Bottom-Shelf Bourbon Brackets 2018: The Championship Rounds

Well, it's finally here. The championship rounds. This year was an interesting one for me on a couple of levels. For one, it was the first year that had guest judges. I have an idea that I may expand it further next year. This feels like it could be a fun party game for whiskey folk, provided the sips are restricted and everyone has a driver. Secondly, it is also the first year that I didn't restrict the competition to bourbon. I included corn whiskey and rye whiskey and sort of expected that corn would fold and rye would reign supreme. I was sorta right on the corn whiskey, it was a little too delicate to win against the flavorful rye, but it was no pushover. 

So now here we are. We are at the Last Four (Final Four being a registered trademark of a very litigious entity, there is no way I will use those two words together in a bracket post...): Old Grand Dad Bonded vs Two Stars and Old Forester vs Ezra Brooks Rye. Three bourbons and a rye. Let's see if rye reigns supreme or if bourbon can hold on to the odds. 

Division 1, Round 2: Two Stars (A) vs Old Grand-Dad Bonded (B)

Nose: Whiskey A is drier with more grain present while whiskey B is sweeter but shows a bit more alcohol. Winner: Draw.

Mouth: Whiskey B is sweeter but also shows a lot more grain notes. Whiskey A is more of a well-integrated whole, though it is a tad more delicate. Winner Whiskey A.

Finish: The finish on Whiskey A is a bit harsher and drier. Whiskey B is really good though and it has no obvious plusses or minuses to it.Winner Whiskey B. 

Thoughts: I'd say that Whiskey B wins this one on the strength of a better mouthfeel and a much tastier finish. Old Grand-Dad Bonded is moving on. 

Division 2, Round 2: Ezra Brooks Rye (A) vs Old Forester (B)

Nose: Whiskey A has a spicy ginger note while Whiskey B is pretty generic with sweet caramel.  Winner: Whiskey A.

Mouth: Whiskey A is spicy and fun but a bit thin. Whiskey B is sweet and spicy with a nice mouthfeel. It is close but the Winner is Whiskey A

Finish: Whiskey A shows ginger and citrus while Whiskey B is sweet and fruity. This comes down to personal taste. Winner: Whiskey A.

Thoughts: This one is tough. I adore the fun aspects of Whiskey A. I think it is bright and vibrant and I'm digging the citrus notes. On the other hand, I really like the sweet flavors, the nice mouthfeel, and the fruity finish of Whiskey B. Gun to my head? Winner: Ezra Brooks Rye. 

Championship Round: Old Grand-Dad Bonded (A) vs Ezra Brooks Rye (B)

Nose: Whiskey B is a spicy soda, Whiskey A is a dusty rickhouse. Winner: Draw.

Mouth: Whiskey A is sweet with a lovely mouthfeel. Whiskey B is spicy with a ginger ale flavor. Winner: Draw

Finish: Whiskey A is long with more sweetness. Whiskey B is also long, but is spicy. Winner: Draw.

Thoughts: Sometimes the tasting notes of bloggers make it look like we value the individual parts of a whiskey more than the whole. Though these two whiskeys are different, I liked them both, just in different ways. I like the spiciness of Whiskey B and I like the lovely mouthfeel of Whiskey A. There was a draw on every indiviual metric. And, though it was really close, when taken as a whole the Winner is Old Grand-Dad Bonded. 

Lessons learned

So was I shocked by anything this year? Not really. I was surprised that Old Forester beat Four Roses for every participant, but not enough to call it shocking. I was mildly surprised that a four seed beat a one seed, but when you notice that it is rye vs corn whiskey it is less surprising. Going into the final rounds I had guessed that Old Forester could very possibly be my winner, but wasn't shocked that a rye whiskey beat a bourbon. Even if it was only two years old.

Overall, I thought that there could very possibly be five winners in the initial grouping. I wouldn't have been surprised at any of Old Grand-Dad, Old Forester, Four Roses, Ezra Brooks and I thought that Mellow Corn had an outside shot. Because I worried that the seeding worked against them I went ahead and tried an alternate seeding. I put all the bourbon on one side and matched corn vs corn and rye vs rye on the other. Ezra Brooks beat Old Overholt and Mellow Corn defeated Hirsch, with Ezra Brooks rye still advancing to the finals. On the Bourbon side, Old Grand Dad beat Four Roses on the strength of a good mouthfeel and Old Forester beat Two Stars. Old Grand Dad then defeated Old Forester and advanced to the finals where the result was the same. Overall, I'm satisfied that the best whiskey (for my palate)won.


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Bottom-Shelf Brackets 2018: Other people's brackets

So one of the things I did this year to shake things up was to introduce more judges to this project. In the past, it has been just my wife and I and if we disagreed, I'd overrule her due to the fact that I do all the writing. Now I was not able to get everyone together in time to get started on these so I was unable to use their input in the initial rounds. 

And now that I think about that, I think this is a good thing. This is a blog that is run by my wife and I and it reflects our palates. Plus, as you will see, everyone so far has chosen a different winner. But, there are a few commonalities in the results that I think you will find interesting. So let's begin.

This is the bracket of my friend Dave. He was the inspiration for this experiment because he asked if he could be a part of it. He knows almost nothing about whiskey that I haven't taught him but he is an enthusiastic amateur. I did the pouring for Dave's bracket. So one interesting thing that I think you will see is that Old Overholt was Dave's winner. I've described Old Overholt as one of the gentlest rye whiskeys that I'd found. And I think that it makes sense that an inexperienced whiskey drinker would like a whiskey that wasn't overly hot and aggressive. In fact, you'll notice that most of the whiskeys that made it to his last four were fairly nonaggressive whiskeys. A corn whiskey beat a rye, a low proof beat a high proof on a couple of occasions, and then there is Old Forester where he had a hard time choosing between the two.

This is the bracket of one of my dog sitting clients, Jeff. Jeff is a guy who likes whiskey but mostly sticks to the brands he knows. Jeff administered his own test which is why everything is labeled with a letter instead of a name, all the seeds are in the same location though. In this case, Old Grand-Dad beat Old Overholt, Two Stars beat Hirsch Corn, Ezra Brooks Rye beat Mellow Corn and Old Forester beat Four Roses. I haven't finished my bracket yet, but so far mine matches this one. And if you were to ask me how I thought my bracket might finish out, I can see similarities between his and mine. I'm a bit shocked that Two Stars beat out Old Grand-Dad, but hey Barton/Sazerac makes some pretty good juice. Oh, and for Jeff, Old Forester won. 

This is my wife's bracket. She and I disagreed on whether Mellow Corn should beat Ezra Brooks Rye so I had her finish her bracket based on her scenario. Once again I administered the contest for her. As you will see, there are some similarities between the previous three, Everyone likes Two Stars more than the Hirsch Corn whiskey and Everyone liked Old Forester better than Four Roses. In fact, Old Forester was in the championship for every one of these three. It sort of makes me wonder if my bracket will follow suit? I guess we will see next Tuesday.

Now, this last one is from Pat, one of my wife's coworkers. Pat also administered his own test. And Pat went a different way than anyone else. Unbeknownst to Pat, he seems to be a fan of rye whiskey. And he found this fascinating since he hadn't had very much rye before. From what I understand, he is going to be remedying that in the future. Even so, I can see the Ezra Brooks Rye winning this. It is a good and flavorful whiskey that even at two years old, brings a lot of flavor to the party. 

So I hope you found this as fascinating as I did. I liked seeing the trends among people. All of us liked Old Forester over Four Roses, which I didn't expect from me much less anyone else. It was split evenly between those who preferred Mellow Corn and those who preferred Ezra Brooks Rye. Only one person thought that the Hirsch Corn was better than Two Stars. And yet even with that, they all chose a different winner. I'm very curious now to know which one will win on my bracket. 


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Bottom-Shelf Brackets 2018: Round 1d: Old Forester vs. Four Roses

Round 1d of the 2018 BourbonGuy.com Bottom Shelf Brackets features the only bourbon on bourbon action of the entire first round of the contest. We have number 2 seed Old Forester Bourbon (86 proof) versus Number 3 seed Four Roses Bourbon (this bottle still has a yellow label). 

Old Forester is a product of Brown-Forman. It is the lowest proof offering in the Old Forester family of expressions. It earns a number two seed due to being 86 proof.

Four Roses (Yellow Label) is the entry-level product in the Four Roses family of expressions. It is a mingling of all 10 bourbon recipes produced by the distillery. It is the only 80 proof whiskey in the Non-Age Stated portion of the contestants and as such is a number three seed. 

These were tasted blind in the following order. My thoughts on each are from before the reveal.

Old Forester

Purchase Info: $34.99 for a 1.75L bottle at Total Wine, Eagan, MN.

Details: 43% ABV, non-age stated.

Produced by: Brown-Forman

Nose: Almond, cherry, vanilla, and hints of anise. 

Mouth: Sweet with good spice. Nice mouthfeel. Cherry/almond, baking spice and a bit of capsaicin-style heat.

Finish: Medium Length cherry and baking spice linger. 

Pre-Reveal Thoughts: Very nice. Good mouthfeel. This could be a winner.

Four Roses (Yellow)

Purchase Info: $23.99 for a 1L bottle at Total Wine, Eagan, MN.

Details: 40% ABV.

Produced by: Four Roses

Nose: Floral, cinnamon red hot candies, a bit of citrus fruit. 

Mouth: Floral, baking spice, cherry, citrus fruit. A thinner mouthfeel than the previous one.

Finish: Warm, very floral with hints of mint. 

Pre-Reveal Thoughts: Thin in the mouth and very floral.  

Who wins?

I am an admitted and unashamed Four Roses fanboy. But then I like Old Forester too. Before the relatively recent release of the Whiskey Row series of expressions, it was my favorite of the brands made at least in part under the supervision of Master Distiller Chris Morris (86 proof, 100 proof and Woodford Reserve). It has since been surpassed as my favorite by the 1920 Prohibition Style expression but still ranks number two in the line-up for me. I had a feeling while setting up the initial matchups that this would be the closest of the four. It was not. One of these stood head and shoulders above the other when they were paired head-to-head. Thin and floral can't beat thick and spicy for me. Winner: Old Forester.  


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The 2018 BourbonGuy.com Bottom-Shelf Brackets

So, this past Sunday my Twitter feed filled up with people complaining about the format of a show that announced whether their favorite team of college basketball players did or didn't make the cut to play in a basketball tournament. It reminded me, among other things, that I'm not much of a college basketball fan. It just never caught my interest. But just because I don't have a passion for college basketball, does that mean I want to miss out on all that competitive March bracketing?

No. No, it does not. 

And for the last four years, I've been getting my fill of competitive bracketing by finding inexpensive bourbons and pitting them against each other head-to-head to see if there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest. I mostly do this to have fun, but I also have a desire to find out if I can satisfy my inherent Midwestern frugalness and yet find an overlooked diamond in the rough.

But this is the fifth year of the Bottom-Shelf Brackets and I've been forced to shake things up a little bit. First, I've removed the word "Bourbon" from the name and opened the proceedings up to other forms of Straight American Whiskey. Second, I've been forced to redefine my definition of "Bottom-Shelf" to a slightly higher price point. Both of these have the same cause: I just couldn't find enough bourbons that met the price qualification that hadn't been in the tournament before. Even some of the previous winners have moved out of range. 

The third thing is the most exciting for me though. I've included a couple more judges this year. Some of these people are complete novices. I did this mostly because one of my non-whiskey drinking friends asked if he could be a part of it and I thought it might be fun to get outside perspectives on the results. 

Now that the changes are out of the way, just what are these qualifications that I spoke of earlier?

  1. It must be straight American Whiskey, and it must be labeled as such. Too many brands are getting rid of this very basic statement of quality and I refuse to reward that. This means that Jack Daniel's Black label would not qualify for the tournament, but that Jim Beam White label would. 
  2. It has to sell for 2.4 cents per milliliter or less. Now, this might seem like a weird arbitrary number, but it works out to $18 per 750, $24 per liter or (in true bottom shelf fashion) $40 for a 1.75 L handle. And yes, I know that the math is wrong on that last one, but since you normally get a price break by buying in that large of quantity, I worked that into the equation. I raised it from $15, $20 and $35 this year, which had been the price since the initial year. In that time, just following the inflation rate would get us to over $21 for a liter so I decided to future proof a little. 
  3. The final guideline is that it must have never been in the tournament before. It would get pretty boring to see if I liked the same whiskeys year after year. 

After I purchased the whiskeys here are the rules I used to seed them. 

  1. Stated (or assumed) age. Straight whiskey has to be at least two years old. But unless it is under four years old, you don’t have to put an age on it. So if someone does, it’s either a good thing or a bad thing. I like to reward good things and punish bad things.
  2. Proof. Higher proof often equals better flavor. Not always, but it can be a good rule of thumb.

So who are the contestants? The top six seeds were all non-age stated, and so I am assuming the 4-year minimum on them. The two number one seed in each of the divisions are Old Grand-Dad Bonded and Mellow Corn Bottled in Bond, both at 100° proof. Behind them at 90° proof is a Straight Corn Whiskey from Hirsch Selections. I found this one on sale, so it is a bit of a cheat but also figured that sale prices count when the entire point is to be frugal. A pair of 86 proofers come next. Old Forester 86° proof is the second number two seed while the Barton produced, Total Wine exclusive, Two Stars nabs the first number three seed. The final number three seed is 80° proof Four Roses Yellow Label. After that, we get to a pair of ryes that clock in at under four years old. Old Overholt is three years old and gets the first number four seed with two-year-old Ezra Brooks Rye nabbing the final spot.

There are a lot of interesting matchups this year with multiple styles and multiple price points going head-to-head. I think this one is going to be a lot of fun. 


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Early Times Bottled-in-Bond

I am a recovering comic book nerd. I'm not so into the comics themselves these days. Not for any real reason, I just fell out of love with them somewhere during the last 25 years. But I do love the overabundance of comic-inspired entertainment options we have available these days. It reminds me of when I was a teenager when my favorite place was my local comic shop.

I give every superhero movie and tv show a shot. Some I like and some I don't, but I haven't personally reached oversaturation yet. But because there is so much entertainment to be had, I sometimes need to hold off on watching a particular show or movie. Take the one I finished last night, Netflix and Marvel's Iron Fist

Iron Fist has been out for six months or more now. I started watching it last week. I was a little hesitant to do so since it was almost universally panned by people whose opinion I trust. Like I said, last night I finished it. And I loved it!

It just goes to show that just because you have a notion that you won't like something, it doesn't nessecarily follow that you are correct. You should at least give it a shot if it is something in your wheelhouse. 

Kind of like how I was initially a little hesitant to purchase the Early Times Bottled in Bond. I'd had the previous Early Times bourbon release, Early Times 354. And...I didn't like it. But because I'm a firm believer in trying things for myself instead of passing judgment based on my intuition, I bought the Bonded version the first time I saw it. And guess what? I liked it. 

Now I just hope that history repeats itself and Justice League is good despite the fact that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was complete crap...

Early Times Bottled-in-Bond

Purchase Info: $21.99 for a one-liter bottle at the Party Source, Bellevue, KY.

Details: 50% ABV. Distilled and bottled at DSP-KY-354 and DSP-KY-414 (I'm assuming distilled at the first and bottled at the second...).

Nose: Coconut, brown sugar and a hint of wintergreen.

Mouth: Brown Sugar, wintergreen, and baking spice. 

Finish: Gentle and short with lingering notes of brown sugar and wintergreen.

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Thoughts: This is a solid value bourbon. If I had to compare it to something, I'd say that it is of a similar quality to the various Heaven Hill bonded bourbons, though obviously with a different flavor profile. I really like this. I hope that it sticks around as it is nice to have more good bonded options on the market.


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