In Praise of Cheap Bourbon
A bourbon snob reconsiders when the fancy stuff is really necessary.
I am a bourbon-loving woman, and I am fussy. My preferred Pappy Van Winkle, among the most expensive bourbon on earth, is the 20-year-old, which retails for a cool $2,199 per bottle. (I’ve been lucky enough to try it; I’ve never owned a bottle.) Woodford Reserve is good, but have you had the double-oaked version, which is buttery like Chardonnay, about 25 percent more than the “regular” stuff, and retails for about 45 bucks? Then there’s my go-to bourbon, Bulleit, which is caramelly and yummy and quite difficult to find in Brooklyn for less than $40.
The tiniest violin plays for me, I realize. But when I took a look at my budget this year and thought about how I drink bourbon—rarely on the rocks and almost always in maple syrup-and-lemon sours and Old Fashioneds—I realized that perhaps I didn’t need to always drink the pricey stuff. My boyfriend, who has good taste, has long encouraged me to sample Evan Williams Black Label, which retails for a fraction of Bulleit—about $14—in my neighborhood.
And you know what? It’s quite all right. I can’t drink it straight, as it’s too “hot” on the palate for my taste, but in sours, punches, and even the occasional Old Fashioned—so long as I have fresh citrus peels on hand—it’s actually solid.
If you tend to gravitate towards mixed drinks with a bevy of flavors, as I do, it’s worth investing in a big bottle of a “well” liquor like this. It won’t affect your ability to be a classy host as much as you might think, either. A pal stopped by at the last minute the other weekend, and because we had cheap bourbon, lemon, and maple syrup, I was able to make sours, no problem. She thought they were amazing, I looked good, and she didn’t notice how thoroughly inexpensive my concoction—which set me back about 75 cents per drink—was.
Watch: How to Make a Bourbon Pecan Pie Milkshake
The unexpected bonus? I appreciate the good stuff—which I’ll order in nice cocktails at bars—that much more. I look for the subtle caramel, vanilla, baking spice and oak notes, consider how they pair with various foods, and discern the other elements in a well-made drink more.
If you want to go this route with your favorite spirit, first, sample what’s out there. You can buy tiny bottles on the cheap, try them in drinks, and see what you like. Maybe you don’t need an elegant Old Tom gin every single time; maybe you hide the good rye in the pantry to spin into a Sazerac just before a dinner party, while everyone’s palate is still on point.
As is true of boxed wine, sometimes spirits can be functional in addition to delicious; if you drink, there’s no reason not to have something that doesn’t break the bank kicking around—and there’s no reason to be embarrassed about how much money you saved.
Maple Bourbon Sour Recipe
- 2 oz bourbon
- 1 oz freshly-squeezed lemon juice
- ½ to ¾ oz high-quality maple syrup (to taste)
- Garnish: Maraschino cherries (optional)
Shake all ingredients with plenty of ice until very cold. Strain into a chilled Old Fashioned glass over one large cube. Garnish with two cherries, if desired.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.