Friday, November 28, 2014

Bourbon Rankings

At the beginning of 2006, I made a resolution to become knowledgeable about a subject. That subject was eventually revealed to be bourbon.
I taste a bourbon straight first. Then I usually like to drink it with one mid-sized ice cube, or if ordering at a bar, a “couple rocks.” I like a nice solid piece of ice without cracks – something that will hold together throughout the drink. This may vary between brands, as some are better with more ice, some straight, and some with a little water.
I especially like bourbons that are not cut with water any time during the distilling/aging process. These are much stronger and have more character. Examples are all three of medal winners, as well as Bookers.

Just about all of these bourbons can be purchased for under $50, with most being in the $20-35 range. Only bourbons I have had by the bottle are rated.
Bourbons are split into the following sections, from best to worst, with a special awards section at the end:
Top Shelf
Middle Shelf
Do Not Drink

My three favorite bourbons – the best of the best


Bakers – 53%
Strong and colorful. Explosive. Warms you up. A rocky ride you enjoy.


Wild Turkey Rare Breed – 54%
Very strong with an additional depth of flavor that cancels out the harshness. Smooth and rich. A velvety explosion.


Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year – 53.5%
Masterfully crafted. Dark and brooding. You feel classy and wise just pouring it.

Top Shelf 
Superior bourbon of excellent quality and unique character – a treat

Bookers – 62%
The stickiest of the icky in alcohol terms. Badass. Packs a wallop but still very complicated and enjoyable.

Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve – 45%
Very smooth. Not an overpowering taste, but as much flavor as you can handle. Extremely drinkable.

Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve – 50% (no longer available)
Better than the 45%. Just as tasty, but with a welcome kick.

Woodford Reserve – 45.2%
Thick, velvety, very oaky. Full rich body. Great for manhattans.

Hudson Baby Bourbon – 46%
Incredibly complex, with a nice rich red hue. Earthen yet fiery. Expensive. Best drank alone in the dark before momentous occasions.

Old Forrester Birthday Bourbon, 2009 Edition – 48.5%
Sharp, with a great burst of flavor. Light in color but strong in taste. Clean and complex, it tells a story and demands attention. Doesn't taste as strong as it is.

Blanton's Original – 46.5%
Robust and complex. Chewy. Enough of a kick to feel badass, but still smooth enough to call sophisticated. This is the bourbon to give your girlfriend's father before you ask to marry her.

Middle Shelf: 
Good bourbon but not elite – to be savored

Rebel Yell – 40%
‘Singed’ smelling. Strong taste, but surprisingly drinkable. Not too complicated, but intentionally crafted. A “wheated" bourbon that gets quite sweet as the ice melts. Very similar to Maker's Mark but much cheaper.

Old Whiskey River – 43%
Solid, with flavor. Nothing special, but nobody complains and its gone before you realize.

Eagle Rare – 45%
Exceptionally smooth and clean-tasting. Surprisingly mild. Comes in a wine bottle which gives it a classy look.

Buffalo Trace – 45%
Strong, full, sweet nose. Oaky, and full bodied. Well mannered and friendly.

Corner Creek – 44%
Unique flavor. Good combination of growl and drinkability. Different.

Elijah Craig 12 year old – 47%
Like a veteran - not too flashy but gets the job done. Grows on you.

Henry McKenna Sour Mash – 40% (no longer sold in a jug)
Surprisingly smooth for a bourbon that comes in a jug. Not very strong. Almost earthen.

Knob Creek – 50%
Not the smoothest, but robust and strong with little aftertaste. No messing around - you know its bourbon. Ice is a must.

Jefferson’s – 44%
On the lighter side with nice flavor. Pretty bottle. Good bourbon but not exceptional.

Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year – 45% (no longer available)
Strong, dark and brooding. Not as well developed as the 107 proof.

Peter Jakes Private Keep – 45%
Unusual flavor – straightforward but intricate. Smoother than expected with a warm finish. A little water really opens it up.

Wild Turkey 101 – 50.5%
Robust and intense. Puts hair on your chest in a classy way. Impresses bartenders when ordered confidently.

Ridgemont Reserve 1792 – 46.8%
Bold, spicy, strong. Burnt oak. Intensity is better without water. You know it’s alcohol.

Rebel Reserve - 45%
Stronger than the Rebel Yell, with a nice mellow taste. Drinkable and light but not exactly smooth. Less Confederate-looking than its cheaper cousin.

Evan Williams Single Barrel 1998 - 43.3%
Rich. Not to be associated with Evan’s lower-tier offerings. This is serious bourbon that deserves respect, but does not wow.

Four Roses Small Batch (yellow bottle) – 45%
Smooth and tasty. A garden of flavor, but loses its novelty by the end of the bottle.

Elmer T Lee – 45%
Somewhat fruity taste that packs a punch. Very nice.

Makers Mark – 45%
Very light. A “wheated” bourbon. Once it touches ice it becomes so smooth you almost can’t taste it.

Willett Family Reserve –47%
Excellent bourbon in a beautiful bottle. Strong, but not overpowering. Almost feels like a shame to drink it. Makes a classy gift.

Rowan's Creek - 50%
A nice bourbon but not one that stands out.

Basil Hayden’s – 40%
Lightweight bourbon. Almost too smooth. A good introductory bottle. "Wheated.". Similar to Rebel Yell but more expensive.

Knob Creek Single Barrel 
Very strong. Nice caramel sweetness blended into the wallop. Lights a fire in the belly. Mellows nicely with ice.

– 46% Incredibly smooth. A slight toffee flavor. Can easily be enjoyed without ice. Good flask bourbon.

Drinkable bourbon but nothing fancy – a party bottle

Jim Beam – 40%
Has a slight sour taste. Does not necessarily need a mixer but it doesn't hurt. This is the lowest you should stoop.

Evan Williams Green Label – 40%, Evan Williams Black Label – 43%
The ultimate well bourbon. Acceptable, but don't bother unless it's all you can afford.

Fighting Cock – 51%
Not as tough as it sounds, but still – watch out for the claw. Not the greatest flavor.

Wild Turkey 80 – 40%
Not nearly as good flavor as the 101. Feels like they’re skimping you. Gets even worse as the ice melts.

Kentucky Vintage – 45%

Pure Kentucky XO – 53%

John B. Stetson 
Mild and inoffensive without a lot of character. Sour. Unremarkable. If this bourbon was somebody at a party you would not talk to them.

Old Grand Dad – 50%
Ugly bourbon without foreplay or remorse. Does the trick. Order this and the bartender will keep their eye on you all night. Fightin’ bourbon. Combine with ice or pay the price.

Old Forester – 42%

Old Grand Dad 114 – 57%
Just like the name: Mean, with a lot of fight left in it. Brutally strong. Do not drink alone.

Do Not Drink: 
Bourbons I did not like and would not buy again

Old Williamsburg – 50.5%
Light and smooth, but without much flavor.

Sam Houston – 45%
Light and smooth without a lot of fanfare.

Bulleit Frontier Whiskey – 45%
Sweet, little body but still strong.

Old Crow – 40%
Drinking this will make you hate yourself or others.

Jeremiah Weed Blended Bourbon Whiskey – 45% 

W L Weller Special Reserve 7 year old – 45%
The worst flavor I have encountered.

Cabin Still – 40%
Mix it, or else.

Special Awards Section:

Most Drinkable:
Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve - 45%

Favorite Bar Bourbon:
Wild Turkey 101

Best Bang for the Buck:
Rebel Yell ($17)

Worst Bourbon Ever:
W L Weller Special Reserve 7 year old

Best Looking Bottle:
Blanton’s Original

The Baron's Beer Tastings

For my blind beer tastings I use three ratings categories: Taste, Creativity, and Drinkability

Between three and seven judges have participated in each tasting, and as few judges as possible are informed of what they are drinking.

Many of the winners were unanimous, including the Heart of 
Darkness, Wildflower Wheat and Hodad. There is a bit of a Vermont bias, as several judges are from Vermont, including myself, and many of the tastings took place there. That is not to say they are undeserving though - there are a lot of good beers coming out of Vermont these days. I have noticed that local beers seem to have an advantage, which could be a result of freshness.

Suggestions are welcome! If there is a specific type of beer you would like to see get a tasting, or a brewery you feel deserves a look let me know in the comments.

Summer 2012: Random Mix

Winner: Session - Black Ale
Runner Up: 2 Brothers - Domaine DuPage

Notes: This tasting was conducted by several judges choosing single beers that appealed to them but they had not tried and combining them all into one tasting.

Winter 2012: Stouts

Winner: Magic Hat - Heart of Darkness
Runner Up: Samuel Smith's - Oatmeal Stout
Third Place: Wolover's - Oatmeal Stout

Notes: This was a small tasting, but it featured one of my all-time favorite beers, the Magic Hat Heart of Darkness. We will have another stout tasting in the near future to see how it holds up against increased competition.

Winter 2013: Porters

Winner: Fiddlehead - Hodad
Runner Up: Long Trail - Culmination
Third Place: Switchback - Porter

Also Ran:
Rock Art - Midnight Madness Smoked Porter
St. Peter's - Old Style Porter
Samuel Smith's - Taddy Porter
Stone - Smoked Chipotle Porter
Rogue - Mocha Porter

Notes: The unanimous winner, Hodad was extremely highly rated. It is a chocolate coconut porter brewed by Fiddlehead of Shelburne, Vermont. All three medal winners were Vermont beers, and including the Rock Art, half of the entrants were from Vermont.

Summer 2014: Summer Brews

Winner: Great South Bay - Blonde Ambition
Runner Up: Sierra Nevada - Summerfest
Third Place: River Horse - Summer Blonde Ale

Also Ran:
Sam Adams - Summer Ale
Peak - Summer Session Ale
Schmaltz - David's Slingshot
Victory - Summer Love
Ommegang - Cooperstown Ale
Brooklyn - Summer Ale

Notes: This tasting was conducted in NYC, and was another case of a local beer taking the crown, (Great South Bay is a Long Island based brewery). Aside from the winner, which continues to be a well-loved summer beer for me, none of the entrants in this tasting were particularly well regarded. It was a struggle for several judges to select a second and third favorite. 

Summer 2014: Wheat Beers

Winner: Wolovers - Wildflower Wheat
Runner Up: Foley Brothers - Ginger Wheat
Third Place: Magic Hat - Circus Boy

Also Ran:
Northshire - Hefeweizen
Rising Tide - Spinniker
Sierra Nevada - Kellerweis
Drop In - River Song Crystal Wheat
Rock Art - Maple Wheat
Victory - Mad King Weiss

Notes: Another unanimous winner, and all-Vermont podium. 6 of the 9 entrants were from Vermont. 

Fall 2014: Brown Ales

Winner: Foley Brothers - Maple Brown Ale
Runner Up: 16 Mile - Tiller Brown Ale
Third Place: Fiddlehead - Tejas Maron

Also Ran:
Crop - Brown Ale
Samuel Smith's - Nut Brown Ale
Gritty's - Best Brown Ale
Digfish Head: Indian Brown Ale
Avery - Ellie's Brown Ale
WV Homebrew - Brown Ale
WV Homebrew - Maple Brown Ale
WV Homebrew - Caribou Slobber
Bell's - Best Brown Ale
Rogue - Hazelnut Brown Nectar
Goose Island - 6th Day Festival Brown Ale
Switchback - Brown Ale

Notes: None of the entrants in this tasting were particularly well-loved, and the judges generally agreed it was difficult to tell each brown ale apart. Aside from the Gritty's, which was pretty much undrinkable, all the beers were closely rated. What pushed the favorites ahead was unique characteristics that made them stand out such as the maple flavor of the winner, and the hops-forward nature of the third place winner. My brother participated as a judge and contributed 3 homebrews to this tasting.

Winter 2014: Mixed Belgian and Belgian-style

Winner: Orval - Trappist Ale
Runner Up: Delirium - Tremens (tie)
Runner Up: St. Bernardus - Abt 12 (tie)

Also Ran:
La Chouffe - Belgian Pale Ale
Saison Dupont - Farmhouse Ale
Flying Fish - Abbey Dubbel
North Coast - Pranqster

Notes: It was somewhat difficult to compare these as there were several different styles. Nonetheless, the deep complexity and balance of the Orval showed why it is considered one of the best beers in the world. The Delerium is also a personal favorite. All of their varieties are spectacular.

Spring 2015: Dunkels

Winner: Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel
Runner Up: Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse Dunkel
Third Place: Erdinger Weissbier Dunkel

Also Ran:
Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel

Summer 2015: Saisons

Winner: WV Homebrew - Strawberry Saison*
Runner Up: Firestone Walker - Opal
Third Place: Allagash - Saison
Fourth Place: Ommegang - Three Eyed Raven

Also Ran:
Two Roads - Worker's Comp Saison
Ommegang - Hennepin

Harpoon - Nordic Saison
Pretty Things - Jack D'Or
Saison Dupont - Farmhouse Ale
Brooklyn - Sorachi Ace
Boulevard - Saison Brett

Peak - Ginger Saison
Simple Roots - Old World Saison

*Notes: My brother's homebrew won this tasting with an excellent strawberry saison, but an asterisk is awarded as it was brewed very recently and did not have time to bottle condition (one of the main features of a saison). While he did not vote for it himself, most of the other judges appreciated how the strawberry flavor stood out from the pack. Generally the judges were not fans of the traditional saison style, as evidenced by the high ratings for the homebrew and the Three Eyed Raven, the only dark saison in the group. I personally found the Opal to be fantastic, and liked almost all of the beers in this tasting.

Winter 2015: Stouts

Winner: Left Hand - Milk Stout
Runner Up: Magic Hat - Feast of Fools
Third Place: Crop - Stout

Also Ran:

Founders - Breakfast Stout
14th Star - Maple Breakfast Stout
Lagunitas - Cappuccino Stout
Highwater - Campfire Stout
Rockingham - Belly of the Beast
Simple Roots - Coffee by the Hearth
Rock Art - Vermont Spruce Stout
Queen City - Barge Canal
Bluejacket - Mexican Radio
Bluejacket - Figure 8
WV Homebrew - Raspberry Stout

Spring 2016: Random Mix

Winner: Ayinger - Brau Weisse
Runner Up: Delerium - Deleria

Third Place: Saison Dupont - Triomfbier Vooruit

Also Ran:
Wyndridge - 10 Point Ale
Samuel Adams - Sparkling Ale
Saucony Creek - Maple Mistress

Fall 2016: Amber's and Red Ales

Winner: 16 Mile - Amber Sun Ale
Runner Up: Ommegang - Rare Vos
Third Place: Elysian - Men's Room Original Red

Also Ran:
Bells Brewery - Amber Ale
New Belgium - Fat Tire
Peak Organic - Amber Ale
Breckenridge - Avalanche Amber Style Ale

Notes: None of these beers were anything to rave about, and the judges were generally underwhelmed. Those in the Also Ran category were particularly disappointing. The winner was a quality beer, and the second time in the medals for Delaware based brewery 16 Mile. The runner up gets a partial asterisk as it is a Belgian style amber and not technically the same type as the rest. There are likely better ambers out there, but the medal winners were enjoyable.

Fall 2016: IPAs

Winner: Lost Nation - Mosaic IPA
Runner Up: Oskar Blues - Pinner Throwback IPA
Third Place: Lagunitas - IPA

Also Ran:
Dogfishhead - 60 Minute IPA
Cigar City - Jai Alai
Left Hand - Warrior IPA
Sierra Nevada - Pale Ale
Rising Tide - Maine Island Trail Ale
Knee Deep - Hop Shortage
Stone - Unapologetic IPA
Glutenberg - IPA

Notes: The top three were universally enjoyed by the judges and stood head and shoulders above the pack. The crisp citrus flavor of the winner was quite enjoyable despite my personal prejudice against strong hops flavors. The Pinner was also a well-crafted and refreshing brew. It should be noted that the Lagunitas was the best bang for the buck at $4 for the large bottle, and was well liked. A few of the better known beers like Sierra Nevada and Dogfishhead were underwhelming and did not place as highly as expected. Generally we tried to stick to single IPAs but there was some variety in the group. This tasting took place in Vermont and was another case of a local beer scoring the win. Note all the cans present. Clearly that is becoming a thing.

Winter 2016: Random Mix

Winner: River Horse - Cherry Berliner Weiss
Runner Up: Trillium - Melcher Street
Third Place: Frost Beer Works - Dark Hop Ale

Also Ran:
Lost Nation - The Wind
Foley Brothers - Maple Brown Ale
Switchback - Ale
Magic Hat - Feast of Fools
Pipeworks - Cucumber Saison
Hermit Thrush - Stickney Kreik
Queen City - Scotch Ale

Notes: This was not a blind tasting, and only myself and my brother judged. In an effort to weed out weaker competition, we tried to include beers we knew we liked or thought we would like. The styles varied widely, but in general there was a theme of unusual flavors. Despite the high number of Vermont beers, it was New Jersey based River Horse that took the win with a bold yet drinkable tart cherry weiss. I have been enjoying a lot of sour beers this past year and the River Horse has just the right amount of zing while still remaining balanced. The Hermit Thrush was also a tart cherry sour beer, but did not compare well as the extreme tartness and sourness made it difficult to finish. The Trillium was an excellent pale ale with some delightful subtle flavor combinations. Newcomer Frost surprised with a rich, complex Dark Hop Ale that was more well rounded than most dark IPAs. Overall our mission was accomplished as we thoroughly enjoyed almost all of the beers and were pleasantly surprised by the ones we hadn't tried.

Spring 2017: Random Mix
Winner: Tree House - Green
Runner Up: The Bruery - Tart of Darkness
Third Place: Tree House - Julius

Also Ran:

Brasserie d'Achouffe - La Chouffe
Rodenbach - Grand Cru
Atlantic - Bar Harbor Real Ale
Maui - Coconut Hiwa
Unibroue - La Fin Du Monde
Lawsons Finest Liquids - Sip of Sunshine
New Belgium - Clutch
Petrus - Aged Pale
Chimay - Cinq Cents Ale
Lost Nation - Mosaic IPA

Notes:  This mix was very diverse, covering several different countries and styles. Only two beers scored poorly, the Atlantic, mostly because by comparison the others were better, and the New Belgium which was one of two sour stouts and clearly second best. The other sour stout, Tart of Darkness had some extreme funkiness, to the delight of most judges and the dismay of others. However it was the two Tree House beers that stole the show. The rich, fresh, bitter citrus flavor of the Green was incredible. Almost every judge had it in their top three. The Julius was also popular, giving Tree House an unprecedented two beers on the podium. Overall the quality of beers was quite high, including a previous winner from Lost Nation, and several world-class breweries such as Chimay, Rodenbach and Unibroue. In another tasting several of these beers may have made the podium but the unique quality of the Tree House offerings left them in the dust.