Choosing the Essentials

Blake 4 minute read

Every bourbon enthusiast should maintain a short list of top whiskeys that he or she considers essential to his or her repertoire. An elegant, polished list of your absolute favorites will not only help you provide glowing recommendations for your top bourbons, but will speak volumes to what you value in the character and tradition of a bourbon when discussing amongst fellow bourbon-philes. From the hundreds of recipes available on the market today, the task of selecting your favorite three can seem a bit daunting and narrow. However, we have prepared some genuine Bourbon Journal advice to help guide your quest in building your top shelf line up.

Each bourbon on your list should reflect a different quality or characteristic that you especially value. They shouldn’t all be cut from exactly the same cloth, but rather should represent different regions of the bourbon spectrum that you are particularly fond of. For example, you may enjoy fragrant sipping bourbons, rare small batch bourbons, and bourbons that mix well into your favorite cocktail. Each of these characteristics are going to be represented at their best in different types of bourbon, which means a well rounded collection will certainly be diverse. If you find yourself with a diverse selection, but there are more than 3-5 bourbons in total, try writing a descriptive sentence about each bourbon to help flesh out the subtle idiosyncrasies of each, which may help you narrow your list. The key to this exercise is to avoid using phrases like “notes of”, “hints of” or anything that compares the palette of the bourbon to a fruit. Be metaphorical, and don’t be afraid to be poetic. It’s not a review for an aficionado blog or anything, just a creative way to get you to think about your bourbon as an experience rather than a flavor profile. For example, this is the sentence I came up with to describe Blanton’s:

A distinguished and unique bourbon that is fit to enjoy on the most special of occasions or to help close a deal with a big client who also might know a thing or two about America’s original whiskey.

And this is the sentence that I came up with to describe Maker’s Mark:

Nothing sets off a back porch party on a southern summer night like a 5th of Makers and a bottle of ginger ale; smooth, delicious, and the mark of an interesting conversation just waiting to begin.

The idea here is to capture the experience that you have while enjoying your bourbon without reducing it down to a scientific flavor profile. Access your left brain and think of the things that each sip of that bourbon reminds you of, the rest will be as easy as putting pen to paper.

To balance your selection even further, at least one bourbon should be from “off the beaten path”. This means it should be something that is not so well known by the general population, and most likely, something that you only find in a liquor store on the rarest of occasions. For me, this would be anything that I am genuinely excited to see on a store shelf! In your case, it may just be an old brand that you remember from around the house in your childhood, or a rare variety that that is not sold in the continental US. Regardless, at least one of your top bourbons should be something that only collectors and fellow enthusiasts would recognize. In many ways, this will serve as the true mark of expertise when your list is eventually shared with others.

Lastly, there is nothing wrong with taking a bourbon from the bottom shelf of the liquor store and placing it on your top shelf at home. The great thing about your short list is the fact that it is individual to you. Oftentimes bourbons sell for a higher price just because of the marketing behind them. I won’t name names, but I have definitely experienced paying $50+ for a bourbon only to find out that the $20 bottle from the same distiller was more pleasant to drink. Also, finding the diamonds in the rough proves to be a rare and valuable skill that marks a true connoisseur. Anyone can grab the most expensive thing in the store and call it “best”, but only an expert can pick out a gem from the dusty bottom rack!

All of this being said, I have listed out my current top 5 list for your reference below. Note that even though I list 5, I really only reference a random selection of 3 in conversation.

Blake’s Top Shelf:

  • Pappy Van Winkle 20yr Family Reserve
  • Noah’s Mill Small Batch Collection
  • Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection
  • Blanton’s Single Barrel
  • Willet Small Batch