Monthly Archives: May 2008

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Wild Turkey’s Rare Breed came to me recommended by the good folks at LeNell’s down in Red Hook.  I told them that I was looking for something more in the vein of Knob Creek and Booker’s than Four Roses Small Batch or Old Grand-Dad, something with more depth.  After reviewing a few options, I settled on Rare Breed since I’ve yet to write about a Wild Turkey product on the blog.

I’m particularly looking forward to tasting how the barrel-strength nature of WTRB influences its character.  The fact that this barrel proof expression is a mere 108.2 proof speaks to the low proof distillation.

Presentation:

Rare Breed comes in a short, wide bottle with a short neck, one that is quite different from the rest of the bottles in my collection.  The shape manages to communicate the idea that this is a premium product, yet it does so in an understated manner, without Booker’s heavily waxed wine bottle, or Four Roses Small Batch’s inward-sloping cut.

The labeling and text are rather simple, they highlight the fact that Rare Breed is barrel proof but little more.  The small pamphlet that comes attached to the bottle invites the buyer to join the “Rare Breed Society” which, while clearly a direct marketing pitch, still manages to be somewhat effective in convincing the buyer that he is somehow distinguished in his purchase.

Tasting:

To the nose, WTRB at first gives an impression of rubbing alcohol, but after backing up a bit notes of hay, corn, red berries, and toffee develop.  One of the more impressive characteristics is the color which is a rich reddish-amber, perhaps this is a result of not having to cut it with water, but whatever the reason this is a fine-looking bourbon.

On the palate, the red berry sensation reappears right off the bat, followed by a familiar corn and caramel body, finally there is strong note of black peppercorn.  The finish is very clean and the drink itself quite smooth, which was a bit of a surprise.

Over all:

I was expecting something intense and raw, yet I found a drink of interesting flavors, but managed to remain quite smooth.  There wasn’t the depth I was hoping for either, especially from a barrel proof expression.  WTRB is a quite good bourbon, with a good balance of character and smoothness, but don’t reach for it expecting something to ponder over for a while.   I’d say this is a drink best suited for cold winter nights.


Old Grand-Dad, Bonded

After last week’s extravagance in the form of Booker’s, I’m toning things down this week with a bottle of Old Grand-Dad.

Presentation:

OGD is an interesting case and charming in its peculiar qualities – or lack thereof.  The first thing one notices when looking at a bottle of OGD is the jarringly orange label with green and gold type.  Perhaps it’s meant to blend with the orange-hued spirit, perhaps there is some long held brand tradition, or perhaps it’s the simple fact that it’s a hell of a lot easier to pick out an orange label among the almost uniformly earth-toned bourbon shelf.

There are a few elements of the OGD packaging that distinguish it beyond the color scheme.  First to note is the fact that the company makes sure their drinker knows that this is a bonded whiskey.  While this is surely not the only bottled-in-bond variety of bourbon available, OGD seems to be the proudest of this point.  For a bourbon to be “bottled in bond” it means that the whiskey must be the product of one distillation season, one distiller, and one distillery, while being sold at 100 proof and having aged at least four years.

OGD’s proclamation of their bonded status makes sense when looking at the other details of the bottle.  At the bottom of the label is the sentence, “Bottled in bond under supervision of U.S. gov’t,” and surrounding the central portrait (presumably of Basil Hayden?) are the words “Registered U.S. Pat. Off.”  Both these details are oddly prominent on a modern bourbon bottle – and very likely not necessary, despite their official tone.  Instead, they likely are placed as they are to hark back to an age when they were necessary to verify the authenticity of the product.

It is this type of bureaucratic nostalgia, combined with the garish orange, which gives OGD its awkward charm.

Tasting:

Old Grand-Dad is nothing if not straight-forward, through and through.  To the nose it is quite medicinal with notes of oak and vanilla.  You can tell that this is 100 proof right away.

On the palate OGD is simply a classic bourbon: corn sweetness, caramel, and oak are the dominant sensations with a lingering finish of charred oak.  It’s tough to find too many more ways to describe it, but that seems to be the point of OGD, it is simply bourbon as it should be – no frills but no cut corners.

Over all:

At $18/bottle, Old Grand-Dad is a good choice for an every-day bourbon.  You can certainly do better than it, but there’s definitely a lot worse out there and probably for more dough.


Booker’s

I went all-out with this week’s selection and tried Booker’s, which sits atop Jim Beam’s small batch bourbon series.  I quite enjoyed Knob Creek and was pleased with Jim Beam Black, so I figured I’d see what the best they have to offer is like.

Presentation:

To signify (or justify) the higher price tag and quality, Booker’s comes in a wine bottle.  Whether this is due to some naturally more graceful form or merely the association with the beverage of a pricier heritage, I’m not sure.  The top of the bottle is encased in black wax, covering a raised and tasseled ‘B’ at the base of the neck – a tasteful effect over all.

The marketing copy is short yet prominent.  The label is faux hand-written – one is to presume this is the posthumous hand of the titular Booker Noe himself.  Looks nice, but either hand label your bottles or don’t, splitting the difference just makes me think I’m not getting what you want me to think I’m paying for.

Additionally, there is a smaller label higher on the bottle with a specific age and proof statement (5 years, 5 months, 126.8 proof in my bottle’s case).  Seeing as this is a single-barrel expression, I’m fairly sure that this changes from bottle to bottle.

Despite my complaining about the fake hand-writing and wine associations, Booker’s does come across as appealingly simple over all.
Tasting:

To the nose, I could hardly tell that Booker’s was 126+ proof.  The nose was quite subtle and complex.  Mainly it was sweet in a molasses and maple sort of way, yet there were also intriguing elements of oak, vanilla, and buttercream.  Very appealing.

If I thought that Booker’s was easy on the nose, it was saving the full wallop of its proof for the palate.  It was very difficult to discern much of any flavor in the first sip as a result of the overwhelming alcohol.  The second sip revealed a bit more of what was behind the curtain, but it wasn’t until I added some water (which I rarely do) that the full flavor of Booker’s came through.

In it are notes of fresh baked bread, burnt sugar, the familiar Beam sweetness, buttercream and oak.  The finish begins spicy and fades into a grassy freshness.

Over all:

Booker’s is a very good bourbon.  There are flavors in it that I have never tasted in a bourbon before (buttercream mostly) that were a pleasant surprise.  I’m definitely glad that I own a bottle to bring out on special occasions, but ultimately the price tag makes this a prohibitive purchase for anyone who isn’t serious about their drink.


Jim Beam Black

Surely, one of the first bourbons I ever tasted was Jim Beam – probably the white label variety and probably with more attention paid to the effects of the drink than its characteristics, sadly.  This is a classic brand that has maintained its status as the standard for Kentucky bourbon for many years.  As a result, it’s difficult to look at a bottle of Jim Beam Black with a fresh and critical set of eyes.

Presentation:

JBB is aged 8 years – twice that of the white label and one year short of Beam’s Knob Creek.  The packaging strays little from the design of the mainline variety, sporting the familiar signature, family tree, red seal, and typeface.  The marketing copy on the side is relatively understated in both its description of the product as well as in the coy humility inserted at the end: “…we know a little about making exceptional bourbon.”

All in all, the packaging is what you expect from Jim Beam, it is one of the standards against which other whiskeys judge their appearance.  The grabs at nostalgia here seem more genuine than fetish-object: the signature at the bottom was introduced decades ago as a hedge against trademark infringement (forgery carrying a higher penalty than the infringement itself).

What can one really say about this bottle?

Tasting:

There is nothing overpowering in the nose of Jim Beam Black, nor is there anything overly complex.  Notes of floral sweetness, oak, and fruit present themselves and quietly retreat.

On the palate Black is much more assertive.  Immediately the corn-driven sweetness is prominent at first, followed by something akin to berries, fresh legumes, and char.  The finish is largely clean with a hint of lingering spice.

Over all:

The similarity between Jim Beam Black and Knob Creek is certainly clear, yet it seems that Knob Creek’s extra year in the barrel made significant difference in the product.  Black is punchier than Four Roses, more interesting than Bulleit, but falls short of Knob Creek in terms of depth and complexity.  Regardless, with the lower price, this would be a good buy.


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