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A bourbon fit for Willie

Country star gives thumbs up to Old Whiskey River brand

Let's cut to the chase: The main reason I'm writing about the new bourbon Old Whiskey River is because it bears the title of a Willie Nelson singalong favorite, not to mention a guitar pick autographed by the American folk hero himself.

That's just what its marketers intended. Several notable spirits emerge each year, but few hold celebrity cachet. The truth is Ñ marquee name or not Ñ Old Whiskey River, which was just released in Oregon, is pretty lip-smacking good. It also has a handsome bottle, replete with a Nelson-esque red bandana-print seal.

Entertainment bigwig Shep Gordon, who has managed the likes of Alice Cooper, Blondie and Raquel Welch, came up with the idea for a Nelson-endorsed whiskey. Gordon has some experience in this department. His company, Alive Spirits, launched Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo Tequila.

'I'm an old friend of Willie's,' Gordon begins. 'I produced 'Red-Headed Stranger' (a 1986 Western starring Nelson). A bunch of us played poker at Willie's on a regular basis, drinking Cabo, and it occurred to me that we were all bourbon drinkers.'

Gordon and Nelson decided their product should be an aged bourbon. 'We looked at who had the best holdings of old whiskey, and we came upon Heaven Hill and Parker Beam,' Gordon says.

Parker Beam is Heaven Hill Distilleries' master distiller. His craft runs in the family, to say the least; he is a seventh-generation distiller, the great-great-great-grandnephew of Jim Beam.

By law, bourbon isn't bourbon unless it contains at least 51 percent corn; is aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels; and is entered into barrels at no higher than 150 proof, coming off the still at no higher than 159 proof.

Old Whiskey River is 86 proof, aged six years and made in small batches. It starts sharp, tingling your lips, but finishes smooth.

'Willie was involved in tasting the samples,' Beam says. 'We came to a consensus of what he liked.

'People say it's got a lot of bite, and well, Willie seemed to admire the bite of the product,' Beam says. 'It starts out strong and finishes sweet. The longer it stays on the palate, the more the caramel comes out and settles in.'

So, how well versed is Nelson in the intricacies of bourbon?

'Well, I'm not sure how to answer that question,' Beam chuckles, his creaky voice sounding older than his 60 years. 'I'm sure he's drank his share! He kind of knew what he liked, but we're teaching him.'

Old Whiskey River, made with grain from independent Kentucky farmers, is available at Oregon liquor stores for $27.95.

Contact Christina Melander at

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