As the founder of the East Texas Bourbon Society and Bourbon & Bowties, a popular fundraiser benefiting Longview World of Wonders, I am often asked to identify good bourbons for beginners.
Beginner can mean different things to different people. So if you are the “$3 whiskey and Coke” kind of beginner, put this article aside for now and just go buy yourself a bottle of Old Grand Dad. She’ll get the get the job done. If, however, you are making the transition from “well specials” to enjoying something a little more sophisticated, bourbon is a good choice. I recommend to start drinking it on ice with a little water to ease into it. Bourbon “on the rocks with a splash of water” is a good way to get the flavor without burning your palate. Then, evolve to just “on the rocks,” until you are ready to drink it without anything added, which is referred to as “neat.”
Whether you are tired of your fiancée’s father telling you that you aren’t man enough to marry his daughter, you are trying to impress your boss, or whatever your reason is for making the jump to bourbon, we are proud of you. The last thing we want to do is scare you off before you get started, so the first bourbon on the list is Bulleit Bourbon. This is safe to order in pretty much any company without judgement, and almost every bar has it so you won’t be left fumbling for a backup. Bulleit’s high rye content gives it a bold, spicy character with a distinctively smooth, clean finish. This bourbon’s story dates back more than 150 years, but it’s new to the market. Its almost overnight success is attributed to Thomas E. Bulleit Jr.’s grassroots efforts to make the product known. Leaving a successful law practice, he spent most of his days going from bar to bar promoting his product to bartenders rather than bar owners.
Number two on our list is the unmistakable red waxed beauty, Maker’s Mark. For our ladies getting into bourbon, you will be happy to know this is the only bourbon ever named, designed and marketed by a woman. Margie Samuels was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of fame in September 2014 for her contributions to the industry. Maker’s Mark is made with soft red winter wheat, instead of the usual rye, for a full-flavored bourbon that’s never bitter or hot. To ensure consistency, every barrel is rotated by hand and the bourbon is aged to taste rather than using a set time frame.
Buffalo Trace, the namesake of Buffalo Trace Distillery, is always a tried and true. From the guys that bring you the big hitters such as Pappy Van Winkle, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collections, and our $10,000 bottle of OFC we had at Bourbon & Bowties, this is the distillery’s smooth day drinker. Buffalo Trace is rich with taste and has hints of vanilla, toffee and candied fruit. Although this distillery has distanced itself from the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, you want to put it on your list if you ever make it out that way.
Four Roses is another classic that has been around for 160 years. One of my favorite things about bourbon is that we have a story for everything, and these guys have a great one. Paul Jones Jr., the founder of Four Roses, fell in love with a Southern belle and proposed. She told him if her answer was yes she would wear a rose corsage to the upcoming ball. She arrived wearing not just one, but four roses to signify a resounding yes. He named his distillery Four Roses as a tribute to her. This smooth and mellow bourbon gives us a slight crisp of spice, with hints of pear and apple.
For our final recommendation we have Angel’s Envy, a bourbon finished in port wine cask. The term Angel’s Share is used to describe the spirit lost during the aging process by evaporation. When Lincoln Henderson tasted his finished product for the first time, he said he finally had gotten a better deal than the angels. Angel’s Envy will give you all of the usual fruits, vanilla and nut flavors of these other quality bourbons, but it also will peak your palate’s interest into what a second finish can add to the flavor profile.
All of these bourbons are reasonably priced and great starting points. As your palate evolves and you are willing to spend a little more on a bottle of something special, remember to try some of the incredible Texas Bourbons on the market, such as Garrison Brothers and TX Bourbon. In the meantime come join the East Texas Bourbon Society the third Tuesday of every month in Longview and the fourth Tuesday in Tyler for the stories behind the brands. For information, visit our Facebook page.