My Dad Was a Beer Guy—Until He Tried This Bargain Bourbon


When I was growing up, I never saw my father drink whiskey. He might have the occasional margarita, vodka tonic, or superb Bloody Mary mixed by my mom (who, being named Mary, is contractually obliged to be skilled at such things). But make no mistake—Steve Arnaudin is a beer and wine guy.

Now, my dad’s got nothing against distilled spirits. He grew up in a home with a fairly well-stocked bar and remembers asking for and receiving the delicious cherries or olives that had been soaking in his parents’ mixed drinks. As he and his brother Rick got older, they were also allowed sips of Manhattans and whiskey sours.

“My dad used to say he didn’t want alcohol to be a mystery to Rick and me,” Steve says. By denying them tastes, Grandpa thought, he might accidentally inspire them to seek booze outside the home and potentially abuse it. Demystifying alcohol within a safe environment indeed instilled a sense of responsible tippling in his sons, who’ve both now been of legal drinking age for over 50 years.

Related: We’ve Tasted Hundreds of Whiskeys. These Are the Best in the World

So why the commitment to beer and wine over liquor? In Steve’s words: “I just decided not to go there because I thought it was too expensive.”

It’s true, the man loves a bargain; an inherited trait if there ever was one. While we both ribbed his always-correct, Marine Corps father for driving to four different grocery stores to secure the best values—thereby negating all savings and usually winding up in the red once gas and time were factored in—it was Steve who taught me about price per ounce labels on supermarket shelves. His sage advice steers my purchases to this day, reminding me that the less expensive tahini bottle isn’t necessarily the one to buy.

So when presented with an absolute honey of a deal, it makes sense that he’d embrace it. My partner Heather was introduced to a particular whiskey a little over five years ago at an Asheville, NC, ABC Store, when she asked the guy behind the register if he had any recommendations for a cheap but good bourbon. He pointed to a bottle of Henry McKenna and muttered in a borderline stereotypical Southern drawl, “That one sells well.”

Don’t worry—my cat sticks to water.

Edwin Arnaudin

And how! The 1.75 liter bottles cost just $25 apiece—occasionally discounted a few extra bucks—and have been a fixture in our house ever since. And after we gifted Steve a jug for Christmas in 2022, the same has been true at my parents’ place.

He soon independently picked up on the bourbon’s vanilla and caramel flavors—notes that were validated once he did some research on the product, written by more experienced imbibers. He says he also tastes “the tiniest sweet element to it, so it’s almost like very adult liquid candy.”

“Then [spirits writers] mentioned ‘oaky,’ which I can discern in red wines, but I’m not sure what element of the flavor that is in bourbon or whiskey,” he says. “Maybe it’s that flavor sort of between the vanilla and caramel that I can’t put a name to.”

While Heather and I didn’t expect one bottle to transform him into a distilled spirit connoisseur, other factors were at play that helped the bourbon habit stick. Those holidays happened to coincide with Steve’s desire to lose weight, and though he’s nowhere near obese, he attributed his undesirable numbers to wine and beer. Bourbon offered a low-calorie alternative—or maybe it was just wishful thinking. He hasn’t shed significant pounds, but the cheap whiskey has left more money in his wallet.

My dad enjoying Henry McKenna from a Glencairn glass.

Edwin Arnaudin

Similar to his adventurousness with products from breweries and vineyards, he’s branched out to other bourbons from more famous brands, spending upwards of $40 for a fifth. None have been regrettable purchases, yet he’s also not encountered one so vastly superior to Henry McKenna that he’d switch his bargain allegiance.

“It burns less than others and it’s not quite so harsh. The word ‘pleasant’ comes to mind,” Steve says. “It’s acceptable and enjoyable, but inexpensive—it just creates relaxing moments. It’s kind of a comfort food.”

Henry McKenna Bourbon Whiskey

Courtesy Image

$25 at Total Wine

Related: The Best Bourbons of 2024 to Drink Neat or as a Highball

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