Wednesday, May 8, 2013

God-Like, Robert Parker Conquers (His Word) Bourbon in One Fell Swoop

When you read wine guru Robert Parker's review of 29 bourbons and one rye, as posted by David Driscoll in Spirits Journal, you may wonder if it's not a wicked parody by David. It's not, or maybe it is, but the author is Parker, not Driscoll.

Naturally, people who write about bourbon more than once in a lifetime are not amused. "Scotch and Ice Cream" took the first swat. That was picked up and amplified upon by Clay Risen, he of the New York Times and with a new encyclopedic bourbon book on the way, who quickly posted, "Robert Parker and the Douche-ification of Bourbon."

For all true bourbonians, a sly smirk is probably the best response to all of this. No real harm is being done. Can the Van Winkle line get any more unobtainiumable?

And there is plenty in the review at which to smirk. Parker is a taster and his tasting notes are fine, perhaps even valuable, and generally on the mark. Famous for his 100-point rating system, he is also the prime underminer of same. His lowest score, for Hudson Baby Bourbon, which he describes as tasting "somewhat diluted, simple and harsh" and "over-matched by everything around it," is 82.

It's not a 100-point scale unless you use all 100 points. Here Parker uses an 18-point scale. That's worth a grin.

He also does not appear to know nor care that it's insane to compare Hudson Baby Bourbon to Pappy Van Winkle 23 just because they both have the word "bourbon" on the label. Would he compare a Pinot Noir to a Sauterne? Not without at least noting their inherent differences first.

He also doesn't care much for Woodford Reserve. It's the only Brown-Forman product he tasted. The only Beam product he tasted was Maker's 46. Each got 88 points. Heaven Hill did a little better. They got two on the list, Parker's Heritage Collection 2012 Mashbill Blend (92 points) and Evan Williams 23-year-old (95 points).

Products of the three largest producers of American whiskey only merited four places on a list of 30, according to Parker the Conqueror.

Let's go around the horn to the other distilleries. Four Roses, two; Wild Turkey, none; Barton 1792, none; George Dickel, none; Buffalo Trace, 11 (including Van Winkle and A. Smith Bowman).

Predictably, Parker's loves him some Van Winkle. The 20 gets a 95. The 23 gets 100. Yes, Pappy 23-year-old is the perfect bourbon, sez Robert Parker.

The rest? A couple micro-distilleries and a lot of non-distiller producers. Seven places on the list are taken by direct or indirect products from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, which brokered and bottled the whiskeys reviewed, but made none of them.

Parker seems oblivious to the distinction. He does not, he says, know much about Black Maple Hill, except that it "comes from the Black Maple Hill Distilling Co. in Bardstown, KY," which he apparently does not know is an entirely fictional distillery.

And he gives it a 96, one of his highest scores.

Perhaps it's appropriate that Parker loves the product of a fictional distillery, since he freely admits that his foray into bourbon was inspired by his enjoyment of the TV series, "Justified," which is set in Kentucky and whose characters drink improbable amounts of Van Winkle bourbon.

We can only hope Robert Parker doesn't become enamored of "The Walking Dead" next.


Anonymous said...

Blanton's is, "either a brilliant master blend or a bourbon with some serious age"???? That's why they call it SINGLE BARREL.
"Rollins Creek" is that a KBD product made for Justified or did he mean Rowan's Creek?
Stag: "I forgot to write down the alcohol of this bourbon, but I assume it is pushing 100 proof given its powerful, rustic and rugged style." Only off by nearly half.
Parker's:"Apparently this is no longer being produced." Never heard of a yearly release?
Taylor from OFC Distillery. Does he not know that it is the same place as Buffalo Trace?
I could go on and on, in fact I think that I have.
You get the idea.
I can not understand why someone intelligent would write something that they clearly know nothing about.

Anonymous said...

"Highland-like peatiness" in campfire???? Shouldn't that be Islay? Also, does he know that it in fact does have peaty scotch in it?

Sean C said...

Can anyone in the know get him to sign my copy of But Always Fine Bourbon?

Anonymous said...

Robert Parker asks in disbelief, "they're (Southerners) paying what for Bourbon and ostrich boots?!?" "Any of my in-home Bordeaux cellar friends know this yet?" "No?" "I must abscond to the ivory handled, ebony inlay review desk with P├ętrus-dipped quill pen." "Post haste!" "I mean... right quick."

David Alan said...

Rollins Creek--maybe that's the latest celebrity spirit, from Henry Rollins?

Anonymous said...

"Robert Parker Conquers (His Word) Bourbon" Nice close reading, Chuck. Missed that rubbernecking at all the other bulls@#t in that report. I'm trying to imagine how much wine John Hansell would have to have drink before serving notice he'd taken over Bourbon.

Fred said...

Chuck - I loved your book and usually love your posts. While I have no love for Robert Parker, I have to say that you seem unnecessarily overly territorial here.

So what if he doesn't know where Black Maple Hill is made, does that invalidate his review? In effect, he does compare Pinot Noirs to Sauternes when using his 100 point scale, but again, so what? It's well-accepted by the trade and consumers and its limitations have been argued to death on lesser blogs than this. Bottom line is that it shows his preference for one product over another. If you like something he gave 95 points to, chances are you'll like another 94-pointer, but like the Woodford even less (and I think he nailed that overhyped product, BTW).

As for picking more independents over the big boys, his wine notes have always done the same, no reason to think he'd change tactics with bourbon.

Surely, Bourbon reviewing is a big enough field that you don't need to feel so threatened, or smug either.

Chuck Cowdery said...

We're just having a little fun at the Big Dog's expense. Think of it as rookie hazing.

Reece said...

Just thought I'd share this since it also came out yesterday:

EllenJ said...

Okay, at the risk of becoming a target of derision myself, I have to say a few things in defense of Robert Parker...

First of all, the range of bourbons (and rye) that he illustrates is really quite extensive. That he chose only to publish his thoughts on the top 15% or so only means that his purpose is to introduce fellow non-bourbon drinker to some examples of excellence. We who are familiar with bourbon reviews are more used to writers who instruct us on who to belittle and dismiss.

Secondly, Parker is very meticulous about exactly what is being tasted. He even identifies WHICH single-barrel bottling when that information is available. Not even the labels themselves always bother with such an "unimportant detail", and very rarely do our more familiar writers. Kudos, and score one for Bobby.

Third, I have no reason to believe that Parker didn't actually TASTE each of the whiskies he writes about. I absolutely would NOT say that about some other well-known bourbon pundits. With one exception (Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Bourbon Whisky 20 Barrels made with Corn and Rice) there is a bottle of each and every one of them open and tasteable in my collection. Can you say the same? Oh, all right, I don't have any Rollins Creek, only Rowan's, but then I've been known to make a typo or two in my postings on occasion. And anyone who has ever drunk Stagg alongside another high-octane bourbon (Bookers, uncut P.H., Red Hook, etc) will understand why he might not have realized the proof; Stagg really is that smooth.

All in all, I'd rather read what Parker has to say than, say, Paul Pacault (as only one example).

Dan said...

I'll say this, Parker does move product, or attempt too. I've had a flood of requests at retail for "Van Winkle". Great, just great. Let's make the impossible even more sought after.

I'll bet the folks at KBD are loving that review on the Old Bardstown black label.

sam k said...

Never saw so many 90 plus ratings in one place before, that and an obligatory 100...a first in legitimate American whiskey reviews.

How can you not love this guy?!?!

When will he write his bourbon book? I can't wait!

Oh, the humanity.

Redneck Scotch said...

A friend eating lunch with Michelin French factory workers (where they bring their own wine from home) asked one what was his favorite wine. He answered, "14 percent". My friend later saw the barrels in the local grocery store where people bring their wine bottles for refills. Sure enough, there was one marked "14 percent".

I guess my favorite bourbon is 90 proof.

JasonQ said...

@Anonymous, 5/8/13, 8:00PM

From what I've read, High West has said outright that the Scotch in their Campfire whiskey is in fact a Highland.

This is not improbable, as there are several Highland Scotches that possess varying degrees of peatiness.

Greg said...

I think saying that comparing Hudson and Van Winkle is akin to comparing two different wine styles is a bit unfair. Of course bourbon has a vast range of taste, but they are still in the same category. Wouldn't the more accurate analogy would be Hudson is to Van Winkle as a young pinot is to an old pinot, or cabernets from two different regions, and so forth?
Greg (

Unknown said...

Is Hudson Valley Bourbon that much different from Kentucky Bourbon to use the comparison "Pinot Noir to Sauternes"?

Chuck Cowdery said...

At least.