Whiskey Tasting: Families and Flights

Another second Monday and another Number Ten Whiskey Tasting Symposium.  On Monday, January 14, 2019, we explored taste profiles within a particular distillery product line and compared two different distillery product lines.

The point?

We were tasting whiskey from just two distilleries, and these are main-stream ones at that.  We looked at age and proof differences within the Wild Turkey line and the Four Roses line and compared the six samples within and between the lines.  Would we get a clear sense of the differences between and among these Bourbons?

There are distilleries that produce a wide-range of product lines, or many types within one or a few product lines, and as you get to know American Whiskey, you can indeed develop a sense of distillery flavor profile(s) and that can become one guide you use as your refine your personal taste.

Wild Turkey

If you like Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon 101—a mid-level bottling—you’ll probably like one of their high-level bottlings, such as Kentucky Spirit.

The mashbill mix is often consistent at a distillery, and Wild Turkey is one example, where their Bourbons share the grain mix of corn, at 74%; rye, at 13%, and barley, at 12 % (Wild Turkey Ryes, of course, have a different mashbill). In addition to shared mashbills across their Bourbons, this distillery typically—perhaps invariably—uses a Char #4 barrel, which is on the high side of char (Char #3 is more common), and both the rye grain and the heavy chair contribute to the “spice” characteristics of their Bourbons.

Age, of course, is a big differentiator among a distillery’s various bottlings, and if many other factors (such as mashbill, char) remain the same, the effect of aging can be quite clearly noted, both in terms of smoothness and in regard to flavor complexity.  Wild Turkey’s entry Bourbon, Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon 81, is a blending of 4- to 6-year old Bourbons, and the lower proof (81) shapes the taste by balancing a gentler alcohol bite with this lower proof, against the relative lack of smoothness by dint of shorter aging in barrel; keep in mind that a 4- to 6-year Bourbon is plenty old enough to present smoothness, and at this point we’re talking about “rough” in relative or comparable terms .

Another differentiator is bottle proof. Wild Turkey Straight Kentucky Bourbon 101 is higher proof, but it’s bigger alcohol bite (or “burn”) is offset by another couple of years in the barrel, so the additional smoothness that further aging provides supports the presence of more spice from the char, adds complexity to the taste, and offsets the proof burn.

Both Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon 81 and 101 are blended from different barrels (and different ages, most likely), but since there is nothing other than straight bourbon going in, and Straight Bourbon from the same distillery, at that, these bottlings remain Straight Bourbon. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel Bourbon 101, shares much with Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon 101, but this bottling receives more attention from the master distillers at Wild Turkey, as they are bottling it from select barrels.  It is likely that these barrels come from the “sweet spot” barrel storage or rick areas of the warehouses, and the barrels get sampled at various times and put aside if the flavor profiles match what the master distiller is looking for.  In all likelihood, these selected barrels are aged longer, likely the full 8 years, instead of a potentially shorter period for at least some of the barrels that get blended into Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon 81 or 101.

The effect of aging is experienced in more smoothness and more flavor complexity, with the latter no doubt part of the barrel selection criterion.  Wild Turkey has other bottlings, including Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon, but that bottling is a blend of bourbon barrels that can range from 6- to 12-year, and so the age may average 8-year, but this is not a single barrel bottling. Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon is a “Barrel Proof” bottling, which means that the bourbons are being dumped from potentially various years, but not watered to be a bottle proof, but rather are bottled at (probably more or less, with a bit of water blending in) the level of alcohol in the bourbon as it is dumped, and which varies from bottling to bottling, with the current selection at Number Ten coming in at 112.8 Proof.

A recent addition to the Wild Turkey Bourbon line is Longbranch, a collaborative effort between the actor Matthew McConaughey and master distiller Eddie Russell. This is a recent release, but Bourbon review sites and publications report that this 8-Year Bourbon is similar to Kentucky Spirit, although bottled at 86 proof, and with the additional step of second filtration through Mesquite charcoal, which makes it yet more soft or mellow (as does the lower proof) and adds a bit of smoke (some say).

Four Roses

Four Roses, a distillery with a harried history, is these days owned by Kirin Brewery Company of Japan, which is one of the major international beverage conglomerates, which is a story in itself.  Four Roses was once a well-considered Bourbon, but Seagram’s bought the distillery in 1943, back in those dark days when blended whiskey was the norm, and by the mid-1950s, Seagram’s made Four Roses into just another blended whiskey, and not a particularly good one at that.  What was called whiskey (and still there are plenty of such product around) was a mixing of some barrel-aged (if you were lucky) whiskey with neutral grain alcohol (66% in the case of Four Roses Blended Whiskey!), and whatever additional ingredients to make it look right and taste like whatever.  Think bottom shelf and you have what Four Roses became, except that Seagram’s continued to make actual Four Roses Bourbon, which remained well-considered, but that was only sold in overseas markets.

The brand ownership changed in 2002 after Seagram was purchased by Vivendi, which rather quickly sold most of its brands to Diageo, which sold the Four Roses brand to Kirin, which discontinued the sale of blended whiskey to focus exclusively on Four Roses Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, largely because Bourbon had become increasingly popular in Japan, and it is that popularity that helps kick off our current Bourbon Boom, so thank goodness for weird corporate behavior and other cultures for saving American’s own culture. Basically, with Kirin, the Four Roses Lawrenceville, Kentucky distillery, which had continued to make good Bourbon, now sold it in America, and they started expanding the product line, after bringing back Master Distiller Jim Rutledge. In just a few short years, Four Roses was winning national medals and awards for its Bourbon.

Four Roses Bourbon is a “high Rye” Bourbon, with more rye in its mashbill. The distillery has a variety of mashbills, but the Small Batch and Single Barrel share Corn: 60%; Rye: 35%; Barley: 5%, while the Yellow Label uses this mashbill for one of the two Bourbons blended together; the other mashbill is 75%; Rye: 20%; Barley: 5%.

Although the Four Roses product line for this tasting is of Bourbons not necessarily sharing the same mashbill, the products chosen are a good match for the Wild Turkey selections, with the tasters right to expect more of a “rye bite” in the Four Roses.  This distillery has fewer products in the Four Roses line than does Wild Turkey, although there are some very high-end Bourbons being produced year-to-year, including the Four Roses 2017 Small Batch Limited Edition, Al Young 50th Anniversary, which is impossible to get, as the limited run has already and almost immediately been got.

The Tasting

This was a comparative tasting. The idea was to taste from low-to-high and to compare the lines and discuss taste perceptions among participants.  Participants were reminded to keep in mind how water can open up the flavors; the Four Roses Single Barrel, in particular, in my opinion, has a very marked difference when water is added. Spoons and bar ice were provided, along with the recommendation that a small piece of ice be added after first tasting the offered Bourbons straight.

The view among the tasters—not with exceptions—was the expected outcome that the younger whiskeys were good, but older were better, but the split between the product lines was fairly even.  There were tasters who clearly preferred the Wild Turkey profile, with 101 doing quite well and the Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel doing very well, more or less as I expected (especially since the Kentucky Spirit is among my personal favorites, but I love and admire Wild Turkey 101, too).  The four Roses Small Batch—the mid-level from that distillery—was the favorite of many. As I expected (or, who knows? pushed the participants toward my own conclusions?), Four Roses Single Barrel was a problem for some straight, coming across as hot, and complicated, but doing much better with some water which helped balance and integrate flavors.

The best thing about both Bourbon lines is price-to-taste ratio: Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit is the most expensive, but still often retailing for under $50, with Four Roses Single Barrel coming in a high-$30s to low $40s; the Small batch Four Roses is easily enough found for the low $30s around here.  Wild Turkey 101 is easily enough found at mi-to-upper $20s, although there are plenty of liquor stores that will be happy enough to push this bottle—especially the 1 liter size—into the low $30s.  Wild Turkey 81 can be found for low $20s, and Four Roses Yellow Label is the least expensive, around the $20 mark

Here are the details of the selection for this tasting:

Four Roses Yellow Label Straight Bourbon

Producer: Four Roses, Kirin Brewery Company of Japan

Mash Bill: Mix of Corn: 60%; Rye: 35%; Barley: 5% and 75%; Rye: 20%; Barley: 5%

Age Statement: N/A

Proof: 80

Tasting Notes: Nose has floral undertone with hints of apple and pear; Palate is soft, light, with fruity and floral essence; Finish is crisp with the fruit and floral characteristics brief, followed by light spice.

Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Producer: Four Roses, Kirin Brewery Company of Japan

Mash Bill: Mix of Corn: 60%; Rye: 35%; Barley:

Age Statement: N/A

Proof: 90

Tasting Notes: Nose offers toast, toffee, cinnamon, nutmeg, pit fruits and oak; Palate is velvety mouth-feel with raspberries, mild honey, cinnamon sugar, oak; Finish is moderately long with more honey, cinnamon and vanilla.

Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Producer: Four Roses, Kirin Brewery Company of Japan

Mash Bill: Corn: 60%; Rye: 35%; Barley: 5%

Age Statement: N/A

Proof: 100

Tasting Notes: Nose is fruity, spicy, floral, caramel, vanilla, cocoa, maple syrup, moderately woody; Palate has hints of ripe plum & cherries, robust, full body, mellow; Finish is smooth, long.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon 81

Producer: Wild Turkey, Campari Group

Mash Bill: Corn: 74%; Rye: 13%; Barley:12 %

Age Statement: 6 Year

Proof: 81

Tasting Notes: Nose is spicy, oaky with vanilla, rye and hints of fudge, coffee; Palate is solid, with notes of caramel and honey and hints of rhubarb and custard sweet, mocha; Finish is medium, carrying caramel and honey and baking spices, with prevalent char and spice.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon 101

Producer: Wild Turkey, Campari Group

Mash Bill: Corn: 74%; Rye: 13%; Barley:12 %

Age Statement: Blend of 6-8 Year

Proof: 101

Tasting Notes: Nose offers toffee and caramel with a limited alcohol, with spice and vanilla layering with toasted oak and butterscotch sweet notes; Palate is a good balance of sweet/spice, with sweet notes of vanilla, maple, licorice, and cinnamon contrasting with oak, spice, and char; Finish starts sweet, is medium in length, with bite, but carrying spice, pepper, and oak into a dry aftertaste.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel Bourbon 101

Producer: Wild Turkey, Campari Group

Mash Bill: Corn: 74%; Rye: 13%; Barley:12 %

Age Statement:  ~8 Year

Proof: 101

Tasting Notes: Nose has orange and lemon and sweet (canned) peaches at first, with baking spices (cinnamon and clove), then dark plums and raisins; Palate hits with gingerbread, with spicy cinnamon and vanilla followed by rye and pepper spice and hints of fruit; Finish is long, smooth, and spicy, yielding to repeat of palate flavor rounding into sweet notes.

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