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Sunday, 22 June 2008

Re-tracing our steps...

A slight departure for us at Caskstrength.  We've covered some clearly astonishing whiskies over our short, but sweet career as bloggers - and even some slightly odd experiments (Bruichladdich beer anyone?) But for some reason, we've never covered a bourbon. Until now that is.  
Perhaps we're slightly snobbish - or just not really bothered, but neither Joel nor I felt we could get terribly excited about a few new bottles of bourbon to have a crack at.  Perhaps previous bad memories, or minor alcohol-related indescresions are to blame.  Like most, we've had our fair share of bog standard American sour-mash, swished around with a cheap, watery cola mix at the Dullsville Arse & Trumpet pub. But it took a trip to our friends, the Whisky Exchange and the visit from a truly visionary US fellow, Harlen Wheatley to totally change our palates and opinions.  
For those who don't know, Harlen lays claim to the title of 'Master Distiller' at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky.  On a very rare appearance to these shores, Harlen led a small group of privilaged tasters (luckily including a Caskstrengther) through the distillery's recent  6 expressions, teaching us a few eye opening distillation facts along the way.  
The Premise of distilling great bourbon is not wholly different to distilling great whisky. What does differ is the primary ingredients involved.  Buffalo Trace pride themselves on the expert combination of 3 grains- malted barley, rye and corn which go into the various mash tuns to produce differently flavoured bourbons.  According to Harlen, each grain gives a certain distinct flavour component to the distillate; a well rounded maltiness from the barley, sweetness from the corn and minty, peppery notes from the rye.  
So onwards to the tasting!

Buffalo Trace Bourbon:
90 proof /46%abv

Nose: Masses of immediate fruitiness; passion fruit, raisins and diced apple all mix with a very heady aroma of vanilla, chocolate covered fudge and honey.  what follows is a surprising smokiness combining with cinnamon and spice, as the alcohol prickles through.

Palate: More sweetness, tempered with charred wood from the casks. beautiful mouth feel with more fudge and cinnamon.  Small hints of leather and tobacco also come through on the finish.

Finish:  Different as to be expected from that of a malt- shorter notes of pepper and spice but there's also a longer, lingering mustiness and more leather.

Overall:  Having only tasted a handful of good bourbons in the past, I would say that my palate has been re-awakened to this often disappointing drink. Buffalo Trace has certainly surprised me, as to its complexity and sheer depth of flavour.  I would urge any bourbon virgins to try this first and discover the wealth of hidden treats at the bottom of your glass. At around £20 it's also great value for money.

Eagle Rare 10 Year Old:
 90 proof /45%abv

On to round two and we're on slightly familiar ground here.  Eagle Rare is a limited 'single barrel' bottling, which forms part of the distillery's 'Antique collection'.  Sounds like we're in malt whisky territory then, with this the 10 year old edition. (a 17 yo is also available in even more limited supply) 

Nose: Cinnamon, cloves with wisps of ripe vanilla pods immediately hit you following onto a burst of citrus sherbet and buttery candy.

Palate:  A really pleasing licorice flavour coats the tongue with lovely fresh fruit compote (especially strawberry and blackberry) coming through afterwards. Further hints of leather, tobacco leaf, vanilla and red wine.  an excellent balance.

Finish:  This older bourbon has a much drier finish than the Buffalo Trace but there are equal hints of  vanilla, then salty popcorn which round off this splendid expression.

Overall: Again, for a  a sub £30 drink, this really is worth seeking out. It has a slightly classier feel than the Buffalo Trace, but the care and passion of a great bourbon runs through both expressions.

Rock Hill Farm:

Our third tasting and another single barrel bourbon.  Rock Hill Farm is another small batch release  from Buffalo Trace, this time bottled at 8 years old. 

Nose: Spirity, with less fruit than the previous tastings.  Big bold vanilla and cereal notes are the dominant features here, rich and buttery, but with less subtlety than the Eagle Rare.

Palate: More of that smooth butteriness with more hints of old leather and bonfire toffee.  Lighter hints of fragrant fruit (papaya?) emerge as you delve in further.

Finish:  A bitter chocloate hit on the finish, with a slight mintiness and a cigar-like aftertaste.

Overall:  After the two initial tastings, I was slightly less enamoured by this expression. Sure there's a quality about it but it lacked the overall complexity of the Eagle Rare and the lovely rounded fruitness of the Buffalo Trace.  At nearly £50, it certainly doesn't match up to the value of the others either. Not a miss, but then, not entirely a hit with Caskstrength either. 

Sazerac Straight Rye:
6 yo 45% abv

Wow- a taste departure!! and a definite first for Caskstrength.  This is certainly the first Rye tasted here and it becomes obvious just how much the difference in grain has a profound effect on the taste.  

Nose: Loads of white pepper, mint and cloves combine to give this an unmistakable menthol-like aroma.  Very dry, with further hints of old oak and cedarwood on the second nosing.

Palate: A big cereal hit gets your attention immediately, then a creamy, classic 'rye bread' smoothness with hints of pickle and even spicy pastrami.  A slightly salty soda water note comes through at the end. 

Finish: More drying oak and aromatic cloves give this one of the most distinct finishes we've tasted.

Overall:  A completely different grain and such opposing flavours make this stand apart from the other tasting notes we prepared.  It is an enjoyable experience, but flawed.  I would doubt this has any chance of catching on the same way as bourbon in the UK but one can imagine the flawless cocktails it could complement, so for another sub £30 bottle, this would make a unique aquision to your cabinet.

WL Weller 
12 yo Straight Bourbon 45% abv

So into the home straight now and another different approach from Buffalo Trace. WL Weller is another aged bourbon from the distillery and uses a 4th grain, this time wheat in place of the rye to add a delicate smokiness into the mix.

Nose:  Surprising smoke immediately grabs your attention.  Almost single malt like, it intertwines with wholegrain toast, ripe fruits and sweet hickory BBQ sauce.

Palate: A complex blend of more summer fruits, sherry, raisins and chocolate.  A really moreish mouth feel.

Finish: Dry oak but leads to a real sweetness, like the Buffalo Trace in the death.  Very refined and hugely drinkable.

Overall:  Once again,  more innovation from this excellent distillery.  The use of wheat as a grain is not unique (Woodford Reserve produce a wheat'ed bourbon too) but the complexity of flavour, coupled with the smoky edge really works and makes this an extremely good bourbon.

So our final treat of the night, and it's a proper firecracker of a finish- 'Ladies and Gentleman- my I introduce you to our headlining act of the night: The one, the only.... Mr George, T, Stagggggggggggggg'!!!
(cue frenzied applause and the sound of young bourbon fans fainting in expectation!!) 

George T Stagg
Single Barrel Bourbon, aged 15 years. 72.4% abv!!

Ok, we've all tried some pretty big hitting whiskies over the years. Any one remember the Caol Ila 8 yo unpeated; bottled at 64.9% or the Glenmorangie 100 proof?  They're basically brutish and blunt in their approach to the palate, desensitizing it with the sheer power of alcohol. Undrinkable in our opinion, unless you muzzle them with a good measure of water.  But who wants to remove the bite from the guard dog?? Buy a Labrador and be happy with its generally placid nature.
In Darwinian terminology, the George T Stagg could possibly be the missing hybrid genus between the biggest, meanest Rottweiler- full of snarling ferocity and the prettiest pedigree Spaniel, serving every playful whim you could ever think of... 

Nose: Root beer and freshly cut carrots mixed with sweet floral passion fruit, toasted oak, parma violets and lightly perfumed linen sheets (the kind you imagine Keira Knightley waking up with, on a crisp summer morning) (ok, enough perving Ridley, back to the booze! ED) In a word - divine.  How they create such gentle combinations of flavour at this strength, is extraordinary. 

Palate:  Again, more of that floral passion fruit, but we're fully back in bourbon country with twists of tobacco, thick dark chocolate and espresso coffee.  Not the slightest interference or bitterness of alcohol at all. 

Finish:  More smoke/ cocoa on the finish and a really pleasant warming mouth feel as the alcohol dissipates-  you're left with nothing but smiles and good cheer!!

Overall: An undisputed  'true great' in the world of bourbon.  Buffalo Trace only make a tiny amount of this and if you're lucky enough to find one,  grab it with both hands and don't even think about reaching for the water jug.  

All in all,  an unforgettable night of great chat, history, science and of course, great drinking. Caskstrength acquired a bottle of WL Weller, which in our opinion was the pound-for-pound winner, but pitched against the Stagg- any great single malt whisky, let alone bourbon would struggle to get gain the advantage.  
Watch this space for an exclusive interview with Harlen further down the line hopefully!