Over the years, I have gone through phases with whisk(e)y. My first passion was scotch. I fell for The Balvenie Doublewood and Lagavulin. I passed my days in college classes and working in an Upper West Side restaurant and picked up a bottle of the fine old stuff as often as funds would allow to pass the nights. After that, I took up Irish Whiskey for a spell, mostly Jameson, not in shots (ok, sometimes in shots), but in small pours at the end of bitter cold days in the East Village of New York, when I would return from film school by way of East 9th St, the village’s own wind tunnel. The Irish version had the advantage of being cheaper and its sweet honey tones eased away the chill of those meager days.
Recently, I have turned to American-made, if not for some sense of either patriotism or localism, then at least for the practical purpose of finding rewarding selections at great values and plenty of uncharted territory (for me at least) to explore. Bourbon and rye, America’s two great whiskeys, are both capable of delivering complexity and enjoyment on par with the Old World’s best and often at much lower costs. Scotch whisky is wonderful, but the worst are undrinkable and the ones that truly deliver are priced accordingly. Irish Whiskey is reliable but rarely exciting, just smooth, pleasant drinking that requires little thought. Rye is not popular enough among the general public to command big prices or to have many standard-bearing brands, but it can come through with wonderful aromas and toasty notes all the way up the scales, so I’ve been drinking it more and more these days. But for all the promise I find in Rye, Bourbon is still the front-runner on the American whiskey scene and my latest pick-up, Lexington Kentucky Bourbon, not only reinforces that fact but makes it clear that you don’t have to spend to get a killer glass of the stuff.
If the label were to be stripped of all text, the elegant portrait of a thoroughbred that adorns the bottle would be enough for you to know that Kentucky Whiskey is contained herein. In a most literal way, this liquor wears its heritage on its sleeve. Maybe you are immune to the pull of a starting gate and a line of muscular horses bucking for the start and a hot day and glass of bourbon, but I am not, not by a long shot. At just over a hair above $20, the stately stud (or gelding, possibly) on the bottle would be enough to take a shot.
This whiskey didn’t need to rely on sucker-punch nostalgia branding, however. i picked it up at $20 and I believe it is suggested retail price is around $25. It could easily command twice the price and no one would complain- and let’s just all agree to not mention that to the proprietors, ok? Deal?
The first thing that hit me on my first sniff was vanilla and more specifically, I concluded a moment later, creme brulee- all vanilla custard and burnt brown sugar. Those sweet notes run just ahead of leather and oak, a nice payoff for the bottle’s artwork. There is a lushness to the feel on your tongue that caught me off guard and border on oily in the best possible way, in keeping with the vanilla tones on the nose. Touches of orange and lemon add a crisp dimension, leading to a finish that is long on toasted wheat and cedar.
When I think about putting scouting grades on this baby, I have to call up the prospect days of guys like Mookie Betts and Dustin Pedroia. Those guys were undersized; this bottle is underpriced. But they looked like ballplayers and this bottle screams bourbon right from the label. Those guys had the minor league numbers of top prospects, this drink landed a 95 from The Tasting Panel. But people doubted those guys, until…laser show. Don’t doubt this one. This is a bourbon with a 70 nose, 75 mouth-feel, 70 flavor and finish and 80 value; a can’t miss prospect anywhere under $30 and destined to land the big free-agent deal in the near future.