One of the most common attitudes voiced by people who make or drink bourbon (or both) is how bourbon is meant to be a celebration of sorts, a way for people to come together and enjoy life. Put another way, it’s less about the whiskey and more about the people you share the moment with–whiskey just happens to be a fantastic vessel. Whether you find that poignant or hokey, there are many who preach this view…self included.
And yet, there’s a growing crowd in the larger, more comprehensive growing crowd of bourbon drinkers: Proof enthusiasts. The term itself is a bit fuzzy, but the gist is that many bourbon drinkers look at higher proof offerings (typically cask strength/barrel strength/barrel proof) as the ultimate way to enjoy bourbon and/or whiskey. Some even go so far as to say that nearly anything lower than barrel proof isn’t worth drinking. I definitely wouldn’t go this far. At the same time, becoming acclimated to cask strength bourbon makes returning to lower proof pours a tad difficult. Many of my favorite expressions are, if not barrel proof, then close to it: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (120+), Old Forester 1920 (115), Stagg Jr. & George T. Stagg (119+), Little Book Chapter 3 (122.6), Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel (110), etc.
At this point you might be wondering: Why am I talking about cask strength bourbon in a post titled for Wild Turkey Longbranch, an 86-proof bourbon? And even more so, isn’t Longbranch considered a bit of a dud by many?
Yes, Longbranch is far from the most celebrated whiskey on the planet, with many likely to compare it to Basil Hayden, a bourbon that’s just as popular as it is criticized. As for why I’ve spent this much time discussing cask strength whiskey on a post meant for Longbranch: Context. When a low-proof, celebrity-sponsored whiskey hits the market with the goal being an “extraordinarily balanced and smooth sipping whiskey,” it’s not likely for a proof enthusiast to be a fan.
Yet here’s the thing: I am a fan.
Let’s break it down real quick:
Nose: Seamless blend of cherry, orange, brown sugar, and vanilla. Smooth, sweet, and mellow. Simple, but effective. Swirling brings even more cherry to life. Has a gentle tannic oak note in the background that slowly becomes easier to pull out. This coincides with a bit of baking spice, thinking cinnamon and nutmeg. After sipping there’s more candy and brown sugar to find, along with slightly dry caramel and vanilla, along with more of that cherry note.
Palate: Light. Has a slightly creamy mouthfeel that seems to develop over time. This acts as a bed for the cherry, orange, and brown sugar notes, which leave the most lasting impression. Multiple sips drive home the light cherry and vanilla cream notes, maybe a touch of strawberry ice cream with orange candy.
Finish: That creamy essence from the palate just barely hangs on while a tame air of oak begins to take its place. This releases just a hint of vanilla with the residual cherry and brown sugar notes. They’re there, but they dissipate before long, resulting in a clean finish.
As you can see from the scoresheet, I bought my bottle of Longbranch for $24.99, but have actually seen it for as low as $19.99. That’s half its MSRP of $39.99! Obviously a marked down price will make anyone feel better about their purchase, but I also regularly see Longbranch listed for below it’s MSRP. $34 seems to be the average going rate near me.
The aforementioned pitch for Longbranch is par for the course as far as celebrity spirits go. Two things do stand out about it, however: The fact it’s aged 8 years minimum (Wild Turkey 101 is 6-8 years) and uses Texas mesquite in the process. How exactly is the latter used? Your guess is as good as mine.
Regardless of whatever tinkering the Eddie and Jimmy Russell may have done with the bottled product, the whiskey itself is quite nice. At the expense of sounding like a mimic, Longbranch is a smooth and easy sipper, but there is some warmth and tingle on the back which I can only imagine is due to the oak and mesquite influence. Perhaps the most surprising part for me was the creaminess I got on the palate and finish. It’s more subtle than overt, which is both expected and appropriate. This is a big part of what makes the whiskey such a pleasure to sip, since many pours at this proof point come across as bright or sharp, by comparison. I’d also say this lends Longbranch to use in cocktails, but I question how well it would hold up after melted ice is factored in.
The ultimate sticking point with Longbranch then is, like Basil Hayden, its price. The $40 MSRP is a tough sell when a handle of Wild Turkey 101 can be had for less, and Rare Breed also exists for $5 more (if that). Both offer considerably different experiences in my book, but the ostensible value proposition for Longbranch compared to those makes it a tough sell. And that’s simply sticking to the same distillery.
Here’s the thing: I might enjoy Longbranch more than many of the whiskeys I or anyone else could name that cost less and offer “more” for the price. Compared to Longbranch, I could talk for days on end about the flavor and nuance of Woodford Reserve, Bulleit, Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark, Old Forester, and more. What does Longbranch have going for it that these don’t? Simple enjoyment. What it lacks in relative richness it makes up for by being a perfect drink to pour and enjoy with little thought, particularly during Spring and Summer. Those other bourbons I listed come to mind for cocktail pours more than anything; Longbranch comes to mind for a relaxing neat pour. Whether it’s worth the price or not is up to you. As for me, I’d be shocked if I don’t replace my recently killed bottle in the next couple months.