Ever see what people are paying for Rock Hill Farms on secondary markets? Pathetic, right? I’m guessing they’ve never tasted the $50 John J. Bowman, a lesser-known, 100-proof, single-barrel bourbon from another Sazerac brand. Oh, well. As you’ll soon find out … their loss.
Pour: John J. Bowman Single Barrel Bourbon
Age: not stated (reportedly 9-10 years)
Nose: cherry-vanilla frosting, caramel, cream soda
Taste: dried fruit, butter toffee, nutmeg, sugar glaze
Finish: moderately long – sweet oak char, Luden’s cherry, faint pepper
Overall: They say John J. Bowman starts out as Buffalo Trace distillate. It’s redistilled twice over by A. Smith Bowman, then aged and bottled in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Whatever the process, it not only tastes like 100-proof Buffalo Trace, it tastes better.
Rating: Horsey killer.
Resurrecting a long-retired whiskey label isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s pretty damn common. But resurrecting a long-retired whiskey label and emulating a 122-year old bottle’s flavor profile, that takes talent and skill. Enter Nancy Fraley and Magnus’ Murray Hill Club.
Pour: Murray Hill Club (b. 19)
Age: NAS (reportedly 9-yr light whiskey & 11-18-yr bourbon)
Nose: creme brûlée, sugar plum, woody spice
Taste: vanilla bean, dark fruit, hints of cedar & tobacco
Finish: moderately long – sweet oak char, toasted caramel, leather
Overall: An impressive, well-crafted whiskey. Murray Hill Club is the best blended bourbon I’ve tasted to date – one that sets a new precedent for American whiskey lacking a straight designation. Complex and graced with elegance, it’s a triumph for Magnus.
Bardstown Bourbon Co.’s Discovery Series is an ultra-premium line featuring sourced whiskeys of various ages and mash bills. The second release is composed of 10-, 12-, and 14-year bourbons (undisclosed origins), each distilled in Kentucky with rye as the secondary grain.
Pour: Bardstown Bourbon Co. Discovery Series No. 2
Age: 10 years
Color: rich copper
Nose: salted caramel, honey-roasted nuts, dark citrus
Taste: brown sugar, charred oak, baked cinnamon
Finish: moderately long – vanilla spice, cola, clove gum
Overall: A robust, well-rounded, satisfying pour. While not unlike other bourbons in its class, Bardstown’s Discovery No. 2 brings its share to the table. The sole negative is its $130 price. Quite an expense considering similarly aged options.
Rating: Hefty pour, hefty price.
Old Forester’s Whiskey Row series cemented new interest in a heritage brand many enthusiasts largely ignored. One might argue Birthday Bourbon as an exception, though most rarely see that annual release. No biggie. Who needs Birthday Bourbon with Old Forester 1920 around?
Pour: Old Forester 1920
Age: at least 4 years
Color: rosy copper
Nose: vanilla bean, charred banana, dense oak
Taste: toasted caramel, brown sugar, woody spice
Finish: long w/ waves of molasses, chocolate, and baked cinnamon
Overall: A deliciously bold bourbon with a robust profile all its own. If you’re looking for a whiskey with the style and character of a fancy limited edition, but don’t want to pay a fortune or waste time finding it, Old Forester 1920 damn sure delivers.
Rating: Ol’ Fo-Sure!
Elijah Craig is one of the few bourbons I can think of that immediately improved after its age statement was dropped. Some may disagree, but that’s the way I see it. I was never a fan of the 12-year iteration – a rather woody, mildly tannic pour. As for its successor …
Pour: Elijah Craig Small Batch
Age: at least 4 years (reportedly 8-12 years)
Nose: vanilla, honey-butter, orange peel
Taste: salted caramel, sweet oak, butter toffee
Finish: moderate length – buttered cornbread, peppery spice
Overall: Remarkably solid. I’m sure I’ve recommended other bottles as “starter bourbons,” but I’m beginning to think Elijah Craig is best suited for the task. Not that it should encompass a single role. It’s just damn good mellow whiskey for $27.
Rating: Butter than ever.
Years before Geo. Dickel sourced celebrity bourbon was hawked at $200 a bottle, Barrell Craft Spirits was offering Tullahoma’s finest at a reasonable price. They still do, though not always whiskey from Tennessee. Here’s an oldie but goodie, Barrell Bourbon Batch 009.
Pour: Barrell Bourbon Batch 009
Age: 13 years
Color: rich copper
Nose: Ruby Red grapefruit, vanilla-orange candy, heady spice
Taste: toasted caramel, zesty dark citrus, fruity charred oak
Finish: long & robust – orange-grape soda, sweet mineral notes, black pepper
Overall: Not a whiskey for crybabies. We’re talking dense, layered, robust Dickel at its peak. And surprisingly, it’s not the Flintstone Vitamin bomb one might expect. Barrell Bourbon Batch 009 is blending done right – an in-your-face, full-flavored powerhouse.
Part innovation, part obligatory liquor store window wrap, it’s Jim Beam Devil’s Cut. But seriously, what is it? Essentially, whiskey extracted from staves of emptied barrels batched with standard Beam bourbon. (If it were good, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?) Moving along.
Pour: Jim Beam Devil’s Cut
Age: at least 4 years
Color: dense copper
Nose: whole-grain bread, sharp vanilla, sappy oak
Taste: polished leather, black pepper, astringent spice
Finish: moderate length – Splenda, singed maple syrup, walnut shell
Overall: Imagine similar oak notes to Knob Creek, only sharp, astringent, and strangely bitter, that’s Jim Beam Devil’s Cut. Unpleasant, yet admittedly drinkable, it’s exactly as the name implies. But let’s give the devil his due – there’s worse for $20.
Rating: Tolerable Hell.
Riding the fringe of Old Fitzgerald folklore is Larceny, a non-age-stated wheated mash bill bourbon produced by Heaven Hill. It’s not as talked about as its barrel-proof namesake, but to its credit, the original 92-proof iteration is affordable ($25) and widely available.
Pour: Larceny Bourbon
Age: at least 4 years
Nose: vanilla, fresh dough, maraschino cherry
Taste: silky caramel, mellow oak, honey-butter
Finish: moderately short – mild baking spice, faint leather
Overall: Entry-level wheated recipe bourbons are a mixed bag. Maker’s Mark is sweet and lively; Weller Special Reserve is sweet and buttery. As for Larceny, the sweeter notes find suitable balance with the oak. It’s just overly mild and uninspiring.
Rating: Eye-roll smooth.
Considering the popularity of Four Roses Single Barrel private selections, you’d think the Small Batch Bourbon would garner more attention. Unfortunately, the similarly specced Elijah Craig, Buffalo Trace, and the likely Four Roses sourced Bulleit steal its thunder. Go figure.
Pour: Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon
Age: not stated (reportedly 6-7 years)
Nose: vanilla, citrus zest, herbal & floral spice
Taste: caramel drizzle, orange peel, nutmeg
Finish: moderate length – singed honey, oak, lemon-pepper
Overall: A well-balanced combination of citrus fruit, zesty spice, and classic vanilla and caramel. Four Roses Small Batch is a perfect bourbon for cocktails or casual sipping and remains a personal favorite from my early days of whiskey enthusiasm.
Rating: Damn solid.
Anyone dipping their toes into the bourbon enthusiasm pool will quickly learn that Weller is Pappy. Okay, maybe not Pappy, but kind of the same as Pappy. Okay, maybe not kind of the same as Pappy, but dammit they need it because it has something to do with Pappy.
Today, I’m tasting Weller Special Reserve. That’s right – the supposed-to-be-priced-at $25, 90-proof, wheated mash bill, Buffalo Trace distilled bourbon phenomenon. Unfortunately, thanks to Pappy hysteria, its price is often as inflated as its mythos.
Pour: Weller Special Reserve
Age: at least 4 years
Nose: vanilla, honey-glazed apple, buttery rolls
Taste: caramel drizzle, sweet oak, hints of cherry
Finish: moderate length – confectioners sugar, light baking spice
Overall: A well-balanced, easy-sipping, sweet and buttery bourbon. I completely understand why folks love this stuff. All the same, I discourage anyone from paying a premium for Weller Special Reserve. It’s good whiskey, not great whiskey.
Rating: Weller Lite.
Of all the Evan Williams expressions, the 80-proof “green label” is as bottom-shelf as bottom-shelf bourbon gets. Strangely, it’s priced about the same as the spec-superior Evan Williams Black Label. Maybe they’re complementary to one another? I doubt it, but here goes anyway.
Pour: Evan Williams Green Label
Age: 36 months
Color: light amber
Nose: buttered corn, vanilla, confectioners sugar
Taste: brownie batter, plywood, salty dough
Finish: short – fresh-cut oak, grain, college
Overall: Not very good at all. That being said, it’s not near as cheerless as Benchmark “Old No. 8.” (At least there’s no repulsive sour notes.) Evan Williams Green Label is drinkable, albeit barely, and best suited as a backyard burger marinade.
Rating: Safe for cooking.
Fall 2020 saw the second entry in the Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series, SE4 x PR5. Curiously, it didn’t receive the level of hype typically associated with annual limited-edition bourbons. A great thing for Maker’s fans, as perception in the bourbon world is seldom 20/20.
Pour: Maker’s Mark SE4 x PR5
Age: not stated
Nose: maple syrup, semisweet chocolate, holiday citrus
Taste: creamy caramel, heavily toasted oak, orange cola
Finish: long & flavorful – vanilla extract, cinnamon, hazelnut coffee
Overall: An ambrosial delight of subtly exotic complexity. For $60, it doesn’t get much better than Maker’s Mark SE4 x PR5. To those that passed this impressive whiskey by, I leave you with the immortal words of Ms. Vivian Ward, “Big mistake. Big. Huge.”
Rating: Slept-on hit.