I’ve always thought I liked bourbon, but never really knew what I preferred. To help with this crushing dilemma, I gathered some friends together and hosted a blind bourbon tasting. This way we could crown our favorites without any preconceived notions or brand typecasts. Eleven friends came over to share in the scientific experiment. The tasting resulted in some surprises, some grimaces, some indifference, and luckily, no sickness.
We proceeded as follows: Each person set out six different cups/glasses for the bourbons. I poured one ounce of each product, known only by number, into the cups. From here, people were instructed to examine each bourbon’s color, nose/smell, entry taste, and finish. With all six poured at the same time, the guests could go back and forth between the samples, comparing and contrasting the qualities. And everyone was encouraged to cleanse their palates between samples with crackers and water.
I’d like to take a moment to point out a few tricks about a whiskey tasting. Especially since people probably have more experience with wine tastings, there are a few things that differ.
1. Participants are encouraged to add a small bit of bottled water (anywhere from a few drops to a 1:1 ratio) to taste bourbon. Water mutes the alcoholic bite, while releasing the unique aspects.
2. People are encouraged to hold the glass in their hand. Heat from the hand warms the alcohol, further releasing the bourbon’s distinct traits.
Once we had a favorable amount of time to compare the samples, I revealed the brands one at a time. We discussed the bourbon’s interesting and historical points as well as expert descriptions of their characteristics.
The six bourbons poured were, in order:
2. Old Grand Dad Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
3. Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon
4. George T Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Uncut/Unfiltered 2009
5. Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Handmade Bourbon Whisky
6. Gentleman Jack Rare Tennessee Whiskey
Here is how they fared:
Woodford: Per the majority of everyone’s critiques, this was a middle of the road bourbon (but my particular favorite). I like Woodford for its distinct deepness in the sweet woody and smoky flavors. It is not bad bourbon, but to most, it did not stand out. Our panel of tasters noted that it had a nose of cinnamon, allspice, and carrot cake. They judged the initial taste to be pleasant and sweet; fruity and even orange. Later the taste became that of nutmeg, cereal, apple, caramel-like and toffee. Some reviewers noted it had a slight burn, but that it was pleasant over all.
Woodford is the official bourbon for the Kentucky Derby and Breeders Cup. It is crafted by methods started by Dr. Jim Crow back in the early 1800’s. The distillery is now owned by Brown-Forman, who also owns Jack Daniels. They use limestone water, corn, rye, and malted barley in the sour mash process. It is then triple distilled in imported Scottish copper pot stills, unique in the US. For the maturing process, it is stored in new, charred white oak barrels, specifically crafted for Woodford Reserve, which are then housed in a limestone warehouse.
Old Grand Dad: Many people were surprised at this bourbon’s identity. It ranked higher than some of the others for many people, and yet, it was the cheapie of the group. I could tell that it was not very “expensive” bourbon, as I had trouble getting it down straight (in a bad way). Still, it’s a great mixer. People commented that it had odors of kerosene, a weak alcohol sting, medicinal and yet, a bit of caramel. Beginning with tastes ranging from oat bran, pretzel, raisins to paint thinner and bland alcohol, it evolved into bland, fruity and lime flavors, with either a harsh, long alcohol finish or a smooth finish that revealed itself over time.
Old Grand Dad is an old bourbon, started by the grand-son of bourbon pioneer Basil Hayden Sr., (whose image graces the front of the bottle, and who has his own bourbon line named after him). At one point it was made at the Old Crow distilleries. But since 1987, it has been in the Jim Beam family. It was one of the only liquors allowed production during prohibition, as it was used as a “medicinal whiskey” for the sick, blind, and lame.
Blanton’s: This was the winner declared by most, which makes sense, since “more expensive” is stereotypically linked to better bourbon. This was the second most expensive. I myself was not taken away by this one, although I did like the finish. People discovered sweet smells of banana, vanilla, and butterscotch. The taste began with a hard, deep entry, as well as apricots and smoky flavors. Changing into more fruity elements, some guests were reminded of prunes and cake batter. It finished mellow and creamy with sweet fruit notes and a “proper burn.”
Blanton’s is known as the first single barrel bourbon to be marketed commercially in 1984. But the bourbon’s namesake stems back to 1897, where Col. Albert Blanton started his life working in and around bourbon. He worked his way up to run his own distillery, which he did though times that were tough for other companies. With a government permit, his was one of only four distilleries to make whiskey during prohibition. He was also able to kept production rolling through World War 2, when distilleries were required to focus on straight alcohol for the military. The bourbon is stored in an iron clad warehouse, and is the furthest warehouse away from the river on his grounds. This allows maximum summer heat to warm and age the bourbon before it gets hit with cooling moisture from the river. And in the winter they utilize steam heat to continually age the bourbon. It is now produced by Buffalo Trace, which also makes Ancient Age, Eagle Rare, George T Stagg, Van Winkle and many other brands.
George T Stagg: This was the special bourbon of the batch. In my research, I discovered that this is rather difficult bourbon to get. I was naïve when I got this treat, because I simply said to the local liquor store proprietor that I was hosting a bourbon tasting, and wanted something a little extra special, possibly expensive for the event. He went into the back and pulled this out from a “special” box. He assured me it was good, and we’d like it.
When I got home, I saw on the label that this was uncut, unfiltered bourbon right from barrel to bottle, resulting in a 141.4 proof. I’ve had Bookers before, and at 128 proof, that made my esophagus melt. So I was excited to put this up against the other bourbons blindly. The initial reaction from the smell was head-jerking, eye-watering burn. It became an event, waiting for each individual to reach #4. When someone got there, they uttered a “Whoa” or an *expletive* from across the room and we all laughed. I thought it smelled like Super Elastic Bubble Plastic (remember that stuff?). Others said it smelled of fiery turpentine, oakey, fruity, and like vanilla ice cream. But once we added water to it, the face melting traits subsided, and the true nature of the bourbon took effect. It went from a varnish, nail polish remover taste, to a smoky sweet entry with wooden, fruit, caramel, and cherry tastes and then a cinnamon, woody finish. Most judged this bourbon to be harsh, like a sickening fire. Or, simply put, “the bourbon that wants to kill all my children.”
Stagg is very rare indeed. They produce less than 600 cases of it once a year, every year, since 2002 (they did 3 batches in 2005). This makes it like a wine, where each vintage is unique with different characteristics (and different proofs, ranging from 129  to 144.8 ). Thanks to the high alcohol content, and flammability, this bourbon is considered a Hazmat, and cannot be taken on a plane. Because of its dangerous status, the earlier, high content bourbons were nicknamed Hazmats I-IV. The company Buffalo Trace makes this bourbon (see Blanton’s too), and they age it for 15-17 years in charred oak barrels. Then all the barrels of one vintage (around 89 barrels) are mixed together and bottled right away. The high alcohol content is also attributed to the way it is aged. Most scotches (for example) are stored and aged in humid environments, where, because of the moisture, less water evaporates. In the case of the Buffalo Trace Distilleries, the aging process occurs in drier conditions. Thus, more water evaporates, leaving the alcohol behind, raising the proof.
Maker’s Mark: Oddly enough, this is the bourbon that confused the most people. I say “oddly” because Maker’s Mark is, for my dollar, the definition of a middle of the road, average bourbon. It’s the one bourbon whose complexities are like a blank canvas, useful to judge other bourbons against. But one taster adamantly said he never liked Maker’s Mark, while sipping and enjoying this #5 the most out of the bunch. Personally, I did not write anything down because there was noting distinct I could say about Maker’s Mark (also this sample followed the 141 Stagg, which I now see, might have been poor arrangement). The smell was described as sweet, apple spice and medicinal by different guests. The entry and palate were described as lovely & light, sweet, caramelly, Jewish apple cake and over-all; adequate. And it finished with a sickening or syrupy taste depending, as always, who you asked.
Maker’s Mark is owned by Fortune Brands, who also own Jim Beam. The one most unique thing about Maker’s Mark is that it is not made with rye. The creator, Bill Samuels Sr., was a sixth generation distiller, and in 1953, he abandoned his family’s 170 yr old recipe. He did not want to waste years fermenting different experimental grain formulas, so instead he decided to bake different breads with different grain proportions. The best tasting bread recipe would be his new bourbon. The winning combination was that of barley and red winter wheat. So by 1958, we had our first bottle of Maker’s Mark.
Maker’s Mark has become a highly recognizable logo and image when one thinks of bourbon. That has everything to do with Mr. Samuels’s wife, Marjorie. She came up with the name, bottle design, trademark wax coated bottle neck with running tendrils, and even the font for the label. Now, more recently, Maker’s Mark has been extending its visibility, with its own brand of restaurants/nightclubs. The first Maker’s Mark Bourbon House & Lounge opened in 2004, in Louisville, KY (the menu was designed by Chef Al Paris, from Philly’s Zanzibar Blue). In 2008 and 2009, two more opened in Kansas City, MO and at the Indiana Live Casino (just outside of Indianapolis) respectively.
Gentleman Jack: This is the one whiskey (not a bourbon, but close enough for us) that benefited from being left to the blind taste test. There is definitely a preconceived notion of Jack (and Jim Beam) as being a cheap mass-produced, thus inferior, whiskey. Even though the brand we tried is deemed “Rare” the stigma is not easily broken. So it came as a great surprise to many that #6 was a Jack Daniels brand, especially since it finished as the #2 favorite (average agreement). When I tasted this, I noticed that it was lighter tasting, and the most “edible” of all the whiskies. People also noted that it has a weaker scent, but identified fruity characteristics like poached pear and a hint of citrus. The taste was sugary sweet, fruity and spicy with more of that citrus taste; perhaps, even a bit scotch-like. And the finish was clean.
In 1988, Jack Daniels introduced this refine recipe of higher end whiskey to cater to a slightly snobbier drinker. One friend said that this whiskey is basically what Jack used to be like when he was younger. He went on to argue that Jack Daniels changed their flagship brand into a lower quality version, and then repackaged the original recipe as this “higher shelf” brand. Jack Daniels Rare is filtered twice (once before and once after it’s aged) through ten feet of hard sugar maple charcoal, rather than the one time it does to the regular brand. It is this filtering that sets it apart as a whiskey, and not bourbon (bourbons are not filtered between distillation and barrel aging). The whiskey is aged in brand new, charred American white oak barrels that they specifically make themselves. The barrels are used once and only once.
With all the bourbons (and whiskey) revealed, we shared a final discussion about the prices per bottle and additional anecdotes. We came back to the bar, and topped off our glasses with our favorites, drinking them how ever we like them. As an added bonus, everyone enjoyed whiskey-pared hors d’oeuvres such as cheeses, apples, sausage, chocolates, veggies and “whiskey bark” (toasted marshmallows stuck to a bed of crushed almonds). Being a conservationist, I rounded up all the unfinished samples and recklessly poured them into an empty decanter, which became the now infamous “home-blend:” great for a whiskey sour, an old fashioned or a dare to drink straight. And for some odd reason, that’s really all I can remember about the evening…