“With a rebel yell, she cried “‘more, more more.” – Billy Idol, “Rebel Yell.”
Rebel Yell bourbon is both unique and powerful, as one might expect from a brand that’s famous for being named after the Confederate-era war cry. Kentucky is the heartland of bourbon distilleries, and the most American of adult beverages is as Southern a drink as sweet tea, but few bourbons have more of identification with the South as this one.
In fact, Rebel Yell bourbon has been around under one name or another since 1849, meaning it was established 11 years before the first shots were fired to start the Civil War. For most of its life it was a Southern-only specialty, and almost impossible to find north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Indeed, after being dormant for a brief period the bourbon was reintroduced in 1961 to celebrate the centennial of the War Between the States (or the War of Northern Aggression, for those who take the brand name literally), which is a pretty good indication of its target audience. But times change, and now it’s owned by Luxco, a company headquartered in St. Louis.
No matter. If you’re Southern by birth or by choice, Rebel Yell is a tradition, and you probably grew up with it. If you’re a bourbon-lover from the North, this may not be a brand that you have a lot of experience with, but it is worth tasting now.
First, the basics. Rebel Yell is from a distillery that’s been around since 1849 and literally wrote the book on making a wheated bourbon. Most bourbons use rye to balance the corn in the bourbon mashbill, but these guys pioneered the use of wheat instead. That gives it a softer taste with a little less bite than the rye brands offers, but the taste is definitely different. If you’re used to the rye bourbons, this will take some getting used to, so be prepared for something that isn’t quite what you’re used to.
750ml Bottle of Rebel Yell Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 80 proof with flask. June, 2010
Now for the important stuff – is it worth drinking?
Rebel Yell is a Kentucky straight bourbon that is 80-proof and strong enough to get anyone mellow, especially when combined with a warm night and a good cigar. It is a lighter shade of brown than some of its rivals, so it is easy to assume that it will be disappointingly weak. Don’t be fooled by the color – gulp it at your peril, unless you really like to feel the burn. Far from being weak, it has a complex flavor with a bit of sweetness and a flavor that lingers on the palate.
Now, if you want the official story, the company says Rebel Yell has “a honey raisin scent and a long, warm finish,” and is “a full-bodied whiskey with honey, butter and a hint of dark fruit (plums, raisins).” If your palate is that sensitive that you can sense those notes, more power to you and you should probably be sending your resumes to all the Kentucky distilleries. But that description is a little misleading. “Hint” is the right word for any semblance of plums and raisins – it’s nothing that’s very noticeable. What’s most apparent in the tasting is that it’s a lot smoother than you might expect, and there is a definite undercurrent of caramel and smokiness. But basically, it’s just good bourbon.
Rebel Yell is also a bourbon that can be taken on the rocks or cut with a bit of water without the drinker looking like a tool or losing the essence of the spirit – in fact, a lot of people might like this better on the rocks than straight up. A little ice goes a long way here. It is a good sipping drink, but isn’t as intense as some of its rivals. It plays well with other beverages if you want to experiment with mixers, but try it on the rocks before you add soda or whatever else floats your boat.
Other bourbons have bigger names, but few inspire the passion of Rebel Yell. Any conversation that turns to bourbon, whether it takes place online or on someone’s porch, will inevitably uncover people who have been drinking it for 30 years and won’t hear of any criticisms. So if this isn’t your thing, make sure you know your audience before you start saying bad things about it, because you’re liable to get a whack from an empty bottle if you’re dealing with those who have been drinking it for half a century already.
Here’s what Rebel Yell is not – it’s not the hip, trendy bourbon to order if you’re hoping to impress a date more than you are looking for a quality drink. This isn’t a New York City bar bourbon. Nor is it the paint thinner that its price may suggest to some who are more used to the high prices of other big-name beverages – you can buy a bottle with a $20 bill and get change. If not, find a cheaper place to buy your liquor.
Ironically, the price tag can scare off people who think that it can’t be worth drinking if it is that cheap. One of the best ways to experience Rebel Yell for the first time is in a blind taste test, with no preconceived expectations as to the result – you’ll probably be surprised. There’s nothing fancy about this bourbon, but it sips as cleanly as big-budget options.
On an episode of “VH-1 Storytellers”, Billy Idol told the cameras that the genesis of his 1980s hit “Rebel Yell” was bourbon-based. At a gathering with the Rolling Stones, the rockers shared a bottle of the bourbon, and inspired Idol to write the song. Particularly if you’re longing for the day when the South will rise again, you’ll understand what he was thinking after an evening spent with an emptying bottle.
When we have Yankee friends over, we like to serve them Rebel Yell Bourbon and let them know that it has first distilled 14 years before the great victory at Chickamauga during the Period of Unpleasantness they mistakenly call the Civil War. :-)
Thanks for the review and info about Rebel Yell bourbon
For the price it is the one that I most often reach for in the store.
I also like to have Blanton's, Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, Old Pogue and
Jefferson's on hand as a good variety for guests. Most sites try to
malign Rebel Yell which I guess is based on the cost to perceived value
ratio. The worst bourbon I ever had was a 53 dollar bottle of Noah's
Mill which tasted like shoe polish and floor stripper.