No, I’m not in prison, unless an obsession with American Whiskey counts as such. At the “Number Ten Ninth Symposium Whiskey Tasting: Now Serving Ten-to-Twelve,” we tasted older Bourbons and again explored the connection–or lack thereof–between bottle price and preference.
I’d updated the Number Ten American Whiskey List a while back, increasing the offerings from 70-something to 105 items, capturing a few of the hard to find whiskeys, but still concentrating on mid-price whiskeys. The focus on reasonably priced American whiskeys is, I believe, an important one and important mainly for one reason: there are a good number of terrific Bourbons, Ryes, and other American Whiskey categories that remain reasonable in price. It is easy to find on the liquor store shelves–well, less easy these days, I’ll confess–a solid Bourbon that may be as inexpensive as $25 dollars. If you can add another $10 to your bottle budget, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try and enjoy many great Bourbons and Ryes (and other American Whiskey.
Age Isn’t Everything
There are a lot of reasons to be discerning about your choice of whiskey besides the list price or the age statement. People have different tastes and one person’s go-to Bourbon may not be another person’s go-to Bourbon, of course.
But if you are using Bourbon or Rye as a cocktail base liquor, there is also the characteristic of the cocktail to consider, determined in large part by the other ingredients going into the drink. The Boulevardier that we make at Number Ten is a good example of the need to choose a base Bourbon thoughtfully.
Our Boulevardier uses Gran Classico instead of Campari, and Gran Classico is based on recipes of a precursor to the Campari bitter aperitif, and this older-style recipe offers more complex flavors. Furthermore, The sweet vermouth used in the Number Ten Boulevardier is Carpano Antica, which a darling of almost every cocktail maker these days because of its own complex flavors. If one were to use a low-proof and simple Bourbon, the other two ingredients would overwhelm the Bourbon and put the cocktail out of balance, and that’s even with our going two parts Bourbon to one part each of the Gran Classica and Carpano Antica. A great Bourbon choice for this version of the Boulevardier, I think, is Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style that offers a good proof (115 Proof, if I’m remembering right) and flavor complexity to stand up to the other ingredients for great balance. By “complexity” in regard to Bourbon, I mean one experiences a lot of different layers, aspects, and transitions of flavor on the nose and palate and finish.
By the way, I’m not talking down “low-proof and simple” Bourbons. One example of a good one of these is our well Bourbon, Four Roses Yellow Label, which works fine in many cocktails, and is quite tasty on its own, doing just fine with some ice. You just won’t be tempted to write a long treatise to describe its flavor, since Four Roses Yellow Label doesn’t have reams-worthy amounts of flavor complexity. That doesn’t mean you should avoid it, except for cocktails that are aggressive in the other components, and besides, this is a nice Bourbon if you like your bar tab to be smaller.
Acting One’s Age
It is often true that the age statement—how long the whiskey has been barreled—correlates to smoothness, but age is not a guarantor of great flavor or smoothness. The question I wanted to explore at “Number Ten Ninth Symposium Whiskey Tasting: Now Serving Ten-to-Twelve,” was how well older Bourbons hold up in a blind tasting. I’ll admit that this is something of a sport of mine, and this Ninth Symposium was the second blind whiskey tasting we’ve undertaken this year, although the first to look at and compare Ten Year and older Bourbons. (The first blind whiskey tasting presented a wide range of ages, and the oldest and by far most expensive offered did come in first, but only by a tiny margin; the second-place Bourbon was the youngest, at Four Year, the Bottled-in-Bond Evan Williams White Label, which retails in the low $20s. Also, the nature of these tastings is hardly that of rigorous science experiments, as both sample size and methodology are modest.)
For the Ninth Symposium, I went with Elijah Craig Small Batch, which once possessed a 12 Year age statement, but recently dropped the practice. Although still well-aged, the production volume requirements for this well-priced (~$30, retail) and tasty Bourbon have the distiller mixing different age batches for consistent flavor, and therefore making age statements variable and impractical to report.
The second choice was also from Heaven Hill, and also around $30 retail, and carrying a 10 Year age statement: Henry McKenna 10 Year Old Bourbon Whiskey Single Barrel. While this Bourbon is one of my favorites, I’m pretty sure I didn’t telegraph the preference. The McKenna did well in the tasting, although this Bourbon and the Elijah Craig more or less split second place.
In a completely unreliable confirmation of my prejudice against over-valuing Bourbons, last place fell to Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond 11 Year Old Bourbon, which happens to retail at around $130-$150. Old Fitzgerald produces special bottlings twice a year, at varying age statements, and the more recent bottling, which is a Bottled in Bond Nine Year Old Bourbon, has much better reviews in the whiskey blogs than its predecessor, although, to be fair, both come in very attractive decanter-style bottles (eye-roll, please). The distiller is Heaven Hill, and if you are detecting a trend here, well, who knows?
The winner of the tasting wasn’t a Heaven Hill Bourbon, but one from Buffalo Trace, a Sazerac Company, in the form of W. L. Weller 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon, known colloquially as Weller 12. The Weller Bourbons have been getting harder and harder to find, at least in part because of the high reputation, but if you do come across Weller 12, you can often still pick it up for under $50. Unless you buy the bottle through the secondary market, where the price has pushed beyond $300, which should give you some idea about why the whiskey is hard to find and why there is a secondary market, but that’s another story.