Whenever I talk about bourbon, the first thing I say is that it’s got one unfair reputation in the spirits world. Some people associate it with old grandpas. Some think of it as a means to party inexpensively in some rural part of the United States. Others think of the more affordable brands and associate it with mixers* for cheap club drinks. In fact, some people fail to realise that bourbon is technically a type of whisky, and old school action films (and the characters in it) gave it a strange reputation as “stronger than whisky”.
Maybe it’s partly due to its sudden presence in contemporary media (top of mind for me is Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley’s characters having Civil War era bottles stashed away in their mansion in Vampire Diaries), or maybe it’s the tireless work of men and women in the industry, but finally (finally!), bourbon is starting to get the reputation it deserves: A damn good spirit, well worth sipping and savouring (and talking about).
If there’s one distillery that has firmly put proper, quality bourbon on the map (with factual awards, not a fictional vampire’s abs), it’s Buffalo Trace. In a Master Class held in Shangri-la at the Fort, Buffalo Trace’s Master Blender** Drew Mayville took us on a virtual tour for the grounds and history of the distillery… Then ended things with some of their finest bourbon.
A bit of a background: The distillery, located in Frankfort, Kentucky***, has a pretty rich history. Currently named after the path where the buffalos used to roam, it has changed hands (and names) several times, once to legendary colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr., who believed that “the finest whiskey was produced in old-fashioned wood-fired copper stills”. Through the 1800s, the distillery was largely invested on, and a few warehouses were built, some of which are still standing today. At the dawn of the 1900s, it was one of three distilleries permitted to operate during the prohibition, because they were making “medicinal whiskey.” Over the years, they have amassed several distinctions, including creating Blanton’s, the world’s first single-barrel bourbon, and becoming the world’s most awarded distillery.
“We tend to win a lot of awards, but what’s important to us is that the consumers like what we make.” – Drew Mayville
Personally, amongst Mayville’s stories, I was wowed by their innovations and discoveries (not that I’m discounting the awards… Their experimental E.H. Taylor Fourgrain was hailed as the best whiskey in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2018, of which Murray said, “time stood still”). They have a warehouse called “Warehouse X” which is dedicated to conducting experiments, one of which was inspired by the tornado of 2006. After the tornado, one warehouse was destroyed, exposing bourbon barrels to the elements but winding up with really good bourbon. This prompted the distillery to conduct an experiment isolating several factors to try and find what it is that made the batches great (no, they haven’t found the answer yet, but they’ve successfully concluded that it wasn’t the light). When asked about the success rate of these experiments, Mayville said, “Most of the time, we fail… But we learn,” gathering as much data as they could from the experiments for use in making distillery decisions. To date, they have 250 experiments, one of which led to the production of the Old Charter, which made use of French Oak for ageing and resulting in a distinctive whiskey.
As I’ve said though, we ended the class by a guided tasting. Mayville taught even seasoned tasters like myself a few tricks in tasting bourbon (or, as he put it, “tasting the recipe”):
- Consider the barrel not just as a vessel for maturing bourbon, but as a “flavouring”
- The end product of bourbon is a reflection of what it’s generally made out of: Corn will give it sweetness; rye will give it spicy, aromatic characteristics; wheat will give it a buttery, softer texture.
Here are the bourbons we’ve tried:
McAfee’s Benchmark Old No. 8 Brand Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Facts: Buffalo Trace’s entry level whiskey aged to taste for four years; it has the same recipe as the George T. Stagg bourbon (Stagg Jr., also made by the distillery).
- Tasting Notes: Hints of vanilla, white pepper, sweet fruits, one hell of a spicy grip, and a little oak at the back of the palate.
- Pro Tip: For its decent price point, it’s really good bourbon for chilling out with, or even something for making an Old Fashioned with.
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Facts: It actually has the same recipe as the Benchmark, but applying the same principles of ageing to taste, this has been sitting in the barrel for eight years for an entirely different profile.
- Tasting Notes: Rich caramel, a little spice, a good domination of oak on the palate balanced with a lingering sweetness.
- Pro Tip: If I were feeling pretty fancy with my Old Fashioned, I’d consider this as well (still not a bad price point), but the flavours were amazing enough to make this a great sipping whiskey.
Sazerac Rye Straight Rye Whiskey
- Facts: Adhering to the legal standards of labeLling something as Rye (having rye as a majority), it still has a lot of corn, and has been aged for six years.
- Tasting Notes: It’s got candy-like sweetness to it (because of the corn), but has incredibly spicy flavours to it (because it’s still a rye), but the oak flavours have tapered off quite a bit, making it an elegant take on a rye.
- Pro Tip: There is a Sazerac Cocktail (a New Orleans take on a whiskey cocktail) using Sazerac Rye, Absinthe, Angostura Bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters (made by the same umbrella of companies as Buffalo Trace), a lemon peel, and sugar that is worth trying.
Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Facts: Aged for no less than ten years, barrels have to go through a rigid selection process to determine which one goes into a bottle of am Eagle Rare.
- Tasting Notes: It’s got sweeter, less spicy notes of molasses on the nose, with cherry, anise, and citrus flavours. It ends with an incredibly oaky finish.
- Pro Tip: Shut the front door. Amongst the afternoon’s selections, this one is the bourbon to impress.
After the class, we were treated to cocktails in Raging Bull Chophouse & Bar, where we tried the following cocktails:
A refreshing cocktail made of Buffalo Trace Bourbon, blueberry and Sechuan jam, fresh mint and watermelon, and plum bitters
Beautifully dark cocktail made with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Mauritian Demerara brown sugar, and Angostura and orange aged barrel bitters
Napoleon’s Whisky Sour
My favourite of the evening, it’s made from Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Mandarine Napoleon, lemon juice, egg whites, sugar syrup, and Angostura and orange aged barrel bitters.
*I mean, if I were to go down this route, I’d get something a little more expensive (but not bank breaking) than the ones I could get from a convenience store and make a proper Old Fashioned. It would come out slightly sweeter than a version made with rye, although both versions are acceptable.
**A Master Blender is responsible for making sure that the spirits taste consistent, and are of the quality that the drink requires. A Master Distiller is in charge of the science behind distilling the spirit.
*** It’s also a National Historic Landmark, so it’s worth a visit, and people could go on one of three tours: One that touches on history, one that highlights the distillery, or a ghost tour where people could probably catch a ghost clanging around in the warehouse.
Special thanks to Johnssen Li for having me 😉