View Full Version : Changing Tastes Changing the Taste of Bourbon
I still have a little bit of 2002 Stagg left and was savoring it the other night. I noticed how much it expresses the wood in all its dimensions, not surprising for a 15-year-old bourbon. It's like drinking a lumberyard.
It occurs to me that this is a taste, with variations of course, that you get from most of the 10+ year old bourbons. What is interesting is that this set of flavors, which so many of us prize, was long considered undesirable by whiskey makers.
When Booker's was first released, part of the hype was Booker saying that he felt bourbons peaked at 6 to 8 years old. I call it "hype" because that's the statement you would expect to accompany a 6 to 8 year old whiskey, but I know that was Booker's true opinion and the opinion of many other master distillers. The balance they were looking for was some of the grain and yeast flavors you get from younger bourbons, along with the char and oak flavors you get from longer aging. After about eight years, they felt, the wood flavors become dominant and that's not a good thing.
The point of this little meditation is that consumers, through their willingness to buy older whiskies that do, in fact, express the wood more powerfully than other flavors, have changed not necessarily the prejudices of the master distillers, but the willingness of their employers to offer such products for sale.
It's still possible, at least in my opinion, for a whiskey to have too much wood, regardless of the age at which that happens. This is especially true when the sooty flavors predominate. I don't like a whiskey that tastes like a campfire.
I think the Van Winkle products, by offering wheated bourbons at 10+ years, showed how the combination of the base whiskey flavors and the wood can be transformed into the deep, rich flavors of bittersweet chocolate, old leather and pipe tobacco. It's the long years in wood that are doing it, but you don't really taste wood as such. Now, with products like Stagg, we're experiencing that transformation in a rye-based bourbon too.
Another factor more difficult to consider is proof of distillation and proof of entry. The Stitzel-Weller bourbons were distilled out at 130 and entered at 112. Today most bourbons (with a few expections, Wild Turkey most notably) are distilled out at close to the maximum of 160 and entered at close to the maximum of 125. How will this express itself with long aging? Probably with even more emphasis on the wood's contributions and less on the flavors of the underlying spirit.
What we are getting is not a shift in tastes, away from the balanced mid-range (6 to 10 year) whiskies toward the older ones, but an overall broadening of the available and acceptable spectrum, which is a good thing for American whiskey overall.
There are different dimensions of long wood aging. Sometimes it results in a tannic bite that overwhelms the spirit. At other times the effect is simply (and I am not sure prolonged age is responsible) a burned oak wood (puff of smoke) taste. I like the smoke but not excess tannic astringency. Smoke can manifest in quite young whiskies. I just tasted an outstanding Jack Daniel Single Barrel, a deeply smoky shot of whiskey this was yet even Jack Daniel Single Barrel is, what 5-6 years old. On the other hand, long age can result, not in astringency or pronounced char, but in a kind of mild, mocha/chocolaty taste. Some of the Black Maple Hill and Rock Hill Farm bourbons offer that taste. As an example of a whiskey that may have reached its maximum of age, I would cite ORVW 13 year old rye, said to be in fact about 18 years old. I enjoy it but am glad it was put in stainless tanks, I don't think more oak would improve it.
Chuck, that's a great essay on how we're broadening our vision of what wood
aging can do for a bourbon. I think you're right that the Van Winkle releases
really taught us that bourbon can do really well with the new flavor dimensions
that long anging brings, and that Stagg has absolutely cemented the ability to
do so with a rye recipe that's got punch.
Another bourbon that I'd like to point out in regards to new attitudes
toward wood aging is Jefferson's Reserve, aged in barrels with a really
low char level... what is it, a level one char? This de-emphasizes the
barrel sugars a bit and highlights the other characteristics that barrel
aging can bring to the table.
I also think that these changing tastes... now truly appreciating the
long-aged bourbons... are partially influenced by bourbon drinkers and
bourbon makers venturing out into the world and tasting the whiskies
of other countries (okay, Scotland), which benefit similarly from
long-aging and have a few features in common with, e.g., Stagg and the Van
I'm also a little surprised that there's as much long-aged bourbon out
there as there is... 13-15 years is double the amount of time that the
previous prevailing tastes would dictate, and it certainly takes time
(=money) to get there.
Another bourbon that I'd like to point out in regards to new attitudes toward wood aging is Jefferson's Reserve, aged in barrels with a really low char level... what is it, a level one char? This de-emphasizes the barrel sugars a bit and highlights the other characteristics that barrel aging can bring to the table.
I was unaware of that fact in regard to JR (which I once likened to chewing on a wooden pencil).
Are any other bourbons aged in barrels with No.1 char? I'm just curious enough to try another one -- just to see if I can taste a similarity to JR.
Speaking of the the "changing" taste of whiskey, after enjoying the Jack Daniel Single Barrel I just mentioned I thought I would compare it to a bottle of JDSB I bought a few months ago, which was about 1/4 full. I remembered the earlier one as being not as good as the second one. I poured them into two glasses of identical type. Tasted side by side, the one purchased later was clearly the superior: it had a rounded, fuller taste with only a little alcoholic bite. The bottle purchased earlier was more aromatic the way Jack can be and tasted (in contrast) somewhat closed, as if not as mature; also, it was sharper. The second bottle was darker than the first, not strikingly so but the difference in hue was noticeable and friends with me agreed. Then I looked at the neck labelling to see the bottling details. I was startled to see that they were from the same rick and numbered in sequence: the first was labelled Rick No. L-19, Barrel no. 4-0005 and the second was Rick L-19, barrel no. 4-0006! Does anyone know what exactly these codes mean? If they mean the whiskeys are from the same barrel and not only that were bottled in sequence then I am surprised because they don't taste quite the same. But maybe the numbering system means the barrels in fact are different, does anyone know?
I have decided that the first one tastes better on ice and the second, neat. Personally I enjoy these small differences, they are evidence that whiskey of quality (I extend this to Woodford Reserve and other top whiskeys) is a natural product which cannot, and should not, be fully standardised.
At Buffalo Trace Distillery, we first toast our barrels and afterward char them to a #4 level (55 second burn). We have experimented with several different char levels (going as high as a number 7 char, which just about destroyed the structural integrity of the barrel) to find the level that works best for us. The #4 level (in our opinion) yielded the best bourbon. By toasting the barrels (this was kind of an afterthought), we found that we could enhance the flavor of the #4 char.
It is important to realize that the time whiskey will spend in the wood will vary, based upon the char level. Also, please remember too that just because something is older, does not make it better. Some people love the Van Winkle 23, some don't. Some people love the Sazerac 18 year old Rye, some don't. I have tasted bourbon at 10 years of age that just seemed too woody. I have also tasted some 8 year old bourbon that was too immature. The more we experiment with the input variables, the more I respect the prowess of Master Distillers like Elmer and Jimmy (God bless them!)
I have been drinking premium American whiskey matured in charred new barrels regularly since 1999 and I can safely say that the bourbons who are 6-12 years of age almost in all cases outclass the ones who are between 18-23 yo. I say outclass because itīs not even a close game.
And, no, I do not belong to that wishy-washy postmodern crowd who thinks that taste always is subjective. It is not. If someone prefers EC12 to Russellīs Reserve then Iīm gonna respect it even if I think otherwise but thatīs an altogether different case.
I also find it ironic that Stitzel-Weller, the distillery who arguably produces the best "extra-aged" whiskeys, is, for all I know, left to rot. How sad...
I read it as two different barrels that were next to each other.
what is it, a level one char?
My best recollection from my visit with Trey was that it is a level two char that they use. I can't find my notes. For those of you who laughed at me for my note-taking, now you know why. I like being able to go back and check myself.
I was wandering indeed how much difference there is between different bottlings at different times. I'm on my second bottle fo EC12, and I'm not enjoying quite as much as the first. It seems a bit more bitter to me at the moment, and has a more pronounceed 'menthol' flavour than the previous bottle. They were bought about 3 months apart and part of the same order arriving in Oz. I realise this is a 'Single Barrel' bourbon, but would there be a major discrepancy in flavour and appreciation between two different bottles?
Maybe it's the fact that I'm drinking sweeter bourbons at the moment? (RB, WR, EWSB94)
Actually, EC12yo is not a single barrel bourbon. It may be considered a "Small Batch" bourbon, but I can't remember off the top of my head. For what it's worth, EC12 is a bourbon who's taste changes dramatically with my mood. I can't quite put my finger on when or why but sometimes I can't stand it and other times I can't get enough of it. I do however always get that menthol flavor you describe. I kinda like it http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/cool.gif
There shouldn't be a lot of variation from one bottle of EC12 to the next. There are a lot of factors that can make things taste different to us. And personal tastes change too. EC12 also, from posts here, seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it brand.
That's what I found too. That menthol flavour is what realy draws my attention to it, and gives HH bottles it's identity. This bottle just 'seems' to be a bit more complex and less immediately enjoyable. Funnily enough however, I bought a bottle of EW7 as a quick pour, and found it much more of an easy drink than the EC12.
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