Updated: Evolution Of A Bourbon Drinker

Bourbon – As You Like It

It’s hard to believe but I wrote this post almost three years ago. On one hand, the bourbon world has changed a lot. On the other hand, it’s funny how much hasn’t changed. I thought it would be fun to revisit and revise this post.

In September 2014, Whisky Advocate’s Jonny McCormick wrote an article titled “Whisky – As You Like it”. This article was his whisky adaption of William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”. If you haven’t read McCormick’s “Whisky – As You Like it” (link has been taken down by WA) it’s well worth the time. Below is a quote from McCormick’s article.

This is a celebration of the whisky life. William Shakespeare’s monologue from As You Like It compares the journey of life with a play acted out upon the stage. We recognize that each of us pass through different, ever-changing phases in our relationship with whisky. Through the highs and lows of life, it is a fantastic journey to embark on. Here we explore the behaviors, motivations, and emotions at every stage.

I decided to take this a step further and depict the life and evolution of a bourbon drinker.

Evolution of a Bourbon Drinker

evolution of bourbon drinker

Scrounging – This is the genesis of bourbon and whiskey drinking. As of now, you don’t yet know that there’s a difference between the two. You’re drinking a lot of Evan Williams Green Label and Jack Daniels. You probably mixed one part bourbon with 3 parts coke in a red solo cup. You order “Irish Whiskey” as a drink. Not Jameson or Bushmills, just Irish Whiskey.

Fake Fancy – You still mix with a handful of ice and half a can of coke but your selection has improved. You grab a bottle of Maker’s Mark and Crown Royal whenever you walk into your neighborhood liquor store. Yes, Crown is Canadian whiskey but you still don’t know the difference. In your mind you’ve reached the pinnacle and bourbon doesn’t get any better than this, right? This can be one of the most important phases in a bourbon drinker’s life. If you’re not careful you will be stuck drinking Maker’s and coke and take fireball shots straight from the bottle the rest of your adult life. No one deserves this.

Rocks Era – You’ve figured out that bourbon has plenty of flavors of its own and can be served without a mixer. The proof still poses a problem so you throw a few ice cubes into your glass. This is a big transition in the evolution of a bourbon drinker. It becomes more about the bourbon and not the effects of alcohol. You build your palate in this phase and probably note the subtle notes of vanilla and toffee. Towards the end of this period, you begin to make better bourbon decisions as well.

The Come Up – You start to read reviews before buying. You probably grab a bottle of Four Roses Small Batch and Elijah Craig if you’re smart. You may even jot down some tasting notes. You even started following all of the major distilleries on Twitter. Things are starting to look up.

Weaning – Ice begins to water down the bourbon too much. You begin only add a splash of water to your glass. At first, the taste is too strong but after a few weeks, you’ve become accustomed. This allows you to enjoy the burn.

It’s All Neat – You’re drinking your bourbon neat and loving it. You feel a little bit of pride when you order your bourbon at the bar and have to clarify to the bartender that you want it neat. You write your tasting notes on all of the new bourbons your try and compare them with others.

New Connoisseur – Now that you’re a bourbon pro you join every bourbon group on Facebook, bourbon forum. You throw disapproving looks towards the guy at the bar ordering a Jack and Coke.  You finally figure out what SW, OFBB, ECBP and FRSmBLE stand for. You recently purchased your first bottle of Pappy Van Winkle and it’s now the centerpiece of your dining room table. The biggest revelation of this stage in your bourbon evolution is barrel programs. For almost the same price as Four Roses single barrel, you can purchase a barrel proof Four Roses single barrel that your local store selected. Private barrels (especially, Four Roses and Smooth Ambler) are manna from the Bourbon gods.

The Obsession – The fall hunt becomes a true test of will and determination as you scour the city. You’re on the lookout for lotteries to enter while figuring out shipping patterns of distributors. The guest bedroom of your house was converted to a bourbon bunker. The favorites on your phone consist of your spouse, mom, 2 bourbon buddies and 5 liquor stores (did you know the iPhone contacts has a notes section?!). While you recognize this as an addiction you note that the root of the addiction is the “hunt” and not the alcohol. That makes you feel better.

Bourbon Life Beyond the Hype – This is the stage when a drinker begins to realize that not every special release or limited edition is worth the price. You skip on ultra-aged and fancy backstories. You’ve learned to embrace bottles like Four Roses small batch and Old Forester 1920. They’re excellent in their taste as well as their price and availability. The hunting is not as hard because if you get skunked you’re still sipping on bottles 2015 George T. Stagg that you won in a lottery. You may even decide to trade one of the Staggs for basically any new release you choose.

Bunker Life – You’ve had a taste of good bourbon and know you don’t thousands on a bottle. You’re busy trying to grab every bottle of Elijah Craig 12 year you can. Or, you’re trying to work out a Four Roses private barrel split with a few buddies. You enjoy drinking and sharing good bourbon with friends. Now that “drinkers” are getting scarce you have to ensure your bourbon drinking future. There is now two cases of OGD 114 stacked in the back of you guest room closet.

True Bourbonr – This is the sweet spot for bourbon drinkers. You contribute useful information to bourbon forums and to newcomers you talk with at the bar. You trade bottles with other Bourbonr’s and expand your palate by tasting lots of different bourbons. You can pick out a wheated bourbon in a blind tasting lineup (most of the time). There are bourbons in you cabinet from several years of fall releases.

New Elite – This is less of a chronological stage and more of a type. This is the guy that was asking about “Pappy 10” six months ago. Today, he’s berating someone for getting excited about finding Weller 12. There are a lot of personality types in the bourbon world. New Elite is one of the more mystifying. At some point, everyone was a novice. Luckily we have the new elite to scold us when we accidentally confuse Four Roses mash bills.

OG – The OG’s of bourbon are guys that purchased Pappy Van Winkle that was sitting on a shelf at retail. You saw certain fall releases go to clearance rack in liquor stores. When there’s a debate of whether or not a Weller Antique or Old Fitzgerald is Stitzel-Weller you comment with certainty and walk away.

Retired – Not retired from drinking bourbon. But, retired from bourbon-ing. The grind to find bottles is too much. Watching grown men argue over the price of Weller 12 was funny but is now infuriating. Remember when fake bottles were just a rumor? Or, probably only happened on Craigslist? It’s time to hang it up and enjoy drinking with the small group of bourbon friends you’ve made over the years. While you tell your friends you’re “retiring” it probably won’t be long before this happens.

 Where do you fit in the bourbon evolution?

36 comments

    Great read. I see myself in the stages I’ve already graduated and look forward (for the most part) to the ones to come.

    I’ve been through many of these stages. I’ve had the opportunity to taste about everything.

    I have bottles of VanWinkle and Handy in the back of my cabinet. Likewise 18 and 23 YO bourbons.

    What’s in the front – well I won’t say because the bourbon snobs will denigrate me for being uncouth. Let’s just say that the price point is low, the age is less than a teenager and it’s still very difficult, but not impossible to find. In fact in FL I found 6 cases of 1.75s on the floor. Being the kind of guy I am, I only bought 2 of them.

    I also marvel at people who can discern tastes that simply are not there. Corn, rye, water and oak do not create flavors of orange, cherry, fig, or any other imaginative descriptions.

    But hey, if that’s how they justify paying hundreds of $ for bourbon let them knock them selves out.

    It’s genuinely unfortunate that your palate hasn’t improved along with your collection.
    Language is terrific at disguising complexity. Water, pure water, is pretty simple. Corn, however, is hugely more complicated, chemically. Add the right enzymes to the previous two items and you get a far more complicated broth. Sprinkle some yeast in that sugary slurry and you should end up with another combinatorial explosion of chemicals. Now, you want to separate out and concentrate a certain segment of those many thousands of good flavors. Now, before the juice touches a barrel the juice has a great deal of particular flavors depending on the grains, yeast and distillation method employed. Amongst those flavors are the characteristic flavor components to various well known items (fruits, for one thing). Once that juice has spent some time in new wood you’ll get some strong vanilla (vanillin is cheaply extracted from trees rather than the hugely expensive vannila seeds, even though vanillin is only a single prominent component in those seeds), some wood flavor itself, and other things depending on the barrel’s surroundings.
    If you haven’t, I’d encourage you to take part in blind tastings. Those were the activities that helped me to develop my palate the most.

    Thank you for the link to that chemistry article. I love scientific explanations on what gives whiskey it’s flavor.

    A thinly-disguised slight to Makers, and high status for Four Roses Single (the Author’s preference).
    To be fair, some seasoned Bourbonrs actually prefer Makers to more elite offerings.
    To corrupt a time-worn phrase: Beauty is in the tongue of the taster.

    I whole-heartedly agree with Bo. I cringed, and almost stopped reading when Maker’s Mark was put down early. I have tried on multiple occasions to like Four Roses – but it just doesn’t hit my palate. I can’t figure out the hype. No, I have not had Pappy, but I do tend to prefer the wheated bourbons. That’s just my taste. I have been drinking bourbon for years (since before Blake was born), and just turned a young 64 years old. I am not concerned at all about what the bourbon snobs might think about what I like, and how I drink it. I have tried over 100 different bourbons over the past 5 years, and for me, the best enjoyment is what I get when I pour either Marker’s Mark or Maker’s 46 over a couple of large ice cubes. So, call me “Fake Fancy” or “Rocks Era” if you want. Doesn’t matter. I know a lot about bourbon. I have done the complete Kentucky Bourbon Trail multiple times. I know what I like, and I’m old enough to be comfortable with it.

    Wasn’t a slight at Makers. Was just describing what bourbon got me interested in learning more. Like I’ve always said “drink it how you like it”

    Maker’s was never put down. It’s an option (and obviously satirical to an extent). This should be abundantly obvious. Besides these facts, Maker’s is no considered more of an entry level bourbon, and that shouldn’t be taken as a slight. If a bourbon is found in Walgreens, or CVS…sorry….but its entry level, and thats all Blake was stating.

    Agreed. I take offense to the Maker’s slight… try to find a more readily available, smooth bourbon with a mash bill similar to pappy. You can’t…

    It wasn’t intended as a slight towards Makers. I’m actually still a big fan of Makers and drink the cask strength quite often. This was based on my own personal experience. I (and I’m sure a lot of others) started off with Makers. I didn’t realize there were other bourbons outside of Makers for a long time.

    I’m firmly in the retired category. I remember when Pappy was always on the shelf and I don’t stand in line with the hipsters to buy overpriced whiskey. I drink what I like, I don’t collect full bottles – choosing to drink what I buy – and don’t spend time with the snobs unless I have to.

    I ain’t coming back. Not until the latest wave of hipsters move on to something else.

    -and they surely will. Hipsters are adept at co-opting whatever lifestyle/look/taste they think identifies them with any “cool” bygone types from earlier eras that they imagine give them the cachet of “cool”, ahead-of-the times social outsiders. Of course, there are so many of them around these days that that strategy has long since become ridiculous and irritating to the other 90% of us. For now it’s whiske(y)/bourbon; tomorrow you can be sure they’ll move on to rum or armagnac, if they haven’t already started to. “Whisky Advocate” is the high-profile mag that dotes on and caters to them the most (along with anyone with lots of disposable income). My 25 cent’s worth.

    AnyPappy “as the center piece of your dining room table”? I don’t know where you come from but in my neck of the woods even Lot B doesn’t show up regularly (if at all) and Weller 12 (my favorite bourbon) FUGGETABOUTIT, never shows up here (Seattle area), pretty much none of the great bourbons show up here unless BevMo or TWaM stock them. I am now 70 years old and my step dad was a 4 Roses drinker when I was growing up so that is the bourbon I started out drinking when I could sneak it out of his “special place” (when I was still several years from being able to LEGALLY get into a bar) so my progression has been a little (OK, maybe a lot) different

    Perhaps I should have mentioned my “bourbon progression” has taken me into Rye territory as it is much easier to find the great rye whiskies here in Washington State.

    I would also include as a stage of progression, barreling and blending my own whisky, which I have been doing for a few years now (most recent is my take on High West Campfire whiskey).

    I would like to think of myself as a Bourbonr. I am sure we all do. The one area where I differ is that I do like bourbon at barrel strength, sometimes, but I also enjoy it mixed, or with ice. I used to think it was a sign of my faithfulness to the Bourbon to only drink it neat. Now, I just drink it based on my mood. I stopped trying to impress by what proof I can drink.

    True Bourbonr. I’ll take what I get in lottery if I ever win one because the hunt isn’t worth the time and the bourbon isn’t worth the secondary money.

    Plenty of great stuff still and with so many new distilleries in the past few years, I figure we’re 5-8 years away from having a wealth of 10 year old bottles from every place under the sun. Whatever rare we find gets opened and shared.

    Cheers to great bottles, store selects chief among them. And beauties like Eagle Rare that are still holding strong and in every shelf!

    Listen Guys,
    I can’t get any Pappy either. But I do still have his spittoon !
    Drink what tastes good to you.. and let it go.
    knew him well,
    Kitty Van Winkle Terry

    I fit in pretty well as “beyond the hype” except I’ve never had any interest in the hunt (don’t have the time and really don’t have the personality) and if I had bottles of Stagg I’d be drinking and sharing them, not trading them.

    But yeah, while I do enjoy the taste of something like a BTAC, I’m all about the flavor. 1920 was the best tasting bourbon I’ve had in the past year. I’m enjoying a cask strength bottle of FEW at the moment. Not sure what the next thing I crack open will be but hopefully something comparable.

    I am in the mist of multiple stages and blogging about it via social media. I learned right away that if a self proclaimed expert recommends it my taste buds don’t agree. I follow your blog and so far have never been let down by a single recommendation. I am almost always offered that special bottle the store owner has been hiding only to turn it down due to price and hype. My husband and I recently got into a heated debate over The Chattanooga Whiskey Company which included the “D” word as I said I couldn’t be with him if he didn’t respect the history of Tennessee Whiskey! It was a good thing the 1-800- divorce attory that we parked by was closed. I am by no means an expert but I am passionate about my Whiskey. Whiskey hunting is my favorite pastime. I can thank you for lighting the way.

    Can we be real on this forum? If most of us get a bottle of btac or pappy we’re selling it. That doesn’t make you “part of the problem,” it makes you someone who can’t afford to pop a $550+ bottle. Completely agree that after awhile true bourbon drinkers drink $40-$60 store picks of knob 120 or 4 roses BP and stop coughing up $180 for OFBB or michters 10. I just think it’s weird that everyone pretends to be all high and mighty and that selling rare bottles is immoral. Bourbon is a commodity like anything else. Cheers

    I would call that the “Logical & Frugal Bourbonr”. I’ve sold bottles. Why? Because of exactly what you just said. I’ve had plenty of ER 17. I’d much rather take my $350 and buy several other bourbons to drink.

    I’m prepared to be pounced upon, but I consider the flavor profile of straight (and B.I.B.) bourbon to be so narrow from bottom to top, that paying-up past say the $35 mark (about the price of Henry McKenna 10 B.I.B.) is something I’m not willing to do very often. That being said, it’s hard to beat Wild Turkey 101 for about $20 is hard to beat, as is Evan Williams B.I.B. for about $15; it’s all comes down to the depth of one’s wallet I suppose.

    Not sure which stage that puts me at?

    I would agree with you to a point. From a quality standpoint, it’s hard to beat Henry McKenna. However, the more bourbon I taste the broader the flavor profile gets. Now I don’t think it’s directly correlated to price as marketers would want us to believe. But, there is a different taste.

    Everyone is talking affordable drinkers, how has Buffalo Trace not come up?! By far, for the price, may go-to daily drinker bourbon! And its cheap still, and fairly available.

    Fun read. Not sure where I fall I appreciate some of my finds (Stagg Jr., Weller Special Reserve) but I don’t hoard and believe every bottle is made to be opened and enjoyed. My collection is modest and seems to have changed back and forth between distillers. I try to educate without boring but I know my poor wife doesn’t always agree with that. Not sure what that makes me in this list but I am pretty content.

    I personally have moved on to browner pastures. Count me as one of those who camped out in Pappy lines, swapped on Craigslist, and made rounds on delivery days hawking my local stores. These days the fact of the matter is, the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze anymore. Fake bottles, outrageous pricing, and plummeting availability of exquisite bottles (due to flipping) have dulled the excitement of the hobby. I feel like bourbon collecting today is merely a Beanie Babies fad with many newcomers collecting for the sake of collecting or to try to make a quick buck. I hope the bubble bursts in similar fashion and the market can correct itself. Until then, I have found great satisfaction in exploring the worlds of fine rum (rhum), vintage cask strength Armagnac, and barrel finished Scotch. There are no long lines, cleared shelves, or hipsters. It is great having these beverages to myself to explore and taste in peace.

    Great read! I love drinking good bourbon like my father and both grandfathers… the thing I love the most is sharing good bourbon with good friends and family. I have befriended a couple of store owners over the years and I am fortunate enough to receive Stagg and s few other lesser gems every year (retail). I won’t move on to run, tequila or whatever even if my well runs dry…so many good aged bourbons that have been around for a loooong time out there and they ain’t going nowhere! As the great Jason Pyle used to say “Drink your Bourbon”

    I’ll make sure the manager at my local store sees me buying beer and an occasional bottle of Eagle Rare whenever I need either of those. I’ll ask her how she’s doing and how her kid’s sports teams are doing. I’d be buying this stuff at that store regardless of whether or not they get allocated stuff in the fall. I’ll probably get a GTS or WLW in the fall for my efforts. I will no longer stop at random stores or use my lunch break to visit new shops. Why did I stop with the nonsense? Scotch. An immensely wide selection of flavor profiles and availability is there for the taking. Expensive? It sure can be, but I have the means and bourbon is fast approaching. Here’s to seeing the day that I can walk into a store and buy a Blanton’s whenever I want one. Cheers

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