You can find really good bourbon at reasonable prices if you know where and how to look. Let’s explore some of those ways. In another post, I mentioned my frustration with the fact that the bourbon craze has made some bottle that were once readily available to become unicorns. I’m pleased that bourbon is gaining popularity and that distillers are responding by increasing production and building new rickhouses to age the increased output. This can only be good for bourbon enthusiasts. I may have stated in that post that I’ve become fairly frustrated with trying to find those unicorns — mainly because they’ve not always been so hard to find.
Knowing that I once could get those now sought-after bottles and now seeing some folks (flippers) whose only goal is to make a quick buck and not even enjoy the whiskey makes me angry. I’ve come to an understanding with myself that rather than trying to chase those unobtainables, and then freak over the price needed to purchase them if found, I’d rather try to find other good to great bourbons that are not only available but also affordable.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have some George T Stagg or William Larue Weller that I could pour whenever I wanted, but the odds of that becoming a reality are slim. And if you are just starting out, would you rather have one $500 bottle of whiskey or 20 different $25 bottles or a dozen $45 bottles?
There are numerous places online to find reviews and opinions about bourbons. The number of bourbon blogs and bourbon facebook groups today is amazing. The thing about these sources is that bourbon is a fairly subjective thing – we’re talking about taste – and everyone’s is different. A common meme out there is one of the newbie purchaser waiting for the internet to tell him/her what to buy. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking out what others have said about a bourbon, you need to buy and drink the things that you like. So let’s look at the various ways of finding those that will become your favorites.
One of the first things you should do, if you haven’t already, is seek out a good bourbon bar in your area. I define a good bourbon bar as one that has a decent selection and a knowledgeable bartender. The decent selection doesn’t even have to have some of the unicorns (that might move them into the great category), but should have several bourbons from several distilleries. Hopefully your bar will offer bourbon flights to allow you to easily (and affordably) compare several bourbons side by side.
Score a bonus if the bar allows you to build your own flight. If you aren’t afraid of looking like a geek, keep a small notebook with you for your bar trips to make a few notes on the bourbons that you taste. When you do find those great bars, do try something that you’ve not had rather than sticking with your go to. This might be an opportunity to try a pour of one of the unfindable bottles, or you might use it to try some standards prior to purchasing full bottles.
Other things that make a bar wonderful are some of the extras that you might not expect. On a recent trip my group decided to visit a hotel bar after we’d attended a special ceremony for one of our kids. The bar had a very good selection of bourbons. We grabbed a table and placed our order. I went for the E. H. Taylor single barrel. I was pleasantly surprised when it arrived in a Glencairn glass. I was delighted when the wait staff asked if I’d like a little spring water to go with that. I almost said “no” yet thought “why not?” I again was pleasantly surprised when they returned with a four-ounce Boston round bottle with an eyedropper top containing the water. This was a bar that understood the ins and outs of the bourbon experience.
Another avenue of exploration is the liquor store. If you live in an area of any size, you will probably have more than one option. Not all stores are created equally. Look for stores that not only have an excellent selection but also have store personnel that know their stuff. While it’s always nice to find lower prices, I’ve noticed that most stores seem to stay within a dollar or two per bottle of each other anyway. Many of the bigger stores often offer tastings on a regular basis. And some of those may have open sample bottles behind their counter; ask, you may luck into an opportunity to try before you buy.
There are some benefits of establishing a relationship with a store (or two) but don’t let that stop you from shopping other stores to see what they have in stock. Don’t forget to check behind the checkout counter as oftentimes you’ll find the smaller 200 ml or 375 ml bottles there. or even grab a couple of the 50 ml airline bottles to try things that you might not be sure about.
One of the most fun ways to explore bourbons is to find a friend or two that are bourbon lovers and share your experiences. Create a blind tasting and choose some bourbons that the groups hasn’t tried (maybe even those that don’t get a lot of internet love) to taste and evaluate in an unbiased way. You may just be surprised at what you might like when you’re not listening to all those web opinions.