Bourbon Street: “Short Notes on Four Bourbons”

Blanton’s: I was the beneficiary of an act of trickle down economics a few months ago.  Work was a tremendous pressure cooker that month, and I think my boss was very aware of my elevated stress level.  Knowing that I’m very fond of bourbon, he asked me to lunch one day, and on the way back, said:  “Let’s stop by BevMo and I’ll buy you whatever you want.”

Well, I won’t say no to good alcohol, so off we went.  When we got to the store, he corralled the store manager and said, “What’s a really good bourbon?”  I figured he was going to point me to one of my favorites (Woodford Reserve), but instead the manager said, “Oh, you have to try Blanton’s.”  It’s about $50 a bottle, and not wanting to be too greedy and grab a $300 bottle on the top shelf, I humbly said,  “Sounds intriguing, let’s do this!”  When I got home, and unboxed my gift, I immediately noticed the unique bottle that held what I hoped would be liquid gold.  It looked pretty spectacular.  The color was a deep, rich brown and when I opened it, it had some nice aromas but the real test was the taste.

Now, I’m a Woodford man, but I’m not so conservative that I’ll only drink Woodford, so when I first tasted Blanton’s, I was struck by how mellow it was in my mouth. There were hints of maple and vanilla, but not in an overpowering way. The finish, however, was somewhat disappointing. It’s not that it was entirely flat, but that smoothness that was part of the initial experience didn’t linger — nor did the dominant flavors.  Blanton’s is on the pricey side, but if you’re in the market for a “special occasion” bourbon, this is a good find.

Jefferson’s Reserve: I’ve had this bourbon a few times, and like Blanton’s Reserve, it’s an expensive bourbon, but one that hasn’t impressed me.  Like Blanton’s, Jefferson’s Reserve has a deep, rich color, and a rather smooth finish, but the flavors are lacking.  Indeed, this bourbon is almost overpowering because the strongest note it struck with me was one of pure alcohol.  Usually, when tasting a bourbon for the first time, I let it sit in my mouth for awhile so I can discern the flavors, but the Jefferson’s Reserve didn’t have any discernible flavors.  And while I didn’t find drinking it unpleasant, I was mostly surprised that a bourbon of such high quality could have so little character.  Sometimes food can really bring out hidden flavors, but I’ve never tried Jefferson’s Reserve with any, so I can’t completely write it off until I do.  So for now, the jury is out.

Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey: Most bars carry their standard bourbons (i.e., Maker’s Mark), but because Bulleit was initially under a $30 price point, more and more bars in my neck of the woods started carrying this brand. That’s not to say that it’s a cheap bourbon (“cheap” as in quality), but it has a middling quality that makes it a fair sipping bourbon, and a good one for cocktails.

I’ve purchased a few bottles of Bulleit when my wallet was tight, and I found it a pleasant alternative to my tried and true bourbon.  But once I was, how shall we say, a bit more flush with cash, I found that I grew a bit snobbish about Bulleit in that, I sort of looked down at it.  I know, shame on me, but after shaking myself out of a bout of elitism, I tried to understand why I really wasn’t loving this bourbon, so I ordered a couple shots at a bar and tried to get at what made this bourbon a fair, but unremarkable drink.  And then it hit me: Bulleit tastes a little too much like rye.

After digging around bourbon reviews, I found that this bourbon does indeed have a high rye content. Now, I’ve tried a few ryes, but I found them to be too light in character, and thus not a good marriage between the drink and my palate. However, I have found the high rye content in Bulleit to be a very good ingredient for Manhattans — but only if you use a good sweet vermouth and the right bitters.

Woodford Reserve: I’ve been in love with the bourbon since I first tried it several years ago. There’s  something about the Woodford Reserve that is just sublime.  It has the right balance of flavors, it soft and mellow on the palate, the finish has never been harsh, and it only gets better when combined with certain foods.  I often snack on raw almonds (sometimes unsalted roasted), but I find that drinking Woodford while eating almonds produces a really wonderful marzipan taste on the finish.  Certain cheeses also enhance the flavor of the bourbon, but even without the flavor enhancers, Woodford has its own consistent flavors like vanilla.

There’s a reason why this bourbon keeps winning the San Francisco Spirits Competition, and I really think it has to do with balance.  There are those who really love their bourbons sweet and syrupy (See, Southern Comfort), and then there are those who love their bourbons that are more astringent (See, Eagle Rare), but for those like me who like a balance between the two, Woodford Reserve hits it out of the park every time. Because I’m a fan of Woodford Reserve, I thought I would really love Woodford Reserve Master Collection, but I found it to have a wholly different character than my beloved Woodford Reserve — and one I didn’t find at all pleasurable. But, just so I end this love letter on a positive note, I’ll say this:  for a medium priced bourbon (roughly $30, but you can often find it on sale for a few dollars less), Woodford Reserve is one of the best bourbons around.

  • Jules

    You're in love with Woodford, but like the Blantons for a special occasion. Nice to mix it up a bit sometimes!

    Me, I'm a wine drinker (as you know), and all bourbon just makes my nose say, ACK!

  • jefito

    Breathe deeply, Julie. This is the nectar of the gods.

  • Ted

    I agree! I think you'd like Bourbon in a cocktail, Jules. Not a Manhattan, but something a little softer.

  • DwDunphy

    I can't wait until you or Jeff rip into a godawful bottle of bourbon. Not that I wish ill toward either of you (you are, and shall always be, my friends) but I have a feeling that a dedicated bourbon drinker is a lot like a pizza fan. You might be disappointed, but you'll never be revolted.

  • Ted

    Here are two I cannot stand: Southern Comfort and Phillips Union Whiskey. I had a shot of Phillips Union at a restaurant once because the bottle looked kind of like Woodford Reserve — and have regretted it ever since. Southern Comfort tastes like medicine loaded with sugar. I honestly don't understand how someone can drink that stuff…

  • jefito

    Well, SoCo is a liqeur — drinking it straight is for college students and silly people. Get the 101-proof version and mix it with something.

  • Ted

    After the initial sugar shock of it, I don't think I could mix it in a cocktail.

  • jefito

    I've “evolved” to the point where I'm rarely in the mood for a sweet drink anymore, but when I am, SoCo and Coke isn't so bad, especially if it's the 101 stuff — then it packs enough of a punch that you aren't tempted to go back for seconds and give yourself a sugar hangover.

  • Ted

    Yeah, I can't do the ultra sweet drinks. I would say “I can't do ultra sweet drinks anymore,” but the truth of the matter is that I never really liked sugary cocktails.

  • Nmellen

    I grew up on bourbon. Drank it straight through the Army, not to mention the Citadel. For years we couldn't get the best bourbon becuase the Japs recognised it as the power drink of the world and paid premium for the best of many brands. By the way The American Ceasar and most decent WWII generals drank bourbon.
    Two things you should know: Bourbon is one of the newest American wiskeys. Rye is what fought the Revolution. Woodford reserve rules the roost. Second when you describe bourbon don't use little girl adjectives like vanilla taste etc. and know this burbon tastes best aty about 90 proof. My son's left arm went numb once drinking a little more than he would later allow of Blantons 120 proof.

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  • TexIndy

    Couldn’t agree with you more on the Jefferson’s Reserve. I just bought a bottle of it yesterday because it seemed to fit the bill of a very quality bourbon, but it left me wanting more. For my second glass last night I went back to my steady-girl… Woodford. Sublime, is what you said, and that is absolutely correct.

    Ranging to the west, but still staying with American whiskey – if you are ever in Illinois or Iowa, try to pick up a bottle of Templeton Rye Prohibition Era Whiskey. It is Capone’s bread and butter and an excellent drink. It is tougher than hell to find – only 2000 bottles released per batch, but at $35 per bottle, it slides up right next to Woodford (for me) on price and satisfaction.

  • Ted

    I really don’t care that majors and generals drink or drank bourbon. The people who drink it don’t make it a good drink, it’s the quality of the batch.  And for fuck’s sake, when something tastes like vanilla it’s vanilla. I’m not going to say otherwise.

  • Nmellen

    Ted seems to be a resonable person. His responce as to my mention that soldiers (and a few famous ones at that, not just me) perfered Bourbon, was a he could care less about any soldier’s preference. For his information: Bourbon was the result of labors by Josieh Craig a freewill baptist minister then living in Bourbon county Va. which of course is today in anouther state created by an act of Congress that disposed of the northwest territories. Bourbon is pure and simple a Southern drink. I realize that the great state of Ca. does not care for the US Military and his being from there explains a lot in his attitude. For his edification: Southern Comfort is not in fact a bourbon. It is a liquior. Also bourbon is a cocktail drink for the great unwashed. Pureists prefer it with water. That some leading figures in history happened to prefer it merely shows its value as an alcholic beverage. Maybe someday he will take a leasurely tour through both bourbon and sour mash country and learn a little bit about the drink. He seems to be a better than average learner in the evolution of his comments but I doubt he would have made it through the first week of my early platoons.

  • Ted

    Clearly you don’t know much about me, or California’s attitude toward the military. But on bourbon, I think we can agree that it’s a great drink.  

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