Bourbon tasting 1While at a party with some friends, we began discussing the kind of spirits we prefer. When a couple of friends said that bourbon was their choice, I suggested that we have a bourbon tasting night – a kind of guys’ night out affair. I called it a “Night of Bourbon, Blues, Bar-B-Q, and Billiards.”

Five of us participated, and each person agreed to bring a bottle of bourbon for the tasting (I made it clear that everyone would bring his bottle back home with him). The line-up of bourbons (having made sure beforehand that we had no duplications) was impressive – Woodford Reserve, Angel’s Envy, Two Stars, Blanton’s Single Barrel, Basil Hayden’s, and Knob Creek Small Batch.

After loading the CD player with some great blues tunes including some old school favorites like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker, as well as some contemporary favorites like Tab Benoit, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and the Royal Southern Brotherhood, we racked up the pool balls and began our night of sipping some fine whiskey and eating my homemade bar-b-q pulled pork sliders.bourbon tasting 6

I had prepared a short tutorial about tasting and gave each guy a score sheet for making tasting notes. A tasting involves six steps: 1. Take a Look – study the color – darker amber suggests longer aging. 2. Give It a Swirl and 3. Sniff – these steps are to “open” the flavor (much like one does with wine) and to get a taste preview. 4. Take a Drink – just a sip to work around in your mouth and hit different parts of the tongue. 5. Swallow – (this is the best part) be particularly aware of how the bourbon finishes – sweet, mellow, bold or bite? 6. Water it Down or Throw it on the Rocks – just a touch of water or a couple of ice cubes will loosen even more flavor profiles than when tasting it “uncut.”

A few words about bourbon in general – bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, but it does have to be made in the U.S. to be called bourbon. It also must be made from a grain mixture of at least 51% corn (most higher-end bourbons will have a higher percentage); it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels; and it must be at least 80 proof (40% alcohol).

It is interesting to note that as our tasting progressed and we compared notes, we all seemed to have similar comments about the bourbons. Woodford Reserve, which uses 72% corn, 10% malted barley, and 18% rye (this gives it a “feisty, spice character”) and weighed in at 90 proof, was generally considered “pretty smooth, mellow” at entry with just a slight bite in the finish (probably the result of the rye). As with many bourbons, the overtones were of vanilla and caramel.

bourbon tasting 4Two Stars, which is produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, is an 86 proof whiskey and was considered the least favorite of our line-up because it had a “little too much bite.” A little water or some ice mellowed it somewhat, but it still couldn’t stand up to the others. In defense of Two Stars, I must say that considering its price point at around $18, it is a good value-priced bourbon.

Our third taste was Blanton’s Single Barrel “Rye Recipe” Kentucky Straight Bourbon, also distilled at Buffalo Trace. Blanton’s was unanimously judged to be “smooth and mellow,” which made it the night’s number one choice. With a wonderful “citrusy nose,” delicious vanilla and caramel start, and a finish so smooth it was hard to believe this bourbon weighs in at 93 proof.

Next up was Basil Hayden’s, one of the four bourbons that make up Beam’s Small Batch Bourbon Collection, and is the lightest of these bourbons at 80 proof. A number of reviewers suggest it is a great starter bourbon for novice bourbon drinkers.

The name comes from a Maryland man who in the late 18th century led a group of families to Kentucky to settle in the area near what is today Bardstown (a major stop on the current Kentucky Bourbon Trail). Basil distinguished himself as a distiller of fine bourbon when he added a larger amount of rye to his mash than most other bourbons. Beam’s recipe for this Small Batch Collection edition uses a mash very similar to the one used by Basin Hayden back in 1792. The general consensus of Basil Hayden’s was that it had a mild “spiciness” to the nose and at first taste, with a very smooth finish – but not quite as smooth asbourbon tasting 2 the Blanton’s.

Our fifth sampling was Angel’s Envy, an 86.6 proof creation from master distiller Lincoln Henderson, formerly of Woodford Reserve and Old Forester. Upon tasting his newly hand-crafted bourbon, Lincoln declared it “Angel’s Envy,” which is a play on the bourbon parlance of “angel’s share,” which refers to the whiskey that is lost to evaporation during the aging process.

Again, we all seemed to agree that Angel’s Envy had more of a “bite” to the first taste – but a pleasant, flavorful one that let you know that you were drinking a full-bodied whiskey with character. It had a “long finish” with a gentle “warming” effect. This bourbon’s unique flavor profile and its luminous, gold-copper color are the result of its unique finishing process during aging. The last three to six months of aging is done in port wine casks.

We saved the most potent bourbon for our final selection. Knob Creek’s 100 Proof Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon is aged a full nine years, rendering a deeper than usual amber color, a powerful burst of flavor, especially of oak and caramel, and a long finish with a kick that you would expect from a 100 proof whiskey. Drinking Knob Creek Small Batch neat is not for the meek, but a couple of ice cubes opened this whiskey to a wonderful profile of flavors which some of us described as “rich,” “woody” (definitely of oak), and “sweet caramel.”

Most of our bourbon tasting was sipping it neat or with a couple of ice cubes. But bourbon is a great spirit for cocktails as well, a couple of which I concocted that night and include here along with a few additional recipes using bourbon.

Bourbon Manhattan

2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes of bitters (Peychaud’s is my choice)
a splash of cherry juice (optional)
a cherry for garnish

Mix all ingredients (except cherry garnish) in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake well, and strain into a chilled martini glass. (This drink also works well on the rocks in an Old Fashioned glass.)


bourbon tasting 5Bourbon Manhattan (with my twist to it)

2 oz. bourbon
¼ oz. Luxardo (a maraschino liqueur from Italy)
¼ oz. Pimm’s No.1 (an English liqueur)
Cherry for garnish
I drink this Manhattan on the rocks in my favorite Old Fashioned glass. I also had this cocktail using Woodford Reserve Bourbon and Chartreuse instead of Pimm’s at the Loews Coronado Resort in California. Outstanding!

The Sazerac (this drink is thought to be the first American cocktail with origins in pre-Civil War New Orleans – the original recipe called for cognac or rye whiskey and absinthe, but bourbon and Herbsaint or some other anise spirit are sometimes substituted – I did read one mixologist’s demand that the Sazerac should never be made with bourbon – each to his own).

1 cube of sugar (can substitute simple syrup)
2 oz. bourbon (or rye if you don’t want to be rebellious)
¼ oz. anise liqueur (Herbsaint is the official choice, but something like Pernod or even Ouzo can work – absinthe was used originally, and can also be found more easily than it used to be.)
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters (Antoine Peychaud is the New Orleans apothecary reputedly responsible for the creation of the original Sazerac.)
Lemon peel for garnish

Pack an Old Fashioned glass with ice. In a second Old Fashioned glass place the sugar cube and add the bitters. Crush the sugar cube and then add the bourbon (or rye) to the glass with the sugar and bitters. Empty the ice from the first glass and coat the glass with the anise liqueur, and discard the remaining anise liqueur (I don’t always discard the remaining). Pour the whiskey, sugar and bitters mix into this glass and garnish with lemon peel.

Mexican Bourbon 

2 oz. bourbon
1 tsp. cherry juice
Splash of agave syrup
2 dashes bitters
1 cherry & 1 orange slice
Muddle the cherry and orange slice with the splash of agave. Combine remaining ingredients and serve on the rocks.

Belle Notte 

2 oz. fresh squeezed orange juice
1 ½ oz. bourbon
¾ oz. blood orange liqueur (can substitute Grand Mariner)
¼ oz. Luxardo
Combine all ingredients and serve on the rocks