get no better value of bourbon in the state of Alabama at that time. Old Charter has a simple but interesting smoky character. What it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in charm and cheapness. It became our standard for cocktails that call for bourbon where the whiskey probably won’t shine through anyway–whiskey sours, highballs of various sorts, etc.

This week, we were out of Old Charter and went to the store to replenish our stock, but we found that ABC is no longer carrying Old Charter!

So we had to do another tasting, of course. We’d been meaning to do so anyway, since we didn’t document it the first time around.¬†We didn’t want to spend more than about $50, so we got the smallest bottles we could of some of the cheapest brands, including Jim Beam on the higher end of the price range. Due to budget constraints, we did not buy some of the bourbons that would qualify, including Old Crow and Kentucky Gentleman, both of which are the well bourbons at bars we frequent. We might save those for another day.

Contenders had to be “straight bourbon whiskey,” which means (legally), they must:

  • Be made with at least 51% corn in the mash bill
  • Aged at least two years in a new charred barrel made of American white oak
  • Various other minor requirements that are less interesting

Sidebar rant – If you go to the Jack Daniels distillery or their website, they will tell you Jack Daniels is not¬†called bourbon because they use charcoal filtering. That is a line of corporate BS. The only thing that keeps JD from being bourbon is that the company opts out of calling itself bourbon. Since Jim Beam is, and probably always will be, the number 1 selling bourbon in America, Jack Daniels would rather be the number 1 “Tennessee Whiskey” than the number 2 bourbon. Some other bourbons, including three on our list today also use charcoal filtering. The filtering does give the bourbon a sweeter and slightly less intense flavor but does not alter the legal definition of a bourbon.

The prices listed below are for a 750 ml bottle in the state of Alabama.

IMG_20131130_150217_018The Contenders:

  • Evan Williams Green Label – age undisclosed, 80 proof, $8.49
  • Ancient Age – aged 3 years, 80 proof, $11.49
  • Old Grand Dad – aged 4 years, 80 proof, $11.99
  • Virgin Bourbon – aged 7 years, 101 proof, $11.99
  • Evan Williams Black Label – aged 5-7 years, 86 proof, $12.49
  • Jim Beam White Label – aged 4 years, 80 proof, $15.99
  • The one on the end is an airplane bottle of Fighting Cock 103 – aged 6 years, 103 proof, $17.99. Ultimately, we decided this bourbon was in another league than the others, so we didn’t include it in this tasting.

The Play by Play:

Evan Williams Green Label, being the youngest of the bunch (we assume), has a light, uncomplex quality. It seems to have been in the barrel long enough to take on some of the char but not many subtleties of the oak. We are not especially impressed, but we would cook with it.

Ancient Age has more vanilla and caramel, but not very much of either. Tasty enough to use in a pinch if that were all we had.

Old Grand Dad, like EWGL, had the low notes of the char without the the high notes of sweetness that we like in a bourbon. Its advantage over EWGL is that it has a little more intensity from being aged slightly longer.

Virgin is a weird outlier for its price range. We thought the 7-year aging and 101 proof would make it a good contender for the shelf spot left open by Old Charter, but it honestly just didn’t taste very good. Once you get past the high-proof burn, there is some sweetness from the charcoal filtering, but there’s also something sour and off-tasting about it.

Evan Williams Black Label made a much better showing than its younger green brother, whom we must say, was just altogether too green. We got more of the complexity we like, high and low notes, caramel and vanilla from the oak. This could be the one.

Jim Beam, like most things that are wildly popular, just doesn’t live up to its name. Sure, it tastes a little better than Green Label or Old Grand Dad, but not much better. For what you pay, it doesn’t perform. The flavor is simplistic, light and sweet, with no charisma.


We did a few blind tastings in various combinations. Most telling though, was the blind tasting between Jim Beam and Evan Williams (Black Label). We could immediately identify the Beam based on its blandness. Evan Williams wins hands down.

As an academic measure, we also tried the Virgin 101 against Wild Turkey 101. We tried them both in Manhattans to see how they held up against a little vermouth. The Wild Turkey was much spicier, brighter, and more interesting all around. The vermouth didn’t help the weird off-taste of the Virgin.

The Verdict:

We will start keeping some Evan Williams Black Label around for mixing and for making infusions and other experiments. For the money, it’s just the best value you can get around here. You can’t ALWAYS have high-end bourbon, and for those times, you can rest assured that your purchase of Evan Williams will com with the blessings of the Whiskey Thief.