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How The Bourbon Crusaders Determined the Best Bourbons on the Shelf

In Banter by Brett Atlas25 Comments

On Monday, November 5 2018, the Bourbon world was abuzz about a little charity event that raised over $340,000 for the American Cancer Society over the weekend. For more about the auction itself, Fred Minnick’s excellent Forbes piece captures it beautifully.

What may have been overshadowed by the shocking and magical live auction at “Willett To Be Cured” was the months-long, massive blind tasting to determine the best bourbons that can still be found on most store shelves. 60 bourbons fought their way into the top 10, where they battled it out November 3rd in an effort to be named “Best on the Shelf.” The effort, the science and the coordination that went into this competition are worth examining closer.

Before beginning to taste anything, you need to have a solid, expanded field of attainable bourbons. Ed Bley (formerly of Cork ‘N Bottle) and Fred Minnick were both consulted for suggestions to ensure adequate representation and national distribution. These suggestions were then submitted to selected members of the Bourbon Crusaders for approval. The final list of 60 bourbons included a variety of styles, mash bills and proofs, but it did not include any store picks or limited editions. Where single barrels were selected, great pains were taken to ensure that all tasters had samples from the same barrel.

24 Bourbon Crusaders were selected to each blind taste 15 different samples, divided randomly among them using random.org. That means each of the 60 bourbons were tasted and scored by 6 different Crusaders. That also means that some people (like me) wound up with a disappointing overall group of samples, which was actually later confirmed by the data. More on the data later.

The rating scale (see attached) was 1-5 using ½ points for a total of 9 different rating choices. There was a word next to each number to help the taster along (ex. “offensively bad”, “amazing”). To further separate close scores later, there was an additional option for 6 possible recommendations (ex. “drain dump”, “special occasions”). Finally, there was an opportunity to provide tasting notes, which offered ample entertainment at the event afterparty.

A tasting of this magnitude requires a combination of hard work and strong relationships. 60 bottles tasted 6 times requires 360 sample bottles, caps and shrink bands. That’s just for the Bourbon Crusaders to narrow the field down to 10. In order for each of the 120 guests at Willett To Be Cured to taste the Top 10 samples, another 1,200 bottles, caps and bands would be required. Thankfully I distribute packaging for a living so I was able to help out here.

On top of the original 60 bourbon bottles, there would need to be an additional 10 bottles of each of the top 10 bourbons for the event itself. Oh, and they would also need to be from the same barrel for any single barrel bourbons that made the top 10. Spoiler alert: There were 2 of them. Eric Bollmann from Northern Kentucky’s Cork ‘N Bottle was invaluable in helping to procure the bourbons for this event.

The heavy lifting fell to one man: RJ Sargent. Not only did he ultimately fill over 1,500 bottles by hand. Not only did he apply shrink sleeves over 1,500 caps armed with only a hair dryer. RJ also invented a complex numerical and color-coded system for each bottle, boxed up 24 randomized sample kits, and managed to get them safely to each remote taster. Every group is lucky to have someone this insane, and an undertaking of this magnitude has no chance of succeeding if you don’t.

Once the tasters had completed their evaluations and entered their results online, all that remained was what to do with it. Fortunately, Crusader Jacqueline Rice is a data scientist for a large corporation when she isn’t thieving from a whiskey barrel, so tabulating the results was literally done by a professional. And once the top 10 were set, and RJ finished pouring 1,200 more bottles, it was up to the Willett To Be Cured guests to determine the Best On the Shelf.

The top 10 bourbons (in no particular order) were:

  • Old Bardstown Bottled-In-Bond
  • Old Grand-Dad Bottled-In-Bond
  • Woodford Reserve
  • Elijah Craig Small Batch
  • Michter’s US*1
  • Old Forester 1920
  • Buffalo Trace
  • Bulleit 10 Year
  • Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled-In-Bond
  • Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel

Once the guests arrived at Mint on Mellwood, they were greeted with a set of the 10 sample bottles labeled A-J, an identical scorecard as the original and a Neat Tasting Glass. Before, during or after a phenomenal barbecue dinner by Feast, none other than legendary taster Fred Minnick led the room through the blind tasting. With Fred’s guidance, each person worked his and her way through the 10 bourbon finalists. Once finished, the completed cards were turned into Jacqueline, who was entering the results and monitoring the scores in real-time.

"When the dust settled, Old Forester 1920 emerged victorious..."

86 cards were turned in, which is a pretty extraordinary sample size for a blind tasting competition. When the dust settled, Old Forester 1920 emerged victorious, following closely by Henry McKenna (Barrel #5288) and then Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel for 3rd. These are your Top 3 Best On the Shelf bourbons, or at least the best ones to drink with good barbecue.

Keep in mind that all 10 of these Bourbons deserve recognition in making it to the big show from a field of 60, which is why I’m not listing the entire final order. In fact, I learned that my favorite bourbon from my original blind tasting set made it into the final 10 and was also the highest score on my sheet at the event also! Yet it finished 10th out of 10 overall.

Best Bourbons: Top 3 Photo

You can argue about the top 3, and really that’s the fun of a competition like this. What you can’t argue is that 10 bourbons rose to the top, they are all readily available, and they should serve you well under most circumstances.


About the Author
Brett Atlas

Brett Atlas

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Mark Twain said, “too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” A passionate whiskey hunter & gatherer, Brett serves his opinions and reviews just like his bourbon - straight and not watered down. A native Chicagoan, he attended the University of Kansas and Chicago’s John Marshall Law School before moving to Omaha, Nebraska, where he runs a packaging distribution company and enjoys opening bottles with good friends. Read Brett's full profile.

Comments

  1. Except Old Bardstown BiB is only available in Kentucky. Regular Old Bardstown is available nationally.

      1. Neither Old Bardstown nor Old Bardstown Bottled-in-Bond are available in Michigan, per Michigan Liquor Control Commission’s 10/28 price book. While I saw it on shelves when in Louisville a couple weeks ago, I never would have thought to pick any up.

  2. I did something similar with the Speakeasy_WI in the spring. It was only 23 respondents but we also has OF 1920 as number one. I left a link to the results in the website box.

    1. We discussed it and agreed to keep that list as well as the order of the final 10 confidential.

  3. Great reading about not so rare bourbons . It’s always a little off-putting when you read about stuff you can’t find or afford. Thanks to everyone involved.

  4. I enjoyed the article very much. Nice to see some of the top 10 that I have in my home liquor cabinet. I have Old Forester 1920 that I like so much that I can’t bear to finish it. I do know I can buy more. But! My other favorite is Old Grand-Dad Bottled In Bond. Can’t wait to taste some of the others in the top 10.

    1. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t appreciate old forester 1920,it will hold its own with most of the allocated stuff coming out today and priced where you could pour it everyday which we do.

  5. We have a small bourbon tasting club in Columbus, OH. I enjoyed the article. it was a fun read and gave me some ideas for future tastings.
    THANKS!!

    1. I am in Columbus as well and would be interested in info about your club if taking new members. I probably saw you at the recent local bottle raffles. 0 for 5 by the way (probably used up my luck getting a Van Winkle Reserve in last year’s.)

  6. Well done, would probably replace Woodford with Evan Williams SB but can’t argue with the top 3

  7. Wow loved this review, I have tried the 1920 twice, not a fan. But I drink the McKenna BIB, and enjoy the Russel. Two of the best on my shelves. CHEERS

  8. Well done. You guys should talk to Wall Street about how to do a proper analysis. A couple of questions… Does this mean the Old Forester 1920 is a permanent offering. And the OF 1910 too? I thought perhaps those would vanish in time… Last, was the OF 1910 available when the crusade was done? Thanks!

  9. Glad to see basically the whole top-10 list populated by my go-to bottles (with the exception of Old Bardstown). I must be doing something right!

    Off the cuff I would have guess that OF1920 would top the list—it’s just an amazing bottle. The rest of the bottles mentioned are incredibly solid as well, at least at their respective price points. I’m a little surprised by the absence of Wild Turkey Rare Breed and Knob Creek Single Barrel.

  10. Commend the dedication to set up the blind tasting. However, seems like a lot of work to confirm what was already known.

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