It was back to Bourbon for the Number Ten Third Whiskey Tasting Symposium, and a different format: The Blind Tasting. I presented a range of Bourbon from the moderately priced to “high end” (i.e., expensive).
I was curious about how the range would shake out. No one—including me, (mainly because I’m easily confused)—knew which was which, until the end. I did know that I was mainly interested to see if the sub-$20 bottle would fare against the $100 bottle.
“A metaphysician is a blind man looking for a black hat in a dark room.”
This is a quote—or, likely, something of a misquote—of which I’ve long been fond. This kind of applies to the blind whiskey tasting.
I’d found the following attributions of similar sayings, and added this to the tasting handouts, mainly, probably, to show that I was in good company:
- A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black hat which isn’t there. (Charles Darwin)
- A metaphysician is a man who goes into a dark cellar at midnight without a light looking for a black cat that is not there. (Lord Bowen)
- The philosopher is likened to a ‘blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there.’ (William James)
And the poet Charles Simic also uses something like this quote, so, really, good company.
The over-all goal of this blind taste tasting was to rank the selections in terms of preference: which one did the participant like the best (and, for extra credit, why), down through the one liked the least.
This was an interesting experiment, but flaws in the process design might keep this from being published in a scientific journal, but more on that later.
Many Factors, Little Science
There are many different factors that contribute to a specific Bourbon’s taste. Age is one such, where, all other things being equal, the longer aged the smoother the whiskey. One interesting point of argument with Bourbons is whether the whiskey can be over-aged, or left too long in the barrel, since the trade-off for the smoothness of long aging can be a drop in the complexity of the whiskey. None of the whiskeys being tasted had this problem, although the age statements did vary some among the selections.
The barrel used and especially the level of its char is another factor, typically, where the longer the aging and the heavier (more burned) the char, the darker the whiskey and more oak flavor and more caramel flavors (sugars in the wood). I didn’t bother to look up what char was used in any of the four test Bourbons, but part of my selection process included appearance, and the Bourbons all looked about the same. Surprisingly so, in fact.
The combination of grain types and percentages that make up the mashbill is a contributor to flavor, one more likely to be identified by the taster, especially compared to barrel char factors. Corn tends to produce sweeter notes, while rye tends to produce spicier notes, while wheat presents a different sweet at the front of the tongue, while then transmuting into a dry taste further down the palate (weird, but true). By the way, Maker’s Mark and Larceny are two “wheated” Bourbons, if you are curious. There are some whiskeys made entirely (or mostly, anyway) from wheat; Bernheim is a good example, and a good-tasting example.
While I didn’t have the mashbills for every one of the Bourbon whiskeys being tasted, I had most, and I was pretty confident that mashbills were close one from another.
Proof—the percentage of alcohol in the whiskey—also effects taste, or more accurately, tasting, as the alcohol doesn’t have strong flavor in and of itself, but it does have a big effect on the experience of tasting. Whiskeys with higher proof will be typically more noticeable both from the nose hit of ethanol and in the “burn” felt in and following the swallow. The world seems to be made up of those for whom a Bourbon must have burn to be good (i.e., high proof) and those for whom the burn is less welcome, including, I suspect, most of the “Tums” crowd of aging men like me. The better approach to proofs, I think, is to see the range of proofs among whiskeys simply as part of the range of whiskey experiences, although knowing that you prefer lower or higher proof whiskey can help you in choosing the right Bourbons for you.
At any rate, I also selected for proof that had a narrow range, from 100 to 110, so that the taste comparisons weren’t overly influenced by very different proof one to another.
Also, Bourbons can benefit from added water (such as through the use of ice) to open up the flavors, and to offset the burn, so, really, the shopping advice I just gave you is kind of useless, if you like Bourbon with a splash or on the rocks.
And, most of all, and hardly definable, there is one’s personal tastes that quite often falls very differently from someone else’s.
How Much and How to Taste?
I had decided on one-ounce samples, which I had hoped would be enough to take straight, then add a bit of water (small cubes of ice). The base volume in the tasting was modest, and would allow for follow-up tastes, as final rankings were being deliberated. Second tastes were indeed often asked for, so the sample pour was a good choice from a public safety perspective, although I suspect that the better way would be to pour two three-quarter-ounce samples—one for neat, one for water—since I find three-quarter ounce to be the volume that best delivers mouth feel.
At any rate, the one-ounce pour it was, and into a double rocks glass, which sparked a discussion about proper tasting glasses, and how much a difference that might make, and I kind of fudged that answer because, a) I didn’t have better tasting glassware, and b) I couldn’t remember how to pronounce “glencairns.” Father forgive me for I know not what I do.
Plenty of water was available for between tastes, and even some food from the kitchen of Number Ten—various bits, like bacon-wrapped date with almond, and tiny, very cute, and surprisingly good for taste-bud relief grilled cheese sandwiches.
Pens and paper were provided for note-taking. Interactivity was encouraged.
As you’ll see, since I’m listing the Bourbons in the order they were served, the order was second-most expensive, followed by second-least expensive, followed by least expensive, followed by most expensive. Mix and match, indeed.
- Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Straight Bourbon; Producer: Wild Turkey, Campari Group; Mash Bill: Corn: 75%; Rye: 13%; Wheat: 0%; Barley: 12%; Age Statement: ~8-9 Year; Proof: 110; Retail: ~$60
- Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon; Producer: Four Roses, Kirin Brewery Company of Japan; Mash Bill: Corn: 60%; Rye: 35%; Wheat: 0%; Barley: 5%; Age Statement: N/A; Proof: 100; Retail: ~$45
- Evan Williams White Label (BiB); Producer: Heaven Hill (Heaven Hill Distillery); Mash Bill: Corn: 75%; Rye: 13%; Wheat: 0%; Barley: 12%; Age Statement: ~5 Year Old; Proof: 100; Retail: ~$20
- Yellowstone Distilling, Limited Edition Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 101 Proof (2017); Producer: Limestone Branch (sourced content from Heaven Hills); Mash Bill: Blend of distilled (4 Year): Corn (local heirloom white): 75%; Rye: 13%; Wheat, 0%; Barley, 12% and 7 Year (sourced) and 12 Year (sourced: Corn: 75%; Rye: 13%; Wheat, 0%; Barley, 12%; Age Statement: Blend of 4 Year, 7 Year, and 12 Year; Proof: 101; Retail: ~$100
The tabulation was done using this formula: participants ranked their preferences, with a “1” being best, “2” second best… well, you get it. So the lowest score of added rankings revealed the most preferred. (The methodology probably also reveals why I never bothered with taking statistics, but there were plenty of other reasons, and I’m not ranking them.)
At “19,” Evan Williams White Label (BiB) came out on top, followed by Yellowstone Distilling, Limited Edition Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 101 Proof (2017) with “22”; then Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Straight Bourbon with “23”; then Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon with “26.”
Price-wise, that means the most preferred was the least expensive, the second preferred was the most expensive, followed by one point difference by the second most expensive, followed, by some gap, by the second least expensive. Which makes me think of the old Abbott and Costello bit, “Who’s on First?,” which shows you how easily I confuse myself.
Evan Williams White Label (BiB) happens to be a darling of Bourbon reviewers at the moment, and I can see why: for a great price one gets a tasty high corn Bourbon with enough age to round it out but still leave plenty of character, including the rye bite, and at a solid proof, at that. Yellowstone Distilling, which is a non-distiller producer (NDP), is very highly regarded by the same cognoscenti and it is tasty and fascinating, but I’m one of those who actually prefers Evan Williams White Label. Russel’s Reserve has a lot of fans, although it is usually their 10 Year bottling, and the Russel’s Bourbon tasted is often assessed—using many different words and phrases to describe it—as “good, but kind of not noteworthy.” The Four Roses Single Barrel last place standing was interesting to me, reflecting my own view that the Four Roses Single Barrel bottling is less easy drinking than its rather fine Four Roses Small Batch bottling, which is one of my personal go-to’s, and which is an easy ten bucks less expensive, too. Both of these Four Roses use the grain mash common across the Four Roses product line, and this Bourbon is a high-rye” Bourbon, so the higher proof of the Single Barrel, together with the high rye, may be enough to produce to much bite.
Overall Conclusion: Fun
I’m not going to win any science research prizes with this work, and in the milling about after the tasting, some comments and questions about the methodology were raised, including, from a guy with advanced degrees and an actual friendship with Charlie Simic, the question about effect of placement in the line up of the selections, and whether being third in the process might be a sweet spot for tasting. Maybe, but I’m thinking he’s taken poetic license with the theory.
The biggest question I’m left with after this fun blind tasting is when next will I get to taste another Bourbon. Ain’t research grand?