Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Whiskey Review: Small Batch Bourbons

Small batch bourbons occupy a slightly peculiar place in the whiskey world. They don't have the same uniqueness and variation as single barrel expressions. At the same time, they are generally presented as superior to the more pedestrian bourbons that are produced from blending a large number of barrels together to generate extremely consistent products. Small batch falls somewhere in between, where a small number of superior barrels (one to two dozen barrels seems to be a fairly standard range) are blended together to produce a higher quality yet reasonably consistent product. Here are three of the more reasonably priced small batch bourbons, in order of age.

Knob Creek Small Batch

Nose: strong vanilla, brown sugar, fresh bread dough, corn and a hint of rye spices, pastries and raisins, which becomes redolent of warm cinnamon rolls with icing, brown sugar vanilla and yeast with a bit of water

Taste: sweet brown sugar and vanilla up front, transitioning to strong rye spiciness, pepper and oak, which becomes a little more subdued honey and corn up front followed by less spicy but more expansive rye and a bit of fruit with water

Finish: primarily rye and cinnamon, fairly long

This is Jim Beam's starter small batch bourbon (reviews of the other three coming in the future). Clocking in at a solid 50% alcohol, this can be just a little overpowering at first, but becomes extremely approachable with only a little water. It took me a little while to warm up to this bourbon because the first few times I tasted it were with a less-than-clear palate, at which point it tasted primarily like corn, without much complexity or depth. It's surprisingly spicy for only being 15% rye, but they put their basic mash bill (it's the same as the basic white and black label Jim Beam bourbons) to good use. Admittedly, the 9 years that the juice spent in barrels before being bottled accounts for much of the difference, as well as the higher proof. Right now Knob Creek is only $34 in Oregon, which is a price I would consider to be quite reasonable. Normally it's close to or above $40, at which point it becomes a slightly harder sell. So if you can find this bourbon closer to $30 than $40, I'd say go for it. If not, just wait because it seems to go on sale with some regularity, especially around this time of year when a bottle makes a good Christmas present.

Russell's Reserve 10-Year Small Batch Bourbon

Nose: Yeasty, with subtle grains and berries, rising bread dough and an undercurrent of corn sweetness, vanilla icing and brown sugar if you dig for it. With water, I get a very nice note of chocolate-covered caramels.

Taste: brief creamed honey sweetness up front, quick transition to rye spice, and a touch of mint at the back of the throat

Finish: relatively short rye grain, slightly peppery with dark berries

Produced by Wild Turkey, Russell's Reserve bourbon is meant to be a step up from their basic bourbon, much like their Russell's Reserve rye is meant to be a step up from their basic rye. As I mentioned a few months back, I wasn't terribly impressed by the RR rye. Thankfully the bourbon is significantly better. A minimum of 10 years in oak versus the rye's 6 years makes a big difference, adding layers of complexity to produce a quite enjoyable sipper. Much like the Knob Creek, this is not a particularly high rye bourbon, with only 13% rye in the mash bill, but manages to bring forward many of the enjoyable characteristics of rye whiskey while supplementing them with a solid base of sweet bourbon flavor. While it might be a little off-putting to some people, I also really enjoy the fresh, yeasty flavors of this bourbon. It seems like this bourbon can be found for $30 or less, which is a quite reasonable price point considering the quality you're getting here. A solid recommendation from me on this one.

Elijah Craig 12-Year Bourbon

Nose: corn sweetness, vanilla, fairly strong oak influence, subtle fruit and bread dough, which becomes smoother with brown sugar after the addition of water

Taste: tangy citrus and sweet honeyed corn up front, quickly transitioning to grain, rye, oak and mild pepper on the mid-palate, which becomes creamier with more obvious vanilla after adding water

Finish: rye and grain, slightly sweet with oak, decidedly spicy

A small batch bourbon produced by Heaven Hill distillery, this is one of the first bourbons I ever bought. It's significantly older than the either of the other bourbons I've reviewed today and it shows in the more prominent oak flavors throughout the whiskey. Interestingly, despite the losses associated with the angel's share during aging, this is also the cheapest bourbon in the group, regularly on shelves for less than $25. That alone provides a fairly strong incentive to give it a try. Additionally, I find that it's a good choice in whiskey cocktails as its burlier barrel flavors can punch through the other components of a drink. It was the main component of my Highland Breezes tiki drink and also works well in a Bourbon Special. So while I'd pick the Russell's Reserve and Knob Creek over the EC12 as sippers, there's definitely a place for this bourbon on your shelf.

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