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Bottom-Shelf Bourbon Brackets 2016: Championship Rounds

Posted on by Eric Burke

Here we are: the Championship rounds! We’ve made it through the opening rounds and tonight we find out which of our Bottom Shelf Challengers will graduate to the Fancy Shelf. 

Once again, I am struck by just how good the competition has been. Most years we’ve had a clunker or two that made it in. This year, I liked every bottle that made it into the competition. I blame this on the fact that we were just able to find better bourbons in the price range this year. 

In fact, I’d say that the story of the year was certainly the “Total Wine effect.” Total Wine sells their national brands at as close to cost as they can get away with while marking up their store brands with a higher margin. This has had the effect of driving up the selection and driving down the price at many of their local competitors. Prices have been driven down to the point where many of the bourbons I included this year, wouldn’t have qualified last year. 

Normally I have to scramble to find eight items to include. This year, I didn’t have that problem. The increase in local competition has made it such that I actually had plenty of choices and was able to be a little choosier about what I included (leading to that lack of clunkers mentioned above). By way of example, three of the four of the finalists either used to be sold at a higher price or weren’t in the market at all before Total Wine came in. 

Yep. The Total Wine Effect is in full swing. And right now spirits consumers are winning in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market. To this point, unlike the many dire predictions from before Total Wine showed up, there have been few liquor store closings that I have noticed. If anything I find more reasons to spend money at more liquor stores than I did before. I now shop at seven-eight regularly instead of the three-four I visited in years past.

So here we go. The Championship Rounds. These were tasted blind again. And remember as with previous years, these were not formal tasting notes, just impressions to let us decide which one we liked better.

Round 2: Down to Four

Division 1: #4 seed Buckhorn vs #2 seed Evan Williams 1783

Thoughts: Bourbon A has a slightly richer nose and gets the nod there. A is sweeter on the mouth while B is more grain forward by comparison. Toss in a relatively and enjoyable finish on both and seems that A is fitting our palates better.  

Winner: So which is which? Very much to our surprise, Bourbon B was Evan Williams 1783 while Total Wine house brand Buckhorn was Bourbon A. Buckhorn moves on. 

Division 2: #1 seed JW Dant Bottled in Bond vs #2 seed Very Old Barton (86 proof)

Thoughts: Both of these have nice sweet noses. If forced to choose a favorite, I’d say A for being slightly sweeter. In the mouth A is slightly more grain forward while B has slightly more depth to it. These are both tasty and are well matched to on another. In the end Bourbon B gets the nod by a hair.  

Winner: So which is which? Once again to our surprise Bourbon A was previous winner JW Dant Bottled in Bond and Bourbon B was lower proof VOB 86 proof. Very Old Barton 86 proof moves on. 

Fancy Shelf Championship

Buckhorn vs Very Old Barton 86 proof

This is the first time we haven’t had at least one Heaven Hill product in the Championship round. Instead we have a couple Sazerac products competing. Buckhorn is the Total Wine Exclusive made by Sazerac under the Clear Spring Distillery name and Very Old Barton is made at Sazerac’s Barton 1792 distillery. In a break from every other year, both of these beat out higher proof competition to make it to this point. Which is a testament to the quality of the bourbon that Sazerac/Barton/Buffalo Trace is putting out even at lower proofs.

Thoughts: The nose on Bourbon A is fruitier and a little sweeter while Bourbon B brings a little more cinnamon red hots to the party. The mouth follows the nose with A being fruitier and B being spicier with a little more oak presence. This is close but in the end I gotta give it to Bourbon B, but just barely.

Winner: So which was which? Bourbon A was Buckhorn and our winner Bourbon B was Very Old Barton 86 proof


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