Sunday, October 5, 2014

Spirits: Burly Bourbons

Well, here we go...

Above all else, I'm a gin guy, but I'll readily make an exception if offered a shot of bourbon, especially high-proof versions.  There's something about the burning, spicy intensity of single-barrel bourbon that I can't get enough of.  Or maybe it's how adding water a few drops at a time and/or plopping in a couple chips of ice is like your own personal study in dilution.

I've been slowly building a collection, and it's always fun to try and compare similar spirits against each other to get a feel for the variation within categories.  The four below are (some) of the bourbons currently residing in my home bar.

Four Roses Single Barrel

100 Proof (50% ABV)
About: Jim Rutledge is a pretty well-known name in bourbon (and golf, but that's a totally separate dude).  He's been Four Roses' brand ambassador and master distiller for over a decade of ownership changes, which is just the latest wild time in the history of a pretty storied brand.  It's a classic bourbon name, and a historic Lawrenceburg, KY distillery, which makes it all the more interesting that it's now owned by Kirin (based in Japan).  Perhaps they're looking for an inside track to cash in on the growing Japanese market for bourbon.  If so, they picked a good brand to start with; standard Four Roses is a solid middle-shelf brand that offers good quality for a reasonable price.  However, while the standard product is bottled from a blend of 10 different mashbills, this Single Barrel version comes from just one, a 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% barley formula which uses a specific yeast strain.  It's also bottled at a moderately higher proof which only enhances its tastiness.

Tasting Notes: Floral on the nose; notes of rose petal (appropriately) with cherry and sutble thyme. Mellow baking spices and caramel stretch out into a long, warm finish with some extended hints of oak and cherry, mostly at the very end. Opens up and mellows out nicely with a bare touch of water, but it's perfectly drinkable without.

Booker's Bourbon
130.6 Proof (65.3% ABV)
About: This is a cask-strength expression from the Jim Beam family of bourbons, named for Booker Noe, father of Fred Noe (the current Beam master distiller).  The Beam empire, which like Four Roses is now owned by a Japanese company (Suntory in this case) actually makes quite a few small-batch bourbons under different labels and names, so chances are you've had a Beam product at some point: Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, and Old Overholt are all theirs, though obviously made from different recipes.  This product is uncut, unfiltered, and bottled straight from barrels aged between 6 and 8 years.  Apparently this comes from Booker's tradition of bottling a special bourbon for close friends and family, which is a fantastic idea (I like giving handmade gifts, but I can't top that).  I personally have a soft spot for Jim Beam; it was my go-to whiskey back before I started getting into spirits, but there's a lot to like here even without the benefit of nostalgia.

Tasting Notes: A big, monstrous motherfucker of a bourbon (which you might expect given the proof). Starts off with some notes of toffee, straw, and spice, then quickly opens up to an intense peppery and charred-wood punch that carries into the finish, backed up eventually by delicate maraschino and herbal notes. Water and perhaps an ice cube are recommended to smooth things out.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

108.2 Proof (54.1% ABV)
About: Wild Turkey seems to get kind of a bad rap.  To be fair, it used to be cheap rotgut stuff, but today's product is much higher quality.  Their 101-proof Rye is one of my favorite mixing ryes because of how well its flavor stands up in cocktails, and I was sad to see it disappear from the market for a while.  Like Four Roses, it's produced in Lawrenceburg, KY, but it's owned by Campari's parent company (not a Japanese one!) and this expression is not a single-barrel product.  Instead, it's a blending of 6, 8, and 12 year old stocks, bottled without additional dilution.  This makes a very nice result that balances the spiciness of Wild Turkey's other offerings with a more refined richness.  Now, one thing worth noting is that there appears to be a newer release than the one I'm showing here, bottled at a slightly higher 112.8 proof.  I can't speak to that yet, but I found this opinion that it's not quite as good as the older label.  I have seen both on shelves, so you'll want to look for this packaging if you want your experience to match mine.

Tasting Notes: Smells like delicious, sweet caramel, and starts off the same on the palate with subtle vanilla character. Gradually builds to a spicy, oaky finish as it sits on the palate, then backs off slowly with lingering cinnamon, marshmallow, and a slightly vegetal character. I like this one more without water; dilution seems to strip away some of the subtlety.

Elmer T. Lee

90 Proof (45% ABV)
About: I have to admit that when I picked this for my tasting, I thought it was a bit higher proof.  But it's still a quality product, so let's run with it.  This is a Buffalo Trace product, named after their master distiller emeritus, and that alone is testament to its quality.  Buffalo Trace is one of the few well-known American-owned bourbon distilleries (now owned by the Sazerac Company) and they make some pretty wild stuff.  Among their stable is George T. Stagg, one of the most sought-after bourbons out there today, and a curious line of small-batch experimental whiskies that aim to test out a huge range of recipe and aging factors. No surprise, this is quite tasty stuff that's essentially an improved, richer version of their main label drawn from a single barrel.  

Tasting Notes: The lightest of the bunch, so no surprise that it's also the smoothest. Beautiful honey character at the start, hints of orange peel, marshmallow, oatmeal, and white oak later on. Stays light and sweet on the finish, with that same honey character backed up by chamomile flowers. A small amount of water brings out more oak and marshmallow, but also leaves things a bit thin. I'll take mine without.

I might add a few more here - I realized that I missed a big one, my beloved Willett Pot Still Reserve with its wacky, inconveniently-shaped bottle.  Or maybe I'll just have to save it for another round. In the meantime, drink these!

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