When you look at the vast array of bourbons on a store shelf and note the antiquity of many of the brands, it’s easy to lull yourself into thinking that once a bourbon comes into being, it’s here to stay.
Sadly, that is not always the case. For one reason or another, some mighty fine Kentucky productions have ceased and may have slipped off your radar as they shuffled off this mortal coil.
I name here just a handful of notable examples:
1. Russell’s Reserve 101. You’d be surprised – or maybe you wouldn’t – what a difference the proof makes. It was through the 101 that I learned the joys of Russell’s Reserve, and was somewhat saddened when it was discontinued. I’m still quite satisfied with their wonderful Small Batch 10-year-old which is 90 proof, but I still hear grousing and complaining from bourbonites even more hardcore than myself (is that possible?) that they would rather go back in time for just one more bottle of that good old 101.
2. Daviess County. Do you remember Daviess County bourbon? It was made in Owensboro by the Charles Medley Distillery. Medley has a long and complicated bought-sold-closed-reopened history, and this product was one of the casualties from the chaos. From what I gather, however, it appears that the diligent seeker still has a chance of finding a stray bottle out there hidden on a bottom shelf in a roadhouse package store on a rarely-used rural route.
3. Eagle Rare 101, I came late to the Eagle Rare bandwagon but quickly made up for lost time – it now ties with Angel’s Envy and Four Roses Single Barrel as my favorite pour. But in its glory days as a straight bourbon, it was a Seagram’s brand, and distilled in Lawrenceburg, from 1975 to 1989 when it was acquired by Sazerac. After that, it lingered another decade before going defunct, leaving just the 10-yr-old Single Barrel and the 17-yr-old line (both of which are 90 proof.) Ironically, its growing popularity is what did it in – as demand for all Eagle Rare product skyrocketed, the 101 had to be sacrificed to free up supplies for the other, more widely popular, versions.
4. Bourbon Falls. Somewhere in the collection of my misspent life’s bric-a-brac, I have this antique “Bourbon Falls” bottle that, astonishingly, still has most of its label intact after its long strange meandering mission into time. The label has swipes of mud on it, suggesting it was recovered in a bottle dig, but also has “1.15″ written on it in grease pencil, as if it’s spent some time on a flea market shelf somewhere along the way. The original Bourbon Falls was 80 proof and distilled by Heaven Hill. I don’t think anyone’s using the brand name currently, and if they are, it must be overseas and/or obscure. (So how do I know it’s “great”? I have faith, pilgrim, I have faith.)
5. Joseph Finch. United Distillers hit upon the idea of cleaning out their storehouse of rare whiskeys that they’d had acquired over the years through corporate mergers. The idea was to “clean out their closet” of these small quantities of highly aged bourbons by releasing them in very limited-edition specialty bottlings, and when the supply ran out, the line was over. Joseph Finch was one of these experiments, fetching $100 a bottle retail. Many collectors still have unopened ones but are reluctant to open them for, I reckon, something like the same reason comic book collectors stick their comics in plastic bags and never read them.
6. Henry Clay. This is another of the same short-run deal as Mr. Finch, but I’ve actually sampled this one and can report it is/was really something. Then again, I just love the idea of a bourbon named after Henry Clay, so maybe this influenced my viewpoint. There’s a certain mythic resonance to sitting around on one’s veranda sipping a bourbon named after Henry Clay, and I wish somebody would name one for Cassius and Green as well!
7. Maker’s Mark Black. Maker’s Mark Black was bottled at a higher-than-usual 47.5 percent, came packaged with a black wax seal instead of the ubiquitous and highly-protected-by-litigation red wax, and was mostly only available in Japan. Why? I have no idea. I’d love to try it, but it was discontinued some years ago and now the remaining lingering stock floating around out there fetches a pretty penny.
Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of Maker’s Mark; it’s actually a perfectly fine bourbon but the commonness of it takes some
of the fun out of the purchase (I’d rather spend those dollars experimenting on something more exotic.) However, their latest contrivance, the 94 proof, French Oak stave-aged Maker’s Mark 46, has made a believer out of me – it’s stellar stuff, a must for mixing Old Fashioneds, and hopefully will remain popular enough to stay on shelves for years to come and not end up a ghost like everything else on this list.
Jeffrey Scott Holland is a native Kentuckian, painter, writer, actor, musician, paralegal – and interested in all things. He joins a growing stable of talented, interesting regular columnists for KyForward.com, bringing his gift of a well-turned phrase, quirkiness and humor to entertain and enlighten — and sometimes provoke — our readers. He can always be reached at any time, by anyone on the planet, at firstname.lastname@example.org.