There is a thing of many names. Some call it “rack whiskey” or “well bourbon,” but it all means one, terror-inducing thing: the bottle of bourbon that sits at the bartender’s knee caps that he/she will pour if you just say “I’ll have a bourbon.” Well drinks. And, very likely, the most used well bourbon of them all is our old friend, Old Crow. Old Crow is a devilish plunge into budget bourbon brought to you from your sneaky friends at Jim Beam. Its tasting notes are that of battery acid, kerosene, and thumb tacks with an “Oh Christ, you’re gonna have a bad tomorrow” finish. That being said, Old Crow is respectable in that it is, truly, an old, storied brand (claiming to be America’s oldest bourbon and the first bourbon to employ the “sour mash” process). So, if you have to fly a bottle of the cheap stuff, Old Crow, at the very least, shows you’re still respectful of the process.
Also known as “Early Slimes,” this is a sneaky little whiskey that, within the U.S., doesn’t get to be called “bourbon” because of its failure to meet all of the criteria. It has to fly the moniker of “Kentucky Whiskey.” Still, you’ll find this little demon in the bourbon section of your store silently waiting to strike in bar wells everywhere. All in all, it’s not a aggressively terrible whiskey (like some on this list), but instead is just a characterless mouthful of blah. It would likely be just fine for whiskies and Coke®, whiskey sour, and the like. This little number is brought to you by the good people of Brown-Forman, who also produce one of the finer bourbons out there, Woodford Reserve … and we like that whiskey a whoooooooole lot better.
Ten High, which can’t decide if it wants to be a bourbon or a blend, seems to have thrown in the towel on trying to be respectable and is just fine being that cheap-ass brand on the bottom shelf. Well good, ‘cause that’s what it is. I remember being at a friend’s house and having them offer me “a bourbon.” This friend was a decent guy and one that, historically, had a favorable opinion of bourbon and its brands. A rocks glass with three ice cubes and a pale, but okay-looking whiskey was presented to me. I gave it a sniff and was greeted with an assault on my sinuses. “Well, the Lord hates a coward.” Brutal, burning, and bad, I asked what in the hell it was. “It’s an old bottle of Ten High that my grandfather had, so it should be really good.” I checked the bottle: the classic, plastic half gallon that many of these bourbons are showcased in. “Exactly how well do you think a bad whiskey is going to ‘age’ in a clear, plastic jug?” Anyway, that’s my Ten High story. Have I had Ten High since? Well, yeah. I’m not a snob.
Twitter follower RJ in Warren puts it very well: "There is only one reason you should know what Ten High tastes like.. and that's if for some reason you find yourself at the liquor store with less than $10 in your pocket, and discover you left your wallet at home. My house is a far enough journey that buying whatever I could find for under ten bucks seemed like a better option than going to retrieve my wallet and returning for a decent bottle. Turns out it is possible to spend $8.95 and feel like you were completely ripped off. My taste buds will never be the same"
BlueKitchen reader Bob echos the sentiment: "not a straight bourbon...still lists itself as a Kentucky Bourbon...maybe so, but can't hold a candle to a good straight Kentucky."
So, it's unanimous...Ten High is pretty shitty.
Owned by the venerable Buffalo Trace folks, Old Taylor isn’t so much a terrible bourbon than a forgettable one. Like bad pizza makes you want better pizza or bad sex makes you want to have better sex, Old Taylor is the same for bourbon. At least the half gallon is glass…that may be the best thing one could say about it.
EZRA BROOKS and EVAN WILLIAMS
So, these are lumped together because, quite honestly, I always get them mixed up. There’s Ezra Brooks and Old Ezra and Evan Williams Green Label and Evan Williams Black Label, and blah blah blah. They all seem to fall in the same category of “mediocre” to me. Both brands come out of the Heaven Hill Distillery and share many of the same characteristics, including ambivalence. The Evan Williams name can be found on a nice bourbon (see our Best Bourbons list for Evan Williams Single Barrel), but these are more for your mixed drinks than Manhattans.
Okay, now we’re really getting into the shit. We are waist-deep in the Big Muddy and the old fool is tellin’ us to push on. The Gentleman is anything but and is more of the prick that yells at you for being on his lawn. This stuff would peel the paint off a Chrysler and eat through the hull of the Nostromo from Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” This is more of an endurance test than a bourbon. (I still won.)
MCORMICK, MONARCH, or POTTER’S
These get the same nod as they are mass-producing spirit companies that make just about everything: gin, vodka, rum, tequila, Canadian, blends, etc. Evil lurks within the bottles of these brands and the “bourbon” they peddle is no exception. Though they fall short of being liquors made especially for supermarkets (Heritage and Albertson’s, we’re looking at you) these are god-awful forays into dark nights and mornings and, with no scientific data to back up this claim, can’t be healthy for the lining of your stomach. If you find yourself clutching the plastic walls of a bottle of any of this shit, it’s time to reevaluate your life decisions and figure out where your train went off the rails. (Monarch, by the way, is a faction of Hood River Distillers just down the road from Portland. As much as I like to support local business, most of the things from HRD are brutally awful.)
Stay tuned! This list will be expanded very soon...