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
├Ęs) 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.

Line-up:
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)
Summary:
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 winner...by 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.

Details:
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 extract...no 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.