Bottoms Up

Everyone hates coffee the first time they try it. Similarly, no one wanted to eat vegetables when they were a kid; most people’s parents had to use bribery and deception to get them to swallow a piece of broccoli. After all, coffee and vegetables are acquired tastes. We’re going to be honest with you, even if it puts our manliness on the line: we cannot imagine ever, ever, willfully enjoying a glass of bourbon. This stuff tastes awful. Acquired taste? That would be a “Michael Jordan third in the NBA draft” or “Einstein from the Germans” type of acquisition. But, wishing big, we sat down with four Kentuckian whiskeys to prove ourselves wrong.

The corn whiskeys we selected for this tasting are Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey and Knob Creek. All four are bourbon whiskeys. What does this mean? Here is the result of our first brainstorming session: “Things we know about bourbon: one, bourbon is from Kentucky; two, horses are from Kentucky.” In desperate need of education, we hit up Wikipedia. This is what we found: A 1964 law states that bourbon whiskey must originate in America to attain the title of “bourbon.” Other facts to help distinguish bourbon whiskey from “just whiskey” – bourbon must be all natural; it must be distilled to no more than 160 proof; it must be aged in new, charred, American oak barrels; it must be aged for two years and it must harness the power of evil. Armed with this fresh knowledge, we set out on our bourbon-tasting journey.

Jim Beam, at 80 proof, is the weakest bourbon we selected. The light amber color of this whiskey makes it slightly darker than Budweiser. The label is nice and the bottle is well shaped. It is aged four years, and by now it is clear that we are trying to prolong the actual tasting of this potion as long as possible. Digging in, we put this hooch down the hatch. Intent on discovering something joyful, we found Jim Beam to have an initial syrupy sweetness. This grace period lasted a few milliseconds – the onset of the burn was swift, and unsettled both stomach and mind. But non-corrosive tastes returned rather quickly. Here we decided that the syrupy sweetness has a baked quality to it, like cornbread – or something. We expected “Jim” to have more of a smoky flavor, perhaps because of the barrels. Overall, Jim Beam was unpleasant but not too bad. Wondering about our rating system? The only theme this week is our suffering and self-pity. But hey, we brought it upon ourselves.

Maker’s Mark, at 90 proof, is more potent than Jim Beam and also slightly darker. We had high expectations for this bourbon: there are only 19 barrels of Maker’s Mark per batch, the distillery is a national landmark and the entire bottleneck is dipped in red wax. This wax caused the bottle opening process to be emotionally complex: we felt like we were simultaneously receiving a letter from the queen and ruining something beautiful. The bourbon’s taste threw us for a similar loop. As bourbon, we knew it to be bad and not good, but because of its well-balanced crispness, Maker’s Mark is remarkably smoother on the esophagus and stomach than most if its competitors. One of us even found hints of floral and citrus, although the other maintained that this was a result of lingering emotional confusion. Either way, Maker’s Mark is in our top two.

But Wild Turkey hurts. It is fiery and features a wasabi-esque nasal assault. Its nine-year age explains its darker color; nothing explains its taste. It is an affront. We tasted the sweet corn in there somewhere, although the singeing of the nose hair was the more powerful impression at the time. Wild Turkey actually settles rather smoothly, probably because our senses have already been beaten into submission. Reneging on our commitment to make suffering our only theme, let us say that Wild Turkey is the Sam Bowie of this “draft.”

Knob’s Creek is 100 proof. Like Maker’s Mark, it has a cork instead of a screw-off top, which makes it classy. It has a dark amber color like the previous competitor, but luckily is not nearly as “wild.” Knob’s Creek is a dry bourbon that does not linger. What we can taste of the corn is raw and not sweet or “baked” like the others. While it would be against policy to say that we enjoyed this bourbon, it was our favorite for being able to balance ball-busting alcohol content with the demands of common decency. In other words, Knob Creek wins our contest.

Prices for 750 mL:
Jim Beam – $17.99
Maker’s Mark – $29.99
Wild Turkey – $21.99
Knob Creek – $31.99.