Everyone likes a bargain. These three all sell for under $40 in Australia, which is the bottom end of the market. Forty bucks is enough to get you a very decent bourbon in most places; not here.
Almost bourbon? Bourbon must be bottled at a minimum of 80 US proof (40% ABV) to use the name in the US. So these three could not be sold as bourbon in their country of origin. That includes Jim Beam, which is 40% at home but watered down to 37% here. I won't get too mad at Beam as most of their range is sold at a decent proof. Less than $5 more will get you 90 proof Beam Devils Cut, a much better whisky than White Label. They are also responsible for the magnificent Bookers cask strength, which you should rush out and buy right now if you are even slightly fond of bourbon. Jim Beam know their markets and understand that White Label at 37% ABV won't hurt their sales here. Unfortunately, they are right, for now. Beam White Label (4 years old) is bottled in Kentucky, unlike the other pretenders here.
McKenna is a product of Heaven Hill in Kentucky and they bottle a good 10 year old 100 proof there which sells for around $30US. They bottle this one in New Zealand at 37.2% for the Oceania market as we apparently don't care that we are paying for a product that is mostly water. One could be forgiven for thinking it has no age statement but, bizarrely, there is a barely legible stamp on the back label claiming 5 years in the barrel. It is widely distributed and available the First Choice chain, Nicks and many small suburban supermarkets.
The tag hung around its neck proudly proclaims "Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 95/100". That says more about Mr Murray's bizarre taste than it does about the whiskey. It goes on: "A superstar whisky that gives us all a reason to live." Well, if Cougar Bourbon is your reason to live I suggest you give Lifeline a call right away.
So, Bookers, Bakers, Blanton's, Balcones, Bulleit, etc, etc, where do they rate in the last five points on his scale? Or are we expected to believe that something as spectacular as Bookers is not as good as this? And I haven't even got past the letter B....
Of course we can't blame Cougar for lapping up all that free (I wonder if it is) publicity but nonetheless it does show how unreliable Murray's ratings are and I suggest if you own his book you take it to the smallest room in the house where it may be put to better use than reading. Cougar is bottled at 5 years of age in Australia, by Carlton United Breweries.
So, how do they taste and smell?
Cougar: Amber colour. Toffee, oak and pine bark on the nose plus the usual vanilla and caramel with a hint of hessian. The nose is not backed up by taste or mouthfeel; it is thin with some bite but not too harsh. Panna Cotta stands out on the palate. Nutmeg and cedar develop into bitter pine needles, wood sap and a short, dry finish. Mostly just simple toffee and caramel. Very light. Not unpleasant and no need to water at only 37% ABV. Certainly a step up from J Beam but several steps down from the lovely bourbons to be found in the $40-$60 price range.
A light, easy drinking bourbon with a less than polished taste and short finish that is reasonable for its price but undeserving of the tag around its neck.
It is not at all special but certainly worth the asking price. Unlike Mr Murray's book.
McKenna: Old gold colour. Toffee, butterscotch and vanilla nose. Insecticidal overtones. Almost decent mouthfeel and a taste much like the nose; sweet toffee, butterscotch, pencil shavings and a little leather. Short, dry, sour finish. Inoffensive and very light.
Jim Beam: Deep gold. Wood sap, maraschino cherry, caramel then Play-doh on the nose. Sweet. Sour. Memories of teenage hangovers best left forgotten. Sweet on the front palate, sour towards the back, developing in intensity. Oak. Caramel. Vanilla. Very short finish. Very simple sweet and sour. As interesting as a speed bump. Not a sipping whiskey, really only suited to a career as a mixer. This emasculated Beam is not representative of the original 80 proof version, which, if US versions of other brands like Maker's Mark and Buffalo Trace are an indicator, is probably much better. Aldi actually sell 1L bottles of 80 proof US Beam White Label at about the same price (per litre) as the local one. This would be worth a try but as far as the 37% version goes:
In conclusion: There are no great bargains here. At the time of writing, McKenna has had a substantial price rise and is now the same price as Wild Turkey and Beam Devils Cut: No contest. Beam White Label is inferior to both Mckenna and Cougar in every way but now only Cougar is less expensive. In fact, Dan Murphy's have just lowered the price of Cougar to $29.95 AU, $5 less than Beam. So the clear winner here (the best mixer and acceptable sippin' whiskey) is Cougar. For a few dollars more though, there are much better whiskeys to be had.
(Partially republished from a review I wrote in 2014)