Thursday, September 24, 2009

My whiskey tasting - part 1 of 3

I hosted a small get together last weekend: my first ever whiskey tasting. We had a handful of whiskey fans and a handful of people who just wanted to give it a try. I don't think I made any converts among the second group, but I'm pretty sure everybody had fun. (It was more about the company than the whiskey anyway!)

I decided early on that I wanted to cover the broadest range possible: this was a "world of whiskey" tasting that covered every major style. I selected eight bottles - one each of Tennessee, bourbon, rye, Canadian, Irish and blended Scotch, plus two very different single malt Scotches. I had not tasted any of the eight before, so they were as new to me as they were to my guests.

That would have been the extent of it - eight whiskeys and maybe some water - but fortunately I have good people in my life who gave me advice on how to throw a good party. My girlfriend, in particular, saved me. (She is dynamite!) She helped me plan the food and seating and decor. Together, we also selected a variety of food pairings that seemed like they might work with each whiskey.

Here is what happened...

Selection #1
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey

Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Lynchburg, Tennessee
47% alcohol by volume / 94 proof

  • Back story: Jack Daniel’s defines the “Tennessee Whiskey” category, and its popular “Old No. 7” bottling is well known even to non-whisky drinkers. Like all Tennessee whiskey, it is made primarily from corn and slowly leached through sugar maple charcoal before being aged, resulting in a cleaner spirit going into the wood. Unlike Old No. 7, which is blended for consistency from various casks, this bottling is taken from a single, hand-picked barrel of distinct, “particularly flavorful and aromatic” whiskey. The result is a complex, full bodied whiskey with great harmony and a pronounced sweetness.

  • Nose: very sweet with hints of maple syrup, ginger ale and burnt buttered toast; also a pronounced, almost medicinal alcohol smell.

  • Taste: with a high alcohol percentage there is an immediate kick and heat here. This is closer to bourbon than the normal Jack Daniel's with a spicy sweetness right out front. It also has a woody bitterness that reminded me of burnt barbecue sauce.

  • Finish: short and sweet, followed by a hint of bitter, medicinal alcohol (one taster compared it to Listerine) and burning matches.

  • Food pairing: we paired this one with savory sausage meatballs in a sweet barbecue sauce. Everyone thought it was a good match and the whiskey became much more palatable after the meatballs.

  • Final verdict: this is not a subtle whiskey, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in attitude. Put on some Skynyrd and fire up the grill: this is a party in a glass and perfect for a summer barbecue. Three stars *** (worth trying).
Selection #2
Eagle Rare Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Aged 10 Years
Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, Kentucky
45% vol. / 90 proof

  • Back story: bourbon is America’s whiskey and is the dominant U.S. style on the market today. Popular brands include Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Maker’s Mark. There are also many handcrafted, “small batch” bourbons on the market, such as the astonishingly expressive Eagle Rare. Like all bourbons, it is made from at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred white oak barrels.

  • Nose: soft and sweet; honey and bananas, with a hint of the bittersweet spiciness of rye; a complex and delightful aroma.

  • Taste: much bolder than expected, with strong corn flavors upfront: spicy and very sweet with a bit of vanilla. Some rye adds nice balance in the background.

  • Finish: the bittersweet rye flavors really comes into their own in the finish, which is long and wonderful.

  • Food pairing: we matched this one with (gluten free) oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. It was a good match. The cookie taste helped mellow the spiciness and kick of the whiskey, and bourbon really made the chocolate chips pop.

  • Final verdict: this seems halfway between a bourbon and a rye to me and offers the best of both worlds. It is a solid, richly rewarding whiskey at an affordable price, and belongs in every bourbon lover's cabinet. Four stars **** (recommended).

Selection #3
Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey, Aged 6 Years

Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, Kentucky
45% vol. / 90 proof

  • Back story: rye whiskey is noted for its bold, bittersweet taste with touches of spice and mint. Before bourbon became ubiquitous, rye was the dominant whiskey in the United States. Sazerac represents a return to that tradition.

  • Nose: one taster described the smell as "bitter," but there is a sweetness here too. Subtle rye spiciness mingles with blackberry jam; delicious.

  • Taste: wow, there is a lot going on here, starting with a clean, sweet fruitiness and then bold spices.

  • Finish: this is a lively finish, with spiciness turning to a dry bitterness. You either like rye or you don't , and this is the point where we found out who belongs in which group. I personally like it. Yes, the finish is somewhat bitter, but it is full of character. Unlike the Jack Daniel's earlier, if you like rye this is a whiskey to savor.

  • Food pairing: we matched the Sazerac with an 18-month old imported Gouda from Morgan & York. While it didn't click in the same way as the first two food pairings, it was still a pleasant match. The cheese was delicious and had enough full bodied flavor to hold its own with the whiskey. (I've had this cheese with single malt Scotches as well: it is a solid choice to pair with well balanced, full-flavored whiskeys.)

  • Final verdict: I'm torn on whether or not this is the best rye I've tasted to date, but it's damn good in any case. It is distinct and fresh, and very well balanced. I'm on board with rye whiskey, and I will be drinking this again. Four stars **** (recommended).

To be continued... (next time: blends)

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