With the way social media permeates everything, the bourbon boom is front and center 24 hours a day if you want it to be. Like many, I follow several bourbon groups on various social media platforms. The constant onslaught of information and opinions can be overwhelming at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one 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 hit them over the head. They were nice. Most thought Blanton’s had a better nose, with many 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 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 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 tasting to score a perfect 15 from one taster. I 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.” – the 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. Of the eight tasters, three had OGD114 as their top pick, 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’ll find a hell of a hype-free bottle down there.