The bourbon review

First published in MUDL Magazine (November 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

It’s the end of the week, a thank-God-it’s-Friday kind of Friday.  The shackles are off, it’s time to cut loose.  You walk into a bar (where else!).  The vibe’s electric…it’s calling to you.  First things first though.  Like a cowboy who’s crossed the badlands and made it to the other side you deserve to slake your thirst with a golden elixir.  Yep, you’re going get yourself a bourbon – a freewheeling all-American shot-glass charging party starting gullet lubricating liquid bullet of a bourbon (and a double at that!) – to kick the evening into gear, no question.  But which bourbon?  Experiment by all means, but don’t just be arbitrary.  Here’s what you need to know.

I recently gathered together a panel of esteemed whiskey experts – guys who can tell their Jim from their Jack, and who know the latter well enough to call him John (in the best Pacino tradition, hooah!) – to review most of the bourbons available to us on the local market, an array which included the following: Jim Beam White and Black, Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack, Slate, Blanton’s Single Barrel and Straight from the Barrel, Buffalo Trace, Knob Creek, Eagle Rare, Maker’s Mark, WL Weller and Woodford Reserve, in no particular order (and not counting a few wildcards, about which more later).   At this stage though, before ploughing into our impressions of these dozen contenders, it might be useful to set the scene – context can be a game changer.  So then, what is bourbon, and how does it fit into the greater whisk(e)y family?

For a whiskey to be called bourbon it must be produced in the United States (anywhere, but usually Kentucky), be made from a mashbill (recipe of ingredients) containing at least 51% corn, and be aged in new, charred oak barrels, amongst other more technical statutory necessities.  This requirement for virgin wood has created a nifty symbiosis with the Scotch whisky industry – which purchases the once-used cast-offs for their own maturation purposes.   It also means however that the bourbon flavour spectrum is by regulatory definition more limited than many other whisky styles, which use casks seasoned with everything from the typical bourbon and sherry, to port, cognac, rum and just about anything else of which you can think.    It seems also to be the case that bourbon is restricted – by convention and commercial feasibility if not legislation – to the use of American white oak barrels (whereas others are using Spanish, French, Japanese and other types of oaks), thereby further inhibiting its range of flavours.  This is something we noticed during the review – bourbon is generally big and bold, but it plays within a much tighter flavour band than whiskies such as Scotch or Irish.

A straight bourbon – the only type with which those of us seeking to appreciate a fine spirit should concern ourselves – must additionally be aged for a minimum of two years (although four is the standard for the marquee brands), and have no added colouring, flavouring or other spirit added.  This is an important distinction.  Slate, for instance, is a blended bourbon – a separate category allowing for just under half of the liquid to be composed of an unaged spirit component.  Accordingly we found Slate to have a ‘spirity’ flavour redolent of new make.  Best disguised with a mixer.

The rest of the mashbill is usually made up of rye or wheat (known respectively as a rye-recipe or wheat-recipe, or alternatively as the flavour grain) and a small percentage of malted barley for fermentation purposes.  Rye recipes predominate (and are typically further defined as high rye or traditional depending on proportions), but some of the industry’s most iconic brands are wheat-recipes, notably Maker’s Mark and W.L. Weller. Typically these are more moderate, sweeter – the corn being allowed to dominate (WL Weller is all “fat” corn) rather than having to compete with the very distinctive, powerful flavour of rye in the background.  Maker’s Mark has a cereal character, perhaps the wheat exerting an influence, which makes it – we felt – the most malt-like of bourbons.  Whisky (or in this case whiskey) always has the ability to surprise (and delight) though: of two of our wild-cards, the first, Larceny, exhibited the spiciness which is typical of rye, despite being made with a wheat recipe, whilst the second, the rye-based George Dickel Superior no. 12, was butterscotch sweet.

You’ve probably noticed at this point that I’d earlier been writing about Jack Daniel’s and bourbon in virtually the same breath, when, as everyone surely must know, it’s a Tennesse whiskey and not a bourbon – the same, by the way, goes for George Dickel (also along with Maker’s Mark the only American whiskies i.e. not whiskeys).  The only differences between a bourbon and a Tennessee whiskey is the additional step of maple charcoal filtration (also known as the Lincoln County process) before maturation, and the fact that the latter must be made in the great state of Tennessee (if you’ll excuse my huckster-politician speak).  The first is significant, the second debatably so, but regardless, in my opinion, they remain bourbons with carbon twist, rather than a separate class of whiskey; I was pleased to discover that the definitions in NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement – seem to endorse my point of view.   In the case of Gentleman Jack, the Jack Daniel’s variant we reviewed, there is a double charcoal filtration process employed – both before and after maturation – resulting in an exceptionally smooth, velvety, maple-sweetened, easy whiskey with a well-rounded almost peachy overtone.  It’s not particularly complex, but it’s highly drinkable.

The prospect of tasting 15 bourbons – the third wildcard was an outstanding Four Roses Small Batch: as complex and subtle a bourbon as for which one could hope – in one sitting was somewhat daunting, but we meandered our way through them with an it’s-a-tough-job-but-someone’s-got-to-do-it attitude (tongue in cheek of course – so actually with great relish).

A few notable observations:

Jim Beam hasn’t become the world’s best-selling bourbon by accident; the White Label is a solid performer – basic and dependable like vanilla ice-cream but with sprinklings of pepper and orange zest to add a bit of interest.  Selling at R150 odd this is just astonishingly good value for money.  Its Black Label big brother is similar, but, as you’d expect for an eight year old, more evolved – the peppery spice having now mellowed and sweetened, and transformed into peppermint or perhaps aniseed.

If you have any intention of taking bourbon seriously then you need to pay close attention to the Buffalo Trace Distillery.  These guys are prolific innovators who produce a range of high quality drinks – notably bourbon and rye whiskey.  We don’t have to their best stuff locally but don’t let this put you off: from the eponymously named Buffalo Trace, an excellent entry-level bourbon with a sweet prickle on the nose and an orange ice-lolly stick note on the palate (to keep you jolly), and the well-balanced, grassy-flavoured Eagle Rare, to the outstanding Blanton’s, there’s enough on offer for satisfaction aplenty.

Sight is arguably the most powerful of our senses, or certainly the one that makes the most impression.  Appearances then are always likely to influence us.  Whether that’s right or wrong is a matter for the philosophers and in my mind largely irrelevant.  It’s just how it is.  That’s why I always like to give some consideration to packaging.  In this regard the Maker’s Mark wax capsule, Blanton’s horse and jockey closure and its distinctive globular bottle, the vintage George Dickel label (reminiscent of the Wild West), and the flask-like Woodford Reserve bottle are all standouts.

On to the serious business then.  I promised earlier to tell you what you need to know, so here it is.  We singled out four of the dozen as our collective favourites.  Our little panel, after an objective assessment, came to the conclusion that the best bourbons commonly available in South Africa are (in no particular order once again):

Maker’s Mark – great flavour, great looks, it’s the full package.

Knob Creek – dusty nose, potent kick of spice, pronounced wood influence; small batch is not just a sales pitch.

Blanton’s Single Barrel – immediately popped its head out of the crowd, complex, a trifecta (haha, think about it) of sweetness, spiciness and wood.

Woodford Reserve – deep, fragrant nose, multi-layered, pronounced rye spice; a big bourbon brazenly bragging of its copper pot-still provenance.

South Africa is a Scotch whisky market through and through.  Jamesons, Jack Daniel’s and, dare I say it, Firstwatch have made an impact – on the back of their brand power and pricing more than anything else – but by and large these have been exceptions to the norm.  It’s a bit of a pity that our awareness of and appreciation for other styles of whisky seems underdeveloped.  Or perhaps, more optimistically, it’s bit of an opportunity.  We now have an encouragingly broad selection of bourbons on our doorsteps.  And, without underselling this fine drink, in those go-big-or-go-home moments there’s just no substitute.  May the dram be with you.

Big thanks to luminaries Marsh Middleton, Bernardo Gutman, and Hector McBeth.

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