With the way social media permeates everything these days, the bourbon boom is front and center 24-hours a day, if you want it to be. Like many of us, I follow several bourbon groups on a variety of social media platforms. The constant onslaught of information and opinions can be overwhelming at times. I’m sure I’m not the only who sees some of this stuff and says “Wait, what?”
One of my least favorite things is what I like to call the “hype” formula. People go crazy over a bottle, which leads to other people going crazy over that bottle, and eventually, the hype gets to a level where everyone just runs out and buys that latest, must-have bottle because of the hype, and it continues. But how many have even tasted it?
I have a really hard time committing to a bottle that’s above $40 if I’ve never tasted it. I’ll have a pour at a bar first to decide whether it’s for me before grabbing a bottle. There are exceptions, obviously, such as limited-edition offerings from a distillery that I’ m already a fan of or private pick bottles of stuff I already like. But for the most part, whenever I grab a bottle of something I’m not familiar with and don’t follow my own advice of trying a pour first, regret usually follows.
Which brings me to the experiment at hand. Nothing clears the hype like a blind tasting. I took three bottles that I find don’t live up to the hype. I’m not saying these are bad bourbons, I just don’t find them to be nearly what most people make them out to be. How would they stand up to a bourbon that was, at most, half their price? Budget versus hype. Who would be victorious?
For the blind tasting, I enlisted eight experienced bourbon drinkers. The tastings were done individually over the course of a week, with three head-to-head pairings. I chose bottles very close, if not identical, in proof. Bourbons were put into mason jars, labeled “A – F.” Everyone was given two Glencairn glasses for tasting, so they could compare each pairing side-by-side if they desired. Each taster was asked to rate the bourbons on their nose, palate, and finish, with each category receiving a maximum of 5 points, 15 points total maximum for each bourbon. The only information provided was a Bourbon & Banter flavor wheel for reference. I didn’t talk or answer questions anyone had. Nobody knew the purpose of the tasting until they finished, compiled their scores, and handed in their notes.
Disclaimer: The pricing noted is what I can get the bottles for as opposed to MSRP (Missouri often seems to have some of the best prices on bourbon I’ve seen, which I’m thankful for).
Here’s how it went down:
Four Roses Small Batch vs. Blanton’s Single Barrel
- Details: Four Roses Small Batch, 90 proof, $23 | Blanton’s Single Barrel, 93 proof, $53
- Result: 50/50 split
Right down the middle. Most of the tasters came away saying both pours were okay, but nothing really hit them over the head. They were nice. Most thought Blanton’s had a better nose, with a lot of caramel/maple/floral notes. But at double the price, everybody walked away saying they’d take the Four Roses because the Blanton’s wasn’t worth twice the money.
Evan Williams Bottled-In-Bond vs. Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled-In-Bond
- Details: Evan Williams BiB, 100 proof, $13 | Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch BiB, 100 proof, $40
- Result: Evan Williams BiB won 6 of 8 tastings
This was perhaps my favorite reveal when each taster finished. With most of them picking the Evan Williams, I only wish I had a photo of the reaction when I pulled the bottle out. “Evan Williams, are you serious?!” Most of them had the tightest contest between these two, often one point separating the two. Several cocoa notes on the Evan Williams, combined with an overall sweetness over the E.H. Taylor, gave it the edge for most tasters.
Old Grand Dad 114 vs. Old Forester 1920
- Details: Old Grand Dad 114, 114 proof, $25 | Old Forester 1920, 115 proof, $55
- Result: 50/50 split
The Old Forester 1920 had the best nose, hands down, of any bourbon in this tasting. If we only measured that, it would have won in a landslide. But, the palate and finish on the Old Grand Dad 114 were enough to sway half the tasters away. They really enjoyed the oakiness and spice that the OGD 114 brought. It was another “Wow, really?!” moment when I made the reveal. It was also the only bottle in the entire tasting to score a perfect 15 from one taster. I just hope Beam doesn’t decide to play another round of, “Is it or isn’t it going to be discontinued?”.
“Even if it does win, is it worth double the price? No.”most seasoned bourbon drinker who took the tasting
When push comes to shove, a blind tasting is always a good idea to put all that hype into perspective. At the end of the day, of the eight tasters, three of them had OGD114 as their top pick overall, and two more went with the Evan Williams BiB as their top, giving an overall majority to the cheaper bottles.
“I would buy the cheaper one, even knowing what I know now, because there’s not enough variance to justify the price gap.” the one taster who picked the more expensive bottle in each pairing
So next time you see that new, shiny, $60+ bottle on the top shelf of your favorite liquor store, the one you’ve seen hyped up by everybody, don’t forget the middle and bottom shelves. Chances are you’re going to find a hell of a hype-free bottle down there.
The fifteen months Bob Bennett spent living in Lebanon, KY, as a child may have laid the groundwork for what would happen years later (something in the water…literally). Originally from Corning, NY, he grew up in a household where happy hour was celebrated every night. Surprisingly, Bennett didn’t start drinking until he was 23 years old. He quickly made up for lost time, gravitating to bourbon as his preferred libation immediately, and proudly filled the bar that was passed down from his father. In the years that followed, not only did he develop a deeper appreciation for bourbon, but began to cherish the opportunity to talk about the spirit he has grown to love. As the Artistic Director for Jazz St. Louis, Bennett has become the unofficial bourbon ambassador of jazz, spreading the gospel of good taste to musicians everywhere. It also helps endear him to the St. Louis community, which is needed, as bleeding Dodger Blue tends to rub those Cardinal fans the wrong way.
Read Bob's full profile.
I enjoyed this article quite a bit. I thought Bob Bennett did an excellent job setting the stage and pairing the bourbons. I look forward to doing a similar tasting .
Bob did a great job. I liked this article a lot. Gave me the kind info I’m looking for in an article