Last week, some of my best new and old whiskey-loving friends got together for another meeting up of the Boston Brown Water Society. Last month, we kicked off the society in style with some full-bodied Scotches, and last week we crossed the pond for some full-bodied, barrel strength bourbons. We tasted the four bourbons mentioned above, and we did the tasting blind so as not to allow our preconceived notions about these bourbons to influence our palates. I have done my best to summarize everyone’s general thoughts (and some of my own) on these four wonderful bourbons from four of Kentucky’s most notable distilleries.
The first bourbon we tried was a private barrel selection of Four Roses, bottled for Kappy’s liquor store in Medford, Massachusetts. It was made from Four Roses’ OBSK recipe, aged 11 years and 4 months, and bottled at 109.6 proof (54.8% abv). This bourbon got mixed reviews around the table, ranging from really good to a very solid bourbon. This particular inculcation of Four Roses was especially spicy, with rye zip, chili peppers, and some black pepper. Those spicy, zesty notes and some alcoholic heat continue all through the bourbon, but are tempered out nicely by the addition of water, which calms the whiskey down and opens up more sweet flavors, such as caramel and butterscotch. Overall, this one is quite tasty, indicative of the consistent quality of Four Roses. My grade: B+. Price: $45-50/750ml.
The second bourbon we tried was Booker’s. This bottle of Booker’s was 7 years and 6 months old, from Batch 2013-6, and bottled at 125.4 proof (62.7% abv). This bourbon was widely put at the bottom of everybody’s list for the evening. I have been a bit proponent of Booker’s in the past, but this batch was not the best bottle to ever hit the shelves. There was a tannic bitterness that stayed throughout the nose, palate, and finish that most of us found off-putting. There were some sweet brown sugar and caramel notes that stayed throughout the bourbon, but this one did not bring the complexity or depth of the other bourbons of the evening. Water did not help this one much at all, either. My grade: B-/C+. Price: $45-50/750ml.
The third bourbon we tried was the third release of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof from Heaven Hill distillery. It is 12 years old and registers at a whopping 133.2 proof (66.6% abv). For many folks around the table, this bourbon was the highlight of the evening. The nose on this bourbon is unbelievably delicious, with all sorts of deep caramel, mocha, brown sugar, vanilla, and oak notes. The palate is plenty drinkable at barrel strength, but if you find it a little hot, water calms it down beautifully yielding notes of barrel char, spiced nuts, vanilla, and freshly roasted coffee beans. The finish is long, warming, and sweet. This bourbon was my personal favorite of the night, and I loved it equally as much at barrel strength and cut with a little water, demonstrating the complexity and depth of this sexy bourbon. My grade: A. Price: $45-50/750ml.
The final bourbon of the evening was Buffalo Trace’s Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof. This was the only whiskey we sampled without an age statement, but judging by its fiery 135.4 proof point (67.7% abv), I suspect this bourbon probably has at least an average of 10 years or so under its belt. This bourbon also garnered some votes for the best bourbon of the evening, and for good reason. The nose on this one is woody in a really good way, described as “funky in a good way” by several people at the table. There are some citrus notes in this nose as well, along with some spicier notes and some traditional bourbon sweetness. The palate is pretty hot, but water brings the heat into balance with the sweetness and yields a great bourbon. It remains quite woody and citrusy, but there are also notes of orchard fruits and a spice cabinet. The finish is long, warming, and mildly woody. Overall, this is a rough and ready bourbon in the best possible sense. It might not fit in at fancy dinner parties, but that’s alright with me. My grade: A-. Price: $60-70/750ml.
At the end of the day, these are all good bourbons, and none of them are too overpriced. The E.H. Taylor is the most expensive of the four, but some in our society believed this was the best bourbon of the lineup as well. The Elijah Craig packs the best value of the bunch, but it is very hard to find. The Booker’s is the most readily available of these four bourbons, but its variance from batch to batch does not always make this a great buy. The Four Roses was a limited edition, privately-selected bottling, but judging by what I have tried from Four Roses, if you see a bottle of Four Roses Private Selection Single Barrel available, I highly doubt you’ll be disappointed with the quality of the bourbon. The real moral of the story is that price, popularity, and exclusivity do not determine a bourbon’s quality. The only way to determine the quality of a bottle of bourbon is to crack the bottle, let it ride, and let the bourbon speak for itself.