January 2, 2008

Handicapping a Bourbon Derby

Photo provided

I convened a large group of bourbon fanciers to take over a tavern in Saratoga Springs, NY, and spend the evening sampling a range of the golden-amber whiskies. Here were the results.

Basil Hayden: This was a nice starter. Mild enough not to deaden the palate for the later samplings. It's one of the popular Jim Beam Brands "small batch bourbons" and a good starting point for those people curious about bourbons but under the misapprehension that one sip will knock you head-over-teakettle. It's a light, clear distillation with slightly citrus overtones, a pale amber look and mild aroma.

Hancock's: This single-barrel whiskey (which means it is not a blend of several barrels) has a somewhat sweet taste, making it perfect for mixed drinks. One taster said it had "almost a clove taste," another that it was "a tad strong and sour." It got its highest marks for color and aroma.

Woodford Reserve: Here we began nudging above the 90-proof brands. This one attacked the palate with its not-unpleasant hints of leather and tobacco. "Too much going on!" said one judge. However, "That is beautiful," said another while holding his glass up to the light. Two sips later he compared the taste to that of diet soda. Several found the aroma flat after the initial leather/tobacco experience, but two others liked the lingering finish. Everyone loved the look of it and the mellow aftertaste.

Elijah Craig: Here we were into the 18-year-old stuff, although still at around 90 proof. "It's amazing what age does to a bourbon," remarked one judge. "Great when sipped slowly," said another. Most thought the aroma complex with many diverse scents -- vanilla, caramel, spice. Finished on top of the field in three categories: clarity, aroma and smoothness.

Pappy Van Winkle's: This 90-proof 20-year-old was much touted by our barkeep, but didn't fare as well with some of the judges. The good comments: "Sweet, woody finish." "Could be a winner for some." "The color is perfect." The bad: "A bit sharp and fruity." "Too much bite." "Far too pungent an aroma; works against the taste all the way."

• Booker's: This unfiltered 120.5-proof whiskey is bold in color, aroma and taste. Its powerful taste and high alcohol content can smother other tastes, so it's best to have it as an after-dinner drink with a splash of water. (Contrary to what you may think, adding a bit of water to a fine bourbon only lengthens the lingering aftertaste, rather than diluting it.) "It has a strong initial bite that levels out just a bit. The bite shouldn't be confused with the fact that it is very smooth," said one judge. "Makes me want to dance," said another who, it should be noted, did not.

When the scores were counted up, Elijah Craig (109.2 points) was the winner by a fairly wide margin over Pappy Van Winkle's (101.5) and Booker's (100.5). The bottom three were Hancock's (94.5), Basil Hayden (86.5) and Woodford Reserve (82.4).

Of course, given the Elijah Craig place in history that gives credit to the Rev. Mr. Craig for creating bourbon, just being selected to be in the same competition with it is an honor.

Go back to Dowd On Drinks main page.


Anonymous said...

Bill - Why, oh why was there no public notice of the bourbon tasting? Aren't you required by law, or common decency, to disclose such important meetings?

Thanks for the rundown.

Albany(ish) Bourbon Man

William M. Dowd said...

My e-mail notification to you must have been deleted as spam.

(Bourbon, incidentally, is an excellent accompaniment to Spam.)