This month’s Spirits & Beer Buying Guide reviews a healthy cross section of newly released and old-standby American whiskeys. Many of the brands are household names (Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Jack Daniel’s) while others (Old Whiskey River, Sazerac, Eagle Rare) may not ring the gray-matter chimes of anyone but the most informed of imbibers.
These whiskeys, born mostly in the traditional whiskey-distilling states of Kentucky and Tennessee, represent a solid portfolio of what’s old and new in the 2002 marketplace. By Congressional decree in 1964, Bourbon was officially recognized as being the native spirit of the United States. Quite right, too. No distilled spirit is more closely identified with America than this classic whiskey made primarily (at least 51%, by law) from that most American of grains, corn.
Bourbon, to the surprise of most consumers, can be made in any of the 50 states, but can only be produced within the borders of the U.S. While the lovely state of Kentucky is most closely associated with Bourbon production, fine Bourbons have been and still are distilled in other states. Virginia, for example, is famous for its Virginia Gentleman brand. Tennessee, on the other hand, is renowned not for Bourbon, which they adamantly do not make, but for sour mash whiskey.
The differences between true Bourbons and Tennessee sour mash whiskeys, which involve customary filtering techniques, are minimal. In reality they are similar, with Tennessee sour mashes typically being slightly smokier than Bourbons. Also, because corn is a sweet grain, the majority of American whiskeys are sweeter than the whiskeys of Ireland and Scotland, where the primary grain is usually barley, a dry tasting, slightly bitter grain.
This September, we also look at some of the finest beers and ales available from Europe, the United Kingdom and the U.S. The loudest noise in the American beer market is being made at the moment by the flood of imported beers.
—F. Paul Pacult
CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation
Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 45% abv, $40. The shiny, deep topaz color is textbook old Bourbon. Baked, nutty aromas of saddle leather and vanilla extract greet the olfactory sense; later whiffs discover almond butter, fruit cake, nuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, citrus peel and cake batter. Palate entry is caramel-like; midpalate phase sees the flavors turn honey sweet yet not in the least cloying or syrupy. Aftertaste is rich, toffee sweet, cocoa-like and extended. One of the contemporary Bourbon greats.
W. L. Weller Centennial 10 Year Old Wheated Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 50% abv, $30. Dark honey color. The bouquet is neither aggressive nor fat; it’s nutty, oily, off-dry, complex and tantalizingly nuanced. In the mouth, this thoroughbred whiskey offers surefooted, moderately sweet flavors of molasses, dark chocolate, nougat and nut meat. Aftertaste provides a striking balance of finesse and power. One of America’s finest whiskeys. Best Buy.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Bulleit Frontier Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 45% abv, $18. Initial nosings pick up soft, even flowery scents of violets and juniper; later whiffs identify melded aromas of dried herbs, hay, dry cereal, wild flowers, mushrooms and spice. Plenty of grip at palate entry; midpalate is plump and sweet corn-like. Finish is moderately sweet and long. An understated whiskey that subtly displays multiple levels of complexity. Best Buy.
Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 45% abv, $40. Deep amber hue. Opening nosing passes detect a no-nonsense bouquet laced with an astringent oakiness that’s crisp, clean and direct; later sniffings pick up layered scents of corn husk, buttered popcorn, resin, lead pencil and a hint of caramel. Flavor shows fat tastes of old oak, cream, almond butter, bacon fat, vanilla extract and smoke. Aftertaste is warming and semisweet.
Gentleman Jack Rare Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey; 40% abv, $25. The toasty, oaky, oily, smoky bouquet is fat and buttery in the first nosing pass; with further air contact deeper aromas emerge, most notably, honey, old saddle leather and walnuts. In the mouth, there’s a wide range of tantalizing flavors, including loose tobacco, raisins and coffee. The finish bites the tongue at first, then mellows into a Sherried, almondy taste. Complex, multilayered, and luscious.
Knob Creek 9 Year Old Small-Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 50% abv, $26. Pretty medium amber/russet color. Opening inhalation detects voluptuous, deep aromas of toasted walnut, cereal grain, and dark toffee; aeration serves to stimulate even deeper scents that include honey, hard candy and overripe peaches. There’s a burst of palate entry heat; midpalate features mature flavors of kiwi, key lime, raisins, plums and grapefruit. Aftertaste is rich, textured and sweet. One of my favorite muscle-bound tipples. Best Buy.
Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 45% abv, $23. Sublimely sweet, ambrosial bouquet that features vanilla, chocolate fudge, buttermilk and hazelnut. On the palate, it’s impeccably balanced; rich, mature flavors of tobacco leaves, caramel, red fruit and pine come together elegantly on the tongue. Aftertaste offers dark caramel and sweet pipe smoke. Best Buy.
Michter’s 10 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey; 47.2% abv, $50. Orange hue. Initial sniffings detect a delightfully floral (juniper and honeysuckle) surface perfume that overrides deeper scents of cedary oak and sweet grain mash but doesn’t conceal them completely; later inhalations feature spicy baking scents of ginger, brown sugar and vanilla extract. Palate entry is sweet, luxurious and borderline fat; midpalate is slightly smoky, resiny, semisweet and delicious. Aftertaste is long, focused, piney, woody and moderately sweet.
Old Charter Proprietor’s Reserve 13 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 45% abv, $30. The off-dry bouquet emits atypical earthy scents of pine, cedar, and juniper along with rye bread, granola and toasted oak. On the palate, it’s balanced, succulent and elegant, featuring mature, oily flavors of dry cereal and buttered popcorn. Aftertaste is woody, peppery and long. A stately, graceful, finely tuned Bourbon.
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 45.2% abv, $76. Gorgeous tawny color. Bouquet resembles the inviting smell of a bakery: mildly sweet, candied, fruity (figs, plums, and dates) and doughy. Palate entry is soft, fruity, and gently sweet; midpalate is caramel and toffee-like, pruny and woody. Finish is extended, candied and almost liqueur-like. Brawny, intensely oaky and sweet.
Sazerac 18 Year Old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey; 45% abv, $40. Opening aroma is rich, spicy and leafy- vegetal; the aroma turns perfumed and sweetly hard candy-like, and it offers late-stage fruity scents of toast with marmalade and sweet oak. Palate entry is firmly structured and tart; midpalate sees the flavors turn sweet, almost toffee-like and intensely spicy. Finish is sweet, mildly oily and laden with oaky vanillin.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Barrel Proof; 54.2% abv, $30. Autumnal topaz color. Gently spirity, oaky and raisiny bouquet that highlights scents of ripe nectarine, vanilla wafer and dried red fruit; a classical, prototypical Bourbon fragrance. Considering the uncut barrel strength, the palate entry is remarkably subdued; by midpalate, the alcohol builds in the back of the throat as opulent flavors of spice, tart apple, citrus and charred oak entertain the taste buds. Finishes intensely spirity. Add a splash of mineral water, sit back and enjoy a beauty from America’s finest whiskey distillery.
Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey; 50% abv, $20. Bright orange hue. Sweet bouquet of vanilla, spice, and, dare I say it, Sherry; an enchanting aroma profile that’s simultaneously creamy and zesty. On the tongue, rich flavors of sweet oak, honey and light toffee delight the taste buds as much as the velvety texture. Finishes opulent and sweet, but never cloying. One of America’s best-kept whiskey secrets. Best Buy.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Evan Williams 7 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 45% abv, $10. A generous, straightforward aroma gently pinches the olfactory sense as perfumed, sweet, ripe and round scents of flowers, oak, fruit and evergreen delight the nose. Palate entry is estery, floral and mildly sweet; midpalate offers tastes of honey wheat bread, ripe grapes, almonds and coconut. Finish is very smoky and long. Best Buy.
Jim Beam 4 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 40% abv, $12. Amber/orange color. Bouquet emits simple scents of peaches, cocoa, vanilla wafer and light oak. Palate entry is sweet and creamy; midpalate gets more serious as vigorous flavors of caramel, smoke, oak and sweet corn make their presence felt. Aftertaste is crisp and astringent. The world’s biggest selling Bourbon is as reliable as an old Ford pick-up. Best Buy.
Old Whiskey River 6 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 43% abv, $28. This special promotional bottling done in conjunction with singer Willie Nelson boasts a pretty amber color. The seductively sweet smell of corn greets the olfactory sense in the first nosings; aeration stimulates further scents including buttered popcorn, evergreen, yellow fruit, and mint. Palate entry is easy, soft and pleasantly sweet; midpalate is moderately intense, corn-like and mildly spicy. Finishes oaky, uncomplicated, slightly charred and smoky. Always on my mind enough to be recommended.
W. L. Weller 19 Year Old Wheated Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 45% abv, $40. Brilliant new-copper-penny color. Aroma is nutty and seed-like initially; after seven minutes of exposure to air, traces of oak vanillin and dried red fruit are noted; a sweet, muscular bouquet for the stout of heart. Palate entry is bittersweet and heavily oaked; midpalate phase features layered, sappy sweet flavors that flat-out overwhelm the taste buds. Finish is oily, bittersweet and long. A furniture-chewing whiskey that will not impress those who prefer more harmonious, gentlemanly Bourbons.
Jack Daniel’s Old Time No. 7 Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey (Black Label); 43% abv, $19. Nose is earthy, oily/resiny, mineral-hard and very road tar-like at first, then it smoothes out into a leathery, pepperminty perfume. In the mouth, it’s clean and smoky with tastes of charcoal and honey. Finishes sweet. This true American icon, the largest selling American whiskey worldwide, provides a solid and simple, if uninspired, quaff.
CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation
Ommegang Hennepin Bottle Conditioned Belgian-Style Ale (USA). Mildly cloudy golden yellow appearance; snowy white foam. Opening nosing finds minerally aromas of wet slate and wet pavement; with aeration the bouquet unfolds emitting seductive scents of yeast, cereal sweetness, distant spice, clove and malt. Palate entry is malty sweet and the texture is round and thick; midpalate is lusciously ripe and intensely malty and fruity. Fabulous domestic ale achievement.
Paulaner Salvator Doppelbock (Germany). Deep mahogany color with ruby highlights; tan foam. The sweet, concentrated bouquet owns a ripe fruit core that’s wrapped in a smoky, molasses-like exterior scent that’s remarkably cocoa-like; one of my five favorite beer aromas, period. In the mouth the velvety texture supports tastes of chocolate-covered cherries, marshmallow, whipped cream and roasted nuts. Finishes with one a harmonious aftertastes.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Ommegang Rare Vos Bottle Conditioned Belgian-Style Ale (USA). Beautiful deep amber honey hue; pillowy, dusty white head. Opening bouquet has "yeast" stamped all over it; later passes reveal rich maltiness, ripe fruitness and toastiness. Palate entry is a bit shy and sour; the flavor blossoms at midpalate in the forms of red fruit, sweet malt and flowery hops. Aftertaste is very malty, long, and supple.
Paulaner Oktoberfest Lager (Germany). Burnished orange color; beige foam. The nose at first is intense and doughy-malty; later sniffings introduce scents of yeast and pumpernickel. What impresses me in the mouth are the thick, creamy texture and the flavors of roasted malt, dark bread, caramel and coffee bean. Aftertaste is long, but compact and focused on the malt.
Tetley’s English Ale Draught (England). The aluminum can with floating widget promotes extra creaminess in the sand-colored foam. Customary English bitter "pub" ale hoppy dryness in the bouquet balances well with the biscuity breakfast cereal maltiness. In the mouth, the taste is totally dry, slightly nutty and properly bitter. Aftertaste is intensely hoppy. Remarkably good recreation in a can for authentic pub ale. Widgets, bravo.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Foster’s Special Bitter Ale (Australia/Canada). Rust hue; eggshell white foam. Spicy, off-dry bouquet asserts itself immediately after the pour and remains pungent well into later nosings. In the mouth, the comely off-dry cereal flavor is not overwhelmed by the hoppy bitterness. Aftertaste is malty, yeasty and moderately bitter.
Foster’s Lager (Australia/Canada). Golden hue; billowy clouds of white foam. Strangely wonderful bouquet emits scents of scrambled egg, ripe kiwi, almonds and hops. At palate entry, off-dry to sweet flavors of fleshy fruit and mineral-like slate vie for dominance on the tongue; midpalate is dry, toasty and malty. Finishes mildly sweet. Quantum leap forward in the bleak world of mass-produced, cookie cutter lagers.
Morretti La Rossa Doppio Malto (Italy). Attractive ruby/mahogany color; meek, tan head. The toasty bouquet is heavily malted, with side attractions of nougat, hazelnut and molasses/brown sugar. The pumpernickel bread taste at palate entry is firm and rich; midpalate offers black coffee and cola nut. Aftertaste is clean, roasted and extended.
Paulaner Hefe-Weizen (Germany). Harvest gold hue; eggshell-colored head. The potent, assertive bouquet reeks of cracked wheat, eggs, sour mash, clove, flowers and wet vegetation; it’s an earthy, elemental bouquet. On palate, the sour clove flavor is faithful to the style and is refreshing. The finish is full, hoppy and sour.