Bourbon & spice, and everything nice...

April 7, 2011

By Eric Jackson & Fell Merwin

So, there we were, sitting after dinner with our good friend, Brian Maher, in from Boulder CO, when he mentioned that he hadn't had the chance to taste any of fine new specialty/limited bottlings of Kentucky's finest. As an avowed scotch drinker, he wasn't expecting to be all that that enthralled... boy was he in for a surprise.

Among the most popular craft bourbons is the Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Series. Brian had never tasted any of them, so we put him through the paces. Each year Woodford Reserve produces 12,000 bottles of a unique expression. We were fortune enough to have all five years worth available for tasting, thanks to Mr. Fell.

The Master's Collection is:

  • Four Grain (2006)
  • Sweet Mash (2007)
  • Sonoma-Cutrer Finish (2008)
  • Seasoned Oak Finish (2009)
  • Maple Wood finish (2010)

We started with the Four Grains. Released in 2006, the Four Grains was triple-distilled in the world-famous Woodford Reserve copper pot stills and is made from a mixture of corn, wheat, rye and barley rye. This whiskey has more poise & balance that any than any other we can recall. All four grains play a distinctive role in the unique flavor of this uncommon whiskey… but none of them overpowers the other. They all play nicely and give Four Grains it's smooth  flavor. This is a truly spectacular distillation. There's just on problem; it's all gone, but what a fine starting point for this amazing collection.

Merwin: Genius!
Jackson: Indeed. A great way to begin a legend.
Maher: This is bourbon?! I can drink this stuff.

Next we poured the Sonoma-Cutrer Finish for our willing subject (and ourselves). Using barrels from the exquisite Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay gives this bourbon a unique finish with considerable added fruit notes and a rich mid-body.

Merwin: Sourdough, caramel, oak… perfect for pancakes!
Jackson: Tastes like heaven to me! Soft and simple. 
Maher: Again, this is bourbon? I think I see what all the fuss is about! It's much more complex than I expected.

Up next? Sweet Mash; definitely a departure from the first two releases. Made from scratch with no setback from a prior batch (as the traditional sour mash method works), this whiskey has a significantly higher ph and brings out the sweetness.

Merwin: Soft nose, rich and sweet…a nice touch of spice, perhaps nutmeg. 
Jackson: Probably my least favorite of the series…but that being said, it's still world class.
Maher: Now that's recognizable as bourbon; but not what I typically think of as bourbon. Rich and full, but hardly "simple".

The Seasoned Oak Finish is on the clock. Typically seasoning before barrels are made is three to five months. This oak was aged three and a half to five years before it went to cooperage.

Merwin: I would rank this at the bottom of the group of five, but still an excellent bourbon.
Jackson: A bit more traditional than most of the Master's Collection; makes me want to light the fireplace!
Maher: That is a very easy drinking whiskey no matter what your preferences are.

Maple Wood Finish. After the traditional aging run in oak, this whisky is finished in lightly toasted maple barrels. While many have tried, only Woodford's in-house cooperage has been able to execute this stroke of barrel-making genius.

Merwin: That is nice whiskey… I definitely notice the maple note.
Jackson:  It's certainly a welcome departure from the average bourbon taste.
Maher: I think you've now ruined my belief that bourbon is an unsophisticated whiskey! I'm going to have to make room for some new bottles on the bar...

Not wanting to let a good thing go, we decided that quick tour of some of Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Antique Collection would be the perfect way to wind it up.

The second leg of this journey begins with George T. Stagg. Weighing in at over 140 proof, this whiskey is a monster! Dark, dense, and rich, this bourbon is "in your face" bold. the winner of the “Bourbon of the Year” award by Jim Murray in his Whisky Bible, bourbon whiskey doesn't get much more stout than Stagg. Thumbs-up from all three tasters, way up!

William Larue Weller was the second of Mark Brown's "Antiques" we strayed into. It's hard to imagine that a 126 proof whiskey could be this smooth. Carmel and toffee with a nice toasted note - a brilliant bourbon. William Larue Weller was named the best bourbon in the world by F. Paul Pacult's Spirit Journal. Rightfully so in our estimation.

The final sampling from the "Trace" collection was the Thomas H. Handy, Sazerac Rye. The rye comes right through in this uncut and unfiltered 129 proof straight rye whiskey. Spice and pepper overtones with a warm, bold, fruit filled finish; a very tasty rye! Ryes have made a comeback in recent years and Thomas H. Handy leads the pack.

Sadly, the evening had to end (just in time since we had no wheelchairs handy), but several things became apparent along the way. Each one of these spectacular whiskies is worth your attention if you can lay hands on them, great whiskey mixed with great friends make for a fine evening, and lastly… when you're drinking whiskey this good, it's far too easy to forget how much you've had!