My first encounter with bourbon, I would like to imagine, is a fairly stereotypical one – as a rebellious teen taking a few swigs of the nasty cheap stuff in a parking lot, and then learning that the only way that you can bear it is if you drown it in Coke.
Up until today, the mere mention of ‘bourbon’ elicits a minor gag reflex as memories of a Jack Daniel’s / Jim Beam / boilermaker evening gone wrong come flooding back.
I have since grown to love a good Old Fashioned with my steak, but I never quite learnt to like the actual liquor. Perhaps there’s a reason why in all the American TV shows when someone orders a whiskey at a bar, the only way you ever see them drink it is by downing it. Perhaps it’s time to learn?
2016 ended with a solid Pappy Van Winkle.
This 2017, I am going on a little quest to find and taste the best bourbons on the planet – one whiskey at a time!
Buffalo Trace 40% – Joe’s Southern Table & Bar
Where does one take one’s ex boss for dinner in London? If said boss grew up in Houston, Joe’s Southern Table & Bar in Covent Garden is a safe bet. Central, decent reviews with an added bonus of having a decent whiskey selection. Time to kick start the project!
For the very first whiskey of 2017, I decided on a classic: Buffalo Trace at 40% ABV. Buffalo Trace Distillery is massive in the US and are prodigious distillers. Consider this. The distillery counts the following brands under their stable:
- Eagle Rare
- George T Stagg
- William La Rue Weller
- Van Winkle
- Sazerac Rye
If you haven’t heard of these brands or bottles, have a quick read online. In the words of their new president… “They are YUUUUUUGE”
Unfortunately, one of the things about a ‘classic’ bourbon is that it is almost by definition one of the ‘nasty cheap stuff’ I mentioned earlier. At £24 a bottle, I should have known what to expect.
If buffaloes used mouth wash, Buffalo Trace Bourbon would be it. Hard alcohol taste and nose, making it hard to get past to the flavours. Which was orange peel with a chemical aftertaste. #awful
Ah well. Things can only get better, I suppose!
We didn’t fare poorly with all things buffalo though – the Houstonite declared the buffalo wings the best she’s had this side of the Atlantic. High praise indeed!
Four Roses Bourbon – Beany Green, Broadgate Circle
No sooner had I made that sweeping statement that ‘cheap bourbon = nasty bourbon’, when I am immediately proved wrong by this little wonder.
Next evening, I met up with El Guajiro and Chewy for a spot of drinks and good old karaoke. Beany Green in Broadgate Circle is a quaint little hole in the wall (literally) popular with City types. Cafe by day, bar by night, drinks are served super quickly barista style. It has a great outside area with seats for watching the crowds go by.
Walking in, I was quick to spy the pretty Four Roses logo amongst the other bottles of liquor.
At £21 at MOM, Four Roses Bourbon (FRB) is even cheaper than the Buffalo Trace. Thankfully, I did not know the retail price when I spied this bottle, else I might not have bothered trying it on account of my Buffalo experience the previous evening.
Clean caramelised green apple flavour with hints of spice, sweet fragrance on the nose, and smooth enough to make sipping it neat a decidedly pleasant experience. #good
Four Roses Small Batch
Spying the Small Batch version sitting next to the regular stuff, we thought we’d double up our bets and try it. If the stock version tasted great, surely the Small Batch would fare better? Alas it wasn’t to be.
The Small Batch is exactly the same as its non-suffixed cousin, except that its a blend of four selected casks rather than the entire batch. Much like a Single Cask bottling of whisky, this is meant to impart a distinctive characteristic to the liquor.
Sadly,the Small Batch seemed a pale imitation of its mass-produced cousin. The only thing distinctive to the stock version is a shallower palate, with flavours not quite as punchy. The spice is more apparent, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. Small batch? Thank goodness. #meh
The ‘meh’ look on Chewy’s face just said it all.
Perhaps this was a poorly selected batch? Or, were they trying to isolate the bad apples for the better good of the wider population? I joke, of course. But therein lies the lesson – blending whiskies from a wider stock base is meant to produce a more consistent, uniform flavour; a stock whiskey like the FRB is arguably the defining product of the distillery.
I shouldn’t judge all Small Batches the same, of course. After all, the next batch could be fabulous!
Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10 Year Old – Outside Karaoke Box Smithfields
A short Uber right later (featuring a conversation about the alleged high levels of adultery in Uber drivers), we had El Guajiro with mike in hand singing to the Violent Femmes, and things were good again.
If anyone is looking for a decently price Karaoke bar in London on a Friday night, I highly recommend Karaoke Box Smithfields. Sure, there are cheaper places in Soho (think private back rooms in Chinese restaurants), but if you want a good selection of English songs which you can shriek to in a private room this is the place. It was less than half price compared to Lucky Voice, to boot.
You may recall a few blogs ago that our little circle did not complete our inaugural whisky tasting session. There was the little matter of this fellow to try. I had brought it along with me, and the short walk from Karaoke bar to Farringdon tube station seemed an appropriate environment for it.
My oh my. From that moment on, that thoroughfare cutting across Smithfields Market would forever be etched in my memory.
Deep, mighty flavours, effortlessly going toe to toe in the body stakes with the best sherry bombs I have tasted to date. Sweet umami, deftly handled and tamed, avoiding the ‘processed sugar’ taste of most bourbons. New world spice and earthiness, like gently sucking on a slightly burnt sugar cane lightly dusted with nutmeg and cinnamon. #omg
Yes, I have fallen madly and deeply in love with a bourbon.
Back on Earth, Chewy was stunned to discover that it was bourbon, and not regular whisky. Which only goes to show just how much prejudice and pre-conceived notions we bring along when it comes to bourbon.
Conclusion to Episode 1
Yes, there are great bourbons, and there are terrible bourbons. How’s that for a conclusion? 🙂
So, where next with the project? It’s still early days, but I feel like there’s a whole world of wonders to discover.
It’s no coincidence that Jim Murray of Whisky Bible fame has given top marks to so many of our North American cousins. Crown Royal Northern Harvest? Booker’s Rye? Michter’s? Bring them on, I say!