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Buffalo Trace’s Quest for Whiskey Perfection

Is there a such thing as the perfect whiskey? If so, then Buffalo Trace believes they know how to make it.

Last week I posted about David Driscoll’s K&L Wines podcast with Buffalo Trace Master Distiller, Harlen Wheatley. If you listened to it (and love whiskey) then I bet you sat up in your chair when Harlen mentioned the mind blowing products coming from Buffalo Trace in April. It was a mere whisper of information with very little detail. In fact I’ve been doing research since trying to figure out what’s coming our way. Information is scarce.

Well, Jason Wilson of The Washington Post has published an article that might be a follow up to that little nugget of info from Harlen. You can check out the article here.

To summarize, Buffalo Trace has gone to great lengths to identify what makes up the “perfect bourbon”. They’ve compiled ratings from top publications, identified which levels and aisles of their aging facilities produce the best whiskey, and which distillation factors make the biggest impact. According to Buffalo Trace CEO Mark Brown, they even have a name for all of this due diligence, “Project Holy Grail”. As in the quest for the perfect whiskey.

Let’s hope we find out sooner rather than later what Buffalo Trace has in store for us. Frankly, I’ll settle for *close* to perfect and be just fine. I’m having way too much fun to see the quest to come to an end.

Baker’s Small Batch Bourbon Review

Baker’s Small Batch Bourbon, 7 Years Old, 53.5% abv (107 Proof), $42-48

Baker’s is our third review from the Jim Beam Small Batch collection consisting of Basil Hayden’s, Knob Creek Small Batch, and Booker’s. Aged 7 years, it’s one of the 2 youngest of the four, but it packs a considerable punch in terms of alcohol (107 proof).

Color: Deep Copper

Nose: The nose is tight to start. Caramel, roasted nuts, ripe banana, vanilla bean, cocoa, polished wood, and cedar come forward if left to sit for a spell. Try it neat before adding any water. In fact, if you can avoid it, I think experiencing this one neat is the best way to go.

Palate: I love the mouth feel – it’s thick, syrupy, and coating. Flavors of chewy caramel, vanilla custard, banana, and dried dark fruits abound. All of that is lifted by toasted nuts, sweet spices and resiny oak. This where the 107 proof has been used to “cut through” a very dense, sweet bourbon. Again, I preferred it neat.

Finish: Medium-long with sweetness of dried fruit, caramel and allspice. An interesting peppery quality emerges as well.

Overall: Baker’s is a very good bourbon, and I do mean very good. Having reviewed both Knob Creek Small Batch and Basil Hayden’s from the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection, Baker’s is definitely different. It has more sweetness, weight, and less rye forward flavor than Basil. It’s also much less oaky and dry than Knob Creek. My absolute biggest complaint is the price. At well over $40 in some parts, it’s moving into competition with a lot of fantastic American Whiskeys. Regardless, it’s good stuff if you love big, sweet, rich pours of whiskey.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.6 (Very Good/Excellent)

Basil Hayden’s Small Batch Bourbon Review

Basil Hayden’s Small Batch Bourbon, 8 Years Old, 40% abv (80 Proof), $30-38

Basil Hayden’s Bourbon is a part of Jim Beam’s Small Batch collection, which includes Knob Creek Small Batch, Baker’s 107, and Booker’s. Basil Hayden’s is the lightest bodied and highest rye recipe of the four, with as much as double the rye grain content. This bourbon is named after Mr. Hayden himself, who moved to KY in the late 1700s. He was a distiller and was reportedly one of the first to employ this very high rye mash bill for bourbon distillation. It yielded a very different flavor profile. So how does it fare?

Color: Light Amber/Golden

Nose: Clean, and crisp. Wildflower honey, mint, eucalyptus, loose leaf black tea, menthol, and dried citrus peel work in tandem with intense rye grain. Vanilla makes brief appearances. This nose could pass for rye whiskey, and it immediately put me into summer time.

Palate: Again, light with flavors of honey, mint, vanilla, candied lemon peel, and rye in spades.

Finish: We’re seeing a theme with this whiskey. The finish falls off sharply and dryly, but in proportion to what you’d expect for such a light bodied pour. Rye grain and minty warmth remain just to let you know it’s there.

Overall: It’s been noted by visitors to this website and others at just how often Jim Beam products can get brushed aside by “enthusiasts”. I suppose it’s tough to pull for the big boys, and you don’t get much bigger than Beam. Well, I beg of you to cast aside any preconceived notions and bias when you try this one. If you do, then a light and fresh whiskey with rye intensity and subtle sweetness awaits you. Basil Hayden’s refreshingly crisp quality lends itself well to warm weather sipping – it immediately reminded me of summer. I would like to see this offered around 90-92 proof (it would get lost above that). At that range I feel we’d see more of the heat, spice, and complexity that’s been diluted down a bit at the current proof.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.4 (Very Good/Excellent)

Knob Creek (9 Year) Small Batch and Single Barrel Bourbon Reviews

Knob Creek is an extremely popular and well made bourbon from the folks at Jim Beam. If you drink bourbon or American Whiskey, the chances are great that you have tried or heard of Knob Creek. It’s a 9 year old small batch bourbon (a batching of numerous barrels) that is a part of Jim Beam’s “Small Batch Bourbon Collection” along with Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Booker’s Bourbon.

This past February Beam put out a very highly anticipated Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. It too is 9 years old and is a single barrel version of the small batch. Based on the below thoughts I’m pretty convinced it’s also from some very choice barrels. Enjoy the review!

Knob Creek Small Batch Bourbon, 9 Years Old, 50% abv (100 Proof), $32
Color: Deep Amber w/ glittering orange highlights
Nose: Burnt sugar and maple syrup dominate at first, then joined by dark dried fruits (particularly raisin quality), flint, and fresh oak. The oak influence is very prevalent in the nose of this whiskey.
Palate: Much like the nose, the small batch starts out with a sweet maple syrup entry as you bust through a crackle of hard caramel candy. Bitter char and sappy, wood resin intensifies almost as soon as the sweetness subsides. Things begin to quickly dry up as the spice takes over with cinnamon, clove, and black licorice playing the lead roles. The later third of the sip is an eruption of dry oak through to the finish.
Finish: Dry, lingering oak for days with some sweet and herbal notes. It’s worth noting, that while I didn’t detect it from the nose and palate, the empty glass (after drying) had a definite honeysuckle scent to it.
Overall: I can surely see why Knob Creek Small Batch has such a strong following. It’s a hefty bourbon with great sweetness, spice, and wood. With each tasting I grew to like it more and more. I would have preferred if the oak influence had been toned down just a bit, but I did enjoy the strong and hearty ways of this bourbon. Beyond just being a fantastic neat sipper, I am certain it would make a fantastic old fashioned or whiskey cocktail. The spice and oak really shines through.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.3 (Very Good/Excellent)

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Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, 9 Years Old, 60% abv (120 Proof), $40
Color: Deep Amber w/ glittering orange highlights
Nose: The family resemblance is definitely there, but the Single Barrel handles it’s business a bit more harmoniously in spite of 20% more alcohol. The nose is richer, fuller, more earthy and complex than the Small batch. Spicy cinnamon, mint, and floral notes are sandwiched between sweet maple syrup and a dry, clean oak. Leather and tobacco linger in the background.
Palate: This is a sticky, viscously textured bourbon with heaps of maple and marmalade livened with black pepper, clove, sweet spearmint, and a smoky oak quality (BBQ smoke). The char and barrel flavor is very prevalent, but in better balance with the other flavors than in the small batch.
Finish: Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve finishes with sappy wood, mint, sweetness, and rising warmth that lingers.
Overall: This Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve was a real eye opener for me. In fact it is superb. I expected a more intense version of Knob Creek at 20% more alcohol. While I got that to some degree (there is a family resemblance for sure as mentioned), the flavor delivery is so much better with the Single Barrel. This is a complex bourbon packing loads of great flavor in a more balanced package than the Small Batch. With only about an $8 upgrade in price, the decision for me is pretty easy. The Single Barrel is the hands down winner and a good value at the price. Please do note: As with all single barrels there most certainly will be some variance from barrel to barrel. However I have a pretty good feeling they hand selected the very best barrels for their single barrel offering.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.0 (Superb/Outstanding)

New Reviews

Well I’m back in the saddle after a week and some change off. I have some exciting stuff in the queue also. This leads me to a little technical glitch update.

Perhaps you noticed last Thursday that my Michter’s Unblended Small Batch Whiskey review was posted without a video. My format of choice is always video for reviews. I back that up with tasting notes so you can get quicker access to the info. But I just feel this format gives me an opportunity to discuss the whiskey in greater detail. Of course it also saves you from my subpar writing. ; )

Anyway, the Michter’s review originally had a video review recorded and ready. However, serious issues with the video upload feature on my camera messed up the video. While on vacation I wasn’t able to correct the problem so I posted it until I could get back and figure out the issue. Now I have a couple of other reviews in the queue and the same problem popped up.

I don’t want that slowing me down for the short term. The the latest reviews for Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve and Small Batch will post shortly, but without an accompanying video for now. I hope to have one for it early next week.

Cheers to you!

-Jason

Michter’s Unblended Small Batch American Whiskey

Michter’s Unblended Small Batch American Whiskey , 41.7% abv (83.4Proof), $30/bottle

Color: Deep Amber

Nose: Corn, candy corn, vanilla bean, marshmallow, and musty wood notes. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Black Maple Hill Small Batch. I later found out from Ethan Smith, a Michter’s historian of sorts, that Kentucky Bourbon Distillers LLC (makers of Black Maple Hill) is aging and bottling all Michter’s products today. So perhaps there really is some relation between the two.

Palate: Candy corn, vanilla, and custard to start, and then a thin veneer of oak and spice emerges at mid palate through to the finish. For a whiskey aged in barrels that had already been used for aging bourbon, this has a good bit more oak than I would have expected. There is also some slight astringency. All in all, it’s a bit simplistic, but it’s tasty.

Finish: Prickly spices continue to warm the tongue with some dusty oak and confectionery sweetness. Moderate in length before gently fading.

Overall: This whiskey has a long name. That stems from the fact that it has been aged in refill barrels that once aged bourbon (this is similar to what the Scotch industry does with bourbon barrels). While not 100% stated on the packaging, one has to use their imagination to decipher what “Aged in bourbon soaked barrels” means. All in all, this is a fine, simple sipping whiskey that is good, albeit unspectacular. Michter’s is a storied brand, and one of the oldest distilleries in the US at the time of its closing in 1989. Some say George Washington and his troops sipped Michter’s (rye at the time I believe) whiskey well back into the 1700s. Regardless of that, this particular product in the Michter’s line left me wanting more depth, richness, and character.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.4 (Good/Solid)