Friday, June 3, 2022

What Does a Distillery Taste Like?


Beam Suntory's Booker Noe Distillery, Nelson County, Kentucky.

One way to think about tasting whiskey is to think about tasting distilleries. Most distilleries sell multiple expressions of their whiskey. Some also make multiple recipes. 

Beam Suntory, for example, makes three basic bourbon recipes, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and Old Grand-Dad. The representative expression of the Jim Beam recipe has to be white label, but what's the best expression? Black label? Knob? Booker's?

Secondary wood finishes destroy the paradigm, so we'll ignore them.

This is not, "What is the most representative expression?" It is what is the best representative expression? What is the easiest way to taste a given distillery's best work? With 'easiest' defined as available and affordable. So in addition to secondary finishes, we'll leave out limited editions, unicorns, and dusties.

I'm fickle about this, which is why I'm opening the floor. If you've never tasted the Jim Beam recipe before, where is the best place to start? White Label? I tend to say Black Label, but a case can be made for Knob, or something else.

But for Wild Turkey, I say start at the top with Kentucky Spirit. That doesn't make sense, but it's what my gut tells me. Four Roses too, go for the Single Barrel. In general, single barrels are a good way to 'taste the distillery' because there is nowhere to hide. The maker can't 'fix' things with blending.

Buffalo Trace is easy. They have consistently put some of the best whiskey they make into their eponymous brand. Their only problem seems to be making enough of it. 

Maker's Mark is equally easy. Everything except standard Maker's Mark is a secondary wood finish, so ruled out for purposes of this exercise. That's deliberate. The core tenant of the Maker's Mark faith is that Maker's is the best whiskey there is so, by definition, there cannot be a 'better' expression of it, just a 'different' one, hence finishes.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage has always seemed Heaven Hill's standard bearer, but its star has faded. Is Elijah Craig Heaven Hill's exemplar today? That's another good word for this exercise. What is each distillery's exemplar?

A distillery should have an exemplar, a standard bearer, a flagship. Unfortunately, the industry's commercial nature dictates that success determines the flagship. Brown-Forman will always officially equate 'flagship' with its founding brand, Old Forester, even though Brown-Forman's real flagship is Jack Daniel's Old No. 7. But is Old No. 7 the best thing Jack makes that is available and affordable? You tell me.

What do you think is the best way to taste this or that distillery? Recommend whatever you want. Since we're tasting distilleries, your recommendation won't be very useful if you don't know where it was distilled. But I'm not going to curate this any more than I usually do, which is hardly at all. Recommend whatever you want.

Take price and availability into consideration. We're talking drinkers, not collectibles.

This isn't an assignment. I'm not suggesting you need to go through every recipe at every distillery. In fact, don't. Please don't. But if you have something useful to share, share it.

The idea is that if you're trying to try different things, how do you make sure you really are trying different things. Beam Suntory had an excellent advertorial in a magazine recently in which they made great suggestions for trying different whiskey combinations, all of which just happen to be made by Beam Suntory. That seems to be their strategy now, to flood the market with new expressions.

The same thing can happen if you try to do it yourself in a liquor store. You might find yourself tasting the same whiskey in five different bottles. That's what we're trying to help people avoid.

So, readers, you have the floor.


Mike Karr said...

This is an excellent reframing of the core of enjoying bourbon. Start at the trunk and walk out to the branches. It's a lovely inspiration.

Richard Turner said...

For me (and only MY taste buddies are voting here), Beam's best expression has to be Knob Creek (9-year). I might well have voted for Booker's in the days of yore, when Booker's was easily obtainable and much more affordable... but... alas.
I have some opinions on other distilleries; but, I'll only offer one other here: Lynchburg Tennessee makes some fine Bourbon... excuse me; Tennessee Whiskey; but, the very best for flavor and even value, IMHO has to be Jack Daniels, Single Barrel, Barrel Proof.

underscore said...

I know it's implied that we're talking about American whiskey here, but I think the Glenmorangie Original 10 Year is a fantastic example. It hits all the right notes and lives at the bottom of their ladder pricing-wise.
If I were forced to pick an American example, it might be Heaven Hill's Bottled in Bond 7 Year. Everything a bourbon should be with no bells and whistles, generally not too hard to find, and affordable.

Wade said...

Beam Black label
Buffalo Trace - rye bourbon
Weller SR - wheated bourbon
Four Roses Small Batch
Wild Turkey 101
Maker's Mark
Elijah Craig
JD Old No. 7
George Dickel No. 12
Old Forester 100 proof
MGPi - Bulleit Rye

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Maker's Mark? Cask strength seems like the obvious answer to me.

Richard Turner said...

OK, here's a few more... according only to my own taste buddies.

Heaven Hill: A) Wheater, Old Fitz BIB (not those EXPENSIVE Decanters currently sold, though), so I guess Larceny; and B) Rye mashbill, HH-6 year BIB, if you could still find it or if not JW Dant BIB.

Buffalo Trace: (not counting the BTAC) Gotta be Buffalo Trace, for consistency and taste, though Eagle Rare has been lovely on some occasions in the past... but a little too much variation.

Maker's Mark: The standard Maker's Mark is so consistent, and a very nice pour.

Barton: If you could find the Very Old Barton BIB 6-year, that's hard to beat for both flavor and value; but if not, their other expression 1792, is best as the 'Full Proof'; and a lovely pour.

Anonymous said...

Ahem, "core tenet."

Yes, MM Cask Strength is the ultimate (although it's really the literal opposite of "ultimate," as it represents the creator's taste vision before it's cut with water)expression of Maker's Mark and a great reminder of how it redefined bourbon way back when. That and original MM are really all you need.

Harry in Wash DC said...

Sorry. Late to the party, but the weather was SO NICE between thunderstorms that I just had to go outside.
BEST EXPRESSION (not necessarily the most representative expression) is the goal. Easy ones for me first.
Beam Suntory is Knob Creek in the Beam line (and mash bill) and Old Grand Dad bonded in the OGD line. Long ago I skipped all those special releases of Beams – could not keep up and also found most just average. I do miss the Jim Beam Bonded whi9ch I thought was a perfect example of what a middle of the road bourbon at a reasonable price could be.
Sazerac Corp. owns two lines I love – basic Buffalo Trace @ 90 proof and Very Old Barton (100 proof preferred but when I can’t find it, the 86 is OK). BT’s candy apple/cinnamon note drives me crazy. VOB 100 is coveted in my house. BOTH tend to be on the sweet side. A somewhat drier third brand from Saz is its 1792 line. Best I’ve found there is its higher proof (bonded or barrel proof) but the line definitely has its own profile.
Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey at both the 81 proof (GREAT Summer sipping especially out of the fridge) and 101. While the special releases like Masters Keep are absolutely wonderful, they are not cheap or readily available like WT 81/101 KSBW so I can’t really point to them as “representative” of anything but quality and what bourbon CAN be.
Heaven Hill produces Evan Williams, and its 86 proof black label has been my mixer for persons who want light cocktails for years. Its two ryes, Rittenhouse (100 proof) and Pikesville (110 proof), use a mash bill that is really close to bourbon (barely 51% rye grains instead of 51% corn). HH makes a few other things I really like, but that EW Black 86 proof is hard to beat on consistency, complexity, availability, and PRICE.
Brown Forman’s Jack Daniels Black was my introduction circa 1970 to bourbon (and similar brown spirits like Tennessee whiskey). But when they dropped the proof, I noticed a banana note had crept in and did not care for it. I am glad to say that, today, the JD bonded and the other JD higher proof releases lacks that note even when I add water or ice to them. Hence, I tell anyone who listens that JD bonded AND any of its barrel proof cousins are worth the money – just add water or ice or Coke or Pepsi or ginger ale to taste.
A word about rye – Midwest Grain Producers (MGP) in Indiana produces a rye distillate that uses a 95% rye grain mash bill. LOTS of those fancy bottles of rye one finds in stores nowadays are really MGP’s high rye. I recommend that newbies buy a bottle of Bulleit Rye (the one with the tilted green label) instead of the expensive stuff. Alternatively, Old Forester (a Brown-Forman subsidiary) recently began releasing a 100 proof rye at a reasonable price, and good old Wild Turkey has reintroduced its 81 and 101 RYES! For awhile, only restaurants could get them. It is more expensive than it used to be, but it sure gives Old Forester and the Heaven Hill ryes competition.

BTW, how did I get so geeky about bourbon? Chapters in BOTH Mr. Cowdery's Bourbon Straight/Strange books talk about how to try out releases of the various houses. I have enjoyed this grand experiment ever since.

Andy said...

Jim Beam Bonded (but now hard to find so Jim Beam Black Label)
Buffalo Trace - rye bourbon
Weller SR - wheated bourbon
Very Old Barton Bottled in Bond (or 1792)
Four Roses Small Batch
Wild Turkey 101
Maker's Mark
Evan Williams Bottled in Bond
Jack Daniel's Old No. 7
George Dickel No. 12
Old Forester 100 proof