Wednesday, June 13, 2012

UPDATE: B is for Bourbon, and Black Bear

Posted By on Wed, Jun 13, 2012 at 5:36 PM

Sorry, but I just have to say it: Pappy Van Winkle just ain't all that.

Sacrilege, I know.

Pappy Van Winkle bourbon Black Bear
  • Matthew Schniper
  • It's one of the most celebrated bourbons around, but it didn't unseat my favorites. Try a flight for yourself to find your own top bourbon.

I'm well aware that it's like every chef's favorite bourbon and widely considered the best in the world. (Or we may as well say "in the U.S." since we're the only country capable by bourbon laws of producing the great liquid.)

And that the stuff commands ridiculous prices on eBay and the like. But I dare say that there's probably a lot of hype involved in the praise.

Don't get me entirely wrong: It's definitely an amazing bourbon, and up there in the top 10 easily.

But while at the Black Bear last night to judge the Paragon Culinary School finals, I sampled some new favorites during another small bourbon tasting with chef Victor Matthews and crew.

In the last couple of weeks, the bottle layout of the Black Bear's bar has already shifted significantly. As somewhat of a game, but more of an obsession, Matthews continues to place the bottles in order of least amazing to most mind-blowing across the bar's back.

I'd say "best to worst," but Matthews argues that there's really no bad bottle on the bar, just some that don't shine quite as bright as others when it comes to the multiple rounds of tastings that he and his culinary students and colleagues have happily subjected themselves to while creating the Bear's new bourbon bar.

I'm still calling the Maker's 46 my favorite, especially for its relatively low price point. And we used it last night as our baseline bourbon from which to spring off to the new samples — the one to beat.

But I sampled five other absolute bad-ass bourbons that I could totally respect being someone else's favorites — and depending on the mood of a particular moment, I could see them being mine, perhaps.

Before I briefly unpack them, I'll say that what someone happens to be searching for in a particular moment seems to be the key to choosing a favorite or best bourbon. It's totally subjective and subject to constant change.

The reason the Bear's bar keeps changing is that on given days, the staff have gone ga-ga over a particular bottle for some reason and bumped it up in position.

Maybe it's the rounder sweetness of one of the wheat-rich labels versus the spicy notes of rye-heavy bourbon.

As always, drink what you like, while the rest of us geek-out over the subtle nuances of pricey bourbons.

Without further ado, if you head to the Black Bear for a tasting or purchase your own bottles elsewhere, a gem you should seek out is the Barrel Finished Parker’s Heritage Collection 10-year, which sees an additional six months inside cognac casks.

Black Bear Victor Matthews bourbon
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Victor Matthews consults The Bourbon Book that he organized for the Black Bear. Lined up is our baseline favorite, Maker's 46, being tasted against 12- and 18-year old bourbons from Jefferson's Reserve and Elijah Craig.

It's a little hot up front at 100 proof, but very smooth thereafter, unfolding in complexity much like the Maker's 46, with all kinds of fun flavors coming out and lingering. I definitely got the syrup element mentioned on this blog.

Next up, I'd tried both the Elijah Craig 12-year and Jefferson's Reserve Very Old at my prior tasting, but here I sampled them again next to the Elijah Craig 18-year and Jefferson's Presidential Select 18-year.

Both are powerhouses and the Jefferson's Presidential is a particular stunner. It's a touch softer at 94 proof as as the website says, sports a noticeable toffee edge.

A sticker on the Black Bear's bottle numbered this batch number 30 and bottle number 1,831, noting that it was "distilled from wheat in the fall of 1991."

Think about all that time gone by as you sip and soak in the goodness.

Side note: To Carlos who commented that I try the W.L. Weller 107 Antique, I did so and rather enjoyed it, but it didn't make my top 10. Truly, to each his own, though.

Also new to the Black Bear since my last visit is a bourbon flight menu, broken into five categories: wheated, high-rye, rye vs. wheat, best of the best, and Colorado bourbon. Click the photo below for a look at the players.

——- ORIGINAL POST, 10:13 A.M., TUESDAY, MAY 29 ——-

I'm 14 samples in before I find my new favorite bourbon: Maker's 46.

It's somewhat scotch-y, peaty and spicy up front, nicely rounded and caramel-y too, and a sip just lingers and lingers and lingers on the palate, offering an unparalleled complexity.

Chef Victor Matthews of the Black Bear restaurant calls it "the best deal in all of bourbon," and that's after recently finishing the compilation of The Bourbon Book, meant to be a guide and training manual for the restaurant, Paragon Culinary School and the upcoming Southern Hospitality restaurant chain we first told you about here a couple weeks ago.

Matthews, recently profiled in the Nation's Restaurant News, invited me to a bourbon sampling at the Black Bear last Friday night, along with some of his former students.

This is ahead of the grand opening of his new bourbon bar at the Green Mountain Falls eatery (expected within a couple of weeks), in which he'll feature 42 bourbons (and counting), plus 20 bourbon-based cocktails in what he calls a "Southern-style gastro pub" with Cajun and Southern appetizers accompanying the hooch.

Black Bear Bourbon Bar Green Mountain Falls

Here's an early look at the tentative bourbon menu, as well as other weekly specials at the restaurant, such as "barbecue and bourbon Sundays."

My tasting, which culminated in a total of 18 samples (most just enough of a splash to taste, so as to stay clear-minded), started with a quick bourbon history provided by Matthews, followed by the definitions of everything from small-batch and single-barrel to bourbon itself (as it differs from other whiskey products).

In brief: Bourbon is comprised of at least 51 percent corn; is aged in new, charred white-oak barrels; has certain proofing restrictions as to how it goes into the barrel and bottle; and is American. The whole argument about it having to come from Kentucky is often misunderstood, though the state continues to produce the majority of the drink.

All the info is in copies of The Bourbon Book which Matthews will keep atop the bar at the Black Bear for customers to peruse.

Victor Matthews Black Bear Green Mountain Falls
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Matthews sits behind the newly renovated Black Bear bar, now adorned by some 40 or more bourbon bottles.

Some of the history highlights include how the Whiskey Rebellion, Prohibition and the second World War factored into bourbon's development, destruction and eventual rebirth (thanks in part, cites Matthews, to Frank Sinatra's affinity for Jack Daniel's).

I'd call our tasting progressive in nature as we started out with some of the wider-known bourbons like Jim Beam, Knob Creek and Jack Daniels, before moving to pricier and more exclusive bottles like Elijah Craig 12 year and Willett Bourbon Whiskey.

We discussed the nature of charcoal filtration, which lends to smoothness but arguably strips many of the complexities out of the flavor. It gets at why some folks (like me) appreciate a strong bourbon versus a smooth Tennessee whiskey.

We also discussed the influence of the other 49 percent of bourbon's ingredients, being rye, barley and, as a distinguishing feature of many bourbons, wheat. The wheat produces a sweeter note generally, hence the popularity of the standard Maker's Mark bottle.

We were punched in the face with the awesomeness that is Booker's and Blanton's bourbons, argued by many to each be the best bourbon in the world.

And Matthews concluded our session by making a round of mint juleps with Maker's 46, pureed fresh mint and agave nectar. Undoubtedly, it was the best mint julep I've ever had, certainly worth the drive to the Bear for a summer sampling.

Bourbon Black Bear Green Mountain Falls
  • Matthew Schniper
  • This handful of bottles is among the highest-ranked by chef Matthews and his cohorts, as well as many in other tasting arenas.

Unless you're up for the drive to Denver's Whiskey Bar or, come fall or early winter, Southern Hospitality, the Black Bear is likely your best bet for the widest bourbon selection to be found in the area.

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