The market for affordable “craft” whiskey is an interesting one. Small, independent distillers are essentially incapable of competing with the larger players in this field in terms of price, any more than a craft brewery can pump out pilsner and charge the same price for it as Anheuser-Busch. Many independent (or craft, if you prefer) distillers respond to this challenge by trying to make their products as unique as possible—liquors to fill niches in the alcohol market that are not well served—or by producing as premium a product as they can, in order to justify a higher price point.
The one thing that most small distillers DON’T do, at least with any real success, is produce cheap, relatively simple whiskey meant to compete directly against the Jim Beams or Jack Daniels of the world. That’s one of the things that makes American Born a little unusual. Their new flagship product, American Born Bourbon Whiskey, is a roughly two-year-old, 83 proof bourbon that can claim one powerful marketing advantage: The support of country star Lee Brice, who released a #1 album in 2014 (I Don’t Dance) and became a partner in the company in 2017. To quote him in the company’s press materials on that decision:
“I believe in family, hard work, and that the American way is about quality and doing your best. It’s how I was raised and who I am. I’ve finally found a whiskey that reflects the same values, so when it’s time to wind down after a show or dive into writing music, you’ll find me sipping on a glass of American Born.”
Alrighty then. At only $20-25 in MSRP, there’s not much to lose here, and a 750 ml bottle of American Born Bourbon Whiskey is at least competitively priced alongside mid-shelf staples such as Jim Beam White Label or Old Forester 86. So they’ve already succeeded in at least being able to offer a price point that fits in alongside bourbons that are in the same mold and mindset—probably because they’re not distilling this whiskey themselves, now that I look at the fine print of the bottle. “Distilled in Lawrenceburg, IN,” which means this must be an MGP product, like so many other whiskeys on the market today. There’s nothing wrong with that (MGP is making some of the best whiskey in the world), but it should always be noted.
Now then: How does it taste?
On the nose, this bourbon smells young and a little bit wild, with corny sweetness, vanilla, sawdusty wood and hints of green apple, mint and black pepper. There’s not a lot of complexity going on here … but there is enough. You don’t expect a really novel bouquet from a 2-year-old, 83-proof bourbon. I’m pulling that “two years old,” by the way, from a small statement on the bottle: “Aged for at least 24 months,” which seems to suggest that this stuff is two years old and some change. It sort of makes me wonder why they chose not to use the phrase “straight bourbon” if this is the case, given that two years is the minimum requirement for doing so.
On the palate, American Born Bourbon is a little bit hot for the ABV, but nothing outrageous. Light of body and fairly thin of mouthfeel, it delivers pleasant flavors of caramel, wet oak and honey/cream of wheat graininess, without much in the way of fruit or spice. It reminds me somewhat of Brown-Forman’s Cooper’s Craft Bourbon, but I like it a bit better overall thanks to the fact that it’s a bit less hot and astringent. As I revisit American Born Bourbon on repeated sips, the heat seems just about right, and it drinks quite easily. The flavors aren’t exactly explosive, but it’s a classic bourbon profile that opens up over time with notes of brown sugar, caramel, pepper and toasty wood. Moreover, it seems to fit with its sponsor: This is exactly the kind of working-class bourbon you would expect a country star to call his own. Unfancy, unpretentious, and affordable.
In terms of value, if you can find American Born Bourbon Whiskey in the $20 range, it holds up nicely against similar competition. I’d say it’s slightly more interesting on the palate than say, Jim Beam White Label—less round, smooth and homogenized, and a bit more free-wheeling, which I can appreciate.
With that said: Would a bottle of Evan Williams (black label) be an even better value? Almost certainly, but for what it’s trying to do, American Born is doing it better than the majority of their peers. Keep it up.
Distillery: American Born
City: Lawrenceburg, IN (distillery), Nashville, TN (bottled)
ABV: 41.5% ABV, 83 proof
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $20-25 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink reviews.