Thursday, January 5, 2012

Whiskey Reviews: Single Barrel Bourbons, Part I

Single barrel bourbons form another element of the bourbon spectrum, along with small batch and regular large batch bourbons. The idea is that consumers can experience the barrel to barrel variation that gets washed out in large batch and small batch bourbons. This makes a virtue out of what would otherwise be a flaw to consumers who expect to get exactly the same product every time they pick up a bottle of spirits. That consistent flavor profiles can be maintained despite the vagaries of fermentation, distillation and aging speaks volumes about the skill possessed by master blenders.

But to get back to the single barrel bourbons, there is a lot to be said for these whiskies, both in terms of the variety of experiences that can be had from them and the excellent values they can sometimes represent.

Ezra B. Single Barrel Bourbon 
(Barrel #395)

Nose: Corn, caramel, subdued rye, oak, nuttiness, savory herbs which becomes a bit sweeter, with an undertone of brown sugar-sweeten porridge and chocolate caramels after adding water

Taste: brief, somewhat intense sweetness up front, which quickly transitions to savory rye, dry rather than sweet, dark fruits near the back of the tongue, which also becomes sweeter with water, though there is still a switch to drier flavors near the end

Finish: gentle corn and rye with lingering cacao and spices

This is, in my opinion, one of the best values in bourbons out there. Less sweet than much of its competition, the focus is on the flavors provided by the rye and oak. Ezra B is produced by the Heaven Hill distillery for Luxco with the standard HH mash bill of 75% corn, 13% rye and 12% malted barley. This bourbon has spent a very solid 12 years in the barrel and my particular bottle was bottled in October 2010 at an extremely respectable 99 proof. I really like how this whiskey shows to very distinct faces depending on whether or not you add any water to it. At full strength, it's very dry and herbal. With a little water, a more classic bourbon character emerges. Additionally, I get out something different almost every time I sit down to drink it, which provides a nicely varied experience. The dry herbal and chocolate flavors are probably my favorite that I've found in this bourbon. Best of all, Ezra B SB usually retails in the mid-20s, which is only a few bucks more than a lot of standard bourbons. Highly recommended.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon 
(Barrel #525)

Nose: rich toffee, brown sugar and molasses (almost rum-like), a bit of corn, rye, oak and fruit behind, which switches to emphasize the corn, while retaining light brown sugar and grain and gaining a bit of vanilla after adding a couple of drops of water

Taste: lightly sweet and citrusy up front, mild rye spice near the middle, toffee and chocolate leading into the finish

Finish: the toffee and chocolate continue, mild rye, with a bit of oak to dry things out

Given that Evan Williams is also produced by Heaven Hill and has the same mash bill as the Ezra B, the two are a very interesting contrast. The Evan Williams SB is aged for 11 years. My bottle was barreled on 9/13/01 and bottled on 4/20/11, at a fairly gentle 86.6 proof. In my opinion that last bit of data is the only major flaw in this otherwise pretty tasty bourbon. The entire point of single barrel bourbons is the unique experience one will get from them and it seems best to provide that experience at relatively full blast. While it's a very nice, albeit very sweet, whiskey, bottling at somewhere in the 95-105 proof range would probably kick it up several notches. With that said, if you want something that's going to be good straight out of the bottle and not be too hard on the pocketbook, you can't go far wrong with the Evan Williams SB. I'd pick the Ezra B first since they're both right around the same price, but your preferences may vary.

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