There’s a lot of negativity in the American Whiskey scene right now. The whiskey boom is in full swing with no end in sight. Distilleries are struggling to keep up with demand and as a result lots of products are now allocated, age statements are being dropped, and prices are rising. Yet despite all that, there is still one category of whiskey that nullifies each of those issues: Bottled in Bond.
Visit any decent liquor store and you’ll find swaths of bonded whiskey hiding on the bottom shelf in plain sight. Don’t let the bottom shelf status fool you though. The very nature of Bonded whiskey standards ensures a built in level of quality in age (4+ years), proof, and distillation that allow them to punch way above their weight class. The blue collar value proposition of it is the key to why I believe Bonded whiskey is America’s real gift to the alcohol world.
As such, I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate 100 reviews than to shine a light on these (mostly) great whiskeys that you can find on shelves today for around $25 or less. Here is how I would rank them from first to last.
1st: Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond
Aged 6 years; $11; Distilled by Heaven Hill
One of many Heaven Hill products in this roundup that all derive from the same high corn mashbill. Unlike everything else in this series this bottle is the the only one that carries an age statement and is probably the oldest in the lineup. Like the Evan Williams and Old Heaven Hill it also claims to be charcoal filtered. I believe this is only distributed in Kentucky and Indiana which is a shame.
Nose: Nice balance of standard sweet oak flavors but nothing terribly exciting. The heat is very tempered.
Taste: Like the nose, a nice profile of the standard bourbon flavors you expect. Lots of sweet vanilla, a decent amount of oak, and only a little smoky bitterness. Any young corny notes have been pretty well smoothed out.
Thoughts: A solid, no bullshit, classical bourbon. At $11 this is probably the most impressive whiskey for the price I have ever encountered. This is an unbelievable value.
Rating: B / B-
2nd: Evan Williams Bottled in Bond
No Age Statement; $15; Distilled by Heaven Hill
I reviewed this one before and quite liked it but I thought I should re-evaluate it with fresh eyes for this roundup. It’s another Heaven Hill product so I expect it to be similar to those but this one also claims charcoal filtering so there could be some subtle differences.
Nose: Nose is pretty plain much like the rest of the others. Standard fruity corn and sweet oak. The heat isn’t overly aggressive which is good.
Taste: Again fairly standard but slightly more refined than the rest of the pack. Like the Old Heaven Hill I suspect that is the charcoal filtering. It doesn’t necessarily taste much older but there is less bitterness and the sweetness shines through more.
Thoughts: I still like this as much as the first time I reviewed it and feel it stands out against everything else. It’s a tremendous value, I’m still shocked you can buy a whiskey this good for $15.
3rd: Very Old Barton Bottled in Bond
No Age Statement, $15, Distilled by Barton
One of the few non Heaven Hill Bonded bourbons available under $25. I previously reviewed this product and quite liked it however that review was for the age stated product. In a rather shitty move, Barton’s parent company Sazerac has since removed the words “aged” and “years” from the neck but left the number 6. It’s incredible deceptive but that’s a topic for another day.
Nose: Pretty standard nose of oak, sweet, corn, vanilla. A little bit of grapes and light antiseptic menthol notes.
Taste: A nice balanced standard bourbon profile - sweet, good amount of oak, and a slight spice bite. I think it has a little less bitter barrel char than I remember from the age stated product. Doesn’t taste noticeably younger than I remember the 6 year product but doesn’t taste noticeably older than the rest of the bottles either.
Thoughts: Nothing remarkable or standout here, just another classic bourbon. Magnificent value given the price. I haven’t had the age stated product in a while but I can’t really tell a significant decline in quality.
4th: Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond
No Age Statement; $15; Distilled by Heaven Hill
Another Heaven Hill product but unlike the other high corn mashbill bourbons in the lineup this one uses wheat instead of rye as the secondary flavoring grain. As far as I know this is the only Bottle in Bond wheated bourbon currently for sale. I’m not a huge fan of the older version of this from Heaven Hill (Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12 year) so I had some trepidations going into this bottle. I believe this is rather hard to find outside of Kentucky.
Nose: The nose has some softer sweetness to it compared to the rest of the lineup. Think fresh baked wheat bread or a hefeweizen beer with a little funk and some dusty cardboard.
Taste: A lot like the nose. Much softer taste profile than the rest of the whiskeys in this series. Has some of the cinnamon zip I get in other wheated bourbon products but it’s pretty tame. Fairly sweet with an average amount of wood complexity.
Thoughts: Sweet and soft like a good wheater should be. I think this is much better than the 12 year product and at less than half the price it’s a much better buy.
5th: Rittenhouse 100
No Age Statement; $27; Distilled by Heaven Hill
Rittenhouse is one of the most loved products under $30 that I can think of. It’s known for being something great to sip on but even more famous for making excellent cocktails. A lot of the reputation however was built during a time when distillation was being contracted out to Brown Forman. That’s certainly the era in which I grew to love Rittenhouse. There have been rumblings that the Heaven Hill distilled Rittenhouse isn’t quite as good.
Nose: Anise and menthol spice, stale rye bread, a little vanilla, and some oak. Heat is a little stronger than the rest of the pack.
Taste: Tastes a bit on the young side. I’m getting younger new mash corn and fruit notes like bananas. With that fruitiness there is some spice but it’s not heavy handed in the front or mid palate. It tastes more like high-rye bourbon than a low-rye rye until the finish which finally brings a bit more prickly rye spice to the party.
Thoughts: I think there is something to the notion that the old Brown Forman Rittenhouse was a little better. Another downside is the price on this just keeps going up. I remember when it was around $21 a bottle but now the average seems to be around $27. Having said that, it still makes excellent cocktails and is a staple in my manhattans and old fashioneds.
Rating: C+ / B-
6th: Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond
No Age Statement, $11, Distilled by Heaven Hill
Not much interesting to note about this other than it’s one of quite a few 75/13/12 corn/rye/barley Bonded offerings from Heaven Hill. Like a couple of other bottles here the label claims it is charcoal filtered. On a positive side, it’s extremely cheap.
Nose: Smells a bit older than four years even though I doubt it is. There is surprising amount of wood complexity and some sugary caramel.
Taste: Much like the nose. There is more depth of wood and sweet notes than I expected again. I’m a little shocked at how refined this tastes as it seems older than I imagine it actually is. I suspect all of this is due to the charcoal filtering.
Thoughts: A very solid offering and a wonderful value given the price point. It’s not tremendously complex but I like it.
Rating: C+ UPDATE 8/1/2015:I have since learned that this product has been discontinued. Bummer.
7th: J.T.S. Brown
No Age Statement, $11, Distilled by Heaven Hill
Not much to say about this other than it’s another Heaven Hill offering so it should taste a lot like the others. I don’t know about distribution but I think this is hard to find outside of Kentucky or Illinois.
Nose: Sweet, a little sourness, and some light spice.
Taste: Sweet and rye spice just like the nose but without the sour notes. There are some deeper wood and sweet notes on the back of the palate which is nice. Plenty of wood influence here.
Thoughts: It’s rather unmemorable but in this case that’s completely fine. It hits all the marks in the right places. Would make a fine daily sipper and the price is more than okay.
8th: J.W. Dant
No Age Statement; $14; Distilled by Heaven Hill
Dant gets a lot of love on the /r/bourbon network (like this and this) for being a trusty go-to. Having said that, it’s another offering from Heaven Hill so it it should be similar to those products if somewhat more widely available outside Kentucky than the others.
Nose: Slight pepper spice notes and a little bit of sourness like the JTS Brown.
Taste: Sweet up front, decent amount of oak, a little smoky bitter char on the back.
Thoughts: Like most other products in this roundup it’s not overly complex but it doesn’t really need to be. A well rounded, solid budget pour.
9th: Old Grand-Dad Bonded
No Age Statement, $17, Distilled by Beam
When the subject of a good value whiskey comes up, Old Grand-Dad is usually a popular suggestion. It has a higher rye content than all the other Bonded bourbons available so it serves a dual purpose as being good for cocktail duty as well.
Nose: Maple syrup and a fair amount of wood. A bit on the young side but not nearly as youthful as the standard Beam Bonded. Despite the high rye content I’m only getting a touch of spice notes.
Taste: Sweet, woody, and slightly spicy. Tastes a little young. There are some peanutty notes that are pretty common in Beam bourbons and sometimes referred to as Beam “funk”. The rye content is doing a good job of masking that funk with some nice spiciness.
Thoughts: I’m slowly coming around on some of the products in the Beam lineup and this is one of them. A fine pour and makes for a great base in a cocktail like an old fashioned.
Rating: C / C+
10th: Jim Beam Bonded
No Age Statement, $22; Distilled by Beam
Jim Beam Bonded is a relatively new offering in the Beam lineup. It’s essentially a 100 proof version of the standard Beam white label.
Nose: Corn, decent amount of oak, sweet young fruits. Smells like it’s younger than four years old as there lots of young new make fruity mash flavors present.
Taste: Tastes a lot like it smells. It’s got a lot of youth to it like the raw mashed corn flavors haven’t smoothed out enough yet. It does have a sweetness to it and surprisingly I get less of the typical funky Beam nutty yeast notes than I expected. The finish has hints of a darker malty sweetness but it’s pretty faint.
Thoughts: I’m having a hard time getting past how young it tastes. Combine that with the higher price point compared to the rest of the lineup and this one is a hard sell if you have access to others in this list. If not this is still a decent enough whiskey and certainly a step up from the regular white label.
11th: Mellow Corn
No Age Statement, $9; Distilled by Heaven Hill
Straight corn whiskey is interesting in that it has no requirement for aging in new oak barrels. As such, Mellow corn is aged for at least 4 years in second use barrels. This is immediately obvious from the color as it looks like a month old bourbon.
Nose: Mostly rubbing alcohol with a little bit of dried corn. Pretty thin on scents. Not much in the way of wood sugars / oak.
Taste: Tastes a little better than it smells. As expected the corn flavors are very dominate and the rubbing alcohol notes are still there, especially on the finish. There is some sweetness in the back of the palate, kind of like a corn taffy.
Thoughts: Really felt like I was taking one for the team including this in the roundup. It’s perhaps the most one dimensional whiskey I think I’ve ever tasted. It certainly is unique but I don’t know in a good way. On the flipside, it’s hard to be that negative when you consider a 750 will set you back less than $10.
As you can see there’s a lot of value to be had in these pours. Price isn’t really an indication of quality as the cheapest bourbon here actually ended up being my favorite. The middle of pack was really close - I would put JW Dant, Old Heaven Hill, and JTS Brown all about even. The only real downside about a lot of these is they are rather hard to find outside of the Kentucky area. Dant, Rittenhouse, and Old Grand-Dad are the exceptions to that and I think all fine offerings.
I hope I was able to do these great whiskeys some justice and convince anyone on the fence about them and give them a shot. Forget Pappy, save your money on a $14 bottle of Dant and enjoy other things beside chasing after insanely overhyped whiskey.