As befitting someone who loves bourbon, I thought I'd start with that. Anthony Dias Blue's The Complete Book of Spirits recommends doing between three and six bourbons, sipping each. I'll do that, then taking a swallow, and only then perhaps mixing with water (I'm doing about equal portions water to bourbon at that point).
Not wanting to kill myself tonight, I'm doing one ounce of each bourbon, two bourbons at a time. I'm using Riedel white wine glasses, washed out with cold water, no soap. Each has pictures - admittedly dark ones, I know. I'll try to describe the nose first, then the taste (to me), before washing my mouth out with water and going to the next.
(And, of course, as soon as I'm about to begin my roommates have to clean the cat's litter boxes while his fiancee experiments with Chanel No. 5, so I pause for a while to let my nose clear.)
First batch: Jefferson's and Woodford Reserve.
Batch No. 36, Bottle No. 1727
Bottled by McLain & Kyne, Bardstown, Kentucky
41.15% ABV (82.3 proof)
It was interesting for me to find just regular Jefferson's. For the longest time I'd always seen their Reserve, which I'd tried once or twice and found exquisite if expensive. While shopping at a different ABC store than usual I saw the Jefferson's and picked it up. It quickly became one of my favorites in this price range.
Nose: The overwhelming smell I seem to pick up on is vanilla. I feel like I also pick up some kind of floral nose to it.
Tasting: It leaves a very even coat to the mouth. I definitely taste the vanilla to it, maybe a hint of caramel with some smoke. There's definitely a bit of a burn after it goes down but it's a welcome one. It leaves a sort of spicy/sweet taste in my mouth that remains tasty. With a splash of water it makes for a very good drinking whiskey, something I could see just sipping on by itself with some water and ice on a hot summer day.
Batch No. 292, Bottle No. 02748
Bottled by Labrot & Graham (I believe)
45.2% ABV (90.4 proof)
Woodford is one of the classics - a bourbon I can remember drinking as far back as college, though not on any kind of a regular basis back then, but it was something I remembered upperclassmen and alumni buying as "the good stuff" (along with bourbons such as Maker's Mark).
This particular bottle has an interesting - to me, at least - history with me. I'd bought a pint of Woodford Reserve for a trip out into the boonies (boonies being a relative term to where I live now, compared to where I grew up). Along with a pint of Tanqueray, the thought was that I'd have the stuff to make a Suffering Bastard or something if I wanted. The first night out there the pint was killed by a female friend of mine in rare form while the lot of us stood around, enjoying the night air and smoking cigars. It definitely made for interesting times later, and so the next day while running by the ABC store someone else in the group bought a fifth of it. It didn't really get drank on much that night, but he was insistent I take it home with me. Thus I have some affection for this particular bottle (ole number 2748!) of Woodford Reserve.
Nose: I'm going to admit up front I have a hard time picking out distinct portions of the nose on this one (particularly with a couple more blow throughs of perfume and one nostril slightly stuffed up). It seems to me to lay more towards the savory or spicy smell than the Jefferson's, almost kind of peaty-slash-smoky wood in tone as well - almost smells like a Scotch to me.
Tasting: This one definitely has a more distinctive burn in the swallow of it and doesn't quite cover the mouth like the Jefferson's. It leaves a lingering tingle in the gums that isn't completely pleasant but not completely bad, either. Note that it is a slightly stronger bourbon. There's a depth to the taste there, like in the smell, that confounds my palette more than the Jefferson's did, however, and for some reason I'm reminded of the taste of Licor 43, perhaps due to vanilla tastes. The splash of water really opens up the taste to it, but it's still not something that I would drink casually on the rocks - to me, it is a bourbon with a strong enough punch to it that it really wants to be part of a drink. A good drink, mind you, not casually dumped into a Coke and swilled at a football game (not that there's anything wrong with that), but I would love to make an Old Fashioned with it.
Second batch is Maker's Mark, another classic one from college that I've rediscovered in the past year, and Buffalo Trace, a bourbon I just tasted recently - I believe the first time was at the restaurant Bourbon in Adams Morgan - and grew fond of using in cocktails.
Bottled by Maker's Mark Distillery, Inc., Star Hill Farm, Loretto, KY
45% ABV (90 proof)
In college this was the much more common "good stuff". You went with Jim Beam for day to day bourbon, such as on game day, or maybe Evan Williams if you were that kind of guy. I, like my friend Ed, was more of an Evan Williams man, especially after downing a 1.75L bottle of Jim Beam over the course of a bus trip from Charlottesville, VA, to Miami, FL, for a bowl game. Not my brightest move, but I survived (somewhat) intact, and in some ways it was a rite of passage, as I'd heard tales of my dad doing the same thing (drinking a handle of Beam) when he was in college.
I usually avoided Maker's Mark as much for the reason that everyone drank it as anything else. Time rolls on, I stuck with my beloved Evan Williams Green label if I wanted a mixing bourbon and Blanton's if I wanted a sipping bourbon. Eventually, as tmfiii and I got into this whole cocktail thing, I picked up a bottle of Maker's Mark to use a mixing bourbon. I was soundly surprised at how good it was, I had completely forgotten about it. I even went as far as to buy a half dozen minis of it for a UVA football game, though since each was dipped in wax that wasn't the brightest idea in the world in terms of covert drinking.
Nose: This is one I know. Floral and vanilla. I'm put into the mood of being in a spring field with a mint julep in hand. It makes me happy. It takes me to good times just by smelling it. I love the power of the brain. It's not a strong nose but it's vibrant. With a splash of water in it the nose makes me think honey and vanilla.
Tasting: It's a nice vanilla taste to it with a hint of wood-smoked taste. It doesn't thickly cover the palette but it covers more evenly if as thinly as the Woodford Reserve. The initial swallow leads to an intense alcohol burn, but that quickly subsides into a very pleasant after taste that makes me just want to sit back and enjoy it. Adding a splash of water makes this all the mixed drink you need; sweet and tasty with almost more of a caramel taste than undiluted to me - or perhaps a more subtle vanilla that I'm just slightly missing - and cuts that strong burn down to almost nil. The after taste is diluted slightly less, just enough to make you feel a taste of vanilla in the back of your throat and wanting more.
Bottled by Buffalo Trace Distillery, Franklin County, KY
45% ABV (90 proof)
I'm actually surprised now that I'm paying attention to the proofs - I'm used to bourbon being 80 proof. Shows what I know.
Despite using the tasting guidelines from The Complete Book of Spirits I'm avoiding looking at the exact reviews that Anthony Dias Blue has for each liquor - I don't want to taste things because he tells me he tasted them, or to change my opinion otherwise for similar reasons. However, I do recall somewhat his "star" rating for Buffalo Trace, and that it's one that I completely disagreed with when I first saw it. If I recall - and I'm not going to go look this up - he gave it one star.
When I've had it before, I definitely would've given it more than one star (of his four star scale), given how few liquors overall he actually gives one star. Still, I've never stacked it up head to head with other bourbons, but I would've saved the one star for a liquor coming up in the next batch.
However, perhaps more than any other bourbon on this list this bourbon was bought specifically as a mixing bourbon. There was no real question of "hmmm, do I want to sip this straight tonight?" Instead, it was intended from the get-go to be put into cocktails. That's not saying I wouldn't drink it straight if I had the urge - just that I have other bourbons I prefer to drink straight while the Buffalo Trace, to me, has always had a flavor profile that I felt matched well with a number of bourbon-using mixed drinks in terms of "standing up to the other ingredients". That's something that I feel some bourbons, such as Maker's Mark, can have trouble doing in particularly pungent combinations of mixers.
Nose: My first sniff of this I put my nose to far into the glass and got hit with the "wow!" kind of reaction in terms of strength. As I sniffed it more carefully, I want to say "smoky caramel". Given that bourbons are all made in similar methods, it's not surprising that there will be a lot of similarities in how they smell, particularly in the price range of these four, but this one is perhaps the most dissimilar smelling of the batch. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I get the feeling of being out on the river when I was younger, going fishing. It's not a fishy smell at all but it's one that puts me back into that time and place - maybe a hint of a tobacco smoke from one of the adults that was with us from that time. Cutting it with some water brings out that sort of floral smell, the smell of drying tobacco - sort of like a pipe smell from very far away without any sort of spicy overtones.
Tasting: I like the viscosity to this one as it rolls around my mouth, but then when I go to swallow the acrid, awkward burn really hits me. I'm left with a pleasant sensation covering a lingering burn on the center left of my tongue, nice hints of smoke and the forest and a bit of sweetness left, but it's all kind of overwhelmed by that huge hit of burn. This is a cigar smoking bourbon; if I was outside, smoking one of those new Perdomos I picked up the other day, I'd be enjoying it a lot more. A healthy hit of water really helps it a lot. That burn is almost completely gone and I'm left with a sort of caramel flavored tobacco taste to it. And yet, the viscosity stays through, giving a nice even coating to the tongue. As soon as the water got to it this became a completely different taste, very pleasant and eager to please.
I can see where one might give this a bad rating if they just drank it straight, particularly in comparison with others in the price range (I think specifically also of the Elmer T. Lee). However, mix it half and half with some water and you'll find a height of complexity to it that's been overwhelmed by the alcohol burn, something that - to me - would almost say "hey, maybe you don't need it to be 90 proof."
This is kind of the oddball batch, and has the worst picture. For that I apologize. On the left we have Willett Straight Kentucky Bourbon and on the right we have Kopper Kettle Virginia Whiskey.
In the first two batches all of the bourbons have been in approximately the same price range - somewhere between $20-25 if I remember correctly. In this batch we have a very large disparity from that - the Willett cost me approximately $50 at Schneider's downtown in DC (this is the 6 year old) and the Kopper Kettle I want to say was around $15. There's a price point right around $20 for a 750 ML bottle that I feel is the difference between "eh" bourbon and "good" bourbon (or in this case, just whiskey).
Barrel No. 6, Bottle No. 142 of 168
Bottled by the Willett Distillery, Bardstown, KY
61.2% ABV (122.4 proof)
This is a single barrel, six year old bourbon, distilled on 3/12/01, stored in Warehouse B, Cooperage was "OAK" (elsewhere it points out that it's aged in "Hand Selected White Oak Barrels"), the Rick was "NR7", Barrel No. 10 (it says on the back - the "6" designation is from the top front label), and selected for Bourbon Restaurant, Washington DC (but somehow I got it). Most of the label is filled in by hand.
I bought this bottle on a whim. I was shopping at Schneider's and their whiskey guy - whose name I really should know and can never remember - suggested it to me. At $50, that's usually past my impulse "I know nothing about you" buy, but for some reason every neuron in my brain screamed "BUY ME" and thus I did. I haven't regretted that impulse for one single second since doing so, not even when paying my credit card bill.
The thing is, for the purpose of this tasting, this will be a difficult bourbon to taste - because it's barrel strength. 122.4 proof? Ouch. So I'm going to deviate a bit from normal procedure. I'm going to get the nose on it full strength and a tiny sip of it (I intentionally poured just a bit more than an ounce) to get an idea of how tongue-numbingly powerful it is (and I've done this before, so I know). After that I'll pour approximately 3/4 of an ounce of water into it to make it more around the proofs of the others. I'll do a tasting then, and depending on how that goes I may add another dash of water and taste again to replicate the "watered down" tastings of above.
(All water, by the way, is fresh Arlington County tap water. Some people might not like it but I think it tastes just fine and dandy!)
I'm very excited about this one. First, pre-water.
Nose: There's not the hit that you get from other whiskeys when it's not watered down. (Don't worry. Just as a test I took a sniff of another
whiskey and yeah, my sense of nose is, unfortunately, not impaired - or at least wasn't before I sniffed the worse one.) I definitely get a forest smell, almost like I'm smelling the oak tree. There are all kinds of levels behind that, like you're sniffing complexity almost. That sounds, possibly, ludicrous, and makes me think that maybe four whiskeys should be the limit.
Tasting: When you first pull it unadulterated into your mouth it reminds of the first time you had a "grown up" dessert. As a kid, your sweets are usually fairly simple - one or two strong flavors. As you get older you can appreciate complexities a lot more, and when you have a huge, luscious, complex dessert and you can taste and feel and smell every little flavor in it - you're lost in it. It overwhelms you. I almost think of having a bite out of a one of those "fourteen kinds of chocolate" cakes, you taste them all, and together, they blow out small portions of your brain to keep them from every truly appreciating cake in that kind of way again.
That's how the bourbon hit me until I swallowed it. At that point you're reminded, hey, we're human, and honestly, humans really don't drink barrel strength stuff straight. Oof. But as the burn dies away you're left with a poignant lingering memory of the wonderful taste you had, you look longingly at the glass wanting that one small hit just again...and know you shouldn't. 'Cause you gotta pour water into that baby.
Now that given people flashbacks to heroin, I add 3/4 an ounce of water (none of it from the tears that I have knowing I'm diluting such a masterpiece).
If I calculated correctly, after the sip, this should put it around 75-80 proof or so.
Nose: Oh, that smell. It's still a luscious, thick nose, though you can pick out some of the variations more. I'm smelling the woods, the lingering remnants of a long put out campfire, the hint of a meadow in a background, all mixed in with the traditional vanilla and just a tease of pipe smoke.
Taste: No burn. Nice viscosity. Vanilla with a hint of caramel. A linger of smoke on the tongue.
I'm actually not going to water this one down at all anymore. In fact, I'm not even going to taste it again right now - it's just very good, like the difference between gas station coffee and a "real" cup of coffee. You want to sit down and just appreciate it, and if you like bourbon you will know, yes, you will really like this. It's not like Scotch where it can go down one of so many different roads; this is one of those epochal "this is what bourbon should be" bourbons. I'm going to save it to wash the taste of the next whiskey out of my mouth.
I really need to try the $90 version.
Bottled by Belmont Farms, Culpeper, VA
43% ABV (86 proof)
Now this one was cheap enough that I bought randomly.
I see Belmont Distillery's sign every time I travel to and from Charlottesville. I always mean to stop there and never quite get around to it. They have a couple of different kinds of whiskey but the time I saw this it was the first time for me. Figuring "what the heck" I went ahead and got a bottle. Soon I was stuck with a dilemma.
This isn't really, well, a mixing whiskey. It's naturally flavored, they say, with toasted applewood and oakwood, but you can see how much lighter it is than all of the other bourbons tonight - because it's not a bourbon, and I don't think the barrels were actually charred. It is, in fact, much more of a moonshine. Reading Belmont's website shows that - unlike some of the other whiskeys, this one is only aged two years, and was potstilled.
Nose: Oof. It smells like being out in the grain fields of a farm to me. Not manure, mind you, but a not-pleasant-but-after-you-get-used-to-i
Tasting: Rough. Raw. Yet slightly aged. This is - maybe - more like what bourbons and other whiskeys were back in the old days. They weren't aged for a long time so this would've been "the good stuff". It's harsh, it's got a kick in taste but is subtle enough in alcohol content that after a few of 'em, you could see yourself having a few more, and a few more - particularly if you kept it cold.
In other words, this ain't a sippin' whiskey. It's a good old fashioned knock it back from a jug kind of whiskey.
And you know what? That's not always a bad thing. Sometimes it's just the feel you want. Sometimes you just gotta knock back your slug of whiskey and say "hey, now you take a hit". Those kind of times often lead to Really Bad Ideas (and/or Moon Pies), but can also lead to a whole heapin' helpin' of fun.
Now, if you'll excuse me - I've got to reindulge in my battle of the wits against my cat Master Shake, finish this bit of Willett bourbon, and maybe wash it all down with a Bluegrass Brewing Company Jefferson's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout. Yummy.