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.

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!

5 thoughts on “Taste Test: Bourbons from $25 to $50

  1. Your posts are so informative–and so much fun to read–that I tend to just nod in appreciation, and move on to the next (I’m still catching up, having just discovered you recently)…But that “zero comments” button is NOT a blogger’s best friend, so I felt you ought to know that I, for one, am reading, and appreciating, your fine work, and thank you for it (I really do feel as if I’m in a class with a particularly talented instructor) and the work you do. I also relish your round up of news items and reviews from around the internet.

  2. Well done. As budding reviewers, we all do our best to develop our talents and tastebuds, which continue to (hopefully) evolve. When we (Sue Sea and I) started The Rum Project we did so with the trepidations and a certain lack of confidence inherent in all new things.
    I’ve long recommended to others that we – all of us – identify and learn from top reviewers with a reputation for independence and talent. One of the real greats is F. Paul Pacult; another would be a Michael Jackson or Dave Broom. Most afficianados have come to rightfully rely on these men for their succinct, honest and reliable observations.
    It’s a great way to find out which are the great (and hopefully less expensive) spirits that we should buy and learn from, then use as a basis of comparison.
    A couple obsevations:
    1. Compared to F. Paul, your group did very well, with the possible exception of Four Roses Small Batch, which has earned tip top ratings almost across the board. They found the “rancio” distinguised, not diminished, the spirit. If there was an A+, this should have been it. But again, well done!
    2. One of the hardest things to do is scoring. The top reviewers’ reviews – when analyzed – almost always fall into a nice normal bell curve, as is expected in scoring any group.
    What’s meant by this is that in any group, most will score in the “middle”, with ever fewer scoring higher or lower. The idea that “we only picked the best ones” doesn’t matter. Your “middle” would appear to be a “B” rather than the expected “C”. There is no real spread as expected when comparing any group.
    But don’t feel bad. Your findings were very good, but the scoring was on the narrow, high side, a natural tendency, especially considering the selection of bourbons.

  3. Even discounting your condescending tone, I disagree with your conclusions. The purpose of a group tasting, in my opinion, is not to grade them against each other — on the curve, so to speak — so that some come out high, some low, and most in the middle. That would make so sense at all.
    Our purpose was to attempt to score each spirit on its own merits and assign a grade that represented that. Obviously there’s a certain amount of arbitrariness to the whole thing, as scoring is imprecise and tastes very widely. But I think the grades we assigned were a fair representation of our opinions — and really, what more could you ask than that?
    For a group of spirits as distinguished as this one, a “middle” grade of B is quite appropriate. After all, these are not your average spirits — virtually anyone would agree they’re better than that — so assigning them average grades would be ludicrous.
    I read Paul Pacult regularly and admire him greatly. I hold him up to people as the premier spirits taster in the world. But I would be a fraud if I gave a spirit a high score just because he did.
    Since you mention Pacult, I did look up his scores for these spirits after I did this write-up. It should be noted that overall he gave the group higher marks than I did. So I suppose you really should be directing your marks towards him.
    But bravo!

  4. Professor,
    I’m not so sure that the EC 18 belongs in this group ($25 – $50) any longer–where can you get it for $36 or even under $50? To my knowledge, it was discontinued in lieu of the much more expensive 20 year ($100+), and the few places I’ve found that still have the 18 are charging $70+ for it. At that price, it’s playing in a very different league with some stiff competition.

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