Welcome back to the second part of my Blind American Whiskey tasting! As I explained in Part 1, I’m blind tasting a flight of bourbons and ryes from Hi-Spirits, the UK distribution arm of the Sazerac Company, owners of Buffalo Trace distillery and makers of Van Winkle, Eagle Rare, W.L. Weller and many more of the USA’s finest whiskeys. I taste each whiskey blind and give my notes before discovering what’s behind the label…
Nose: Fresh red and green apples and cooked pears. Powdered cinnamon and sweet clove rock, homemade toffee apples, Edinburgh rock and an earthy, barky note.
Palate: Medium-full, quite warm and spicy mouthfeel but not too astringent. Cooked orchard fruit with some apple liqueur notes, leafiness, bark, and of course the cinnamon and a little pepper. Delighted to find a menthol note again, really lifts the palate, makes the whole more lively and adds complexity.
Finish: Long, spicy, warm and drying, nice fruit jammy notes, cigar leaf and a hint of menthol lingering in the cinnamon tingle.
Comment: My kind of Unidentified American Whiskey. There’s a lot going on here, from the orchard fruit to the warm cake spices and the more herbaceous notes that add the complexity I look for and take the whole thing to another level.
Reveal: EH Taylor Small Batch 50%, £92.50. Another one that I haven’t tried before, and one I’ll definitely be making the effort to try again at any available opportunity. The generous fruit and warm spices really hit my sweet spot. Perhaps the higher strength offsets the sweetness and makes it appeal to a hardened cask strength single malt drinker like me?
Nose: Sweet cinnamon lozenges, sugared plums, hard icing sugar and melted vanilla ice cream. Dark chocolate shavings. A promising herbaceousness, developing into dry autumn leaves and old bookshelves.
Palate: Medium-full, with a warmer mouthfeel, spicier than the others so far. Dried apples, fruit liquorice, woodglue, Butterkist popcorn, Danish pastries and other patisserie notes. You might think that sounds too sweet but there’s a lot of cinnamon and pepper balancing it out.
Finish: Very long. Fruity boiled sweets, persistent warm cinnamon, faint barley sugar, glue, faint leafiness and menthol hints.
Comment: Another serious, complex whiskey. Big oak spices dominate alongside the sweetness but there’s plenty of fruit and patisserie notes keeping it from becoming one-dimensional.
Reveal: Old Rip Van Winkle 10yo, 53.5%. Another whiskey that I perhaps should have recognised off the bat, RVW is one of my long-time favourite bourbons. Famously, the Van Winkle line of bourbons are ‘wheaters’, meaning that the secondary grain is wheat rather than the traditional rye. This is where the extra sweetness comes from, but the higher strength ensures that there’s plenty of balancing spice.
*Note: Due to the extraordinary demand for Van Winkle whiskeys, we allocate our bottles for sale via ballot. To enter our ballot, just purchase a bottle of Buffalo Trace whiskey here.*
Nose: A sweet nose, with apple Chewits, strawberry laces, milk chocolate and red apple peel, but with earthy, woody aromas lurking behind.
Palate: Quite full-bodied with a very warm, drying mouthfeel. Very spicy, with flavours of cooked green apples in brown sugar, tinned peaches, Playdoh and Fruit Salad sweets, then more woody flavours taking over: clove, cinnamon, varnished oak, icing sugar.
Finish: Very long, hot and spicy at full strength, redeemed by a lasting fruity, appley, brown sugar sweetness.
Comment: I’m not a betting man – I have enough vices already – but if I was I’d wager that this is stronger and/or older than most of the others tasted so far. Certainly it packs a punch with one of the most intense palates yet.
Reveal: EH Taylor Rye 50%, £95. Oh dear. This is why I’m not a betting man, as although the strength is quite high, it’s less than the previous whiskey and the age is only four years old… I’m glad I picked up on the rye spices, at least – though in fairness, you’d have to be missing a few tastebuds not to notice them! This is a bruiser, with great flavour intensity.
Nose: A more custardy kind of nose, with a creaminess and sweet pastry / dough notes taking precedence over the fruitier aspects of its predecessors. Rich Tea biscuits, the milk from a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, then a little fruitiness: apple leather with a hint of dried blackberry.
Palate: Medium-full, with a gently warming, unctuous mouthfeel. Follows on well from the nose: Cinnamon Crunch, the biscuity notes, apple leather, then hints of sugared almonds, hard icing sugar, dried fruit. Very nice balance, with nothing becoming too dominant.
Finish: Very good length, gently persistent fruit and biscuity notes, becoming drying without any harsh edges.
Comment: A very well-integrated whiskey, with lots going on and a high class balance of wood, fruit and sweet spices, without ever getting cluttered. The palate is well-developed and structurally strong without any overbearing heat.
Reveal: Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yo, 45.2%. After my previous disgrace, I’m pretty happy with my verdict on this one, as it’s much along the lines of how I’d try to describe this delightful whiskey if you asked me. Along with the Family Reserve 15yo, this is my favourite of the Van Winkle range.
Nose: Nice ‘old church pew’ notes, with milky cinnamon, Weetabix, milk chocolate, custard cream biscuits, and damson jam and cooked apple in the background. Water lifts some pleasant marmaladey citrus notes up from the depths.
Palate: Mediumweight, with an unctuous, mouth-coating texture. More fruity than I’d expected from the nose, with apple and dark fruit conserves, then some more gluey, Playdoh notes, the return of the marmalade from the nose and some background spices that remain much more restrained than some of the earlier whiskeys. Really, it’s all about the fruit jams here.
Finish: Good length, warm with a little sweet, spicy tingle.
Comment: A more gentle, elegant dram to finish on, with a more fruit-forward character, less spice and a softer, gentler mouthfeel despite a good weight. Impressive, nuanced whiskey.
Reveal: Buffalo Trace Bourbon, 40%, £26.50. I’m very, very impressed with how well this held up against its more lofty peers, especially being tasted last. It’s one of the unwritten rules of the whisk(e)y industry that your entry-level dram should be your best value for money, because that’s the one that the greatest number of people are going to taste and First Impressions Count.
Well, that was a lot of fun – many thanks again to the folks at Sazerac and Hi-Spirits for the samples, it was great to taste and compare this portfolio of superb whiskeys.