The Peerage of Liqour- a spotter's guide to spirits

Introduction

I have spent many evenings with boisterous friends, sharing in the warmth of a bottles containing just about anything capable of stripping paint, I have come to understand the principal reason for the consumption of either overpriced or bargain basement spirits: who can remember what happened the night before, let alone what was imbibed?

To that end, many people go about purchasing the same liquors again and again, either making the mistake of choosing an expensive brand in thinking that price equals quality, or deciding that all alcohol is essentially the same.

In truth, when one buys an expensive liquor, one is just as likely paying for the cost of advertisement as one is for taste and quality. Conversely, all alcohol is not the same. The issue can be summed up in an anecdote told to me after I made the mistake of drinking a bottle of “Wild Irish Rose”, priced at two dollars a bottle and purchased from the local Albertson’s (this stuff wishes it was Mad Dog), I have since named it the Bison Theory of Alcohol Consumption.

The collective cells of the human brain can be likened to a herd of bison, migrating across America as they did so very long ago. The overall speed of the herd is limited as it is only as fast as the oldest and weakest member of the herd.

A decent alcohol or spirit may be likened to wolves or the Native American hunter, who only preyed upon the oldest and weakest, taking only what they needed. To this end, because the slowest of the herd were removed, the overall speed of the herd was increased. In the same way, the human brain cells that remain function far more quickly and efficiently.

A bad alcohol (the kind that have you wake up in the migraine-inducing midst of tolling bells, feeling as if someone’s used your skull as a urinal and forgot to flush) acts much like the encroaching Caucasian hunter, who indiscriminately killed every bison in sight, taking their hides and leaving the stinking carcass to rot in the sun. The carcass is most definitely the human brain in the case of Wild Irish Rose.

Keeping in mind the Bison Theory of Alcohol Consumption, I am presenting information on various liquors and reviews of their names brands on an ongoing basis. Please keep in mind that updates of new brands may be sporadic as they will be determined by the capabilities of my time, income, and liver.

Bourbon

 

            Bourbon is officially thought of as the definitive spirit of the United States, though it wasn’t made officially so until 2007 when Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky succeeded in pushing through a resolution in the Senate proclaiming September of 2007 “National Bourbon Heritage Month”.

            The origin of bourbon is not definitively known, as there are many differing legends and tall tales on the subject. It’s uniformly understood that the spirit takes its name from the BourbonCounty in Kentucky, the place of its birth. Legally, any spirit claiming to be a bourbon not from this county must indicate so on the bottle.

            In addition, there are a number of requirements which any spirit must meet to be considered a bourbon. First, the bourbon must be made from a fermented mash that is at least 51% corn. This is as opposed to many European whiskeys which use primarily wheat for their mashes. Though it’s not a requirement, most bourbons tend to be made from a “sour mash”, that is to say that they use part of a mash that has already been fermented from a previous distillation cycle, in the same way that sourdough bread is made. Also, a bourbon can be no more than 80% alcohol (160 proof), nor can it be aged for any less than four years without being marked to show this.

            The one point which defines a bourbon as different from American whiskey is that bourbon must be aged in new charred white oak casks or barrels. American whiskey can be aged in uncharred oak casks, regardless of whether they are new or have been previously used. The charred oak is supposedly what grants bourbon its dark red color and caramel flavor, the longer it ages the darker it becomes.

Types of Bourbon

Evan Williams Bourbon

Evan Williams is named after the distiller who opened shop in Louisville in 1793. Oddly enough, this bourbon has nothing to do with Evan Williams save use the rights to his name. It’s not such a bad idea, I suppose, considering Evan Williams didn’t last in his business for very long. Also, the actual bourbon, which was first produced in the 1960s, (and bears a striking similarity to the bottle design used by Jack Daniels) proclaims it first went into production in 1783 on the bottles.

Aside from the inconsistencies of marketing, Evan Williams is one of the best bourbons for the price. At $9.50 per 750ml, it is the second best selling bourbon in the US. Jack Daniels, the best selling bourbon in the country, costs close to $15 per 750ml.

But the cost really is only half the issue. If it tastes like a bargain-basement bourbon, selling it off at half-price is only useful to hobos and alcoholics (let’s not forget them. They’re people too, after all. And they deserve they’re own alcohol, which we’ll get to in good time.).

Evan Williams Bourbon ages the expected minimum of four years in the barrel and produces a vintage up to 15 years old as well. It’s all a straight, unblended bourbon, though only the standard four-year old is a sour mash.

Upon nosing, it has a slight burn and a powerful sense of vanilla accentuated by a brief smell of fruit. The taste and how it sits on the tongue can only be described as buttery, though not oily. A tingle on the tongue is the first sensation of taste, followed by a strong sense of spices and a slight kick at the back of the throat an instant after swallowing.

There is an astringency and the strong taste of dry oak at the roof of the mouth to follow. While this is a simple bourbon, that is by no means a bad thing. The almost overpowering taste of corn present in Jack Daniels upon sipping and as well as the dryness of the oak upon swallowing is muted in this version, and that works well for a sipping bourbon rather than one that is to be slammed in shots. To that end I would recommend this for both mixed drinks for its tendency not to overpower other flavors and for an iced bourbon to be sipped slowly in order to best savor the minor nuances in the aftertaste.

Perhaps the most memorable quality of Evan Williams Bourbon is the warmth. It does not have a strong burn in the drinking, but an overpowering sense of warmth is felt a few minutes later, radiating up from the solar plexus, leaving one’s face flushed and perspiring slightly.

Ancient Age- Bourbon, I think?

 Ancient Age is one bourbon out of twenty name brands produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, directly overlooking the Kentucky River. Unfortunately, you’ve probably never heard of any of them. I certainly didn’t.

 

            They advertise that they’ve been distilling bourbon since 1869. This is, technically, true. The Buffalo Trace Distillery did indeed begin production in 1869. It shut down during the prohibition. Despite what their public relations and marketing attempts would try to say, they did not have permits to produce alcohol for medicinal purposes during the prohibition. One of their owners did, and he produced alcohol in a completely separate distillery. I hate it when liquor companies bend the facts in order to create a non-existent background which is designed to give a sense of wholesomeness to the reality that they are, in essence, selling a mild poison.

 

            Anyway… The Buffalo Trace Distillery was purchased and its doors opened back up in 1984, where all new recipes were used.

 

            Ancient Age is not aged the requisite four years and so must indicate that fact on the bottles. They follow the rules, but I needed a magnifying glass to read the script on the bottle neck that points out this bourbon is only aged for three years. But at 12 dollars a liter, we’re not exactly expecting a vintage bottle of Maker’s Mark, are we?

 

            When poured, it has a color distinctly lighter than most bourbons. Wild Turkey, Evan Williams, and the like tend to have an earthy red quality to them. Ancient Age is gold, like the color of ripe wheat, with only the slightest tinge of something darker.

 

            The nosing is … off, as well. The initial piquant odor of rye overpowers the more subdued tones of corn. There is a sharpness which one is more likely to find in a Canadian whiskey which is off putting.

 

            It sits on the tongue in a fashion that is more watery than one would expect, not at all oily. Again, the taste of rye drowns out all but a few notes of spice, ginger, and char from the barrel. There is a definite raw quality which lets you know you’re sipping 80 proof and causes a slight burn of the throat. Despite this, the finish is not at all astringent. In fact, the mouth is left feeling moist afterward, rather than ravaged by alcohol fumes as one might expect. Subtlety does not seem to be within Ancient Age’s remit, but it finishes with a sweetness and only the slightest hint of warmth in the chest. For a bourbon, it’s not terrible and seems to be a good effort, but it just doesn’t seem to know what it is.

 

            It’s got the color of a Scotch or Irish whiskey and the high-notes of a Canadian which drown out the basic qualities of what makes a bourbon a bourbon. All in all, give it a try if you like any of these things, but pass if you’re a fan of traditional unblended bourbon.

Kentucky Whisky- Early Times and late nights

Early Times is not bourbon. It is produced in Kentucky, Shively to be specific, this is true. However, it is aged in used oak casks rather than new ones. Not only that, it is aged for only three years instead of the required four and this information is not printed on the bottle.

 

            For these reasons, Early Times is in that sub-group of American whiskies known as Kentucky whisky. It is made from a bourbon-like sour mash, 80 proof, and is still comprised of at least 51% of corn.

 

However, it is a fact that the distillery has been in production since 1860 without interruption, and that Early Times whisky is the official Mint Julep whisky of the Kentucky Derby. To that end, it can’t be all that bad.

 

Perhaps one of the most alluring things about Early Times from the get go is the bottle. A standard 750 ml bottle is plastic and curved to allow for easy carriage in the pocket of a jacket or pants. I’ve heard of this called the “bootlegger” style. In addition, swap out the plastic screw cap for a sports bottle squeeze cap and you’ve got “stealth pouring” capacity! Great for concerts, airports, pools, hot-tubs, and those agonizing Monday mornings. Or you can just do what my Irish friends do and chuck the cap in a passing dumpster; it’s not as if you’ll need it.

 

            I must admit, I was curious to see how much of a difference in taste there really was. Kentucky whisky is only different from bourbon in that the aging casks are not new. At 12 dollars a liter it seemed a harmless enough splurge.

 

            Color is a dark amber, not the red of bourbon but getting pretty darned close. Initial nosing is very mellow, with an equal mix of corn and rye and a dusky high note of vanilla. It’s very oily on the tongue and slides down with such ease that it puts me in mind of something I would be ashamed to rent.

 

            The finish is sweet, but not sickeningly so, and surprisingly short. The palate just seems to clear itself a few seconds later. Some may note a slight burn on the tongue, but pouring it over ice smoothes it right out.

 

            After thinking it over and exploring the bottle from top to bottom, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only one notable difference between bourbon and Kentucky whisky: caramel. Early Times does not have the throaty aftertaste of caramel which bourbon is so well known for. Normally, if you’ve had a little bourbon you’re still tasting the sweet caramel flavor in the back of the throat for hours afterward, but with Early Times the taste is gone completely; not something I’ve really encountered before. Even Everclear and white lightning have an aftertaste, even if it is strangely akin to alcohol-poisoned brain cells. In that light, I suppose Early Times has achieved something which is quite unique in that it vanishes from the tongue without a trace.

 

            All in all, I think this a good whisky given the cost. It would probably work better in mixed drinks; eggnog, mint juleps, etc. But if you’re interested in a sipping whisky Early Times is not to be discounted entirely.

Tequila- God Help Us All

Tequila was first invented in 15th century Mexico when the Spanish Conquistadors ran out of the brandy they brought with them. The locals had a fermented beverage known as pulque, which the Conquistadors promptly distilled in order to create something with a little more kick. The fermentation and distillation process has undergone almost no change since then, making tequila the first indigenous spirit of North America.

            Tequila is one of those liquors which some people love, and others will only love once. There are plenty of folks who turn green from just catching the smell of tequila, calling to mind that unknown night and the unforgettable morning after.

            That is undoubtedly for those who had their first tequila experience in the college-bar or tavern arena, throwing back shots of Jose Cuervo or Montezuma while being goaded by one’s friends into thinking that it somehow brings you to a higher state of consciousness if you eat the worm. First off, there are a few misconceptions about tequila which may lend a better understanding of this often unappreciated liquor.

            The fabled worm, technically a larva, cannot legally be placed in tequila. It is instead often found in mezcal. If mezcal were whiskey, tequila would be scotch; that is to say that tequila is a kind of mezcal, only made in the Jalisco region of Mexico. Also, the worm in mezcal is only there because it’s believed that it adds flavoring, which is debatable.

            The reason most people have such bad experiences with tequila is that they do not buy tequila which is labeled as 100% percent agave. 100% percent agave means that all the alcohol in the tequila is the direct result of the fermentation and double-distillation process of the agave cactus. Often immature agave—which is used because agave is a very slow-growing cactus which takes a long time to mature and the appropriate amount of sugars within to develop—will be mixed with regular cane sugar, fructose corn syrup, and untold other additives to make up the difference. These additives are what create the monumental hangover and shear, unholy burn which tequila is known for, not the actual tequila.

            Decent tequila, which is not always the most expensive on the shelf, comes in many different varieties based on its age. Most tequila is not aged, and it’s thought that by aging it beyond a certain point, tequila takes on the qualities of the casks it’s aged in and loses its inherent taste.

Two Fingers Silver

Two Fingers tequila is made by the oldest family-run distilleries of Mexico, taking their ingredients from the Los Altos region of Jalisco. Those agave which come from that region are supposed to create more of a mellow, purist tequila with very little other flavors.

As it is a “Silver” tequila, also known as a plata or blanco, it was bottled either immediately upon distillation or aged for no more than two months in oak casks. This means that it is much more raw and harsh, though the flavor is supposed to be clearer.

Initial nosing was rather pleasant. As it only costs about $15 per 750 ml bottle, I was expecting the alcohol fumes to clear my sinuses all the way to the back of my skull, but the light citrusy odor of agave and wood refused to rise any further than the bridge of the nose, presenting a very faint sweetness afterward. That’s what you get for buying 100% agave.

Normally one swirls a glass before sipping to observe the natural agave oils which rise to the meniscus. In most cases a poorer quality tequila has little in the way of such oil, they break up when you swirl the glass. Oddly enough, Two Fingers had almost no visible oil at all, it’s that clear.

Upon tasting there’s a slight astringent tartness which pulls at the lips, while the feel of it upon the tongue is akin to the first sip of cold water after being parched from working outside; a blessed coolness.

The burn, as far as tequilas go, is pretty mild. It starts as it hits the back of the throat rather than the tongue or palate, and disappears quickly, only for a shiver to work its way down the spine the drink warms the stomach upon arrival.

It leaves a dry, slightly woody aftertaste in the mouth which is refreshing, but can be a bit cloying if left for too long.

On the whole, I’d have to say this is one of the better tequilas for the price, and definitely one which I notice most of the Mexican families in the neighborhood keep close to hand.

Liqueur

 

            A liqueur is loosely defined as any alcoholic beverage which has been flavored with herbs, spices, fruits, nuts, flowers, or cream in addition to a great deal of sugar. Most are served in mixed drinks and cocktails, while some have a sufficiently mellow taste to be served straight up or over ice. In any case, this one category includes some alcohols likely to put some heavy pain on the individual who over-imbibes.

            While liquors such as rum and brandy can definitely contend, the strong flavor of liqueurs is created by two things: congeners and sugar. Congeners are any impurity which is left over after the distillation of a liquor. They give liquors their distinct flavors, odors, and colors.

            Essentially, when one experiences a hangover, it’s because the body (more specifically, the liver) is working hard to break down the ethanol in liquor into Acetaldehyde (which is actually about 20 times more toxic than ethanol), and then into Acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, and from there into a chemical identical to vinegar. All these steps require a great deal of the body’s water and the liver’s supply of glutathione.

            In order for the liver to create more glutathione it must pull vital nutrients from the rest of the body, especially B12.

            So while the liver is busy creating more glutathione and turning ethanol into even more dangerous components, essentially desiccating the body as it does so, it now has to deal with the large complex molecules of the congeners and sugars imbibed as well.

            To that end, we’re talking about headaches which should be considered national emergencies.

Rock and Rye

Rock and Rye Liqueurs

This was just an impulse purchase. I’d never heard of Rock & Rye, nor tried it. It cost just $9 for a 750 ml bottle, and after trying it, I know why. But let’s not jump the gun here. First off, Rock & Rye is an uncommon form of whiskey liqueur, in which fruit slices and rock candy are allowed to mix and ferment in 80 proof Tennessee whiskey, knocking it down to about 60 proof (that’s 30% alcohol to all those not in the know).

Upon pouring, one notes a slightly syrupy quality to the artificial caramel coloring; not quite as thick as Aunt Jemima, but the sheer sugariness is evident: Napoleon Brandy this is not.

The nose is not at all alcoholic; one might liken it to a Kool-Aid, if Kool-Aid made a flavor that smelled like a bushel of grapefruit, oranges, lemons, and a few cherries to rot in the sun for a couple weeks. Those who live near orange groves and caught the smell of rotten windfall fruits know exactly what that’s like.

It rolls across the tongue much as one would expect, like molasses. The first taste is an overpowering sensation of oranges with an undercurrent of cherries and a feint high-note of lemon. Though they say they use natural fruit flavoring, I’m not so sure. There’s a penny-candy artificial taste to it, like the old Gummy Bears and Mike & Ikes enjoyed when we were children: the color was quite literally the flavor. A blue Gummy Bear tasted blue. A red one tasted red. And a green one tasted like cough syrup.

The aftertaste it leaves in the mouth can only be described as what one would experience after finding a bank of leaves beneath a log that’ve had the chance to rot since last autumn and chowing down.

To that end, Rock & Rye is definitely not something one would want to drink straight or over ice. Unfortunately it’s lacking in mixed drinks as well. Rather than the sweetness being diluted and the aftertaste being masked, they seem to cut through just about anything one could throw at them. I found Everclear was about the only substance that fixed this problem, but only because it burned the first layer off my tongue in the process.

Bottom line, if you want an orange and lemon liqueur, splurge and get some Limoncello and Cointreau and save yourself the taste of rotten fruit.

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Comments 10 comments

Christa Dovel profile image

Christa Dovel 7 years ago from The Rocky Mountains, North America

Of all the whiskeys out there, Even Williams is the only one I've had enough of to form an opinion about. Love to use it in cooking. It makes a wonderful spicy sauce for deserts when mixed with butter and brown sugar.


Jarn profile image

Jarn 7 years ago from Sebastian, Fl Author

Doh! I knew I was leaving something out. Evan Williams is really good for cooking because of the inherent sweetness. I've not used it for any deserts, but a dash goes really well when making baked beans.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

Thanks for the fine article about booze and Bourbon.


LiftedUp profile image

LiftedUp 7 years ago from Plains of Colorado

The only thing I ever buy in a liquor store is Vodka for making homeopathics, but as I have looked over all those bottles on all those shelves, I have wondered how people choose, and I have wondered about the difference between expensive and cheap choices. Thanks for the interesting discussion.


Joy At Home profile image

Joy At Home 6 years ago from United States

I found I had somehow neglected this article when it first came out. I'm sure you'd never do that to one of mine. What kind of friend am I? I have to ask myself.

You have a knack for describing tastes.

This was a fun read.


Jarn profile image

Jarn 6 years ago from Sebastian, Fl Author

Well, it's been sitting for quite some time, and I'm facepalming at some of the grammatical errors now that I read through it, but I intend to keep updating whenever I've tried something new; probably once every couple months.


Joy At Home profile image

Joy At Home 6 years ago from United States

I do the facepalm move whenever I read through most anything I've written. "Duh! I forgot this. Oh no - I mispelled that."

Looking forward to the updates on this hub, though I don't drink much myself, except the small beer I make. Last time, I used a jar that had had cinnamon pickles in it. Though it was well washed, some residue was still there, and it made for a unique but fabulous difference to a plain Jane barley recipe. On the other hand, my children know whiskey primarily as a medicinal aid, to prevent blood poisoning and other infections in puncture wounds and such.


Jarn profile image

Jarn 6 years ago from Sebastian, Fl Author

It's good that kids know a little alcohol from an early age. That way it really doesn't have so much of a forbidden mystique to it that they'll do something dangerous the first time they're out unsupervised.

Of course, it's really up to the kid as that plan can backfire on you. My aunt decided when her kids were about 18 and 19 that she was going to make it so they weren't interested in drinking by letting them drink all they liked one night. Unfortunately, she found that her kids were pretty hangover resistant when they woke up fresh as daisies the next morning and she spent the whole day in the bathroom shouting at Huey. (Worshipping the porcelain lord Ralph was another possible euphamism)


Joy At Home profile image

Joy At Home 6 years ago from United States

Ouch. What a painful story that last one was.

In our home, we have treated alcohol as an every-day thing which has a variety of uses, including enjoyment. A stop at the liquor store is usually a part of celebrating a big construction job well completed.

However, I wasn't raised that way. I never had even a beer until I was married (which doesn't mean I was of age, but I figured if I was responsible enough to be married, I was responsible enough to drink). I tested my very low limit soon after that, decided I didn't like being even slightly drunk, and have never done it on purpose since. I just don't see the fun in being stupid.

My siblings and I all had to deal with the "evil alcohol" question quite heavily, as Dad's father went on occassional sprees, and Dad is scared to death of the stuff. He wouldn't allow it in the house, until Mom started using vodka in her homeopathics. She still keeps it out of his sight, as it bothers him to see it.

If my kids wind up showing poor judgment at some point, that's something they'll have to deal with in their own consciences. They are learning what the Scriptures have to say about alcohol (basically, that it can be good in moderation, but that too much impairs judgment and makes one act like a fool), and by the time they are old enough to make a decision regarding their use of it, they'll know God's thoughts on the whole matter, and what he says makes a person honorable. It won't be in my hands anymore.


Ivorwen profile image

Ivorwen 6 years ago from Hither and Yonder

Got to watch that experimenting! My father-in-law tried to teach his son the evils of alcohol by having a drinking contest with him when he was in third grade... The kid won, evidently he could shoot whiskey quite well, and was an alcoholic by Jr. high. (Fortunately, life changed, he quit drinking, and grew up to be a nice man.)

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