Thursday 19 May 2011

Buffalo Trace Longform Review

Buffalo Trace (owned by Sazerac Co) is probably the most exciting and hyped distillery in Kentucky. They do cool crazy stuff like the Single Oak Project and other experimental releases all the time, and their yearly Buffalo Trace Antique Collection of 3 Bourbons and 2 Ryes are consistently some of the best reviewed whiskies in the world. They also put out the Pappy Van Winkle line (more on this in the future), which is probably the most hyped American whiskey line among people vaguely in the know. Their marketing is pretty clever -- premium bourbon is a niche they (and Maker's) practically invented, since they came up with Blanton's, the "first single barrel bourbon." Their main product is the Ancient Age line of cheap-os, and their flagship bourbon is named after the distillery.

(They have a hooey reason why the distillery and bourbon are called Buffalo Trace - something about Buffalo trails or whatever. I think it's because buffalo pee is funny to drink.)

When I first tried Buffalo Trace years ago, as a person who drank only cheap bourbon, Maker's, and sometimes Knob Creek, I hated it. It's much more of a traditional bourbon than Maker's, with some peppery char throughout. The nose is surpisingly light for a 90 proof whiskey (or maybe just right, 90 proof isn't a lot), with strong floral and citrus notes, along with a little vanilla and, oddly (I might be wrong here) raisins or grappa. There's definitely some grappa in the taste, which flips the switch into ginger and ethanol. The taste definitely has a decent amount of char burnt in, along with the also-expected and tasty oak flavor.

The finish is notable for how I don't really care for it AND how essential it is for a bourbon neophyte to try, since I think experience the BT finish is essential in figuring out what the proper, basic bourbon flavor should be, especially up here in the cold north, absent cheaper old-school bourbons. It's of a medium length (not huge and forever-seeming like Booker's, but not almost-non-existent like Maker's or Jim Beam White Label). The fruit and floral flavors continue, and give way to an alcohol-y, almost aspertame sweetness, all the while buoyed in a lot of wood. Given a little time to rest, the finish becomes delicious -- limes and oak and pine, yum.

Like I mentioned before, Buffalo Trace might not be as appreciated by bourbon beginners, who will be overcome by the spicy and peppery tastes and miss out on the floral and citrus flavors that are carried throughout. I found the balance difficult to rate, since the bourbon's tastes are executed consistently all the way through -- citrus and char from first smell to last dregs of finish -- but I'm not entirely a fan of the tastes that are executed. The presentation is pretty nice, with a cool buffalo on the bottle, and the marketing is lovely, but I traditionally prefer the higher-end Buffalo Trace products. Quality skyrockets right above this product, with the Eagle Rare being quite tasty (and often available here) and higher-end stuff (like Hancock's Reserve and the BTAC, all unfortunately not yet available here) being either my regular pours or some of the best whiskey I've ever tried.

Value-wise, in the States, at $20 it's hard to beat. When base BT is $20 and Eagle Rare is $30, it's tough to decide if the upgrade is worth it. Here in Toronto, at $40 vs. Eagle Rare's $50, I would have to side with the Eagle Rare as the better value.

Booker's Batch # C03-A-29 longform review

It’s been over a week and I promised reviews, so here’s a couple. But first, Elijah Craig 12yr seems to be back in the LCBO, so go and pick up a bottle.


It seems odd to review Booker’s (Jim Beam’s top-end small batch whiskey) before I review normal Jim Beam, but I plan on reviewing all the standard LCBO bourbons in quick succession in June, when I have an excuse to get some cheaper whiskey (I currently am out of Maker’s, Woodford, and cheap Wild Turkey). So, then you’ll see reviews for Jim Beam (white & black), Knob Creek, Bulleit, Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey 80 Proof.

Booker’s is a mighty whiskey, at barrel strength – my bottle weighs in at a hefty 127.9 proof (almost 64% alcohol) -- only the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bourbons outweigh it in my collection, and nothing else at the LCBO comes close. It also commands a mighty price. That gives it a hefty burn. Be aware when tasting and smelling it – it can easily burn out your tastebuds and sense of smell! I tasted and rated it without the aid of water, but I will mention what I think of it after going back and sampling it a few more times.

The nose is traditional Beam, well within the company’s standard flavor profile, if quite a bit more weighty. There are hints of vanilla and caramel at first sniff, which gives way to a strong vanilla burn. Burn is the operative word here, as I also detect a bit of almond and burning oak chips.

The taste, undiluted, is very harsh and sharp, even compared to its barrel proof  counterparts (largely unavailable up here) like George Stagg, Noah’s Mill, Rare Breed, and Parker’s Heritage Barrel Strength. It has notes of black licorice  and pepper on the tip of the tongue; it’s hot and spicy like black cherry cinnamon  candy, with a bit of that nutty taste Beam often has.

The finish is looooong, the child that is the father of the man that is 60+% ABV, and almost suffocating (please don’t blame this entirely on the nature of the beast – as noted above, there’s some much less obvious high ABV bourbons out there, and I’m not looking for smoothness; the finish really comes down hard and heavy like smoke, rather than a sharp burn). There’s some stone fruit – peach maybe? – hidden in there, next to the walnuts and almonds and vanilla.

As noted before, this stuff is strong, expensive, and, ultimately, pretty good. It’s not a life-changing whiskey and won’t win over folks who aren’t yet fans of bourbon, but it’s worth having on the shelf for novelty’s sake. In fact, I’d call it an experienced bourbon drinker’s bourbon, unlikely to be appreciated by folks who haven’t gotten used to the allure of Kentucky’s finest export – novices will learn more from Knob Creek (and enjoy it more), or, if particularly adventurous, they can try Baker’s for an easier transition into the world of higher-proof bourbons.

I give it a 6.5, which can inch up to a 7 for the novelty, if you are an experienced drinker who lacks access to anything but the LCBO.

However, with a few splashes of water and time, the bourbon opens up a bit. Some mint appears in the taste and finish, and the vanilla slips open and reveals other sweet floral scents.  It’s still a strong hoss of a whiskey, but it’s a lot better than the lower end beam products. Watering it down further still reveals its superiority to base beam, but while adding your own water does make the drink a bit more of a bargain, the price difference up front is pretty significant. Of the whiskeys I own, this is the one I’m mostly likely to add water to – even the 70% ABV George Stagg I’ll often drink neat – and this is the whiskey I find benefits most from a splash or two.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Rules of the Blog, Part 3

So, rules. First off, I probably won't ever be listing exactly how many points in each category a specific bourbon gets -- mostly because my system isn't very granular to begin with, so there shouldn't be much room for speculation. So, a quick run-down on tasting. A future blog will break down tasting some more, but here's a quick idea on how each step works:

First off, I try the bourbons twice -- once when first poured, and once after sitting for around 30 minutes. Bourbon (and other whiskeys) really open up when you let them sit around at room temperature, since the alcohol oxidizes a bit and gives off tasty vapors, letting it stew in its own juice. For my reviews, I decided to use the wacky Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass, in honor of Ontario. Glencairn designed a lovely scotch whisky glass a few years back and it's the tasting standard (though brandy snifters are often used as well). There's a little hype involved in glassware, but a curved glass really does aid in the nosing over the standard rocks/whiskey tumbler. The Canadian Whisky Glass is more short and stout than the standard Glencairn, and lacks a stem -- it's almost a cross between the Glencairn and a rocks tumbler, with some of the benefits of both.

THE NOSE: The initial step in drinking bourbon is -- get this -- smelling it. Sniffing bourbon like a fancy wine guy does actually bring out the taste quite a bit, and preps your taste buds a bit. Use short, sharp sniffs and be careful, especially when smelling higher-proof whiskeys, as you can burn out your sense of smell for a bit if you inhale too deeply. Bourbon has lots of neat smells, but the ones I find most common are charred wood (duh), ethanol (duh, corn), vanilla, honey, citrus (particularly tangerine or orange), various nuts (like roast almond, cashew, and walnut), brown sugar, rye, toffee, cocoa, and other fruit and floral smells. Nosing again later, after its opened up (or after adding water -- but not too much, and not an ice cube; while I don't always hate ice in bourbon, I find it has a deleterious effect on my nosing abilities).

THE TASTE: Sip your bourbon gently, like a gentlefolk is wont to do. Suck some air in around it. Make note as it travels down the tongue slowly, since different tastebuds will taste things, well, differently. If you can handle it, chew it around your mouth. This is the key here; good  bourbon isn't to be slammed back like a shooter. Whisk(e)y is magic: it gains potency from age and its time in the wood. It draws flavor and strength from the barrel over time; this isn't vodka or even rum, there's years of secrets hidden in there. The flavor often carries on from the nose, but there are plenty of whiskeys that can surprise you with some new tastes (good or ill).

THE FINISH: Here's one of my favorite parts of drinking whiskey, what separates the cheap stuff from the good stuff. The finish is that taste that hits the back of your tongue and emanates from your throat as you swallow. New drinkers to bourbon often like whiskeys with short or light tastes, calling it "smooth" (that said, if I wanted smooth, I wouldn't be drinking alcohol -- I don't drink just to get drunk these days, I'm looking for the experience), but there's a real difference between a finish that lingers deliciously and one that burns all pepper and heat. Higher proof can really make a finish linger (I think of it as breathing smoke), but there are some lower-proof bottles that really let you enjoy the taste. One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between wheat-heavy and rye-heavy bourbon is the finish; both are often quite distinctive. Like the taste, there are lots of hidden notes in the finish for a perceptive and patient drinker; learn to look past the alcohol and heat and a good bourbon will offer you a lot.

BALANCE: The follow-through and full experience of drinking bourbon; some bourbons are undermined by elements of the smell, taste, or finish that set the whole experience awry; similarly, other bourbons might make up for some lack in individual notes by providing an overall satisfying experience -- a bourbon that is a bit delicate and thin in the nose or taste might make up for that by emphasizing a satisfying floral note that carries throughout the drink.

INTANGIBLES: I talked about this a bit elsewhere, but I'm giving myself a little wiggle-room in the review for things like price (all my prices are based on the LCBO prices, since this blog is based on reviewing what I think the best buys are at the LCBO -- which, note, I am not affiliated with at all), presentation, and other "value" notions, as well as other small things I enjoy about the bourbon. I'm weighing this score a bit lower than the others.

Next up: More tastings! Any questions?