We Tried to Make Cheap Bourbon Taste Expensive

When we heard that bottom-shelf bourbon could be doctored to make it taste more like a fine old spirit, we had to give it a try.

Published Apr. 20, 2022.

We were curious whether the subtleties brought about by long barrel-aging could be simulated convincingly by adding some flavorings to inexpensive bourbon.

Bourbon, by definition, is aged in unused charred oak barrels. That charred oak gives the clear spirit plenty of color and flavor over the standard four-year aging process. Some bourbons are aged for over a decade, allowing innumerable chemical reactions to take place with the turning of the seasons.

To try to simulate the effect of extra age, we bought several bottles of four-year-old bourbon costing around $15 each, and experimented with spiking them with small amounts of different flavors. We used a bottle of 12-year-old bourbon as a benchmark.

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Promising Flavorings

Vanilla extract, we thought, could contribute the vanilla notes that come from oak. Oak, like vanilla beans, contains vanillin, and aging bourbon in an oak barrel extracts that vanillin into the spirit.

Liquid smoke seemed like a good candidate to echo the charred interior of the barrel, which gives bourbon its color and possibly some of its earthy depth.

And we used a dry sherry to add complex aromas. Sherry like oloroso, which is aged for years without a yeast cap, undergoes oxidative processes that produce a vast range of flavor compounds.

A Precise Formula

For a 750-milliliter standard bottle of bourbon, we added:

  • 3⁄4 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 1⁄8 teaspoon of liquid smoke
  • 1 tablespoon of dry sherry

We Improved Cheap Bourbon, A Little

So, how was it? Did we pour the expensive stuff down the sink and swear to drink nothing but our brilliant new concoction?

No. Tasters did not find our doctored bourbon to be as good as the good stuff. But they were pleasantly surprised by the enhanced complexity, and, to our gratification, unanimously preferred it to the unadulterated $15 samples.

A Few Of Our Favorite Bourbon Recipes

Bourbon Chicken

Sample this homemade version of a craveable food-court treat.
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Poached Salmon with Bourbon and Maple

Poaching rarely lives up to its promise to produce silken, delicately flavored fish. We set out to eliminate chalky, tasteless poached salmon for good.
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Pecan Bread Pudding with Bourbon and Orange

Bread pudding started out as a frugal way to rejuvenate any old stale loaf. Could that be part of the problem?
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