Have you ever wondered how much difference there is between two barrels of bourbon with the same mash bill, yeast, age, and storing conditions? How about which of your local liquor stores do the best barrel picks? Without just the right samples and conditions most of us will never know the answer to these questions. Luckily for me, I am a member of the Bourbon Society of Greater Cincinnati. The group is run by and for bourbon lovers who dedicate their time and resources for the sole pleasure being able to gather together to learn about and enjoy bourbon. One of these members, Buster Daniher, recently created the opportunity for a select group of members to explore these very questions.
Buster had in his collection two picks of Four Roses Barrel Strength Single Barrels from 2015. Both were the OBSO recipe, 51.9% ABV, from Warehouse Q on the south end, in tier one, and only four rows apart from one another. One was ten years seven months old, and one was ten years eight months old. They were nearly identical in all ways; the main difference was that one had been picked by local giant The Party Source and one had been picked by the smaller but equally influential Cork N’ Bottle. Buster arranged for those of us participating to receive a small sample of both – Bottle A and B. We tasted and voted for our favorites on Facebook, each of us offering tasting notes and impressions.
I thought this was a fascinating bourbon experiment for a few reasons. One is that it is rare to be able to taste two such nearly identical single barrels. Even when you participate in a barrel selection, the distillery rolls out the barrels of various ages and warehouse locations. It would be rare for them to offer you two barrels of the same recipe and age, from the same general location in the warehouse. It is also an excellent example of why tasting blind is so important. These two stores have two different reputations locally, and as with everything, some people inevitably pick favorites. This was a great chance to see if you do prefer the picks from one particular store, or do you just like the staff or ambiance better? Finally, it was fascinating to see just how differently we all viewed the two samples. Here are my impressions of the two as well as some quotes from other participants.
This one was the older at ten years and eight months. I got a lot of fruit on the nose, especially banana. Smokey with a lot of spice. Strong burn that settled in the chest and had a nice cinnamon and fruit finish on the tongue. Our organizer’s tasting notes on Bottle A was “Alcohol on the nose. Smooth Vanilla palate followed by a spike of Oak. A hint of bacon and baking spices.”
Younger at ten years seven months old. I found the nose on B to be very similar to A. A lot of fruit and maybe some brown sugar and spice. There was more spice to me in the B, and it was more of a green spice, like a peppermint. Finish was not as good as Bottle A. It didn’t last as long, hit me more in the back of the throat, and the flavor that lingered was a little bitter. Buster’s take was similar to mine, “Red fruit on the nose. Cinnamon then astringent wood. Baked cinnamon apples anyone? Bitter and thin finish.”
Most of the other people who discussed the two bottles agreed that Bottle A had a stronger finish and was full flavored. Many people described Bottle B as more approachable to non-bourbon drinkers. Some people thought that B was too thin while others said the opposite, that A was the thin one. What is interesting is that although the descriptions of these two sound very different, they are still apparently cut from the same cloth. If we had tasted them next to a Booker’s or a Wild Turkey Rare Breed, for example, they would not have been described as anywhere nearly as different as we described them going head to head. In the end, nine people voted for A, and seven people voted for B. Interestingly I feel like I have changed teams since my initial vote. I had been running out of time to vote so I did a quick taste of both bottles and quickly chose Bottle B as my first impression. But in writing this article and sitting down with both of them I am now on Team A. Is that because I have a slight cold today and the flavor Bottle A comes through more strongly? Is it because I have now read through everyone’s tasting notes and my impressions were corrupted? Am I just in a different mood and want something different tonight? Just like it is impossible to say what tiny factors can go into influencing the taste profile of two different barrels that started out life in much the same way, it is impossible to identify all of the things that can affect how you taste each of these barrels. It is part of the mystery that makes whiskey so interesting to me.
Incidentally, Bottle A was from the Cork n’ Bottle, and Bottle B was from The Party Source. This probably won’t mean a lot to readers outside of the Cincinnati area but if you are ever passing through both stores are well worth a stop.