Taste Test: Bourbons from $25 to $50

We conducted the second round of our bourbon taste test last weekend. The whiskeys this time all had a suggested retail price of between $25 and $50. (Our first Bourbon Taste Test featured bourbons under $25.) As was the case last time, some of the samples were provided by the distilleries and some were from my own cabinet.

The whiskeys were all tasted blind, so the participants didn't know which bourbon they were drinking. (I poured the glasses, so I had a vague idea of which order a couple of them were in, but I was very close to unaware.)

We tasted eight whiskeys, all Kentucky straight bourbons, ranging in proof from 80 to 120. The prices ranged from $29 to $40. The whiskeys were all drunk neat. With the exception of one, all of them were better than average, and the overall quality was higher than in the first tasting.

You can see the line-up in the photo below.

Bourbons
The bourbons were split into two groups of four, with a short break in between the two groups. Each whiskey was tasted in a 1/2 ounce serving, and then notes were made. We discussed each of the bourbons as we drank, and then discussed them all together once we were finished.

Here they are in the order tasted, with the grades we gave them and selected notes. The grades are based on quality alone, without regard to price.

Basil Hayden's 8 Year-Old
Price: $37
80 Proof
Final Grade: B-
The "sweet smell of vanilla" and toffee isn't matched by the flavor, which is "oaky" and rather plain. Starts off "sharp," but "fades quickly." It has some complexity and some spicy notes, but more would have been welcome. A decent bourbon, but nobody's favorite.

Jefferson's 8 Year-Old Very Small Batch
Price: $30
83 Proof
Final Grade: B-
A faint "slightly fruity" aroma leads to a smooth taste that "uncurls in your mouth." The flavor ends up woody and oily, more reminiscent of Scotch than bourbon. Better than average, but a little too one-note.

Four Roses Small Batch
Price: $29
90 Proof
Final Grade: C
A strong, "antiseptic" smell is followed by a dry, "bitter" flavor. More wood taste than anyone on the panel cared for. Complex and "assertive," but too rancio-like for our tastes. [This was a disappointment, as I've drunk this bourbon in cocktails before and enjoyed it. I suppose it's possible we got a bad bottle this time.]

Eagle Rare 10-Year Old Single Barrel
Price: $30
90 Proof
Final Grade: A-
Now we're talking! A delicious aroma of toffee leads to a sweet and spicy flavor. It's "nutty" and "warm" with a sensuous finish. A near-perfect balance of sweet and spice. This was the stand-out of the first round of four. A delicious bourbon. I could drink this every day.

Elijah Craig 18-Year Old Single Barrel
Price: $36
90 Proof
Final Grade: A
Wow! Eighteen years in the barrel have worked magic on this whiskey. It begins with a fruity, spicy smell and then gets even better on the tongue. The flavor is a mix of sweet caramel and vanilla, with enough oak — but not too much — to give it complexity. It closes with a finish that is warm and succulent. This bourbon is so good it's practically decadent.


Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select

Price: $33
90.4 Proof
Final Grade: B+
Opens up to a gorgeous, sweet, "fruity" aroma — this is a wonderful smelling bourbon. The taste is "oaky" and "nutty," well rounded and dry rather than sweet. It starts off smooth, but then kicks in with a long, spicy finish. A very interesting bourbon. Definitely worth exploring further.

Baker's 7 Year-Old
Price: $37
107 Proof
Final Grade: B+
"Earthy" and "nutty" (peanut brittle and toffee?) on the nose. The taste is likewise nutty and spicy, with enough heat to make you wake up and pay attention. There's some vanilla sweetness in there, but mostly dry overall. A complex, distinctive bourbon that demands to be sampled again.

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve
Price: $40
120 Proof
Final Grade: B
Whoa! This is powerful stuff. A sweet, "candied" smell paves the way for a sweet and "bold" taste. (Did I mention this is strong?) It "dances around your mouth" with flavors of grain and fruit, and has a robust, spicy finish. [Editor's note: If I were to taste this again, I would dilute it so that more of the flavor would be revealed. I think it would score higher than.]

The Four Roses Small Batch didn't find favor with the panel, but all of the rest of the bourbons were greeted with open arms. The two that ranked the highest — Elijah Craig 18 Year-Old and Eagle Rare 10 Year-Old — were superb. But the bourbons that scored just under those were likewise outstanding.

This collection of whiskeys shows more than anything else how skilled and sophisticated the experts at the country's major bourbon distilleries are. Their mastery of crafting fine spirits is nothing short of outstanding. Bravo!

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