Bourbon. So it’s made out of corn. Barley can be included for its enzymatic activity, rye for spice and dimension. Most of this American whiskey is produced in Kentucky by only a handful of distillers. Why are there so many different brands? If Jim Beam offers a finer selection, for more money, doesn’t its absence just degrade the standard blend?
If Bourbon branding is like wine, the proliferation of labels is meant to segment the market and feed dollars into handlers’ pockets. But now, after decades of appreciation and an intensive three-week re-examination – both of the taste and the literature – it’s clear that this brand structure works in the consumer’s favor.
I wish to organize the general taste characteristics of some reference point Bourbons. This requires knowing the bourbons and knowing my palate. The former is served by drinking. The latter effort is best advanced by situating my own sense of taste in relationship to other credible witnesses. Where to turn? The comment-sphere is heavily biased by commercial interests. And the sheer volume of tasters contributing their notes to supposedly democratic fora doesn’t necessarily mitigate this influence. Tasting requires equal amounts of open-mindedness and conviction. Laugh if you want, but it’s work!
So where do we find credible thoughts on bourbon? M. Shanken Communication Inc.’s Malt Advocate? Ha. No. Bourbon Enthusiast? – blind leading the blind. Industry flacks? Actually, yes. That’s a helpful source, that last one. But my favorite commentator I’ve found is the whiskybitch, Amy Douglas. And the most helpful thing about such reviews is when I discover her responses that differ from mine.
For example, she likes the dramatic power of Knob Creek and Bookers more than I do. I like the elegance of Springbank and Basil Hayden presumably more than she does. I have an outlier’s love for water in my whisky. She tends to favor barrel strength. These are the facets of the prism through which we experience Bourbon.
So I want to curate flights of Bourbon that can illustrate something memorable. One approach is to isolate variables, such as the distiller, or the mash bill, and show several examples of the variation. We can do that. But I am also seeking to use the selection process to illuminate the gaps in the way flavors are organized across Bourbons along a more experiential, sensual measure.
So to organize this I will use the space here to characterize Bourbons in four quadrants. 1) strong and simple. 2) strong and complex. 3) delicate and simple. 4) delicate and complex.
Delicate and Complex. Example: Basil Hayden. Alternates: Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace.
Delicate and Simple. Example: Hancock’s President’s Reserve. Alternates: Traverse City, Maker’s Mark.
Strong and Simple. Example: Booker’s. Alternate: Wild Turkey 101.
Strong and Complex. Example: Rock Hill Farm’s Single Barrel. Alternate: Blanton’s Single Barrel.
I intend to discuss these Bourbons in more detail in future posts.
In the mean time, here are some descriptors that help make sense of this diverse genre:
Spice (attributable to rye in the mash bill), vanilla (oak), butter (ferment), cherries, apples, oatmeal cookies, wine, tree sap, minerals, hay, weeds, dried banana, lemon pledge, walnuts, pecan, almonds, wood, orange peel, carob, gunpowder, twigs, campfires, molasses, toffee, paraffin, goji berries, parsley, raw beans, cinnamon, clove oil, and Branston pickle.