In a Shot: In preparing for my first professionally worked tasting event, I studied the cracks and crevices of Bourbon down to it's nit and grit. The facts, the legends, the laws, the cultures, the science, the politics and every other aspect of the amber brown whiskey that makes it as rich in flavor as it is in lore and history. If you've ever wanted to know anything about a few good bourbons, here's the post to read. It's long and filled with useless and important information gathered from every possible source including internet discussion boards relating to bourbon, Virginia ABC Law Codes, Andrew Barr's Drinks: A Social History of America, Simon Newlyn Difford's Sauce Guide to Drinks and Drinking, Michael Jackson's Whisky Bible (No, not the recently deceased pop singer. If you don't know who Michael Jackson the spirits, wine and beer mogul is, LOOK ANY OF HIS BOOKS UP), Ted Haigh's Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Mittie Hellmich's Ultimate Bar Book, Wikipedia, YouTube and all of the whiskey's/distilleries home websites, The History Channel and Travel Network, communication with distillery representatives via phone and email and of course, going directly to the source by visiting a barrel making company (1,000 Oaks Barrel Company) and all local distilleries in the area (Wasmund's, Catoctin Creek & A. Smith Bowman), which included one of the Bourbons at the tasting. The notes presented below are very long and even then, so much was filtered so as not to clog my brain with TOO much before the tasting, so this is still even notes that have been filtered and cut a little bit, I simply couldn't produce notes truly barrel proof! All of these wonderful bourbons are currently available at local abc stores and if not on the shelves, can be special ordered by simply asking the clerk behind the desk. A truly amazing experience I really wish I could've shared with everyone, but hopefully, these notes can help all of you find your way to possibly your own bourbon tastings in the future. Cheers!
John’s Bourbon Tasting Notes
What is bourbon?
Bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA though it is primarily made in Kentucky (Roughly 95% of the market). Originally, because it had more senators than its neighboring states when the laws were being made, Kentucky was the only place that could state its name on its Bourbon labels. Bourbon whiskey must be produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn (Usually it’s between 70 & 80) and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type. No coloring or other flavors may be added to Bourbon. To be called “Straight Bourbon” it must be barrel aged for a minimum of two years. By today’s practices, most Bourbons are aged for over four years and have a mashbill of roughly 2/3 corn. So most Bourbons are “Straight Bourbons” without being labeled as such.
Where did it come from?
18th century in newly settled Kentucky. Entrepreneur, Reverend Elijah Craig, opened a distillery. According to legend, rather than discarding barrels originally used to hold fish, Elijah burned the inside of the barrel to be reused since barrels were limited. He discovered that by burning the inside of barrels his whiskey had a richer amber color, had a much smoother finish and imparted the barrels natural tannin and vanillin oils making a complex and sweeter whiskey. Elijah sold his whiskies to New Orleans. Sending the barrels down the Ohio river out of the Mayville port in Bourbon County (named after France’s royal house in gratitude for their assistance in the Revolutionary War.) was a long journey and the time plus the rocking of the boats left the whiskey in the barrels tasting even better. People started asking for more of that “Bourbon Whiskey”.
Between 1825 and 1845 a doctor named James Crow found that when making his whiskey if he blended about 20% of his old mashes with his new mashbill, his whiskey had a more consistent and reliable flavor. It is now understood that a natural acid released from this process controls bacteria from forming in whiskey and helps balance pH levels. This “Sour Mash” method has become industry practice for Straight Bourbon since 2005. These two men are considered the father and perfectionists of making Bourbon.
How do you taste Bourbon?
Spirits are high in alcohol, so when tasting them dead on, they can numb the palate. On the same token, using ice can freeze the tongue and limit the appreciation. Water however is essential in fully experiencing Bourbon. Take sips of water in between tastings to clean your palate. Use a water dropper to put a few drops into your whiskey. It disturbs the molecular composition of the liquor and can open deeper aromas and flavors. Look at the whiskey against a white surface and look at its color. With Bourbon, the darker the color almost always indicates a higher aged whiskey or was in a barrel with a heavier char. In short, the darker a Bourbon, the more complex it will be. Nose the whiskey by sticking your nose in the glass and slowly retreat to allow yourself to adapt to the ethanol. Have your mouth slightly open when smelling the Bourbon to open the back of your palate and obtain a three dimensional feel of the whiskey. This is the most important step as 80% of your taste is guided by your sense of smell. Taste the whiskey straight to get an impression of the body. Allow the whiskey to touch all the sensors on your tongue and inhale a little air into your mouth to further increase oxidation before swallowing. Exhale through the mouth and see how long the finish is and search for other lingering flavors or aromas. Dilute the whiskey with a little water and repeat the process and take notes as you go.
Comprehension from the raw materials.
- Grain – Members of the grass family that have their own attributes. Barley can taste nutty or lend malty cookie flavors to whiskey; rye is flavorful, versatile and can be spicy, minty or can be a source of dried fruit flavors in bourbons; wheat can be crisp, adding a honey sweetness and mellowness to the palate and corn can lend a creaminess, earthy and husk characters with spicy flavors that develop further during the aging process.
Flavors: Hard grain, grassiness, grassy sweetness, lemon grass or bison grass.
- Water – Limestone water runs rampant throughout Kentucky and makes for a firm-bodied whiskey.
Flavors: Soft, clean, Iron, passion fruit, chalky or scorched earth
- Fermentation – Natural reactions in fermentation or maturation can result in flavors that mimic those of certain fruits.
Flavors: Strawberries, orange/citrus fruits, pears & apples.
- Oak – Charred new American oak barrels have natural oils that impart sweet flavors into Bourbon.
Flavors: Vanilla, coconut, burnt sugar, caramel, toffee, tobacco, smoke, chocolate, bitter roots, wood & tannins.
What is a Column Still?
An invention created in lue of the time-consuming and labor-intensive methods of traditional pot-still distillation. It’s a continuously running distiller that produces a spirit that is high in alcohol and light in style. These tall, columnar stills are made of stainless steel with copper plates inside acting as sieves allowing liquid to trickle back down against the rising vapors. Hot steam enters at the bottom of the first column still while the fermented mash comes in from the top. An exchange of compounds takes place and the heavy compounds run out at the bottom of the still, while the volatile compounds leave the top of the still in the form of vapor.
What is a Doubler?
A doubler acts like a pot still: The liquefied vapors drawn from the fermented “distiller’s beer” still are redistilled to create the final product. The alcoholic content rises slightly in a doubler, to 65-69 abv and the resulting spirit is called doublings or high wines.
Define Small Batch, Single Barrel, Barrel Proof and Wheated Bourbons
Small Batch is not legally defined yet, primarily because nobody can agree on exactly what it means. Basically it translates to a distillery using fewer barrels to make a bottling than it would have with its flagship brand. The barrels would be of considerably higher quality than others in the ware house and located in a specific area of the warehouse that would make it unique. Traditionally, these barrels are allowed to also age for a longer period of time. Sadly small batch is dependent on who’s at the helm of the definition. This could mean that a distillery could pull the choice stuff from 4 barrels or 4,000.
Single Barrel, with a truer meaning, comes from one distiller, from one warehouse and from one barrel. Traditionally picked in the best part of the warehouse with the most drastic aging and flavor absorption, the Master Distiller then bottles each barrel one at a time.
Barrel Proof is the Bourbon industry’s answer to Cask Strength Scotches. All whiskies once bottled, are cut with other batches, traditionally chilled, filtered and cut with water to a desired abv. Barrel Proof whiskies come directly from one barrel and into a bottle always at a much higher alcohol content and usually with a more complex and aggressive flavor profile.
Four Roses “Small Batch” Bourbon
Owner: Kirin Brewery Co.
Method: Column stills
Capacity: 2.1 million gallons
Master Distiller: Jim Rutledge
Mashbill: 60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley/75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley.
- On the website, the story goes that Paul Jones, Jr created the distillery in honor of a striking southern belle whom he asked to merry. She told Paul that if her answer was yes, she would wear a corsage of roses at the next grand ball. She arrived to the ball wearing a beautiful white dress and a corsage with four roses. Another story, however, states that she promises showing up wearing four roses but doesn’t and he never marries then names his Bourbon Four Roses to remind him of his unrequited love.
- Yet another story goes that it’s named after Paul Jones’ four daughters who started a whiskey business in Georgia shortly after the Civil War.
In 1922, the Paul Jones Company purchased the Frankfort Distilling Company, one of only six distilleries granted permission to operate through prohibition to produce Bourbon for medicinal purposes. In 1943, the Canadian based Seagram's company bought Four Roses as it was the top selling Bourbon in the U.S. since the 30s and remained the most popular brand during the 40s and 50s. Seagram's eventually decided to discontinue the brand in the US, however and swiftly disappeared on the market. It wasn't until the name was repurchased from the Kirin Brewery Company in February 2002 and the help of Master Distiller, Paul Jones, where Four Roses finally made its return in the US winning several awards between 2005 and this year to date.
The unique production at Four Roses utilizes 5 yeast strains and two versions of mashbill recipes, rounding out to ten different expressions. Then, uniformly aging the medium-charred barrels in one story rack houses where the barrels are left undisturbed, the Master Distiller, Jim Rutledge (Since 1995), then blends all ten recipes to make their Yellow label, four recipes to make a “small batch”, a single barrel and several highest quality products for some premium expressions.
Located on the banks of the Salt River, the Spanish-Mission style architecture of the distillery was built in 1910 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It operates continuously except during summer months, typically July through mid-September. Their 20 off site low, single story rack houses are located an hour away in Cox’s Creek, Kentucky. At the distiller's discretion, Four Roses can pour a half oz sample of their Bourbon but due to state regulations, are unable to sell Bourbon products in their gift shop or have a portfolio tasting after each tour.
Four Roses Small Batch Straight Bourbon has 4 mashbills 2 that are 60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley and 2 that are 75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley. Respectively, 2 are made from a yeast strain they simple name the letter "O" while the other two from a strain named the letter "K". It's 45% abv and winner of the 2007 Five Star rating – F. Paul Pacult’s, SPIRIT JOURNAL, 2007 Silver Award – Whiskies of the World – International Spirits Challenge and 2007 Judges’ Best Award – Taste of the Bluegrass.
On the nose Four Roses Small Batch is delightfully fruity, spicy, medium body with hints of sweet oak and caramel. The palate showcases ripened red berries, rich, spicy, well-balanced, moderately sweet. The finish is soft, smooth and pleasantly long.
John J. Bowman Single Barrel Bourbon “Pioneer Spirit”
Owner: Sazerac Company
Method: Column still and copper doubler
Master Distiller: Joe Dangler
(I asked Joe Dangler what his mashbill is for the single barrel and he told me it was a company policy not to disclose that information)
- Founded in 1935 by Abram Smith Bowman. A. Smith is considered a micro-distillery by today’s standards.
- Early pioneer Colonel John J. Bowman first explored Kentucky in 1775. Four years later he moved his family to Lincoln County where they were among the earliest settlers of Kentucky.
- He was the great, great uncle of Abram Bowman, founder of Virginia's A. Smith Bowman Distillery.
- John, Abraham, Joseph and Isaac Bowman were Virginia militia officers in the American Revolutionary War. In 1779, they led thirty pioneer families to Madison County, Kentucky and established Bowman's Station. Later, the brothers helped establish and settle Fayette County. They were legends, admired and respected by fellow settlers for their courage and bravery. This hand-crafted bourbon whiskey is a tribute to these four heroic Bowman Brothers
- Originally located in Fairfax (Where I grew up), since prohibition was repealed, Bowman relocated to an industrial park in Spotsylvania County just 60 miles outside of Fredericksburg, VA.
- The distillery was originally the largest cellophane wrap producing plant in Virginia.
- Purchased in 2003 by the Sazerac Company of New Orleans who also owns the Buffalo Trace Distillery..
- Over time Bowmans discovered that by lining their racks up in narrow rows in the long end of their warehouse, their whiskey gained a more consistent flavor due to the travel of the airflow from one side of the building to the other.
- November 1st 2010 was the first day A. Smith Bowman Distillery could legally sell their whiskies on site. The first customer got their bottle of whiskey signed by the Master Distiller, was given signed bungs from his whiskey barrels and had pictures taken for a future press release regarding the historic moment in Bowman history. That customer was ME.
- Tasting Notes: toffee, leather, figs and almonds with a creamy oaky body and a long dry finish. The master distiller, Joe Dangler, who’s been with Bowman’s for 33 years says he gets a lot of vanilla and caramel on the single barrel.
Booker’s Small batch Bourbon:
Owner: Jim Beam Brands Co.
Method: Column stills
Output: 10.6 Million Gallons
Master Distiller: Fred Noe
- In 1988 this was the first Bourbon to be sold as a small batch called “Booker’s True Barrel Bourbon”.
- Booker’s was promoted as an uncut, non-chill filtered, barrel proof Bourbon.
- By 1992 Booker’s was being sold as is and joined by three other small batch bourbons thus creating a country wide movement.
- Booker Noe was the son of Jim Beam’s daughter and joined the family business in 1950.
- Being trained by his uncle he learned everything there was to know about the business. He became the brand’s ambassador until passing away early 2004.
- Based on a 200 year old tradition, a bottle originally created for just his friends, he barrel ages it between 6 to 8 years old between 121 and 127 proof.
- All of the whiskey’s selected to be Booker’s is located in the center of the warehouse where it receives the most fluctuation with cold and heat so that the whiskey extracts and soaks into the barrels during its longer aging process.
- Tasting notes: The aroma is of vanilla, caramel and fruit. Silky, oaky chocolate with cloves, toasted nuts, gingerbread, a hint of stewed fruit and creamy trifle. Chocolate orange finish with a medium long creamy spice garnish.
Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon
Owner: Buffalo Trace
Method: Column stills
Output: 14.3 Million Gallons
Master Distiller: Harlen Wheatley
ABV: 46.5 %
- Introduced in 1984 by then Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee, Blanton’s was the first single barrel to be sold on the market.
- Named after Colonel Albert Bacon Blanton, who joined the distillery in 1897 until he passed away 55 years later. A life size statue of him is on the distillery grounds.
- The barrels used to make Blanton’s all come from the center of the heat controlled Warehouse H, have a heavy char, with a 55-second burn, and the mature spirit is chill filtered before being dumped by hand then bottled by hand, one bottle at a time.
- There are eight different stopper designs, each with a different letter of the alphabet molded into it. When placed in order, spelling "B L A N T O N' S" the horse and jockey’s poses display eight different scenes of a horse race, from standing at the gate, to crossing the finish line with a win.
- Tasting Notes: Smooth, rounded, elegant with real presence. Vanilla, buttery corn, gingerbread with minty dark chocolate and caramel butterscotch. Honey sweetness on the palate with vanilla and spices. Smooth, chocolaty finish.
Van Winkle 12 Year Old Special Reserve Bourbon
Owner: Old Rip Van Winkle Company
Method: Column stills
Master Distiller: Julian III and Preston Van Winkle
ABV: 45.2 %
- The family ran Van Winkle whiskies began in the 1800s when Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle worked as a traveling sales man for W.L. Weller and Sons wholesale house in Louisville.
- Pappy didn’t approve of newfangled methods and put a sign outside his office declaring “No Chemists Allowed! Nature and the old-time "know how" of a Master Distiller get the job done here....This is a Distillery not a whiskey factory.” – Ironically, during Prohibition, his company had one of the few licenses to sell his whiskey for medicinal purposes.
- In May of 1935 at the age of 61, Pappy opened the newly completed Stitzel-Weller Distillery in South Louisville.
- His son, Julian, Jr. took over operations until he was forced by stockholders to sell the distillery in 1972. The rights to all of their brands were either sold with the distillery or to other distilleries.
- Julian Jr. held onto the ownership of only one brand name, the family named Old Rip Van Winkle and in 1981, Julian the III took over the family business
- Twenty years later, his son, Preston, joined the business. By 2002 the Van Winkles entered a joint venture with Buffalo Trace, where the product following the strict original “Pappy” recipes are now distilled and bottled.
- Pappy Van Winkle makes truly small batch bourbons, only about three or four barrels per bottling.
- The Van Winkles only chill filter bourbons under 100 proof, allowing the whiskey to fully soak up maximum barrel flavor.
- The Beverage Tasting Institute in Chicago gave Van Winkle 12 Year Old Special Reserve Bourbon a 98 out of 100 one of the highest rankings in any whiskey category in the world.
- The 12 Year Old Special Reserve was recognized with the "Trophy for Worldwide Whisky" and a Best-In-Class Gold Medallion in the International Wine and Spirit Competition for 2008.
- Tasting Notes: Superb, old aged wheated Bourbon. The mellow nose delivers in sweet honey, crème brulee, butterscotch, dark chocolate, cappuccino and vanilla crème anglaise. Full and round, the balanced and deep flavors of caramel, soft wheat and toffee are showcased with a gently sweet, balanced and lingering finish.
Bourbon Facts and Quotes:
- Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to President Nixon 1969 on being given a glass of I.W. Harper bourbon, “This is a very good whiskey, but you Americans spoil it. You put more ice in there than whiskey.”
- Kentucky has 121 ‘dry’ counties, the most of any other state.
- Bourbon is Kentucky’s leading export, employing 6,500 people.
- The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is the name of a tourism promotion intended to attract visitors to eight well-known distilleries: Four Roses (Lawrenceburg), Heaven Hill (Bardstown), Jim Beam (Clermont), Maker's Mark (Loretto), Wild Turkey (Lawrenceburg), Buffalo Trace (Frankfort), Thomas Moore (Bardstown), and Woodford Reserve (Versailles).
- Bardstown, Kentucky, is called the Bourbon Capital of the World and is home to the annual Bourbon Festival in September.
- Prohibition in the United States, also known as The Noble Experiment, was the period from 1920 to 1933, during which the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol were banned nationally as mandated in the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
Bourbon Food Pairings:
BBQ is the ultimate food pairing for Bourbon. Smokey sweet, meets smokey sweet. They were made for each other. Ribs would be the way to go. Apparently smoked ham is a big friend to bourbon also. Bourbon-cured smoked fish is mentioned on some websites. The main thing to remember is that Bourbon invokes the south. It is a southern drink and should be paired with southern cuisine. Anything fried or spicy will work triumphantly. Remoulade, ravigote, butter or whiskey sauces accompany bourbon every time. Crème Brulee, dark or milk chocolates, toffee or pecan bread pudding is a great dessert option. Major flavors from bourbon are vanilla, citrus, dried fruits, caramel/toffee, chocolate/coffee, nuts, wood and smoke.