BEER CLINIC :: Bourbon and the Derby

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on August 9, 2012

They say it is the calcium-rich water that strengthens the horses, flavors the bourbon and colors the grass blue. That is why horse racing and bourbon are inseparable in the Bluegrass country of Kentucky. Many Kentucky distilleries pay homage to the thoroughbreds with special bottlings and labels  and Blanton’s tops their bottle cork with a horse! But the greatest celebration of this synergy comes with the Kentucky Derby, which takes place at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky each year in May.

I watched the Derby this year, along with 15 million other Americans. And like many of them, I enjoyed a few sips of Kentucky bourbon along with the race. It was a good time to take stock of my bourbon collection, and share a few sips with my readers.

If you are a reader of YBN, you are, no doubt, a fan of craft beers; you are also a connoisseur of fine spirits, such as single malt scotch which, after all, is merely distilled beer. You may also enjoy fine wines, cognac, or brandy. But there’s a fair chance that you don’t know much about Kentucky bourbon.

Bourbon is easy to dismiss as unworthy of your attention, since it is a domestic product, readily available, usually mediocre, and inexpensive. Yet the difference between a generic bar whiskey and a select, small batch bourbon is like the difference between Johnny Walker Black and an 18-year Macallan scotch, or between Bud Light and Dogfish Head IPA. There is simply no comparison–good bourbon is a delight. And it is truly an American creation.

You may recall that I became a fan of Kentucky bourbon when I spent a few weeks on a job in Madison, IN, visiting Bluegrass country, just across the Ohio river (See BEER CLINIC 12/19/11). Since then  I have been on the lookout for good bourbon. I buy it when I find it, because small batch bourbon is just that — there are a limited number of bottles produced and when it’s gone… well, it’s gone. Fortunately, Kentucky bourbon is relatively inexpensive, and even the special reserve bottlings go for one third to one-half the cost of comparable single malt scotches. So I’ve been able to keep up a nice collection and expand my tastes without spending a fortune.

My husband, Rick, says all small batch bourbon tastes the same. To some extent that is true–the predominant tastes are limited by the legal definition of the spirit, consisting of the taste of the distillate itself, and the flavors acquired in the aging process. The mash must contain at least 50% corn (the rest can be barley, wheat, or rye); it must be distilled to no more than 160 proof; and it must be aged at least 2 years in new charred oak barrels. Unlike beer, there can be no added flavors such as hops or fruit, and unlike malt scotch there is no steeping over peaty fires or sherry cask aging.

So the only variables are the grain mix, and the aging process. Yet within these limits there is a world of tastes, albeit subtle to the inexperienced palate. Yes, there is a predominant bourbon flavor, but the grain mix changes the background flavor — corn provides the bourbon taste, rye adds pepper, wheat adds sweetness, barley is softer. But aging provides the individualism in color, smoothness, and mouth feel; aging develops the subtle flavors such as vanilla, cherry, tannins, maple syrup, tobacco, orange, butterscotch… you name it. In general, the longer the liquor ages the more character it develops: the complexity evolves, flavors increase in intensity and harshness decreases. Even more remarkable is the fact that each barrel in a given lot develops individually with its own characteristics, so that you might find an occasional barrel with exceptional flavor.  It takes an experienced taster and master blender to get the uniformity that is expected in some mass-produced bourbon on the one hand, while picking select casks for small batch bottling on the other hand.

The are only a handful of Kentucky distilleries, and they produce both mass market bourbons (Jim Beam, Four Roses, etc.) and small batch bottlings, as well as contracting with small producers to distill and age their own individual mix. But the number of small batch bourbon distilleries is growing around the country as bourbon popularity increases.

So lets start tasting my collection of Kentucky bourbons, as it existed on Derby Day. Before we start, remember that these spirits are for sipping, not for shots.  Sip them neat to get the maximum aroma and flavor intensity, or enjoy it my favorite way–in a tumbler over ice–which softens and smoothens it.

We’ll start with Makers Mark, which is packaged with the familiar red wax seal on the cork. Many of us were introduced to small batch bourbons with this brand, now readily available in most bars.  Makers is bottled at 90 proof (45% alcohol) and is aged 7 1/2 years.  It has a high proportion of wheat in the mix, giving it a sweet flavor profile. It has been described as buttery toast or syrupy, so it’s likely to be a good breakfast drink (just kidding). Makers is a bit harsh on its own compared to some of the others, but it is a good mixer for Manhattans and whiskey sours, if you’re not ready for straight whiskey.

Basil Hayden’s, aged 8 years, is a good choice for a “starter” small batch bourbon. It exemplifies the classic bourbon flavor, and is mild, very smooth, and lower in alcohol than most other whiskies (80 proof,40% alcohol). It has twice as much rye as most others, giving it a honey and peppery taste. Basil Hayden’s costs about the same as Maker’s Mark, and I feel it’s a bit easier to drink and enjoy on its own.  Though not particularly distinguished, there is nothing wrong with it either.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Bookers, aged 7 years, bottled at a hefty 65% alcohol! This bourbon, produced by Jim Beam, is uncut, unfiltered straight-from-the barrel, bottled at its natural proof.  It has an oaky vanilla aroma, and an intense fruit & tannin taste with a long finish. I was introduced to it by a bartender in Bluegrass country, in a short glass over cracked ice, who said it was his favorite drink. It has become mine, too. This is a very sophisticated drink, not for the faint of heart, nor for the short of cash. The long finish stays on your palate forever, so you can sip this drink slowly for hours. Very pleasurable, indeed.

Blanton’s is the one with the horse on the cork. It is a single barrel bourbon, which means that each bottling comes from only one select barrel which is numbered and signed — you can tell exactly what batch and barrel it came from if you care to know (and some people do). The aging time varies, since they are harvested when they are ready, not by the clock. This excellent bourbon is produced by Buffalo Trace distillery, which also makes the small batch standard Buffalo Trace (a uniform tasting small batch is mixed from a number of barrels). Blanton’s is very pleasant, smooth with an upfront taste of caramel and vanilla, but not long on the finish. If you are really into it, you can collect all 8 different horses!

Eagle Rare is also produced by Buffalo Trace, and is my absolute all-round favorite, and possibly one of the best values in Kentucky bourbon. It’s a very affordable 10-year old single barrel, 90 proof (45% alcohol). Oaky vanilla, and as smooth as silk.  Not a harsh note in the bottle.

I stumbled upon Black Maple Hill  “limited edition” unexpectedly, at the PA State Liquor Store.  This is a small batch bottling from Heaven Hill distillery, at 95 proof. There is a lot of wheat in the mash, resulting in a very sweet distillate.  The flavor is unique, with a lot of fruit characteristics, and reviewers have variously tasted black cherry, butterscotch, peppermint, and coconut.  Jelly beans?

Jefferson Presidential Select, 17-year (94 proof) is currently the most “collectable” bourbon in my cabinet.  Its claim to fame is that it is aged in Stitzel-Weller barrels, the same ones used for the legendary Pappy Van Winkels bourbon. (I say “legendary” because Pappy Van Winkles is produced in such small amounts that it is almost impossible to purchase!). This is an exceptionally good select barrel, which is very intense and has a much stronger aroma than anything else in my collection, comparable to a good Highland malt whiskey. It has unexpected floral notes, very mellow flavor and a long, long finish.  It’s aged almost twice as long as most of the other single-barrels I have found.  It costs twice as much, too, and I’m not sure that it’s twice as good, but it’s really very, very nice. It is fun to bring out for guests who appreciate well-aged spirits. The Pappy Van Winkel was considerably better, but that’s long gone.

By the time you read this piece, the Derby will be long forgotten, and my bourbon collection will probably look very different.   I hope these little tastes served as an introduction to the fine bourbons of Kentucky and inspires you to try a few, or even make the trip to Bluegrass country to visit the Kentucky Downs racetrack, and stop in to a few distilleries.  You’re always welcome to visit!

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