Trader Joe’s is well-known for branding its own products — frozen pizzas, wine, beer, and, yes, whiskey are all in play. They’re pretty damn good at it too, while also being famous for keeping prices fairly low. Since the prices on the various Trader Joe’s whiskeys also fall into that “affordable” category, one we love so much (so so so much), I knew it was time to taste a few to see how they measure up in the grand pantheon of cheap/affordable brown juice.
I headed out to my local Trader Joe’s and found a liquor aisle with a surprisingly good selection of bourbon at decent prices. There was also a fair amount of Scotch whisky on the shelf with a few other regions represented. It wasn’t as vast as a good liquor store, but it was a very solid selection of booze. I decided to grab three bottles from three regions: Kentucky, Tennessee, and Scotland. I figured this was a good entry-point to the world of Trader Joe’s branded whiskey.
Bottles in play for this tasting are:
- Trader Joe’s Kentucky Bourbon Straight Whiskey
- Trader Joe’s Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 8 Years
- Tennessee Sour Mash Bourbon Whiskey
Trader Joe’s whiskeys — like most in-store branded hooch — are contract bottled and labeled by an independent bottler. Generally speaking, the bottler sources barrels or ready-to-bottle whisk(e)y from each region. They then finish the whiskey, if needed, in-house, bottle it, label it, and ship it out to Trader Joe’s warehouses. Point being: Trader Joe’s is not making this whiskey.
As for the ranking/tasting, this is based on taste alone. I tasted knowing what the bottles are. There’s no point in blindly tasting three whiskeys from three regions that are extremely obvious from the nose. That said, these three bottles were massively divergent. So the ranking was super obvious once I dug in. Let’s dive right in and see which bottle of TJ’s whiskey is worth your time (and money).
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
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- The Best Ten-Year-Old Bourbon Whiskeys, Tasted Blind And Ranked
- We Tasted Bourbon Whiskeys ‘Double-Blind’ And Tried To Guess Each Bottle
- All The Double Gold-Winning Straight Bourbons From This Year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition
Part 1: The Tasting/Ranking
3. Tennessee Sour Mash Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 3
Average Price: $15
This whiskey is made in Tennessee (from an unnamed distiller) with the famed “Lincoln County Process” where the hot juice off the still is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before going into the barrel. The juice is then aged for … *grimace* … six months.
For context, the cheapest whiskey is usually aged at least two years with four to six years being closer to the norm. Those sourced barrels are then sent to a bottler in Texas where it’s proofed all the way down (likely to hide that minimal aging and the taste) before bottling for Trader Joe’s.
The nose is lawn grass and white chalk with a good dose of ethanol (basically vodka) and diacetyl (fake popcorn butter) — it’s kind of like a cheap hand sanitizer. The palate is very watery with a vanilla chalk edge and more of that cheap hand sanitizer with maybe a hint of caramel and cherry lurking somewhere under all that water and ethanol.
This is offensive.
This is the first whiskey I’ve ever tasted that kind of made me mad. If I were from Tennessee, I’d be pretty pissed off. This isn’t just “bad but you can shoot it.” It’s “pour this shit down the drain because it’s besmirching the good name of Tennessee whiskey.” Seriously, this is the sort of whiskey people try and then think they “don’t like whiskey” for the rest of their lives.
If you don’t believe me, my wife’s two-sentence review was, “Hideous. This is why people hate whiskey.”
2. Trader Joe’s Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 8 Years — Taste 2
Average Price: $21
This Speyside whisky is sourced for Trader Joe’s and bottled before being shipped over to the U.S. The juice in the bottle is a standard single malt aged for eight years before blending, filtering, and proofing.
This is a butterscotch boom on the nose with a hint of malted vanilla and bran muffins. The palate is lightly malted with a very watery opening next to orchard fruits and a light sense of “wood” that’s just touched with winter spices. A hint of honey and maybe some apple sneak in a late with a slightly woody but mostly watery finish.
This was fine. There was nothing really offensive about it but there wasn’t much there in the first place. It’d work perfectly fine with Coke and ginger ale but that’s about it.
1. Trader Joe’s Kentucky Bourbon Straight Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $15
This sourced whiskey is from an unknown Kentucky distillery (some say it comes from Barton 1792, like Costco’s whiskey but there’s no real proof backing that up). The juice is aged for five years before it’s blended, filtered, and proofed down for bottling.
The nose opens with a light sense of sour cherry, dried red chili, Red Hots, and a bit of cellar must. The palate is sweet with plenty of caramel, vanilla pudding, and a bit of heat that builds towards a sense of “wood” and leather. The end peters out a bit as the warmth overtakes the wood and fades away, leaving a sweet cherry/vanilla note.
This was… perfectly fine. It was cheap bourbon for $15. I wouldn’t make an extra trip to Trader Joe’s to buy this but I would pick up a bottle if it was on sale to use for whiskey and Cokes or… more likely cooking, tbh.
Part 2: Final Thoughts
Ugh. I taste a lot of whiskeys and these all fell to the bottom. The Scotch whisky was fine for what it is — a $20 bottle of young whisky. There was nothing offensive about it (though the nose was a little too butterscotch). Otherwise, it was a perfectly fine mixer for highballs with a lot of bold flavors in the mix.
The bourbon was also fine. I don’t really see the point of going out of your way to get this bottle when you can get a cheaper and better Jim Beam or Evan Williams pretty much everywhere. That said, there was nothing offensive about this bourbon. It was drinkable and easy-going.
Then there was the Tennessee whiskey. It’s an abomination. Avoid at all costs. I’m still kind of mad about it. Seriously.