Creekwater, they call it. Kentucky is the bourbon state. This is not a metaphor. Some of you people out there in the radio listening audience may not realize, but for whiskey to be called bourbon it has to be distilled in Kentucky with that good limestone water as a starting point. While I will drink Tennessee whiskey with my Tennessee friends like a benevolent, patient, indulgent father-figure, I never buy anything but Kentucky whiskey for myself (and if I have to buy TN whiskey, George Dickel is the way to go) other than an occasional indulgence into the realm of scotch, which I appreciate for its own merits, but that's a story for another time.
Cartoonist Max Clotfelter recently asked me to compose a "top 5" bourbons shopping list for him (and also, previous to this, my visit to the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont and discussions about whiskey with Caitlin McGurk also connects to the composition of this manifesto). There was no way I could keep it to just five, and some of the digressions in our correspondence made me realize that, in humble benefit to mankind, I should expand the parameters and compose this loving prose poem as shopping list.
First of all, before we get into the meat of the subject, there's how to drink whiskey. Neat or on the rocks is the only way to drink whiskey as far as I'm concerned, grasshopper. Ethically, I got no problem if people are into cocktails and whiskey is one of the ingredients. But if you're splashing high fructose corn syrup or aspartame laden products into a perfectly good glass of whiskey, it's even stupider to me than smoking a cigarette with a filter (and is the same philosophy why I don't taint my bourbon, which is...). If you can't drink your whiskey straight, then there's something wrong with your whiskey. I prefer it on the rocks, as I like the fire-water and ice alchemy it brings to the experience, which even to some professional whiskey drinkers is sacrilege, although I'm fine to drink it neat. Sip it. Don't drink it as a shot. I flatly refuse to drink a shot unless a pretty woman buys it, and I always regret it when I do. Drinking whiskey as a shot is strictly for school boys.
There's no reason why you Transylvania Gentlemen and Ladies out there in the world can't drink good whiskey on the cheap. But like a nose for cheap beer (read the comments on that one for the full story), a nose for the cheapest stuff will keep you walking the righteous path. Industry standard for me is Early Times. I don't think I know a better basic whiskey in the world. But since you're at play in the fields of the cheap, ET is not considered a bourbon. But it's still Kentucky whiskey. Jim Beam is fine, but not as good as ET, but I actually, for a few bucks more, prefer Jim Beam Rye to both. Honorable mention in the cheap seats: Heaven Hill, Ancient Age (which is made at the indomitable Buffalo Trace distillery, which, as well as having a decent taste, gives it a certain nobility for a bottom-feeder), and T.W. Samuels.
For those of you into history, don't discount the mythic resonance of Early Times as it was the drink of choice at Sun Records in Memphis, TN in the formative years of rockabilly. Ike Turner and his gang even went so far as to record at Sun a theme song for the brand (not officially, they just wanted to). ET was the alpha and omega of Carl Perkins's years as a drunk. According to Perkins most of his recording sessions at Sun inspired ET fueled black-outs that would result in the band and engineers awaking in the studio the next day to see what they'd actually recorded the night before (this reporter had the experience of speaking to the late, great Perkins in person and inquiring of a song, "That Don't Move Me," which Perkins claimed to have no memory of at all). It was ET that sent him into his final 1968 tail spin which resulted in him sobering up: "After drinking yet another pint of Early Times, he passed out on the tour bus. By morning he started hallucinating 'big spiders, and dinosaurs, huge, and they were gonna step on me.'" We never said drinking is always fun and games, and we don't like people who do.
But as we move towards enlightenment, drum roll please, I'll list my two favorite bourbons. Corner Creek, for the money, is hands down the best deal and the best bourbon, and lately has become my standard whiskey purchase. The way I put it, and this is our local prices as of this writing, Corner Creekwater is a 30 dollar whiskey for 20 bucks. Speaking of 30 dollars, Eagle Rare is neck and neck with the Corner Creek for favorite decently priced bourbons, and I spring for it when I'm feeling celebratory.
Now we enter into the realm of all mighty fine brands, all a little on the pricey side, and this is where I make a wave of my hand and give you my papal blessings to go experiment:
This subject is much too big for just one Transylvanian's opinion. JSH says:
"I dig Russell's because it's more like Woodford was before they changed the formula. But Bulleit is high priority with me, even though I never devoted a post to it; it's pricey but middlingly so. It's cheaper than Jefferson's or Four Roses Single Barrel, which is what I would drink if I could afford to drink it every night."
I'm sure JSH and I both will be smacking our foreheads at some point realizing we left something crucial off the list, but, insofar as gathering my thoughts for Sunday school, this covers bourbon fairly well.
For right now, brothers and sisters, we all need to get real quiet...and enter into the holy of holies...this, kids, is where gnosis resides...if you've got the money and can find a bottle:
Noah's Mill or any of the Pappy Van Winkle products.
We are talking (and I'm speaking actually for myself on this), hustlers of the world, bourbon to end all bourbons. If you can afford it and can find a bottle, do me a favor: invite me over.
Drink with confidence. Drink up and be somebody. Be anybody. We salute you.