Taste More, Listen Less

In a Louisville hotel room overlooking the Haymarket whiskey bar, my friend Brian had arranged something special. As I entered the room, I instantly spotted three rows of semi-filled glasses, each row dead-ending at an amber bottle marked with the letters ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’. “Oh, hell yes!” I giddily exclaimed. Nothing brings a room of whiskey ‘experts’ back down to earth like a good blind tasting. It’s one of the few times I look forward to being humiliated.

Complicating matters were the open bottles of dusties and store picks surrounding this little experiment. “Are these Bourbons in the glasses?” one of us asked Brian. All he’d be willing to offer was a sly smile and a gesture to get to work.  ‘X’ was first and the nose instantly delighted with a blast of flavors including a slightly syrupy sweetness. The taste followed suit and the finish was outstanding. It seemed so familiar to me, and I guessed it was a dusty Turkey. Of course I was wrong, but no doubt the bottles on the table had a strong influence on my guess. 

From the moment I sniffed ‘Y’, I knew I’d be disappointed. Fairly one-dimensional and lacking the bouquet of the first sample, this Bourbon delivered only on its promise to underwhelm. Dry oak and a little more heat than ‘X’ dominated the palate, with the sweetness and complexity I enjoy taking a back seat. I quickly moved on to the third glass.

‘Z’ was also familiar to me, yet I just couldn’t place it. The alcohol on the nose carried some cherry flavor upward. Palate was nice with bold flavor, solid oak influence and good balance. A solid, long-lasting finish ended what was a very solid sip. I then proceeded to work backward from ‘Z’ to ‘Y’ and back to ‘X’.

We all decided to rank the three in order and, surprisingly, the overwhelming consensus was ‘X’ then ‘Z’ then ‘Y’. It’s rare that a group of veteran Bourbon drinkers can agree on anything, let alone the ranking of three blind samples. Yet, here we were with a unanimous ranking. Time to find out what these were.

The winner (‘X’) was the 2013 version of George T. Stagg (GTS). At 128.2 proof, it has been often derided as one of the weaker GTS releases, perhaps because it doesn’t overwhelm with heat. In fact, lacking the dry, tannic finish of the typical GTS, Steve was thrown off and guessed it was Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.

Surprise turned quickly to shock when second place (‘Z’) was revealed to be the much-heralded 2014 GTS, one of the ‘best’ releases in recent memory according to many. Steve immediately identified this as GTS, perhaps his favorite Bourbon, yet still ranked it below the 2013 version, which he thought was something else altogether. However, nobody would have expected the 2014 GTS to be by its lower-proof brother. Yet here we were, forced to admit the truth: the 2013 won out on this night.

And what was ‘Y’, the one that earned such little respect? That would be the Booker’s 25th Anniversary bottle. This is the same extremely limited release that some have called their favorite Bourbon of all time. This is the same bottle that occasionally you can purchase for just a hair under $600 if you’re lucky. I’ve heard people call this their ‘unicorn’ or their ‘white whale’. My sincere hope for these folks is that, prior to shelling out a monthly car payment or trading away a few great bottles of whiskey to acquire one, they find a way to taste it first.

This is not at all to say that Booker’s 25th isn’t a fantastic Bourbon. In fact, even after ranking it third on this night, John continued to proclaim it as one of his favorite Bourbons. Lining up two GTS bottles and an extra-aged Booker’s is pretty tough competition, so we’d be foolish to declare a ‘loser’. Perhaps with another group or on another night the results would have been different. However, as with nearly all blind tastings, lessons were learned and one of them should be absolutely clear to anyone chasing a bottle based solely on hype or the opinions of others: Taste more, listen less.

Soon after, I began searching for another bottle of the 2013 GTS, when I received a message from a (genuinely nice) guy who attempted to educate me on the folly of my actions. “You want the 2014 Stagg, not the 2013,” he said. He then proceeded to rank the order of the last few years of GTS from ‘best’ to ‘worst’. Coincidentally, this same person recently offered one particular Old Weller Antique (OWA) store pick in trade straight up for an Old Rip Van Winkle, informing the trading community that this OWA pick has been proclaimed by some to taste equal to the Old Rip. I didn’t have the heart to ask him (sarcastically) why he would trade away one bottle that supposedly tastes equal to the other he was asking for, primarily because I was grateful to him for helping me crystalize the point of this post.

Unless you don’t care about money or don’t drink your whiskey, you’d be wise to avoid making an expensive bottle purchase based solely on someone else’s opinion. There is no ‘best Bourbon’, ‘best year’ or even ‘best distillery’, no matter how experienced, respected or famous the recommender is. There is only what is best to YOU. Once you learn to taste more and listen less, your Bourbon journey will find its correct path.