Time for some fun: after our Ian MacLeod tasting earlier this month, this time my tastebuds are being challenged with a flight of American whiskey from Hi-Spirits, the UK spirits distribution agency now owned by American distillers Sazerac Company. I’ll be tasting each sample blind and giving my impressions before revealing what it was.
Hi-Spirits has an enviable stable of American whiskeys, as their parent company owns Buffalo Trace distillery, where most of the whiskeys I’m tasting this week are distilled. The Sazerac company also has a few other distilleries, including the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown – producers of 1792 Bourbon – and the A. Smith Bowman distillery, which makes Virginia Gentleman.
Buffalo Trace is arguably the largest producer of what we might call ‘prestige’ American whiskey. The distillery’s top end brands, including the likes of Eagle Rare 17yo, Thomas H. Handy, William Larue Weller, Sazerac 18yo and George T. Stagg have picked up dozens of awards at international spirits competitions and are routinely named by Jim Murray as the world’s best whiskies – indeed, just last month William Larue Weller was crowned by Mr. Murray as World’s Best Whisky 2018, while Thomas H. Handy Rye came third.
Buffalo Trace is also the guardian of the Van Winkle and W. L. Weller brands, distilling wheated bourbon to the recipes originally pioneered at the legendary extinct Stitzel-Weller distillery. In combination with their own original brands, this portfolio represents the most distinctive and sought-after bourbons and rye whiskeys produced in the USA today. So let’s get tasting them…
Tasting Sample A
Nose: Mellow aromas of cooked apple, wood glue and freshly-varnished oak benches. There’s a very nice note of blossom as well. Digestive biscuits, vanilla custard and dry tree bark in the background.
Palate: Medium-bodied, with a gentle mouthfeel. Vanilla custard, cooked apples, sweet pastry, cinnamon – apple pie, in other words, which is always a good thing. Develops a leafiness and a faintly menthol aspect mid-palate.
Finish: Decent length. The menthol leads into a warm spiciness that tingles without burning.
Comment: Very pleasant, easy-drinking whiskey, with the leafiness, spice and menthol kicking the complexity up a notch.
Reveal: Eagle Rare 10 year old (45%, £38.50). One of Sazerac / Buffalo Trace’s hallmark brands, and one I always consider a safe call in bars. I’m very impressed by how easy drinking this whiskey is for the strength. A good start, let’s see what’s next.
Nose: A jammier note, with cooked raspberries and blackberries. There’s apple pie as well, but more in the background, and again there’s a leafy character and some old oak notes. This is both fruitier and woodier than the first sample though.
Palate: Mediumweight, and very soft in the mouth. There’s the jammy note, plus a more prominent glueiness, warm spice, hints of linseed oil and wood varnish again. The leafiness and menthol reappear again mid-palate.
Finish: Good length, herbaceous, earthy and woody with warming cinnamon spice and faint pepper keeping it fresh and lively on the tongue.
Comment: The leafiness and slightly gentler mouthfeel gives this sample the edge on balance and complexity for me.
Reveal: 1792 Small Batch 46.85%, £39.50. This is made at the Barton distillery that Sazerac bought in 2009. I remember this brand when it was known as Ridgemont Reserve – back when I was an off-license till jockey this was always a good recommendation for people for looking for something a bit more complex. 1792 is known for having a high rye content, which explains the leafy, spicy notes I found.
Nose: A deeper, dustier note, suggesting greater wood influence than the previous samples. Old, seasoned, polished wood like an old church pew. Develops fresh linen, faint damson, dried orange peel aromas and an oaty, porridge note. Water lifts the damson and cinnamon.
Palate: Medium-full with a warm, spicy mouthfeel. The old church pew is upfront, with sweet brown sugar, varnish, furniture polish and wood glue to the fore and the warmth provided by cinnamon and nutmeg notes, even a hint of white pepper. A drop of water brought out the damson from the nose with a bit of cooked plum.
Finish: Long and spicy with the damson coming through towards the death.
Comment: A more savoury dram, a bit more serious for me somehow. The wood is more prominent here. I’d have this as an after-dinner whiskey, perfect to follow a winter stew or a heavy steak.
Reveal: E H Taylor Single Barrel 50%, £92.50. I haven’t tasted this one before, and I’m impressed. The higher alcohol gives it a greater intensity of flavour than the gentler drams preceding it and if I was drinking it at home I’d probably have it with a small drop of water to take the edge off the alcohol and lift the fruit. As the sweetness is less prominent here than in many bourbons, this is probably a good one to recommend to Scotch whisky fans.
Nose: Big apple pie and vanilla custard initially, with cinnamon heralding more woody hints of old varnish and furniture polish. Develops milk chocolate aromas and a solid oakiness: bark and old seasoned wood.
Palate: Medium-full, with a luscious, warm, spicy mouthfeel that never gets too hot. Sweet cinnamon custard, cooked apples, hints of dark fruit jam and cookie mix. A complex palate, becoming biscuity midway through – Lotus biscuits and ginger snaps.
Finish: Warm and gentle. Good length. Cooked apples with cake spices, fading sweet cinnamon and autumn leaves.
Comment: I liked this one a lot. It seems to have the depth of the previous whiskey with more of the fruity notes from the first couple of samples.
Reveal: Sazerac Rye 45%, £46. Of course! I’m cross, because I should have recognised this – it’s been one of my favourite American whiskeys for years. It’s one of those bottles that if I see it in a bar… I know I’m in a good bar.
Right, that seems like a good place to stop for now – tune in soon for Part 2 of the Great American Blind Tasting!