I love relaxing with a bourbon after work. And I am routinely disappointed by the selection at the restaurants I visit. Most have the same standard brands, which means I, as the customer, don't get a lot of variety or value. Not only that, it makes my visits rather boring, seeing the same stuff all the time.
That made me think of this: What are the five essential bourbons restaurants should keep stocked? I started thinking about bourbons at varying price points that would give businesses owners flexibility while (hopefully) maximizing profits. I thought of bourbons people might talk about, either because of price, uniqueness, or taste.
Most importantly, I started thinking of readily available bourbons. I'm not talking about the Willet's, Van Winkle (or Pappy), or George T. Stagg's of the world. None of those allocated tough-to-get bourbons made the list. These are bourbons with quality and character.
As always, caveats apply. The ABV (Alcohol by Volume) can vary based on the release. Prices vary based on the region of the country. Now, let's take a look at that list.
Break the mold and go beyond the standard brands. These five bourbons provide a range of excellence, from value to premium price.
Distillery: Buffalo Trace
Here's an idea. How about having a well bourbon on your shelf that people will actually drink? Bars and restaurants tend to stock the lowest cost well bourbon possible, and frankly, it's awful, with no taste and a very harsh drink. Instead, spend a few dollars more for Benchmark, one of the most underrated bourbons on the market. This Buffalo Trace offering is a thin, light drinker with hints of vanilla and caramel shining through. It's also extremely versatile. It's a good mixer for those who like their bourbon in soda. It's also good enough to drink straight without that massive burn so many find (rightfully so) annoying. I have restaurant friends who don't stock Benchmark for one reason—few of their customers know the brand. Well, introduce them. Offer a far superior product for a few pennies more, and you'll win fans for life.
Distillery: Evan Williams
You can't go wrong with any of the Evan Williams products. The black label and the 1983 are both excellent value bourbons, coming in at under $20 per bottle each. The Evan Williams single barrel is worth the extra money. It has that char you'll find in all Evan Wiliams bourbons, but this one distinguishes itself with a smooth finish that's light on the heat and long on fruit (orange in particular). You'll want this bourbon because of price point. It's more expensive than Benchmark, and the flavor profile and depth warrant the extra investment. But it's still a very reasonable cost per bottle that allows you the flexibility of putting it on happy hour or leaving it as a featured bourbon. This drinks smooth and works neat or with rocks. It would be a huge hit.
Distillery: Kentucky Artisan Distillery
Jefferson's has several offerings, including their high-end Ocean label. For consistency, the very small batch brand is hard to beat. Much like the Evan Williams small batch, it provides a price point that allows you to be creative. While it's light on the pallet, it's packed with flavor. Honey, vanilla, oak, and a little butterscotch quickly pop through, and there's not a whole lot of heat. Still, it's an easy drinker that can be used very much the same as Evan Williams. The big benefit here is you can offer customers a contrast between two excellently priced bourbons, listen as they debate the qualities — and hopefully come back for more.
Distillery: Wild Turkey
Now, we'll start getting into the big boys. When I started drinking bourbon, I remember people telling me to shy away from Wild Turkey. To this day, I can't figure out why. Wild Turkey's line of bourbons, to me, are among the best distilled today, and Wild Turkey Rare Bread is at the top of the list. This barrel-strength bourbon packs a punch. Its rich color offers lots of eye appeal, and from the first sip, this bourbon screams "spice." Think rye and pepper followed by a little malt. Given the high proof, most customers will need water or ice to take this down. Your bartender can also use
Distillery: Jim Beam
Varies? Yes, that's right. But next to ABV and proof, I could have simply written "hot." Booker's website says its juice comes out of the bottle as much as 64.45% alcohol, which equates to 124.9 proof. But I've seen, and drank, Booker's that exceeded 128 proof, so, wow. It is a big, bold, hot, bourbon machine that hits so many flavors and tastes I tend to get a different profile every time I have a drink. The first sniff might burn your nose hairs, but then come the goods. You'll get molasses, caramel, vanilla, sugar, and a surprisingly sweet finish. This one absolutely needs water or ice to open up these flavors. And when they open, you'll quickly see why this is one of the best high-end bourbons on the market.
Bourbon has taken off in America. How much? The Kentucky Distillers Association says the state produced more bourbon last year than at any point since 1972. That means you have thirsty customers waiting to sample some of America's only native spirit. Yes, the standard brands that everyone knows are fine. And yes, getting a bottle or two of the hard-to-get juice is always nice. But to serve your customers best, find those five essential bottles you can add to your collection. This will give customers more of a choice, and the price points are such that it won't place a strain on your budget.
What are your five essential bourbons?
Brian Knight is a freelance writer and entrepreneur. He writes about restaurants, money, and lifestyle tips for several websites and blogs. He lives and works in Chicago.