Here are complete tasting notes from the 11 bourbons sampled at the Deadwood Saloon during CityBeat’s Bourbon Tasting Panel. (See the complete article here.) They’re listed in the random order in which they were tasted. Notes are primarily mine, though select quotes from other panelists are included.
Old Forrester Signature (4 years old, 86 proof)
There’s a greenish tint to the medium amber color. The nose shows a lot of oaky butterscotch and vanilla along with some graininess; there’s not a whole lot of heat, though. Medium bodied on the palate with a lot of cedar and corn flavor, but not a whole lot more going on. Lacking in complexity, but a perfectly fine cocktail bourbon. Composite score: 5.75/10; ranking: tied for 10th.
Black Maple Hill (8 years old, 95 proof)
Light amber yellow with a very clear rim, it shows high-toned fruit along with toast and brown sugar on the floral nose. Alcoholic heat hits late, but is fairly strong. Light bodied, the palate is quite smooth and well balanced, with nice simple fruit and spice character. Not hugely complex, but good rocks bourbon. Kate calls it an “easy, girly bourbon.” Composite score: 6.375/10; ranking: 8th place.
Makers Mark (90 proof, no age statement)
Light to medium amber with a highly alcoholic nose that shows vanilla, caramel and toffee in the background. On the palate, it’s very smooth, showing little of the heat you get in the nose. Approaching full bodied, it’s mouth filling and there’s no grassiness or spice, just loads of baked pear, caramel, toffee and roasted nuts. Finish is a bit short and lacking in character, but likeable, I suppose, for its extremely gentle personality. Composite score: 7.125/10; ranking: 5th place.
Jim Beam White Label (80 proof, no age statement)
Golden yellow with a very clear rim, the nose is filled with aromas of wet earth, like walking along a dirt path after a rainstorm. Also shows crme brulée, a leafy, tobacco character and graininess. On the palate it’s medium bodied and shows lots of buttered toast character along with roasted stone fruits and cinnamon red hots. The alcohol strikes me as a bit out of balance, and it’s not hugely complex, but I like it anyway. Composite score: 7/10; ranking: 6th place.
Bakers (7 years old, 107 proof)
Deep amber orange rust with hints of green at the rim. Lots of complex high-toned aromas come across in the nose: oranges and roasted herbs and grilled buttered corn. Beautifully textured, it glides across the palate coating everything it touches, but the alcohol is way too much… like rocket fuel on the tongue. Adding some water calms things down and brings out notions of caramel and honeyed fruit. Quite good. Composite score: 6.75/10; ranking: 7th place.
Jefferson Reserve Very Old, Very Rare (15 years old, 90 proof)
Golden amber orange with a clear rim, it shows no heat on the nose — just loads of melted butter, vanilla, cinnamon, sugar and caramel. On the medium-bodied palate, everything is nicely balanced … flavors remind me of bananas foster, though the fruit tastes a bit under ripe. A bit of water brings out a lot more spice and roasted herbs. The warming influence of the alcohol lingers for a long time on the finish. Very good. Chuck says it’s, “complex, long, nice straight bourbon.” Kate’s a little more direct; she calls it, “fuck-me bourbon,” while Tom doesn’t like it at all. He says, “Heat overwhelms everything; Steelworkers wouldn’t do this as a shot-and-a-beer.” Composite score: 7.375/10; ranking: 4th place.
Bookers (120 proof, no age statement)
Dark orangey rust color with a rich, complex nose of plum, caramel, coffee, mint and roasted nuts. Tons of flavor on the full-bodied palate that screams out for water to unleash all the latent complexity. Flavors remind Kate of "butter pecan ice cream" oranges and apricots. The finish is long and spicy and lingering with black pepper, rye and menthol character all taking turns at bat. This is the shit — excellent bourbon. Composite score: 8.25/10; ranking: 2nd place.
Elijah Craig (12 years old, 94 proof)
Made by Parker Beam, Jim Beam’s grandnephew, at Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown. At 94 proof, it’s maple-syrup amber color and gives off gorgeous aromas of fruit (oranges, peaches) and candy (butterscotch, chocolate, licorice). On the palate, it’s rich, smooth and lush. Honeyed fruit flavors and herby, spicy rye character balance the alcohol so it never comes across as hot. At only about $21/bottle retail, this is phenomenal bourbon that should be on your short list for holiday gifting. Composite score: 8.875/10; ranking: 1st place WINNER.
Knob Creek (9 years old, 100 proof)
A lighter golden honey color, the nose is floral with a touch of burnt wood and roasted nuts, showing a bit of out-of-balance heat. On the palate, it’s got a nice creamy texture, but the overriding flavor is slightly burnt caramel. OK, but not something we’d probably go back to. Composite score: 5.75/10; ranking: tied for 10th place.
Basil Hayden (8 years old, 80 proof)
Nice deep amber honey color with a clear rim, it has a real subtle nose with no alcoholic heat; reminds me of slice of toasted rye bread with honey drizzled on it. No fruit aromas, just a touch of vanilla and floral character. On the palate, it’s fairly light bodied and extremely smooth, showing hints of spice box on the subtle finish. Adding a touch of water just dilutes it and doesn’t seem to open up more complexity. A good intro bourbon, maybe, because it’s so smooth and gentle. Composite score: 6.625/10; ranking: 9th place.
Woodford Reserve (6 years old, 90.4 proof)
Nice rich dark amber color, the palate strikes me as a little strange — very herbaceous and earthy and weedy. Very high-toned fruit and grassy. On the palate, it’s medium bodied and shows flavors of slightly under-ripe banana along with lots of grassy flavors; reminds me a bit of the peat smoke you’d find in an Islay Malt. The finish is long and lingering and fairly smooth with little heat. To me, though, this is idiosyncratic stuff — the kind of thing you like or you don’t. I wouldn’t expect there to be much middle ground here. Composite score: 7.625/10; ranking: 3rd place.
Note: In addition to these bourbons, I recommend you try the following super-premium American whiskeys: A.H. Hirsch 16 and 20 year old; George T Stagg; and Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year old. And if you have a favorite that was not included in the tasting, feel free to include your own notes as a comment to this blog post!