View Full Version : Define "Complexity"

11-05-2004, 05:24
Another thread got me thinking that we throw around the word "complex" to describe a bourbon or other whiskey, without really defining just what we mean. Just as taste is subjective, I'm sure what each of us thinks of as "complex" will differ as well. I get the impression that some use the word to describe a bourbon with many different flavor layers, all pleasant in the taster's mind, while others might deem a bourbon complex if there are components that might be unusual at first, but for which one can aquire a taste. In general I believe that tagging a bourbon "complex" is most often a complement, though I suppose a bourbon could be considered both complex and sub-par in the taster's mind.

For me, a complex bourbon will have the traditional vanilla/caramel sweetness with varying layers of floral or vegatative notes presented at different points on the palate. I also think that the "complex" bourbon will have good body and a finish that is not hot, but with just a slight tingle. But the complex bourbon needs that little something extra that makes it a bit different than others on the shelf. Of course, this is my overall description of a "good" bourbon, so I might be missing the point. Here are a few bourbons that I consider complex:

Stagg '02
EC 18
VW 12yo Lot "B"
Four Roses Single Barrel (US Bottling)
Eagle Rare Single Barrel

These are not necessarily my favorite bourbons, but each has a quality that sets them apart from the mainstream IMHO.

So now to the point: How do you define "complexity" with regards to bourbon whiskey? Give a few examples of bourbons that you consider to be complex.

11-05-2004, 05:34
I agree with your definition, Jeff, but would add a light smoky note, deriving from barrel char, as an additional element of complexity. And sometimes, a musty or fruity note, as Marvin had said.

I think Old Grandad 114 (a favorite at the moment) is complex, so is Corner Creek, so is the current Eagle Rare 17 year old and Sazerac 18 year old rye.


11-05-2004, 05:46
My (somewhat limited in experience) opinion is that complexity is a hallmark of a spririt that offers the taster many different flavours and aromas, which don't necessarily reveal themselves at first acquaintance. Often there will be multiple layers of flavour types, such as sweet, wood, fruit, mint, charr, iodine, vanilla, etc that will present themselves at different times in the drink, and change in prominence at each new drink.

I also think that the really complex bourbons (and spirits) are those that are not immediately satisfying, and require study and acclimatisation to really get the full benefit of. Often complex bourbons (apart from the really crap ones) are those that divide tasters as to whether they're a good drink or not.

With that in mind, my thoughts on complex bottlings would include these:
Wild Turkey Rare Breed (powerhouse of flavour and alcohol - feels more powerful than 108, still refined)
Elijah Craig 12 (nuff said)
Elijah Craig 18 (see above, turn down vanilla, turn up oak)
Bookers (actually gets more complex the more it gets cut)
Woodford Reserve (batch #04 at any rate - love the fruit/copper aftertaste of this one - closest bourbon to Scotch)

those that aren't highly complex but satisfying to me would include:
Evan Williams SB94 (great, but light and smooth, not a whole lot of conflicting flavours)
Evan Williams 7yo (slightly more complex than WT 86, but only slightly)
Basil Haydens (nice but very light - like to try ODGBIB
Wild Turkey 8yo 101 (powerful, but really only 1-2 flavours to my taste)
Jim Beam Black (I'm starting to taste that yeast profile, quite liking it, smooth, but not unique)
Gentleman Jack (much the same as the BH)

11-05-2004, 09:35
I'm probably guilty of using that word in different contexts, but in the other thread I meant "complex" to mean having a lot of character.

In the broad sense, a complex bourbon is like the examples you posted--having distinct character in multiple flavor layers.

I immediately think of WT Kentucky Spirit, OFBB, Booker's, EC12 & EC18, and of course Stagg.

11-05-2004, 10:55
complex = lots of different stuff to smell and taste

more complex = more stuff

11-05-2004, 10:59
I tend to label a whisk(e)y as "complex" when it takes me several tastings and much thinking to eventually articulate its various textures and flavors. In essence, "complexity" defies simple paraphrasing.

Certain whiskies I've been able to drink and confidently sum up (at least for myself) its flavor profile with a few adjectives or maybe a paragraph. EWSB94 comes to mind. Others, especially the Staggs and Bookers, leave me grasping for language and the only words I can find are inadequate to describe what I'm smelling/tasting/feeling. If someone were to ask me, "So, what does that Stagg taste like?" I'd say, "Uh, well..." and then talk for 10 minutes.

Complexity takes time to work out. The complex ones are the ones that demand your full attention and stimulate thinking and reflection. This is a big part of their magic.

Simpler whiskies certainly have their place, too. If I want something to sip that will not distract me from the film I'm watching, for instance, I'll reach for an easier pour.

Some that I've come across so far that I would call "complex":
Balvenie 21 PortWood

11-05-2004, 12:44
The complex ones are the ones that demand your full attention and stimulate thinking and reflection. This is a big part of their magic.

This is why if it's late at night, and I'm very tired I will drink my cheapest whiskey.

11-05-2004, 12:50
Simle definition of Complexity

Complex is not simple or monotonous

11-05-2004, 14:27
I agree with much of your definition of 'complex', Jeff, but I personally recognize it differently.
For me, many bourbons fall into the "I like it" or "I don't like it" category on first sip (fortunately, the vast majority are the former). The complex bourbon is the one about which I can say "I like it because..." or "I don't like it because..." The layers of essences are immediately recognizable without ponderous study.
Now, I realize some of you would argue that that's simplicity, not complexity, if the parts are so obvious. But I believe the easily married flavors lack character, or give up their character when melded with others. To me, complexity if formed by those characters that refuse to assimilate, and stand out on their own.
My nominees for 'complex':

Stagg (any)
Hirsch 16yo
Noah's Mill
Eagle Rare SB

You'll note I didn't include any wheated bourbons. I like many of them a lot -- and even count some (VW Lot B, for example, or the Wellers) among my favorites -- but I think they have just one or two overwhelming and closely related flavors (caramel, maple sugar/syrup). I love the unadulterated sweetness, just like I like chocolate best in the form of a Hershey bar or Tootsie Roll. But, I don't think of that as complexity.

11-05-2004, 14:46
I like Chuck's answer best!

But I'll give mine anyhow, since it brings up a few points
that haven't been addressed yet.

Complexity is the difference between synthetic vanilla extract and real
vanilla exctact. Layers of different flavors that taste different every
time you sip/smell/gargle/chew/snort/chomp... when you can't pin something
down and it's got richness and the taste evolves over time.

One important point, though: complexity can refer to a certain characteristic
of a whiskey, and can also apply to the whiskey taken as a whole. For
instance, some whiskies have a complex nose... but die on the tongue.
So one aspect of the whiskey is complex, but another is not.

Some whiskey has balance: no single characteristic dominates. You've
got, say, candy sweetness balanced with hearty tannins. If the balance is
just right, then no single note dominates, and you get a different impression
every time you sip, and at different times during the sip. This leads to
calling the entire experience "complex".

If the balance is off, then the whiskey can still be called complex: a
whiskey that really accentuates sweetness can have a complex sweetness,
and thus give an overall impression of complexity.

Most tasting notes break down the different aspects of a whiskey: nose,
sip, finish... each of these can be complex (or not). Then there are
often notes as a summary of the experience as a whole... this entire
experience can be complex (or not).

In my opinion, one of the reasons that there is a divide between scotch
drinkers and bourbon drinkers, and a slow learning process when you cut
your teeth on one whiskey or the other, is that each side has learned to
appreciate different complexity.

Scotch drinkers sip the bourbon and think "what's all this big hearty
heavy handed sweetness covering up all of the light delicate complexity
that I use as a measure of whether a whiskey is good or not?" Similarly,
bourbon drinkers think "This is just watery flowery dreck with no punch
to it! Where are all the heavy hitting notes that I use as a measure of
whether a whiskey is good or not?"

(Yes, I realize that there's variation in scotch, but you have to admit
that even the peat in Ardbeg and Laphroaig doesn't cover up the light
delicate notes that would be overwhelmed by a little splash of Rare Breed!)

Tim Dellinger

11-05-2004, 15:09
To me, complexity is a taste / aroma experience where there are a lot of different factors competing for your attention. I.e., there is a lot going on.

Rock Hill Farms is complex, Blanton's is not particularly so. Both are excellent.

Kentucky Spirit is complex, Russell's Reserve and Rare Breed are somewhat complex, and Wild Turkey 101 is less complex. But, to me, WT 101 is one of the more complex standard bottlings.

For me, an extremely non-complex bourbon is the 1792 Ridgemont Reserve - there is almost nothing going on.


11-05-2004, 15:54
I have (up til this recent education) used the term to describe a whiskey that presents an evolution of flavors over the course of a sip; ie., one that is multi-dimensional. I would say that bourbon *in general* is a drink with a flavor that is, by nature, quite complex, relative to anything else I have tasted. Obviously, the term would apply more to some bourbons than others. I recently sampled Wild Turkey Rare Breed, and in my novice's opinion, I would describe that bourbon as complex; the flavor that first emerges in your mouth is not the same as the one that leaves your mouth; the flavor sort of evolves and presents different things to your senses. Complex whiskey invites further exploration.

The opposite, I think, is a whiskey that is mono-chromatic on the palate, or one-dimensional. The first time I tried Jack Daniels, (i.e. as a bourbon enthusiast, and not as a youngster playing Pass-Out,) I thought to myself that it tasted quite good, but lacked depth. The flavor that first emerges, (or rather explodes) answers all your questions, and tells you everything your going to know about that whiskey.

That's how I use the word.

11-06-2004, 04:59
Excellent observations.


11-08-2004, 04:58
I guess often the limit on complexity is what we actually look for. This weekend I was doing by Bourbon duty: Getting Scotch drinkers to try some American whisky and pointing out what I thought was different about them. There was:

VWFRR 13 YO - rye
Old Fitz 1849 - wheat
Wild Turkey RR - power and complexity
EC 12YO - Good link for Scotch fans
WR - Easy drinking

First off - they were all very impressed - especially with the VW (who isn't) and the EC 12YO. Then they got me to try and identify them blind !! I got the WT, EC and Old Fitz right first off. Knowing only the VW and WR were left, I was sure I could spot the difference but they tricked me and gave me the WT again !

Without question I identified it as the WR - I could truly taste the things I was looking for in the WR in the WT. It tasted totally different ! I've noticed the same thing when eating potato crisps (chips in US ?). If you think they're cheese and onion, but in fact they're salt and vinegar, they taste of chicken !

I guess what I'm trying to say is that 'complexity' often depends on what you're looking for. In principle a blended scotch should offer the ultimate in complexity, if you add up all the different flavours. Thing is, most blended scotches taste pretty similar to me and not that complex. They all taste like errr Grant's say. I think too many threads all join up to make one flavour. I think Speyside scotch can suffer a similar fate.

For what its worth I would say the most complex (but not necessarily the best) whiskies (including Scotch) I have tasted are:

Weller 19YO
Sazerac Rye
Highland Park 18YO (SORRY !)
Noah's Mill