Bourbon Field Guide

I like to recommend the following as a place to start.
There are 3 main categories: bourbon, wheated bourbon, and Ryes (or high rye bourbon)
Without spending too much you can get one of each category that showcases each type, and see what you like or dislike.
Bourbon: Buffalo Trace ($26)
Buffalo Trace is the backbone for some of the best bourbons out there. it is family readily available and is a standard entry level bourbon.
Wheated: Bernheim ($30)
Bernheim is a wheated bourbon aged 7 years. The high wheat mash bill is generally considered smoother, and sweeter. If you are looking to try something similar to Weller, this would be it.
Rye: Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond ($25)
Rittenhouse is on plenty of lists as exceptional bourbon in its price range. It definitely will allow you to explore rye whiskey if you haven’t before.
All three of these bottles are not hard to find, and are inexpensive in bourbon terms. Once you have tried these, and can determine which you like, then you can take the next step into finding other bourbons that are similar, or very different if you choose.
SWMBH and stores all over get store picks on a regular basis. Before any of SWMBH’s picks are available, I wanted to revisit this post with some updated info for folks.
Bourbon barreling terms (top is most common, down to what is considered the best):
Blended bourbon – multiple barrels are blended together to get the taste profile that is desired.
Small batch – while there is not a hard definition of how many is small, most people casually define it as 20 barrels or less. since you have a small barrel set to make your preferred flavor profile, it is considered slightly better than regular blended
Single Barrel – this is a single barrel of bourbon that holds all of the desired flavor characteristics. They are then marketed as a premium of sorts since the bourbon comes from one single, really good barrel. -I talked to a medium/small distillery who said that they find about 1 in 20 barrels out of their stock are good enough to be a single barrel bourbon.
Store pick- A “store pick” is a hand selected, single barrel (in almost all cases**) of a bourbon. This gets you a few things: 1) assuming the person doing the picking is knowledgeable, the taste of that barrel will most likely be better than the same bourbon in a non store pick. However, you usually get to pick from 3 or 4 individual barrels, so really you can only pick the best of the 3/4 in front of you. -but at the same time, the distilleries DO save their good barrels to be enjoyed as single barrels, so they really are better barrels most of the time 2) Store picks are usually single barrels even if the regular counterpart is normally a blend (regular buffalo trace is a blend, but a buffalo trace store pick is a single barrel). Single barrel products are generally more expensive since they are better but You can usually get a store pick at or near the price of the non store pick, so you are able to get a better bottle of bourbon at or near the same price as the normal bottle.
There are also a handful of products that are only available in store picks – 4 roses barrel strength single barrel for instance.
Several others offer their bourbons in higher proofs for store picks only to add to the high-end-something-extra experience for the pick.
As SWMBH gets into offering store picks to the group, know that they are considered some of the best of their respective brands, which is what drives the excitement around them.
** there are products like Woodford and Makers picks that are customs blends that may not be single barrels.
The bourbon making process can be described in a few steps:
  1. add desired grains to water
  2. yeast ferment the sugars from the grains into alcohol
  3. the resulting alcohol rich solution is distilled to remove/concentrate the alcohol (concentrated liquid is distillate)
  4. distillate is placed in barrels for aging
  5. once aged, the bourbon is then bottled.
Due to all of the equipment needed for steps 1 through 3, it can be expensive to get started as a distillery. It can be a tough choice to try to decide between barreling more product or investing in equipment.
This is where sourcing comes into play. A distillery can source (purchase) their distillate from another company, and then barrel it, bottle it and sell it. If you look closely on labels you can see where the distilling, and barreling occur (if they are the same place it might only list one). When someone says Old Pepper is a sourced bourbon, it means that they purchased the distillate instead of making it themselves (going to use Old Pepper/James Pepper for examples in this post).
The most widely known distillate sourcing company is MGP. They can perform all of steps 1-3 at a large scale for bourbon brands to buy and age. Because of their larger size, MGP can benefit from economies of scale for everything from purchasing grain, to operating costs, making the distillate cheaper for small bourbon companies to buy (and making it cheaper for you to buy too). A lot of bourbons source all of their distillate, all of the time (High West, Smooth Ambler, Belle Meade, Sagamore etc. etc. (for now anyways)).
Another common bourbon business model is what Old Pepper is doing. Old Pepper has recently been revived as a brand (2008). The quickest way to get bourbon to the market is to start out by sourcing distillate, and work into making your own as time and capital (cash) allow. Old Pepper opened their distillery (to make their own juice) in 2017. At this point in time, some of their own distillate bourbons are hitting the market. Texas Mart’s store pick is Old Pepper’s own distillate, while most of the non store picks are still from MGP. That should be changing shortly as OP’s distillate continues to age and be released.
To Add to Fritz’z post earlier, Corn, Wheat, Rye, and all other grains used are commodity goods. Just like gas, the price changes all the time. Right now, corn is at the highest price since 2014. Since bourbon is over 50% corn, bourbon distillate is going to be at the highest price since 2014 as well. WIll that make bourbon process rise? yup! However, if I sold out of everything that I made, all the time, I would charge more too – that’s simply economics 101. I would guess the latter is really driving most of the price increases currently, but I’m not in distillery financing, and have no data to support that.
The big question: does it matter if a distillery sources their juice? Most (but not all) of the flavor you taste comes from the aging process. So, the short answer is not nearly as much as the aging process. Even the Old Pepper rye that is MGP vs not all have been aged in different timeframes (years) so it is really hard to get an honest side by side comparison.
I hope you found this helpful! Cheers!
When I was starting out in bourbon, I read things about โ€œneck poursโ€ and tried to dig into this phenomenon more.
Essentially a neck pour is the pour from the neck – the first pour out of a bottle, and is said to be notably different (harsher, less flavor, less nuance than subsequent pours out of that same bottle. At first I doubted that it could be real and why that would occur. However, after trying the first pour out of a bottle, and coming back to the second days/weeks later, a lot of bottles improve. While i am no bourbon expert, i am an engineer by trade and am going to take a shot at what is going on:
There is an old adage that you need to uncork a nice bottle of wine and let it breathe before serving it. This allows the wine to open up (the flavors) and usually gets rid of some of the harshness on the palette. I am here to tell you, you should be doing the same thing to bourbon, especially things in the barrel proof range.
I have experienced pours getting less harsh, and noticed increases in sensed flavors as you let a bourbon set. People have claimed that it is from the alcohol evaporating out of the glass as it sits, however that is not realistic if you have taken 2 semesters of thermodynamics. Rather I would say that oxygen is playing a role in the change. The bourbon (and wine too) that you are drinking has had very limited time to the open air. It goes from the still, to a barrel, to a bottle. When you give a pour some time with oxygen it will change as the oxygen interacts with esters, terpenes, and other chemical entities in bourbon, allowing aromatics to develop in the glass. Alcohol harshness on the nose fades and more and more aromas arise as the oxygen interacts with your swill. The same is noted on the palette (the majority of taste is based on smell anyway, FYI).
In my experience, you should let a barrel proof set in the glass for 20-30 minutes before even touching it! I will be the first to admit, it’s a very hard concept -pour a tasty bourbon that you want to try into a glass and stare at it for a half hour?? I canโ€™t do it myself the majority of the time. But, if you can, you will be almost guaranteed to have a smoother more flavorful pour than right out of the bottle. Try it for yourself (especially with a new unopened bottle), pour a heavy proof, and taste it right away, and let it set taste some more, let it set, and repeat.
Sounds super simple right? Well… it depends on how high you want to stick up your pinky while you drink ๐Ÿง Sure you can throw something in a solo cup but if you want to dig in, there’s much more than meets the eye.
If you are drinking it neat, it should be at room temp. Anything cooler really takes away from the nose(IMO). Since taste is mostly perceived by smell, getting those vanilla, oak, and toffee notes in your nose changes the taste! -and probably for the better. If you think that something is too hot, start adding water by a dropper to cut the heat. This will help you get the most flavor out of the bourbon you are tasting rather than cooling it off with ice. There are plenty of articles out there that also say a drop or two of water helps open up the nose and palate as well.
If you are planing to try several bourbons, start with the lowest proof and work your way up. Doing the opposite will make them all taste like they are watered down.
Does it matter what you use? If your main goal is: bourbon delivered to piehole, no. If you are trying to discover the nuances of different bourbons, then yes! The Glencairn glass is generally known as “the” tasting glass. Everything about the glass shape has a purpose. The bulb allows the bourbon to open up and mix with air, then the top of the glass concentrates the aromas for nosing.
Nowadays, there are dozens of different glasses with different takes on what’s better for tasting. Sticking to one type for tasting will give you a better idea of relative flavors/aromas over time. I try to stick to the glen glass as most high end bars will have glens to serve in (and not other glass types, that i’ve seen). Admittedly different glassware is my bucket list for exploring.
Have you ever left a little bit of bourbon in the glass at the end of the night. There’s “stuff” in there the next day when it dries out. Most folks in the know argue that the “stuff” (Microparticles) are flavor! SEE POST/ARTICLE ON BOURBON WEBS!! Have you noticed that unfiltered is a new buzzword to throw on bottles? YUP. Thats why, distilleries are headed towards (or at least identifying that they do) unfiltered bourbons to give you those flavor particles.
So, how do you translate that to your glass? Those same folks in the know would say that those flavor particles can settle out in your bottle. Please don’t pull your best Ying Yang Twins cameo (shake it like a salt shaker ๐Ÿ˜Ž) and shake your bottles. Rather a gentle wrist roll while holding the bottle is said to be sufficient. In fact, if you go to a really high end bar, chances are that they will pour half your pour, roll it one more time, and then pour the rest.
As I write this post my level of annoyance has steadily risen. This post really took a turn from what I intended to talk about. I have heard all of these things piecemeal but putting it together really seems to hit home. Its a long post but I think its worthwhile to read. I have personally heard this info from store owners, while it have not verified it myself (really you can’t unless your within the distribution system, working with distributors) I do believe that the people that I have talked to were telling me the truth, as they had nothing to gain by telling me otherwise.
All of the bottles that we hope to find perched on the shelf when you walk into a random store are referred to allocated bottles. Any highly sought after bottles -namely anything north of Eagle Rare at Buffalo Trace are allocated by the distributors. This means that there is a person who works for the distribution companies that decides what stores the Wellers, Taylors, and Blanton’s etc. etc. go to (allocating). Their job is to allocate the bottles to the individual stores. Sometimes the store owners will get a heads up from the rep, sometimes its a surprise when they show up on the delivery truck. But the key take away is that store owners really don’t have much of a say in “ordering” such bottles.
Store Approaches:
Smaller stores may get anywhere from 0 to a few allocated bottles at a time. If the owners know about bourbons (pretty much all of them do) they put them aside for their regular customers or raise the price on them, or try to compel you to buy other products in conjunction with their allocated bottles. To me, all of those are fair options. The small store owners should be able to reward their more loyal customer base with good bottles, rather than someone who randomly walks in off the street( if they want to do it that way). BUT, there needs to be the caveat that they are actually fair with the bottles going to their normal customers and not just hand them all to the same person (I’ve seen it happen at stores in Kzoo – I have seen stores congregate “regular” customers and then only hand out their allocated bottles to their select buddies (and there’s really no way to easily tell from the outside which is the hard part)) If you want to get in with a small liquor store to be in that inner circle, it can quickly become an expensive proposition as you return to buy things week after week. All in the hopes that the store might get some allocations and might offer them to you. BEWARE there are less than legit store owners out there. Stores do exist that compel you to “become a regular” to get better bottles, and then the bottles never seem to show up when you do……. quite the coincidence. But to be completely fair, there are great store owners out there that do their best to keep things fair and even across the board too. How do you spot the good ones from the bad? -that is a great question. If you find a tried and true method please let me know. Good store owners will treat you like family, talk to you, and show you their new bottles every week, and less than legit store owners may do the same thing to try to get you to buy things at their store too (**more below**). Store owners are there to sell you their products. All that to say that there is no good way (that I have found) to tell a store owners intent unless you spend a lot of time to get to know the people there.
Then, there are stores like Mega-Bev. They are big enough where they create their own draw, and to be fair with bottles, they do things like put allocated bottles out on the shelves randomly when they come in. This removes any sort of favoritism etc. The Mega Bev approach does give anyone an equal shot at finding a bottle, but 2 things 1) you have no store rapport whatsoever since they are so big and 2) you and a million other people are fighting for finding the allocated bottles on their shelves. While a small store might be your personal honey hole or a complete bust, the Mega-Bevs are a solid medium ๐Ÿ˜.
Beyond my opinion above, its really about how you want to spend your time and your money when it comes to whether you want to shop at small shops or the Mega Bevs of the world. One thing I would encourage everyone to do: speak with your wallet (** more below please don’t stop reading ๐Ÿ˜**). If you don’t feel a place is treating you right, don’t continue to spend money helping their cause. The bourbon culture seems to be fairly on point with abandoning stores that are not good to their customers. Talk to anyone that has been into bourbon for a while and they have their lists of stores that are essentially blacklisted for one reason or another. And I am personally amazed at how everyone seems to come to the same conclusions about the same stores – in the end it will all work out -you might just be spending at the wrong store in the meantime ๐Ÿ˜›
A person that works for the distributor (lets call a random distributor Really Nice Distribution Center (or RNDC for short-completely random no doubt!)) decides where bottles go. These “allocators” have stores that they have been working with for 20 years that get the allocations, and they have huge stores that get the allocations, and then there’s pretty much everyone else (as far a liquor stores) -I’m sure there’s more buckets as far as stores but these are the main ones for this post. That person that works for RNDC wants to boost their own company’s sales (probably a metric for their own job performance). So they give bottles to the Mega-Bevs of the world, and the stores that they have known forever, and essentially for everyone else they tell liquor stores that they need to perform to get the good bottles. The RNDC allocator says to stores you need to sell 20% more than last year in order for me to give you the good juice (yes, I know this to be 100% fact). Its within that RNDC person’s control to giveth and taketh away bottles from liquor stores. There is zero recourse for small stores to take beside comply or get no bottles. Think about it- even filing a complaint with the distributor is only going to tick off the person allocating the bottles to you. Now this is easy(er) for the first 3-4 years after opening as growth is prevalent but after you become established, increasing sales by 20% is a huge number. Is this a fair system? Nope, I find it nothing short of reeking of potential corruption or personal bias (if you rather), and most likely corrupt on some or multiple levels. What can anyone as a buyer do about it? Nothing except spend your money at stores where it benefits you, and don’t spend where it doesn’t. If bourbonites as a whole can manage to do this, the good stores will live on and the bad notes won’t. BUT to be fully clear, the stores aren’t really the problem: stores have to play the game and get the sales, or don’t get that sweet brown water we all want to see. The stores really have less options than us as the consumers, they don’t have other distributors to go to – there is no other way for them to order products except through the distributor. They have to play the game as the distributors say, or get nothing. Don’t believe its true? Walk into a small, small store and ask them to get a Blanton’s for you. Their answer: we don’t ever get Blanton’s (or insert other allocated bottle here). Why? They aren’t playing the game up to snuff for RNDC and get nothing, ever. Even though Wellers, Taylors, Blanton’s (and other non BT products) are rare, they still do exist. So if the system was truly fair and everyone was on an even playing field, why doesn’t that small store get a Blanton’s bottle once a year or two etc ? There is certainly enough for each store that wants a bottle to get one every once in a while when larger stores are getting cases at a time. The promoting excellent seller business model that the distributors use does work to drive more sales, but at what cost? They are incentivizing stores to huck liquor at you to buy in order to sell enough to get good bottles into the store for you to also buy. There should be a better way.
And that is the summary of Michigan’s 3 tier liquor system and allocated bottles at it’s finest.
As I step down off my soap box, please feel free to contact your local state representative

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