The Ten High brand dates back to the 1930s when the brand was first introduced by Hiram Walker & Sons out of their Peoria, Illinois distillery. The name Ten High is actually a misnomer. While it is supposed to represent a specific barrel location in a rick house that is “ten ricks high,” the brand never promised that this is where the barrels used in this whiskey were actually stored.
The brand has changed hands several times, including Heaven Hill and Barton. When Sazerac acquired Barton in 2009, they also took ownership of the Ten High Bourbon brand. The whiskey was originally labeled “Straight Bourbon,” however, it switched over to being labeled “Bourbon Whiskey - a blend” in 2009. A few years later, the whiskey was changed once again to its current format, "Bourbon Whiskey with Natural Flavors.”
A thin vein of caramel and oak scents form the base. Inhaling deeper pulls out the faintest hint of vanilla, along with a smidge of nose-tingling ethanol. The ethanol in particular, carries with it a hint of artificialness which comes across as odd all around. Overall, this is an incredibly plain nose that lacks refinement and does little to entice you into the sip.
The midpoint of the sip starts off with watery oak that’s met with a thin layer of sweet brown sugar. Exploring further brings up a watery vanilla wafer note along with a light white pepper spice. The combination isn’t awful, but it’s far from memorable and does little to progress the sip forward.
A quick burst of white pepper and oak comes forward, before nearly instantly fading away. Left in its wake is light damp oak and an artificial vanilla taste that carries a slight tingle with it. The finish ends the sip the same way it started, on a short, lackluster and forgettable note.
Ten High Sour Mash is one of those flavored whiskeys that is easy to pass up, mainly for the sole reason that it is usually found quite literally on the bottom shelf of most liquor stores. Its nondescript bottle is easy to miss and its label prominently featuring an eagle holding a banner that reads “America’s Native Spirit” comes across as gimmicky and in this case even misleading, as it is not technically America’s Native Spirit, but rather includes it as one of the ingredients. Add to the fact that it’s a “bourbon with natural flavors”, and it seems to be targeting a very specific crowd: those who want a “bourbon” at the lowest price possible, taste be damned.
While the brand has an interesting history, the flavored whiskey in its current form is anything but. It’s similar to Kentucky Gentleman, another Barton produced bourbon that meets the same criteria. While there’s nothing wrong with a company wanting to offer products along the entire pricing spectrum to consumers, a trade-off is usually made. For a whiskey like Ten High, that comes in the form of simply being forgettable. Unless you’re picking up a bottle to make a large batch of cheap bourbon and Cokes or just looking for the cheapest bottle you can find, Ten High is one of those whiskeys that will quickly leave your memory the moment you’re done taking a sip.
The beauty of bourbon is that even with ever-increasing prices from new and limited releases, the major distilleries out of Kentucky still produce value bourbon. For $15 or less, you can usually pick up a straight bourbon or bottled in bond bourbon that will deliver an adequate enough sip to not be disappointed with the price. Staples like J.T.S. Brown Bottled in Bond Bourbon, J.W. Dant Bottled in Bond Bourbon, and Evan Williams Black Label all offer a better tasting pour. Even Benchmark Old No. 8 Brand Bourbon, which is another Sazerac-owned brand, provides a better pour in comparison for less money. If you only have $10-$15 to spend, there are certainly better, technically qualified, bourbons for you to purchase, even if you just want to use it to make cheap cocktails. Ten High Sour Mash is a good reminder that just because whiskey is inexpensive or downright cheap, it doesn’t mean that it’s a good value.
Ten High Sour Mash is a forgettable flavored whiskey that drives home the stereotype of bottom shelf bottles.
Just because a whiskey is value-priced doesn’t necessarily mean it will be bad. There are plenty of bourbons available that are average or just below average in the $10-$20 range. While they usually don’t stack up well to bourbons that sell for just $10-$20 more, they serve their purpose and are great when you just want to bring out a decent yet inexpensive pour for friends. Ten High Sour Mash sadly does not fit this mold at all however, as it’s a flavored whiskey that can’t compete even with cheap bourbon.
While the Ten High Sour Mash is inexpensive, even a lower price tag isn’t anything to write home about with it. Its sip is forgettable, with a distinct artificialness being present in the nose and finish. This is a bottle that is hard to justify purchasing and truly does fit the stereotype of bottom shelf bottles. Unless you’re on a mission to try any and all bourbons, including those that might be close to bourbon, that stores around you carry, Ten High Sour Mash is best off being passed over and your money being spent elsewhere.