Fighting Cock Bourbon Review

IMG_0924Type: Bourbon

ABV: 51.5%

Age: 6 Years Old

Price: $18

About a year ago, my wife and I spent an evening at the home of our friends Phil and Mary.  Soon after we arrived, one or the other of them handed me a glass of Fighting Cock bourbon to sip while we talked.  Being extremely gracious hosts, that was expected.  What surprised me was that the glass of Fighting Cock utterly reset my expectations for sub-twenty dollar bourbon.  While not at all complex, it was loaded with vanilla and caramel, and remained perfectly enjoyable at its full 51.5% ABV.  But adding a bit of ice only sweetened the whole proposition.  It smoothed out what little alcohol burn was present, and brought forward a pleasant woodiness to balance the vanilla sweetness that dominated the bourbon when consumed neat.

Most significantly, although Fighting Cock is a product of the Heaven Hill distillery, this particular bottle totally lacked the distinct, unappealing funkiness I pick up in many bourbons of this approximate age produced by Heaven Hill (such as Heaven Hill 6 Year Old Bottled-in-Bond at 50% ABV).  It’s tough to describe, but to me these bourbons often have a raw flavor that can be a smidge yeasty, a little metallic, or sometimes just a bit like Vicks Vapo-Rub.  And, as someone terrorized throughout his earliest years by a Vapo-Rub wielding grandfather, to describe a flavor in bourbon as “just a bit like Vapo-Rub” is to echo the charming old woman in Shaun of the Dead who admits, reluctantly, that the horde of flesh-eating zombies chewing their way through her home and husband are “a bit bitey.”

Not even Vapo-Rub can save him now

However one describes this flavor, it makes clear in no uncertain terms that the whiskey from which it emanates is still pretty young.  It fairly screams, “THIS is why the bottle costs less than $20.  You want smooth, balanced bourbon?  Go back in your wallet and come back with more money.”  It’s not that the flavor stops me from enjoying younger Heaven Hill bourbons – quite the contrary, because I think they comprise some of the great bargains in whiskeydom – but it’s something to work around, rather than to savor.

Phil and Mary’s bottle had no such funky-fresh flavor.  To be clear, though, it was not a dusty bottle.  It appeared in every way like current production Fighting Cock, yet it tasted much older than the six years indicated on the label.  So, of course I asked them where they’d found it.  Someone had brought it over as a gift, said Phil, but he couldn’t quite remember who or when.  What else could I do?  I went to a few stores in town, bought bottles of Fighting Cock, and tried them all, both in isolation and in comparison with the bottle at Mary and Phil’s house.  The Fighting Cock I’m reviewing is the last from the batch of bottles I purchased.  And every single one bears almost nothing in common with the bottle I’ve been enjoying every time I’ve visited Phil and Mary over the past year.

The bottle I’m currently drinking is quite hot.  Whether consumed neat, with ice, or with a bit of water, the sensation that overrides all aromas and flavors is that of alcohol burn.  I’m not averse to a whiskey that’s “a bit bitey,” but this is a too much.  Working through the burn we find that raw, funky flavor I associate with younger Heaven Hill-produced bourbons.  Digging a little deeper there’s an undeniable vanilla sweetness – a reminder of the fundamental charms lurking within this whiskey.  There’s also a pleasant taste of dark chocolate.  The finish starts out very nicely, as a continuation of the dark chocolate that began on the tongue, but it returns to where everything started, becoming a little funky and hot.  Overall, there’s not much to keep me coming back to this bourbon.  And that’s a shame.  Not just because I know exactly how good this whiskey can be, thanks to Phil and Mary’s bottle, but also because in an era when so many bourbons are shedding age statements, lowering ABV, and raising prices, Fighting Cock remains 6 years old, a hairy-chested 51.5% ABV and under twenty bucks, tax included.

For these reasons, I can’t quite bring myself to condemn this bourbon.  No, I won’t be buying it regularly, but as a bourbon lover, whiskey geek, and friend to all things good and right in this world, how can I dismiss completely a bottle that checks off so many of the proper boxes?  I don’t love it, and I suspect “love” is too strong a word to describe anyone’s reaction to Fighting Cock, but you may well dig it, even though it’s not my thing.

If you’re looking for a reasonably priced, grab-you-by-the-grapes sort of bourbon, and want to try something other than Fighting Cock, you’ve got a few solid options.  The easiest would be to buy a bottle of Wild Turkey 101, although nobody would ever use the terms “smoothly integrated,” “harmoniously balanced,” or “sufficiently aged” to describe Wild Turkey 101, either.  If you want to try a bourbon from Heaven Hill and either live in Kentucky or have access to bourbon sales via the internet, I’d suggest you purchase a bottle of Heaven Hill 6 Year Old Bottled-in-Bond.  It costs about $10 and for that amount of money, it’s much easier to overlook traits that become problematic at twice the price (and remember – it’s the same age as Fighting Cock).  Or, for just a few dollars more you could buy or order a bottle of Very Old Barton 6 Year-Old Bottled-in-Bond.  Very Old Barton has a very unique profile, one that I quite enjoy.  I can’t promise you’ll dig it as much as I do, but at $13 a bottle, the risk-to-revelation ratio is off the charts.

Posted in Bourbon Reviews