Sunday, October 9, 2011

Double-blind Bourbon Tasting - Part 2

The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.  Winston Churchill 
Beginning of the End:
It should come as no surprise that I am just now posting the results of the (first annual?) Double-blind Bourbon Tasting.  With a sampling of 8 bourbons (plus cocktails avant et apr
ès) it was not a night to be quickly evaluated and spit out.  I needed to rouse the sober reflection that only comes with time.  Oh, that, and I couldn't decipher the chicken-scratch tasting notes my dear friends left strewn about my apartment.

Here is the final list of bourbons in the order in which they were tasted:
  1. Buffalo Trace - $23 (750ml)
  2. Elijah Craig 12 year - $25 (750ml)
  3. Redemption High Rye - $27 (750ml)
  4. Baker's 7 year - $48 (750ml)
  5. Hudson 4 Grain - $50 (375ml)
  6. Maker's Mark - $22 (750ml)
  7. Ancient Age - $7 (750ml)
  8. Bulleit (French Oaked) - $26 (750ml)
As would be expected, there were wildly different palates and opinions among the 8 participants.  However, there were also some strongly shared feelings about particular bourbons (both good and bad).  As I mentioned in the pre-tasting post, the prices ranged from $7 to $100 (normalized to 750ml), and the spread certainly opened some eyes.  I think the biggest shock was the universal appeal of the poor boy, Ancient Age.  This one-eyed dog managed to capture 2 "best" votes, and was in almost everyone's top 3.  When you consider the price, this is a clear value a lot.  Though the expectation of jeers at the bar may keep this bourbon in the back of everyone's liquor cabinet/sideboard/office filing cabinet.

Buffalo Trace - $23 (750ml)
This has been a go-to bourbon for several of my friends, and certainly considered familiar.  It didn't manage to pull in any #1 votes, but found the top 3 or 4 on several lists.  Common notes included a clean nose with little vanilla or complexity, back-of-palate warmth, and the perception of being bright and young, if not a bit simple.

Elijah Craig 12 year - $25 (750ml)
Elijah proved to be one of the more divisive bourbons in terms of appeal, but showed the most commonality of language in the tasting notes.  In other words, everyone detected it's Scotch-like smokiness, and it's slightly subdued alcohol...but a couple of people disliked that about it.  It did get top nod from 2 tasters, and plenty of recognition for being different.  Common notes included smokiness, Scotch-like, smooth oak, raisin, molasses, and age.

Redemption High Rye - $27 (750ml)
It took a lot of checking and rechecking the notes on this one...they're all over the place.  Though no one ranked it particularly high (one #4 was the best it got), it wasn't anyone's least favorite.  Notes ranged from "sweet oak water" to "swill, sour".  Several people noted a nondescript burn in the throat.  The only thing I can think is that the high rye mash bill was noticed, but registered differently for different palates.

Baker's 7 year - $48 (750ml)
Baker's got three 1st votes and three 2nd votes, which, following precise bourbon calculus, makes it the overall winner.  In my words, a fat, lovable pirate.  It's a little sweet, complex, might bite you, and has a strong wooden leg (which hit me as a mix of oak and sandal wood).  The other common note is of a pleasant vanilla in the nose.  While highly ranked by almost everyone, this was also the second most expensive bourbon.  Maybe this is one to enjoy neat when the boss offers to buy a round?

Hudson 4 Grain - $50 (375ml)
So Mr. Fancypants, what exactly does your expensive, wax-sealed neck have for us?  A lot, but no one cared too much.  Hudson ended up in the middle of the pack for almost everyone.  Common notes included: different, crazy, complex, smooth, and a couple 'anise'.  This bourbon was so universally described as 'different' that several people assumed it was the Redemption High Rye.  In the end, it was more of a curiosity than a favorite.  A couple people actually requested a second taste of this (after completing all 8), still unaware of what it was.  I'd say this is the perfect bourbon for a tasting, since you'll be wowed at the uniqueness, and you'll be happy to have shared the cost.

Maker's Mark - $22 (750ml)
As the "most commercial" bourbon of the group, Maker's made a fine showing.  One person ranked it 1st, and most people thought it was 'good'.  Everyone made comments about it's strong, alcohol-forward bite, and clean finish.  Also noted, a nice vanilla sweetness, grainy body, and 'balls'.

Ancient Age - $7 (750ml)
As I mentioned above, Ancient Age was the real darling after the reveal.  It scored well (two 1st, and general acknowledgement of quality), and had people guessing it was the Hudson or the Baker's.  Comments included: clean, nice, really smooth, spice nose, and drinkable.  The lowest score it got was a '5th' vote.  I was shocked.  Until now, I had pretty much only used Ancient Age for my homemade vanilla wonder those blondies are so good!

Bulleit (French Oaked) - $26 (750ml)
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Okay, I guess I have to address this...everyone hated this.  Something went horribly wrong.  As an avid homebrewer, I have done a couple batches of Oak-aged Bourbon Porter.  The first batch was the best beer I've made to date, and universally liked by friends and guests.  In order to make it, I have to soak toasted french oak cubes in bourbon for a week or two in order to sanitize the wood, and to absorb some nice bourbon flavor.  But what does one do with that bourbon, which has picked up a fair bit of toastiness?  Well, I filtered it and saved it.  It was strong, smokey, sweet, and an interesting foil for the common bourbon cocktail.  But, after being set aside for almost a year, compounds in the oak must have oxidized, or simply grown giant asses and shit all over the place.  It was truly awful.

As a bit of a footnote, I just brewed another batch of the Oak-aged Bourbon Porter, and the bourbon coming off the fresh oak is good, which is to say, it doesn't taste like regurgitated moldy cardboard with rotten-egg caramel sauce.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Double-blind Bourbon Tasting - Part 1

As someone with 6+ years of business schooling behind him, I'm well aware of the common disconnect between product pricing and quality.  There are countless examples of products that are essentially indistinguishable commodities save for the varying degree of marketing muscle placed behind them.  'Premium' often means higher price and more marketing, not necessarily any measurable quality difference or additional utility.  Monster Cables, Exxon gas, Tropicana orange juice, they're all differentiated by marketing, by spin, and even misdirection.  They succeed not byway of better performance, but by the perception of better performance.  It doesn't matter if Pepsi wins 90% of blind taste tests if Coke buys people's hearts and minds with polar bear ads and sports league endorsements.

So, is this the case with Bourbon?  Does a $100 bottle of bourbon taste better than a $7 bottle?  Or does it just look prettier and make you feel better about having spent your hard earned money?  This is a tough question, because it's truth lies hidden in the subjective.  My gut (and mouth) tells me that while there are meaningful differences in the taste of bourbons, perceived quality has more to do with price and packaging than with taste.  Does the emperor wear clothes while sipping a 25 year old Michters?
I've chosen 8 different bourbons ranging in price from about $7 per 750ml to $100 per 750ml.  That works out to under one cent per ml to over 13 cents per ml.  Most of the lineup represents what I would consider the midrange, around $20-$30 per 750ml.  As an experiment, one midrange bourbon (Bulleit) has been aged (by me) on toasted french oak cubes for about a week, at an expense of about $1 at the local homebrew store.

Each bourbon will be tasted (double-blind) by a panel of 7-10 people who will evaluate and take notes on flavor, aroma, mouthfeel, etc.  We'll have freshly ground coffee to help cleanse the nose, and various mild crackers and non-alcoholic beverages to cleanse the palate.  Come back for Part 2 where I will examine the results.

Ancient Age - $7 (750ml)
Baker's - $48 (750ml)
Buffalo Trace - $23 (750ml)
Bulleit (French Oaked) - $26 (750ml)
Elijah Craig 12 year - $25 (750ml)
Hudson 4 Grain - $50 (375ml)
Maker's Mark - $22 (750ml)
Redemption High Rye - $27 (750ml)

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Strawberry Blonde

2 oz Bourbon - Redemption High-Rye Bourbon
2 oz Strawberry Puree - fresh

1/2 oz Coriander Syrup *
1/2 tsp Lemon Juice - fresh 

Puree about 3 heaping tablespoons of fresh strawberries in a blender.  Add puree, bourbon, coriander syrup, and lemon juice to a cocktail shaker with crushed ice.  Shake vigorously and double-strain into a small cocktail glass. 

It starts with a bit of lemon and rye in the nose, with surprisingly little strawberry aroma.  Then an incredibly smooth mouthfeel, with strawberry and coriander up front, followed by a nice long strawberry and bourbon finish.  It leaves a slightly tingly rye spice on the tongue.  I think the Redemption works well here.  It really grew on me, though I'm not sure it was worth the trouble.  Strawberry Blondes rarely are.

* I promise I will have a post about syrups soon.  It's an incredibly easy way to add tons of depth and character to your cocktails.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Under The Cherry Moon

2 oz Bourbon - Buffalo Trace
1 oz Sour Cherry Syrup - D'Arbo

1 oz Lime Juice - Fresh (one average lime)

Add bourbon, lime juice, and cherry syrup to a cocktail shaker with crushed ice.  Shake vigorously and strain into your favorite glass.  Twist some lime and rub the rim of the glass...and of course, enjoy!

A friend recently asked me about options for making a simple, "easy to enjoy" bourbon cocktail. It got me thinking, and somehow this was the result.  I may be biased, but I think this is one of the best "easy" bourbon drinks I've ever had.  Each ingredient is identifiable, with its own clear voice, while serving to build a brilliant chord.  The lime brightens the bourbon and tames the alcohol.  The cherry carries the vanilla and oak of the bourbon, while sweetening up the lime.  The bourbon brings a little warmth and earthly grounding to the nose and tongue.  It's a dangerously good roshambo of a cocktail.

I usually try a new recipe with a couple different bourbons, but the Buffalo Trace works well, and I only had time for one drink.  I'll probably try again with the last of my french-oaked Bulleit just to see how the balance holds up with a very different bourbon, but I'd guess just about any bourbon would taste good in this drink.

And while I normally prefer to make my own syrups for cocktails (more on this topic soon), the Sour Cherry from D'Arbo is outstanding.  Not sure where the wife bought it, or for how much, but the internets have heard of it, so there's no excuse for you not to buy some.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Uncle Steve

3 oz Bourbon - Bulleit Bourbon
1 1/2 oz Lemon Juice - Fresh

1 1/2 oz Grapefruit Juice - Fresh
1/2 oz Orgeat - Small Hand Foods

Add bourbon, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, and orgeat to a cocktail shaker with crushed ice.  Shake vigorously and strain into a highball or double old fashioned glass.

This drink is named in honor of my uncle Steve Jobs.  He loves it.  It's a very gentle introduction to bourbon cocktails.  The overall effect is not unlike a true Mai Tai (please no pineapple or grenadine!).  The Bulleit has a relatively high rye content, giving it a spicy smooth finish.  The grapefruit adds some floral notes and breadth to the citrus flavor.  And the orgeat adds sweetness, great smooth mouthfeel, and nutty complexity, which plays well with the bourbon.

As an even gentler option, you could try topping off the glass with a plain seltzer (about 1 1/2 oz) and giving it a gentle stir.  And what the hell, add a grapefruit twist.

A note on orgeat:
Please don't use that Torani syrup.  Maybe it's ok to doctor up your mocha, or in some cookie dough, but in a fine mixed drink you want to use an actual orgeat.  The difference is like Kraft slices vs a fine Double Gloucester.  Yes, the Small Hand Foods Orgeat is very expensive.  But it is top notch, and it's local to me.  And of course, for that rare occasion when The Baron wants a drink made with that other brown liquor, a good orgeat is required for a Mai Tai. 

I've read about Trader Tiki's Orgeat which is less expensive, but haven't yet tried it.  If you have, please let me know what you think.

No, Steve Jobs in not my uncle.  And as far as I know he has never tried an Uncle Steve.  I don't know if he drinks anything other than bottled water.  If you are Steve Jobs: please try this drink and let me know what you think.  I hope it cures whatever ails ya.

[EDIT] I don't have words to express how sad Steve's passing makes me.  Everyone that knows me knows how much reverence I had for Steve.  And I'm somewhat confused by the number of visitors that are arriving at this page having searched for "Steve + Jobs + cocktail".  Hopefully no one thinks this was written to somehow deride him.  If anything, I regret the drink not being worthy as a tribute to the man.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Bourbon Go-Kart - Or, the not quite a sidecar

2 oz Bourbon - Woodford Reserve recommended
1 oz Orange Curaçao - DeKuyper, or similarly inexpensive
1 oz Fresh lemon juice

Add bourbon, orange curaçao, and lemon juice to a cocktail shaker with crushed ice.  Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled standard cocktail glass.

While extremely similar to a bourbon sidecar, this differs in the proportion of ingredients.  Specifically, the goal of the go-kart is to excel past the cheap orange liqueur (a common problem in many homes and bars), and let the bourbon shine with the lemon juice.  There's a reason so many classic cocktails pair bourbon with lemon...the lemon oils elevate the vanilla of the bourbon while the acid brightens and counters the alcohol bite.

As for bourbon selection, Woodford Reserve is a great choice for its strong vanilla nose.  It's also a quality bourbon for it's price range.  I've tried this cocktail with Baker's 7 year, and while it was good, my current bottle of Baker's leans to the oak and leather side, with noticeably less vanilla in the nose.  Not bad, but the Woodford is the better match for this drink.

And as you may have noticed, unlike most sidecar recipes, I called for crushed ice...I personally think the slight looseness added by using crushed ice helps to keep this a very light and refreshing drink.  Definitely at the top of my warm weather cocktail list.

Enjoy!  And let me know what you think.

The American Spirit


Sit on that for a minute.  It's a word that means so much to so few, and almost nothing to most.  A drink of the the older, the aged, the down right elderly.  A leftover from an era lost, gulped, and long forgotten.  A fierce brown appendix of the drinking world.

But those old Kentucky stills are busy these days, making some of the best bourbon the world has ever seen.  So I hope to introduce some of you to the joys of sipping, mixing, and even baking with bourbon.  And maybe along the way we'll all learn some history, some science, and a little something about ourselves.

A little about me:
I'm an Information Systems Architect by day (and often by night).  I was born and raised in a small farm town turned suburb named Carlisle, outside Boston, MA.  After a couple of degrees, road trips, and some floundering, I now live with my lovely wife in the San Francisco bay area.  In addition to swilling bourbon, I'm a craft beer lover and homebrewer, a musician, and a motorcyclist.  Yes, some of those interests work together, others do not.