Looking for low-end liquor? Consider Kentucky Gentleman bourbon—$6.99 a fifth, or $12.99 by the plastic “family pack” handle. But you just know this whiskey is as gentlemanly as Mike Tyson in a headlock. Russia banned Kentucky Gentleman imports this summer after the country’s scientists said it contained a “solvent” threatening “imbibers’ nervous and endocrine systems,” according to a Los Angeles Times article. (Geopolitical gamesmanship, sure, but I notice Putin didn’t block Maker’s Mark at the border.) Never mind a lost weekend—with fiery Kentucky Felon you won’t come to until Tuesday afternoon, if at all.
That’s the snobby conventional wisdom, anyway. Sure, my favorite whisky in the world is Lagavulin 16, the smoky, peaty Scotch from Islay. In a more financially flush time, I even visited its island birthplace (a glass-in-hand pilgrimage to the Inner Hebrides). But at 70 bucks a bottle, Lag’s viscous mouthfeel magnificence is but a memory these days. A thin wallet now sends me past the single malts to the bourbon aisle—not a huge hardship, as I’m also a fan of our native tipple. But then comes the liquor-store limbo dance: How low can you go on the shelves and still protect tongue and endocrine systems?
En route to an answer I set up a bottom-end bourbon tasting at Blue Pit BBQ and Whiskey, the convivial new joint at the Hampden/Woodberry border that’s home to some 120 whiskies. Owner Dave Newman pitched in, as did manager Alec Franklin. I also brought along my older brother Brian. We blind-tasted eight bourbons, with glasses labeled A to H placed before each of us. Individual notes were taken and a numerical score from 1 to 5 was assigned to each amber sample.
And the cheap alcohol Oscar goes to . . . Old Crow Reserve, earning a score of 18 (two 4s and two 5s). It surprised us all. Dave detected “toffee, nuts, spice” in this 86-proof 4-year-old, while Alec called out “cinnamon” and Brian wrote “nice!” And nicer still is the 10-bucks-a-bottle price, a bargain compared to tied-for-second Old Medley, an 86.8 proof, 12-year-old escapee from the top shelf inserted amid the cheapos as a sort of whiskey wild card. Old M sells for around $50 a fifth and only earned a 14 with us. I noted its “maple sweetness” but also deemed it “kinda cloying.” Scoring just as well, and some 30 clams cheaper, was Four Roses, Blue Pit’s house brand. Fittingly, Dave praised its “classic bourbon flavor.”
Moving down a notch, two scored 13s: Medley Brothers (Old Medley’s younger stablemate) and Rebel Yell (origin of the Billy Idol song, says the internet). Dave was kindest to the $12.99 Rebel, giving it 4 and detecting pecans on the palette. I branded it an “affable, easy drinker.” Down another peg at 12 was Old Grand-Dad 100-proof. We all felt the heat the extra alcohol brought, but the scorched-earth policy left little behind. I scored pops a 2 and wrote “meh.” Coming in dead last at 8 (2s across the board) was Ancient Age that runs $17.99 a handle. Brian called it “watery” and I “thin.”
Oh, and what of Kentucky Gentleman? We tasted it too and it earned a woeful 9. It would have sunk lower if not for my outlier role, grading it a 4. My brother gave it the day’s only 1, but where he found “harsh, astringency,” I tasted “mellow vanilla.” (Had I mixed up my glasses?!) I was embarrassed at first. But then . . . how low can you go for a nightly dram? Apparently, in my case, all the way to the bottom. With the money saved I’ll buy a bottle of Lagavulin come Christmastime.