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  1. #1
    Administrator in exile
    Join Date
    Aug 2002

    Define \"Complexity\"

    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.

  2. #2
    Bourbonian of the Year 2011
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
    Toronto, Canada

    Re: Define \"Complexity\"

    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.


  3. #3
    Advanced Taster
    Join Date
    Jun 2004
    Sydney, AUS

    Re: Define \"Complexity\"

    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)

  4. #4
    Join Date
    May 2003

    Re: Define \"Complexity\"

    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.

  5. #5
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
    Join Date
    Sep 1999

    Re: Define \"Complexity\"

    complex = lots of different stuff to smell and taste

    more complex = more stuff

  6. #6
    Advanced Taster
    Join Date
    Jun 2004
    Seattle, USA

    Re: Define \"Complexity\"

    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

  7. #7

    Re: Define \"Complexity\"

    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.

  8. #8
    Bourbonian of the Year 2006
    Join Date
    Dec 2001
    Rockland County, NY

    Re: Define \"Complexity\"

    Simle definition of Complexity

    Complex is not simple or monotonous

  9. #9

    Re: Define \"Complexity\"

    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.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Mar 2000
    Midland, MI

    Re: Define \"Complexity\"

    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



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