A few months ago, I decided to add to my growing list of vices by delving into the world of whiskey. Those who know me best know that wine is my passion and mixed drinks are my occasional side piece.
Why bourbon? Because I’m a “Zagger” by nature. When others zig, I tend to zag. My good friend David is a Scotch drinker and an enthusiastic one at that. The more expensive the Scotch, the more excitedly his tail wags. I tasted a few glasses of Scotch with him and I think they were pretty good. Think – because I really had no idea what I was tasting, what I should have been looking for, or what the standard flavor profile should be.
So when I decided to “zag” my way to bourbon, I had to know what I was getting into. The research started in earnest right off the bat. The first decision was to concentrate on Kentucky bourbon because of its historic lore and the fact that it is a truly American spirit.
Next I wanted to learn what differentiated bourbon from other whiskies like Scotch, Irish and Canadian whiskey. Here’s where YouTube became one of the greatest developments in the history of man. You can learn about ANYTHING on YouTube. Knowing the differentiators like ingredients, mash bills, aging process and time spent in the barrels helped me gain an understanding of what I should be looking for in flavor profiles like sweet corn, smoke, baking spices, burnt sugar etc.
Armed with a basic understanding of distilling process, technique, and flavors, I conducted some public polling via social media to find out what my friends and acquaintances were drinking. Bourbon heads are all too eager to welcome you down a path of debauchery so the responses came pouring in. Dr Fred G gave a shoutout to Makers Mark as did Kerry O. Two women chimed in; Michelle, suggested Larceny and Leigh proffered Woodford Reserve. Cousin Ian put a plug in for Knobb Creek. But responding to a Facebook post wasn’t personal enough for my buddy Matt H. He needed to chat by phone. The excitement and enthusiasm heard in his voice for my decision to cause further damage to my liver was…disturbing to say the least. It was as if a child were taking his first steps. Matt threw Makers Mark, Blanton’s, Woodford Reserve, Knobb Creek and many others my way.
I pondered all of the recommendations and, after careful consideration, made the most beginner move that I could. A flavored bourbon: Knobb Creek Smoked Maple. LOL! It’s laughable today but enjoyable at the time. I had enjoyed smoked maple Manhattans at a local restaurant so I thought…why not?
Eventually, I ditched the training wheels and watched several more YouTube videos to further my education. A favorite channel emerged in It’s Bourbon Night. I learned a ton from the channel’s two hosts.
I declared a mission: Find YOUR bourbon, Joe Lee. Find your “go-to” “Steady Eddie” everyday sipper. Over a two month period, and to my wife’s dismay, I purchased a bottle of Kentucky Straight Bourbon per week in an effort to find MY bourbon. Because a man without a bourbon to call his own is just a simple man.
I purchased 10 bourbons: Woodford Reserve, Four Roses Single Barrel, Eagle Rare, Evan Williams Single Barrel, Rowan’s Creek, Willett Pot Still Reserve, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, Buffalo Trace, Booker’s Small Batch, and Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. I tasted another 3 in restaurants and bars: Maker’s Mark, Basil Hayden’s, and Old Forrester 1920.
What I like
I like a somewhat balanced bourbon with stronger notes of sweet corn, coffee, caramel, butterscotch, and hints of tobacco leaf, cinnamon, dark fruit, wood, and floral notes. I’m not big on the more peppery profile that bourbons with higher rye content in the mash bill offer. Slightly higher rye is ok. And bourbons that are too well balanced where flavors that I enjoy don’t shine are a little too boring for me (like Woodford Reserve). The alcohol content sweet spot for me is between 90-100 proof.
Winner Winner Chicken Dinner
Before I get to the ranking of my top 4, I should say that a key criteria for determining MY bourbon is accessibility. That is, when I want it…when I need it…can I get it. For that reason alone, Buffalo Trace, an affordable, damn fine bourbon did not make the list. Damn it! It took more than a month of searching until I was able to get my hands on a bottle. They fly off of the shelf so quickly and Buffalo Trace is very discerning when it comes to distribution. So fresh off a tasting today, here are the 5 bourbons that occupy my top 4 and they are pictured with the music that I am most likely to listen to while drinking them.
#4 Tie Bookers Small Batch and Willett Pot Still Reserve
I enjoy these bottles equally but for very different reasons. Each is a very different experience. The Booker’s is small batch, cask strength and, therefore by bourbon making standard, high in alcohol content. At 129.7 proof, this is rocket fuel in a bourbon bottle. Kentucky hugs for days. It’s a viscous experience with caramel, oak, vanilla & baking spice notes. I have to drink this with a block of ice and something gritty like The Black Keys on the turntable. And honestly, I can only have one glass. On the other side, the Willett is smooth with brown sugar, molasses, and coffee notes. At 94 proof, I enjoy it neat with classic jazz, mellow Aretha Franklin. This is more of an everyday sipper for me while the Booker’s requires a special mood.
#3 Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Double Oaked means that the bourbon was aged twice in charred oak barrels for a darker appearance and smokier flavor. It’s full-bodied with hazelnut, caramel, and fruit notes. It has a sweet and woody finish. Its 90.4 proof allows me to enjoy neat with something smokey and bluesy like Nina Simone. I could drink this every day.
#2 Four Roses Single Barrel
While I don’t typically like bourbons with high rye mash bills, I do enjoy the slight peppery experience that Four Roses SB offers. At 60% corn and 35% rye, the rye doesn’t overpower the sweet notes that I enjoy. This was probably the 2nd or 3rd bourbon that I purchased so it’s been King of the Hill for quite some time. Single barrel production means that each bottling comes from a single barrel and, therefore, will offer slightly different experiences with each bottle. I like little surprises. Tasting notes include sweet corn, cherry, brown sugar, and vanilla. It’s spicy like Solange, unpredictable like Solange, and sweet like Solange. At 100 proof, I can enjoy neat or with an ice ball depending on how rough my work day was.
#1 Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr Small Batch
One taste of the Colonel and I was hooked on the vanilla, sweet corn, cherry tobacco, and chocolate notes with a long enjoyable finish. Bottled in Bond means that the bourbon was distilled in 1 season and aged at least 4 years. The “small batch” production adds some unique characteristics in that the flavors are concentrated from a small selection of warehouse barrels. This bourbon is 100 proof and I always drink it neat. You can find me drinking this to something groovy that puts me in my feels like Al Green. The pepper isn’t out front and it has less burn than the Four Roses which is why the Colonel enjoys my top spot for now.
I’m looking forward to tasting more to see if E.H. Taylor will remain my go-to bourbon. I’ll give my liver a break for a while, though.
If you have a favorite bourbon that you think I should try, I’m all ears. I’ll also entertain your arguments if you think Scotch is the more desirable whiskey to imbibe.