This was just the case last Thursday when I attended the finale of the Franklin County Red Cross chapter’s Heroes fundraising campaign, which happened to be a bourbon tasting. It was held at the Glen-Willis House, home of Terri’s Catering, who staffed the event for the Red Cross, and prepared the tasty treats for attendees.
It was a perfect 75 degree evening, with clear skies and a light breeze – making it an ideal night to sit out on the porch of this historic home, watching the Kentucky River roll past, and sipping on some bourbon.
Four tasting stations were available from three iconic whiskey makers: Jim Beam, Four Roses and Buffalo Trace, which also had a separate table serving only Blanton’s.
Now kids don’t try this at home, but my thinking was that since I was presented with such a grand display of Kentucky bourbon craftsmanship, it seemed a shame not try each selection.
I began the evening in the rear sitting room with Basil Hayden’s from Jim Beam. Introduced in 1992, this is the lightest of Beam’s four small batch bourbons.
This recipe dates to 1796, when Basil Hayden, Sr., a Catholic from Maryland, moved to Nelson County, KY, where he donated the land for the construction of the first Catholic Church west of the Alleghenies. He also distilled whiskey.
What sets Basil Hayden’s apart is its heavier use of rye, to create a spiciness that complements the sweetness of the corn. Aged between 6 and 8 years, it’s a light bodied, smooth, 80 proof bourbon, perfect to sip neat or on the rocks. For intro-bourbon drinkers this is a great place to start.
Second was one of Basil Hayden’s big brothers, Baker’s. Named after Baker Beam, grand-nephew of the legendary Jim Beam, this bourbon is 7 years old, and hand bottled at 107 proof. Even with that octane level, Baker’s has a balance that allows it to be consumed neat, but I would add a cube or two of ice and let it sit a minute. That opens up the deep caramel flavor and eases the sipping. This makes for a fine after-dinner beverage.
With a bit left of my Baker’s neat, I strolled into the front living room and took possession of a solid pour of Blanton’s bourbon. The windowpaned glass bottle, parchment label and hand-penciled batch information make for a beautiful presentation.
Atop the bottle is a cork stopper featuring a jockey on a race horse. There are eight different ones, each featuring a letter from the B-L-A-N-T-O-N’-S name, and show eight different scenes of a horse race, from standing at the gate to crossing the finish line.
Released in 1984, under the watchful eye of Elmer T. Lee, the deceased former master distiller at Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s is the original single barrel bourbon – meaning it comes from one particular whiskey barrel, and is not blended with any other enhancements. It’s named after Albert B. Blanton, who spent his approximately 55 year career at Buffalo Trace preserving the tradition of handcrafted bourbon.
Aged in the middle section or “center cut” of Warehouse H, these barrels get pulled when the time is right, and it weighs in at 93 proof. Blanton’s has a rich amber color and an essence that demands attention, but can come across sharp or pointed. This bourbon is crafted with lots of tender loving care, but I still need a few ice cubes or a splash of water to handle Blanton’s.
Feeling the bourbon pulsing now, I crossed through the dining area to the bar where Buffalo Trace was set up. Their namesake bottle has a stout, bold flavor, full of cinnamon, caramel and vanilla. Buffalo Trace brings a solid 90 proof kick at 9 years of age, and is an excellent choice for an everyday bourbon – perfect for mixing cocktails.
Completely switching gears from bold, I went to the silky lushness of Eagle Rare. This arguably is the greatest unknown bourbon in America. It has no advertising campaign behind it, which keeps costs down, but it tends to get lost in the trees with all the small batch competition.
Master distiller Charles L. Beam introduced Eagle Rare in 1975, and it was one of the last new bourbons to come on the market prior to the current era of small batch bourbons. It’s aged 10 years in new charred oak barrels, and bottled at 90 proof.
Eagle Rare is a single barrel, and tastes like nectar in the mouth. You quickly sense the vanilla and what seems like toasted honey. The flavor is understated at first, seemingly simple, but just beneath the surface the fruits, oak, almonds and grain all become exposed to make for a surprising flavor combination. This really is a wonderful bourbon, and deserves far more attention than it attracts.
As my tattooed pour specialist, Fred, from Buffalo Trace explained, “it’s all about time and location.”
Buffalo Trace has basically three recipes, from which they make 18 bourbons. That is possible based on how long the whiskey stays in the barrel and where it resides in the warehouse.
With Eagle Rare in hand, it was time to step outside and finish off this taste test. The Four Roses distillery had set up shop on the rear porch, where the view was perfect. I knew I needed to get the remainder of my sampling done quickly – the bourbon would overtake my senses soon.
The Four Roses Yellow Label is aged between 5 1/2 to 6 years, and is 80 proof. It’s a blended bourbon. Four Roses distills 10 separate bourbons using two mash recipes and five yeast strains, then combines often all 10 to produce products such as its Yellow Label. It has hints of pear and vanilla, but light and easy to drink. This is one of the best 80 proof bourbons on the market and a great value purchase.
As the end of this event was rapidly approaching, I excused myself to quickly sample two Jim Beam products I had previously neglected. Jim Beam Black is noted as Double Aged, meaning 8 years in a barrel, and is bottled at 86 proof. This is an attempt to compete with Jack Daniels, and is a respectable bourbon, especially for the price, but not in the hunt with these other offerings.
I also wanted to lightly sample what I knew would be foul – Red Stag Spiced. It didn’t disappoint. Beam has placed some serious advertising money behind Red Stag, and is trying to lure in more women to the bourbon world. This also is aimed at club kids, who have reached the midnight hour, and want a shot that will punch them through to another level of intox. Generally this is Jägermeister territory, but I’m told Beam is moving lots of cases of Red Stag. Lord help our impressionable youth.
Back on the porch I regained my civility by selecting a glass of Four Roses Small Batch bourbon. Aged at least six years to 7 1/2, and bottled at 90 proof, this is an impressive mixture of four separate bourbons. Its nose is rich and mellow, with hints of sweetness. It goes down warm, with a slow burn, big flavor and a soft heart. This is fine sipping whiskey.
I saved the best for last: Four Roses Single Barrel.
This is aged 7 to 9 years at 100 proof. It’s complex, full-bodied, with a long finish. It’s a real pleasure to drink. As Brent, from Four Roses informed me, “the master distiller watches these barrels closely, and pulls them at the peak of their maturity to make Four Roses Single Barrel.”
Each of the bourbons offered this evening are ones I’ve purchased previously, and all are fine selections, except for the Red Stag and the White Dog from Buffalo Trace, which I actually did not subject my stomach to handling. The problem with trying taste comparisons at home is usually if you have one or two bottles going, it can take months to finish them off.
By the time a new bourbon is purchased the old flavors tend to have evaporated from memory, making any accurate comparison difficult.
This tasting allowed for immediate side-by-side comparisons, and the ability to speak with knowledgeable staff from each distillery.
Top honors go to Four Roses Single Barrel, with honorable mention to Eagle Rare and Baker’s. If you factor price into the equation, Eagle Rare wins by a mile. It costs half what most of these other major labels charge. Also Four Roses Yellow Label offers excellent quality in an everyday bourbon for around $21.
This fundraiser itself was an amazing value considering it cost $15. It’s not often that one can find this many quality bourbons to sample in one place at such an economical price. Plus there were several wonderful desserts donated from various restaurants around Frankfort, and extravagant bourbon-based gift baskets from the distilleries, all available in a silent auction.
For the Red Cross this event was the cherry on top of a successful fundraising campaign. Having already exceeded its goal of $50,000 for the Frankfort chapter, this was a chance to thank those individuals, or Heroes, who donated $1,000 and above, by comping their admission, and added to the chapter’s fundraising total after taking in $635 from the door, and an additional $655 from the silent auction.
Thanks to my mom, Deborah Wilson, who is on the board of the Red Cross, and dad, for the invite. It was great hanging out with you both and enjoying some fine bourbon and conversation.