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Small-batch and single-barrel bourbons are big on taste

click to enlarge Ground corn and rye in limestone water, with barley - malt, make up each batch of bourbony goodness. - COLLAN FITZPATRICK
  • Collan Fitzpatrick
  • Ground corn and rye in limestone water, with barley malt, make up each batch of bourbony goodness.

In the 1840s, "Bourbon" was just a riverside county in Kentucky. Something set the place apart, though: the spirit it sent out of port. So distinct was this amber-hued hooch that downriver drinkers began calling it simply by the county's name, which was stamped on the side of each oak barrel.

Drunk today under the same blanket term, bourbon is whiskey made in Kentucky. If it comes from anywhere else say, Tennessee it has to go by a different name.

Bourbon distillers cook ground corn and rye in limestone water at high temperatures. Next, they add barley malt, which releases an enzyme that converts grain sugars into alcohol. Adding yeast to the mash sparks fermentation.

After it ferments, the mash is distilled into a clear liquor, then aged in oak barrels. The barrels themselves, intentionally charred to varying degrees, give bourbon its character, color and flavor.

Over the past 15 years, bourbon has seen a resurgence in popularity, in part because distillers have begun to offer a range of special bottlings. These usually fall into two categories: small-batch and single-barrel bourbons. Unlike Scotch or other whiskeys, bourbon never features neutral liquors or outside agents, though garden varieties such as Jim Beam may contain liquor from more than 200 barrels in any given bottle.

Small-batch bourbons are "mingled" from 20 barrels or less and generally have more character and greater direction and focus in their flavors. Many have aged for at least six years.

"Single-barrel" means exactly what you might expect: The bourbon in the bottle comes from one barrel only. Making such offerings requires great control and supervision, and results in perhaps the purest expression of bourbon's characteristics. Single-barrel bourbons also tend to be the most expensive, and frequently have been aged for a decade or more. Some even are vintage-dated, such as Evan Williams from Heaven Hill. Others are sold at up to 125 proof (as compared to the more common 80 or 90 proof).

The Independent's committed staff recently subjected itself to small-batch and single-barrel bourbon tasting. Some members of the panel had only limited experience with the drink, while others had been doing such experiments for many years. Although it was challenging, difficult work, we bore up under the burden in order to offer our loyal readers a few ideas. As a general rule, these bourbons are meant to be enjoyed straight or cut with a little bit of water. Prices are approximate.

Tasting Notes

Small-batch:

Woodford Reserve ($30)

Dark amber color, with a warm, sweet aroma that's syrupy and touched by caramel. Nice balance of smoke, wood and a mild nuttiness, with a smooth, warm, sweet finish. Opens up and softens with a bit of water, becoming more rounded with a hint of dried flowers and a mellow finish.

Elijah Craig ($20)

Interesting nose, with wood, vanilla syrup, and a hint of essential oils (juniper?). Thick flavor, with layers of wood, smoke, pepper and juniper. Has a sharp attack that rolls across the tongue and mellows on the way down. Water accentuates the sensation, softening the impact and bringing out more sweetness and creaminess.

Jefferson's ($30)

Light nose with pronounced vanilla aroma. Really sharp attack, almost effervescent, with hints of berry and citrus all but washed out by the all-over-the-tongue sensation. Disappears nearly as quickly into a clean, short finish with a return to the vanilla note. Water enhances the vanilla aspect of the nose and softens the impact, allowing a nutty, peppery and tart citrus to spread. Also prolongs the flavor on the finish, hitting the back of the mouth with cream, pepper and toast.

Single-barrel:

Eagle Rare 10-Year-Old ($32)

Gentle nose with hints of coffee syrup, garden herbs and burnt cream. Very seductive and not overpowering. Lands powerfully mid-palate, then radiates slowly outward. Fairly one-dimensional with rich, deep, smoked rye, almost toward caramel, and a brooding finish. Degrades with water, becomes confused and loses its focus, with some bitterness from the wood coming out and corrupting the finish.

Blanton's ($50)

Strong and unusual aromatics, with herbs leading and vanilla on the back. Very strong and pointed landing. Heat hits straight to the back of the throat, then moves forward. After the shock, a complex array of juniper, pepper, tropical flowers, wood and charcoal takes over for a finish that just doesn't quit. Water cracks open the flavors to reveal an intense matrix of citrus, flowers, nuts, wood, vanilla, pepper, wet stone and minerals. The sweet finish is just as long, but considerably more pleasant.

David Torres-Rouff

  • Small-batch and single-barrel bourbons are big on taste

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