Sometimes I pick up a bourbon because of the good things I’ve read about it online. In this case, I picked up J.T.S Brown Kentucky Straight Bourbon specifically because I couldn’t find anything about it online. There’s barely any mention of it, and very few reviews. Obviously, I felt compelled to boldly go where few taste buds have gone before and give it a try.
The brand was originally named in honor of John Thompson Street Brown Jr. who, along with his half brother, founded a wholesale liquor business that eventually became the Brown-Forman behemoth in the United States. The bourbon was created by J.T.S. Brown and Sons in his honor, but the brand was later transferred to Heaven Hill Distillery to continue production.
Established in 1935, shortly after the end of prohibition, Old Heavenhill Springs Distillery was founded by a group of investors in Bardstown, Kentucky. They were gambling on the idea that alcohol production would be a booming business and invested heavily in being one of the first companies to stand up and service that market. One of those investors was well known distiller Joseph L. Beam, first cousin to Jim Beam, and would become the first master distiller of the facility.
As the years went on, the Shapira family bought out all of the other investors to become the sole owner of the business and changed the name to “Heaven Hill Distillery.” Despite being bought out, the descendants of Joseph Beam remain the master distillers of the facility to this day.
Their primary distilling facility burned down in 1996, destroying 90,000 barrels of whiskey and lighting the creek that feeds the distillery on fire for nearly two miles downstream. The business survived and they purchased a new distillery in Bernheim from Diageo in 1999 where production now takes place, but all aging still takes place at the original Bardstown facility.
The 1935 bet has paid off — big time. Heaven Hill Distillery is currently the biggest family owned distillery in the United States and the second largest holder of bourbon whiskey inventory in the world. Their flagship brands include Deep Eddy vodka and Elijah Craig, and their facility hosts the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
There’s very little information about the process or what’s in the bottle available.
The spirit is a “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey”, which means the majority of the grain bill should have come from corn and the resulting distillate was stored in new charred oak barrels for a period of not less than 2 years. In this case, the bottle claims that the whiskey has been stored for a full 3 years prior to bottling.
Beyond that, we don’t really know much about what’s going on here. Much like other “bottom shelf” beverages, the focus seems to be on putting out something with a sufficient alcohol content at a dirt cheap price point.
If you’ve seen one bottle you’ve seen them all. This is basically a wine bottle with a screw on plastic top and some labels.
It’s pretty clear that the labels haven’t changed in quite some time. The design looks straight out of the 1950’s, complete with gold background, cursive writing, and the portraits of three old white men on the front.
Probably the boldest thing about this bottle is the statement (not once but twice) on the front label that this is “KENTUCKY’S FINEST” bourbon. Somehow, I doubt the accuracy of the statement… but I appreciate the aspiration!
It certainly smells like a bourbon, with sweet caramel and a touch of vanilla being the primary aromas. There isn’t the usual medicinal alcohol smell that you get with other “bottom shelf” bourbons, instead it actually smells pretty damn good. I can also get a bit of a malty scent coming through, which makes me think there’s at least a bit of malted barley in here.
As for the actual taste, there isn’t much to write home about. It’s a standard bourbon with a little bit of a kick at the end to keep things interesting. I don’t necessarily think there’s much peppery rye flavors, more like a distinct alcohol burn at the end.
It’s certainly drinkable, but it’s not particularly amazing.
There’s nothing that changes with a little bit of ice. Usually there are some flavors that come in / are removed with the addition of ice, which changes the nature of the spirit, but in this case nothing changes whatsoever. It’s the same spirit just… colder.
The only thing I might detect is a touch more of the malty flavor coming through in the end. It’s a similar texture and flavor to the grain spirits that are in some other bottom shelf spirits but since this isn’t marketed as a “blended” whiskey, I’m guessing this is from the malt I was getting off the scent earlier.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
It’s serviceable. Again, there’s nothing spectacular going on — but there’s at least some decent flavors and the bitters blend in well to make a proper cocktail.
I enjoy that the caramel and the vanilla in the cocktail are still present even with the added ice, which is important for an old fashioned. It adds some sweetness to the drink without overpowering it. There’s little to no rye content here, which means there’s no peppery spice to make things more interesting (something I usually appreciate) but there are bourbons that make it work without that aspect. And this one can join that list — acceptable, not spectacular.
Continuing the theme here, there’s nothing offensive about the drink but there’s nothing unique about it either. I could have easily used vodka instead and gotten roughly the same result.
The goal of a Kentucky Mule is to have the bourbon add something to the drink besides the alcohol content. There might be a bit of that smooth malty taste in the mix, but otherwise there’s nothing peeking through the ginger beer to make itself known. It’s just bland.
I’d say this is one step below Evan Williams, Heaven Hills’ primary ‘affordable’ bourbon brand. But here’s the problem: this is actually $1 more expensive than Evan Williams (at least, it was at my local liquor store). Given the choice, I’ll take Evan Williams black label any day of the week… but that doesn’t mean this isn’t good. It’s just a mediocre offering in a crowded market.
I’m very confused about why this still exists, actually. Unless there’s a cult following for this bourbon, that I can’t seem to find I’d think that Heaven Hill would want to push their Evan Williams brand and reduce the number of SKUs they have to offer. I appreciate the history of this, but if there’s nothing that it’s adding to the conversation then I’d prefer to keep it as a historical item than another mediocre whiskey.
J.T.S. Brown Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Owner: Heaven Hill Distillery
Production: Bardstown, KY
Classification: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
Grain bill: Unknown
Aging: 36 months
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $13/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 3/5
A decent, affordable bourbon. Just not my favorite decent, affordable bourbon.