PROOF POSITIVE September 2001

PROOF POSITIVE September 2001

Bourbon by the Numbers

Old habits die hard—especially for whiskey drinkers. Here’s how to find a Bourbon that’s a new take on an old favorite.

Having a signature drink—an old Bourbon standby—is a good thing. Your friends don’t have to ask what you want, and the local bar always has your “poison” on hand. Many of us, though, eventually get to the point at which we want something a little different—a different bottling by the same distiller, perhaps. It’s easy for some Scotch drinkers to find something new without venturing far outside of the brand that they’ve grown to love—think how easy it is for Johnnie Walker fans to find a new quaff. Bourbon drinkers, on the other hand, have a more difficult time discovering products that are similar to their old favorites. Some Bourbon distilleries, such as Maker’s Mark, make just one whiskey; others produce such a wide variety of bottlings that it’s impossible to pin down a distillery’s house style.

Single malt Scotch is far easier to categorize than Bourbon is. The vast majority of single-malt producers establish a house style, and, by and large, they stick to it. Furthermore, since Scotland is divided geographically into Scotch regions, a Scotch that hails from any one area can be loosely described as having characteristics common to others from the same neck of the woods. But the same doesn’t hold true in Bourbon country. It just doesn’t work that way.

We have tasted whiskeys from every Bourbon distillery in America, and, unlike what we know about Scotch, we’ve never found a correlation between a geographic location and the style of Bourbons made there. Given that most Bourbon distilleries don’t have a house style, and there’s no discernible geographic style, how are Bourbon drinkers to choose bottlings that are similar to ones that they already enjoy? So that your next foray into the liquor store doesn’t turn into a guessing game, we set out to group them for you.

Grouping the Bourbons
The rules of categorization we set for ourselves weren’t stringent. After all, we weren’t searching for whiskeys that were identical to each other, just bottlings that displayed similar styles and flavors. Complexity and balance are two aspects that we always look for when tasting distilled spirits, so they were the first two entries on our scoresheets. Then, taking Bourbon specifically into account, we put sweet, fruity, spicy and peppery on the list. By “sweet,” we mean whiskeys that displayed toffee, caramel and vanilla notes; by “fruity,” we mean flavors found in fruits such as oranges, cherries and plums. Similarly, we differentiated between “spicy” and “peppery” by marking spicy bottlings as those that show characteristics such as cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, rather than the high notes found in, say, white pepper.

After tasting each Bourbon, we rated the intensities of each of the above flavors. Was it more spicy than sweet? In our opinion, the “perfect” Bourbon would have equal amounts of sweet, fruity, spicy and pepper notes (but people who like peppery, not sweet, Bourbons, may feel differently). Bear in mind, though, that such a “perfect” whiskey would have to be complex and well-balanced to the max. When we find such a dram, we’ll let you know.

We selected the bottlings somewhat arbitrarily, making sure that we had samples from every distiller. Of course, we could sample only one whiskey from Maker’s Mark, whereas some other distilleries had quite a few bottlings from which to choose. Nonetheless, we think that we covered a large spectrum of styles in our quest to categorize Bourbons. Although we chose many very popular brands, we also threw in a few bottlings that aren’t widely known.

Sweet and Fruity Bourbons
These whiskeys didn’t score top marks in complexity and balance, though some scored well in one or both of those categories. However, the Bourbons listed below all lean toward the sweet and/or fruity sides. If you enjoy any one of these bottlings, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’ll enjoy the others.

Elijah Craig Single Barrel Bourbon, 18 years old (Barrel # 209, barreled on 12/14/78) (Heaven Hill Distillery, KY); 45% abv, $36.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon, Vintage 1991 [9 years old] (Heaven Hill Distillery, KY); $25.

Knob Creek, 9 years old (Jim Beam Distillery, KY/Jim Beam Brands Company, Chicago); 50% abv, $25.

Rebel Yell Bourbon (David Sherman Corp., MO); 40% abv, $11.

The Evan Williams bottling gained full marks in both the “sweet” and “fruity” categories, but fell down a little on balance here. The Elijah Craig bottling scored similar points in almost every column but displayed just a little less fruit character than the Evan Williams. Knob Creek and Rebel Yell also earned similar scores, except when it came to complexity. In that category, Knob Creek took the lead.


Complex, Well-Balanced Bourbons
We weren’t very surprised by the bottlings that found their way into this category. We looked for whiskeys that not only showed complexity in character, but were also well-balanced. Then we divided them into two fields, sweet and spicy, but since these bottlings are so well-balanced, expect to find a decent amount of spice in the sweeter bottlings, and a fair amount of sweetness in the spicier whiskeys.

Honey Barrels
Distillers say that their favorite whiskeys come from “honey barrels,” so we thought that we’d borrow the term for these sweet bottlings. The A. H. Hirsch and I.W. Harper scored identical marks in every category save one: The Harper was a little bit fruitier than the Hirsch bottling. Jefferson’s Reserve and Old Charter likewise has similar flavors, but the Jefferson’s bottling was not as peppery as the Old Charter was.

  • A. H. Hirsch Pot-Stilled Sour Mash Straight Bourbon, 20 years old (Cork n Bottle, KY/Preiss Imports, CA); 45.8% abv, $100.
  • I. W. Harper Gold Medal, 15 years old (Bernheim Distillery, KY/U.D.V.N.A., CT); 40% abv, $25.
  • Jefferson’s Reserve 15-year-old Straight Bourbon Whisky, (McLain & Kyne
    Distillery Limited, Louisville, KY); 45.1% abv, $47.50.

  • Old Charter Proprietor’s Reserve, 13 years old (Buffalo Trace Distillery, KY/The Sazerac Company, New Orleans); 45% abv, $27.

Spice Barrels
The Old Fitzgerald bottling in this group was spicy to the max, but didn’t display any true peppery notes, whereas both the Wild Turkey and Distiller’s Masterpiece bottlings showed maximum spice and almost as much pepper. The Van Winkle whiskey was probably the most subtle of this bunch, but a little boost in the “spicy” category placed it here.

  • Very Special Old Fitzgerald, 12 years old (Heaven Hill Distillery, KY); 45% abv, $33.
  • Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, Single Barrel Bourbon (Wild Turkey Distillery,
    Kentucky/Austin Nichols, New York); 50.5% abv, $40.

  • Distiller’s Masterpiece 18-year-old Bourbon, Finished in Cognac Casks (Jim Beam Distillery, KY/Jim Beam Brands Company, Chicago); 49.5% abv, $250.
  • Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon, 23 years old (Old Rip Van
    Winkle Distillery, KY); 47.8% abv, $170.

Spicy and Peppery Bourbons
As with the “Sweet and Fruity” whiskeys, complexity and balance in these bottlings did not come into play until after we considered their spicier aspects. If you like your Bourbon spicy, these quaffs are for you.

Basil Hayden’s Bourbon, 8 years old (Jim Beam Distillery, KY/Jim Beam Brands Company, Chicago); 40% abv, $30.

Booker’s Bourbon (Jim Beam Distillery, KY/Jim Beam Brands Company, Chicago); 62.8% abv, $50.

Distiller’s Masterpiece 20-year-old Bourbon, Finished in Port Casks (Jim Beam Distillery, KY/Jim Beam Brands Company, Chicago); 49% abv, $300.

Eagle Rare 17-year-old Kentucky Bourbon (Buffalo Trace Distillery, KY); 45% abv, $38.

Evan Williams 7-year-old Bourbon (Heaven Hill Distillery, KY); 45% abv, $10.

Old Forester Bourbon “Bonded” (Brown-Forman Beverage Company, KY/Early Times Distillery, KY); 50% abv, $13.

Old Grand-Dad 114 Barrel Proof (Jim Beam Distillery, KY/Jim Beam Brands Company, Chicago); 57% abv, $23.

Wild Turkey 101 Proof Bourbon (Austin Nichols, New York/Wild Turkey Distillery, Kentucky); 50.5% abv, $17.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Barrel Proof (Wild Turkey Distillery, KY/Austin Nichols, New York; at 54.4% abv, $30.

This proved to be a very interesting category, especially because, according to our tasting, Old Forester “Bonded” Bourbon had exactly the same characteristics—in every category—as the Wild Turkey Rare Breed. Two other whiskeys really stood out here: the Wild Turkey 101-proof, and the Eagle Rare 17-year-old. Not only were they spicy and peppery, but they were also well-balanced and delightfully complex whiskeys.

All the other whiskeys listed above took full marks for “spicy,” and pretty high marks for “peppery,” but it was the Eagle Rare and Distiller’s Masterpiece bottlings that showed better balance than the rest. Of course, you might ask whether balance should be brought to bear in this category: If it’s spice and pepper you’re looking for, perhaps you don’t want any vanilla or orange flavors.

The weird bird of this category was the 20-year-old Distiller’s Masterpiece, a whiskey that finishes its aging in Port pipes. Sure it’s spicy and peppery, and it’s also complex and well-knit, but this is also a whiskey that belongs in its own category. It shows notes of damp earth and a faint rubbery note that’s seldom found in Bourbon. We loved it, but will you?

Easy Listening Bourbons
You might be tempted to think that this is a “middle of the road” category, but think again. All of the whiskeys listed here scored very well in terms of both complexity and balance, but they are easier to approach than many other Bourbons—they may be “easy listening,” but they are also extremely well-crafted. Think mellow.

Baker’s Bourbon, 7 years old (Jim Beam Distillery, KY/Jim Beam Brands Company, Chicago); 53.5% abv, $35.

Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon, (Buffalo Trace Distillery, KY/The Sazerac Company, New Orleans); 46.5% abv, $45.

Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon (Buffalo Trace Distillery, KY) 45% abv, $25.

Jim Beam Black, 7 years old (Jim Beam Distillery, KY/Jim Beam Brands Company, Chicago); 45% abv, $14.

Maker’s Mark (Maker’s Mark Distillery, KY); 45% abv, $19.

Old Rip Van Winkle Bourbon, 10 summers old (Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, KY); 45% abv, $20.

Virginia Gentleman “90” (A. Smith Bowman Distillery, Virginia); 45% abv, $20.

W. L. Weller 19-year-old Kentucky Bourbon (Buffalo Trace Distillery, KY); 45% abv, $38.

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select (Brown-Forman Beverage Company, KY/Labrot & Graham Distillery, KY); 45.2% abv, $29.

The 7-year-old Jim Beam Black, Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, Blanton’s, Virginia Gentleman “90” and Elmer T. Lee all belong here. Although they show some spice in the mix, they all lean toward sweetness, thus making them perfect quaffs whether sipped neat, mixed with soda, or used in cocktails or mixed drinks.

Both the Baker’s Bourbon and the 17-year-old W. L. Weller are the spiciest whiskeys in this group, but they’re still very approachable. The “Ten Summers Old” Rip Van Winkle bottling is also a spicy dram, but its pepperiness prevailed over its sweetness just a little bit.

In the End…
We learned plenty from this little experiment. Perhaps the most important lesson came when we took all the bottlings, divided them into just two categories, sweet and spicy, and took a look at which distillery was producing what type of whiskey:

Jim Beam had a total of eight bottlings in the mix. Two fell to the fruity side, and six on the spicy side.

Heaven Hill was represented by four bottlings—two sweet, two spicy.

Buffalo Trace also had four whiskeys on the chart. Two were sweet, two were spicy.

Wild Turkey, on the other hand, had three bourbons included here, and all three fell to the spicy side. Surprised? Neither were we.

The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery’s two whiskeys were also spicy, and that didn’t surprise us, either.

The Brown-Forman Beverage Company had two bottlings in this trial, and although they came from different distilleries, both were actually distilled using the same mash bill (grain recipe) at the Early Times Distillery in Louisville. Old Forester, a spicy dram, is aged in Louisville, and the far-sweeter Woodford Reserve matures in Versailles, Kentucky, not too far away. Does this mean that the air in Versailles is sweeter than the air in Louisville? Yes. The difference in the Bourbons, though, is far more likely to be a result of the master distiller picking whiskeys with distinctive characteristics to send off to the countryside.

The biggest distilleries issue all sorts of different whiskeys, but now you have a jumping-off point: You can look at these lists, pick whiskeys you know and like, and perhaps experiment with some other bottlings in the same category. The world of Bourbon awaits you.


We didn’t include any Tennessee whiskeys in our chart, simply because we knew up front that they would all land in the same category: sweet and sooty. The flavor that differentiates these whiskeys from Bourbons comes from the sugar-maple-charcoal mellowing process they undergo before being aged. You’ll find this sweet sootiness in all Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel bottlings, but they are somewhat more subdued in Gentleman Jack and the 10-year-old George Dickel Special Barrel Reserve, both of which are sophisticated drams. For our money, though, when it comes to Tennessee whiskey, give us a shot of Jack Black or George Dickel Old No. 8 Brand—it’s what we drink when we’re feeling tough.

Published on September 1, 2001