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Bourbon Tasting

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Bourbon Tasting

Aaron D | Feb 16, 2004 11:26 PM

Here are a few notes from a bourbon whiskey tasting some hounds (and a few non-hounds) recently shared in Chicago. I sent these to a few folks at the tasting, but thought I’d post for the other ‘hounds who couldn’t make it. I’m posting here instead of the Chicago board, since the topic is of fairly general interest. There is a little more specific info on the Chicago board.

The theme of the evening was nominally one of innovation, but practically speaking, the focus was on the expression of different grains. The two Old Potrero ryes at the end were one end of the spectrum. We started with a cheap mason jar of Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey put out by Heaven Hill distillery (Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna). Not very good, not much character, definite corn presence, and could certainly get you drunk pretty quickly. But the point was to get a sense of the corn, of which all bourbons have at least 51%, and most have 70-80%. On average, they have about 5% malted barley, and the remainder is either wheat or far more often, rye. Of ten bourbons (in addition to the corn and rye whiskeys), we had three wheat (purportedly the only three wheated bourbons on the market) and seven rye.

The wheat: W.L. Weller 2 year, Maker’s Mark, and Delilah’s 10-yr. Single Barrel. The wheats in general did have fewer sharp flavor notes than the ryes, a little bit smoother in the mouth. I really like all of these–I thought the Delilah’s had the most layers of flavor, possibly because it was never filtered. I would definitely return to the bar for this stuff.

The other seven bourbons were Old Forester, Woodford Reserve, Basil Hayden, Very Old Barton, Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve, and Elijah Craig 18 year single barrel. Of these, I really liked the Buffalo Trace and the Elijah Craig, the former for a more assertive bourbon and the latter for something a bit smoother. Basil Hayden is a bit too smooth for me, but of course this is all relative. I tend to like my whiskey, like most of my liquors, a little rough around the edges.

Finally we sampled two 100% rye whiskies, distilled by the folks at Anchor Distillery, same group as Anchor Brewing Company. We actually sampled two versions of their Old Potrero. The bartender who was responsible for the pouring accidentally and (for us) serendipitously poured the pricier version though the cheaper was intended. After a bit of good-natured ribbing from the gallery (and as ab pointed out, perhaps because he had been tasting along with us), Mike generously poured the other as well. The nomenclature is a bit tricky, in that both whiskies are 100% rye and both are single malt. The website calls one Old Potrero Straight Rye and the other Old Potrero Single Malt. It notes the Straight Rye as 19th century style and the Single Malt as 18th century style, the difference being that the use of charred oak was (presumably) a 19th century innovation. Also the Straight Rye/19th century style was aged three years; the Single Malt/18th century style was aged one. Mike had told me earlier in the day that the Anchor guy was in, and cut him a deal for our tasting, but little did I expect to get both. (Incidentally, Anchor distills a very fine, “new style” gin called Junipero–I’ve really liked this for a while, but hadn’t tried their whiskey before.) In any case, both Old Potreros were very good, unlike any other whiskey I’ve had, but the 3-yr-old was really something. Very dark, very full body, sort of syrupy with sweet, maple notes and some dark spice notes–cinnamon or nutmeg, maybe. Wow, I was really glad to have a chance to sample the stuff.

A few general comments– first, one thing I thought going in that was pretty much reaffirmed is that bourbon in general is pretty good. It wasn’t like tasting wine where you like some and others you don’t care for. With bourbon for me, it’s a matter of degree and variation. I like it all. Second, I found interesting the similar progressions of modern bourbon and wine production, considering both the regulatory aspects and the flavor profiles. The Anchor whiskies, for example are a new breed achieved by experimenting with and extending beyond established modes of distillery and the legal definition of bourbon. I can only imagine this trend will increase with whiskey as it has done, for example, in the wine industry in Tuscany. Similarly, I find it interesting that the heavy malt, full-bodied “fruit forward”, as it were, whiskies are the result of this extension. While I welcome this experimentation and enjoy the result, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for the flavor pendulum to swing back toward subtlety in the American, or the “international” palate. The other trend that struck me (first pointed out by another taster) is not culinary, but commercial–the proliferation of private label goods in general, as seen in Delilah’s own whiskey, and any other number of whiskies are pulled out of a limited number of distilled batches and tweaked to create distinct flavor profiles, but perhaps more importantly for the proprietors, distinct brands that can be marketed to various niche consumes. Not unlike the various Intelligentsia blends or many Trader Joe’s prepared foods or even farther down-market Safeway Select and President’s Choice. And of course any number of non-food products as well. It is interesting to see both increased homogenization and arguably a greater diversity of higher quality products both resulting from the same trend.

Cheers,

Aaron

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