Robert Parker Tackles Bourbon

I know many of you do not drink wine, but I'm sure you still know who Robert Parker is. He's the guy who made the 100-point rating system inseparable from alcohol. He's the guy who can single-handedly make or break a Bordeaux vintage. He's the former lawyer who decided to become a professional wine critic because he thought wine reviews were too closely linked with the people selling the product. His Wine Advocate, a paid subscription service, is now the most widely-read service of its kind in the world.

And now he's coming for Bourbon. Guess what just went out to more than 50,000 people? I'll leave you all to speculate what's been happening at K&L since this article was released:

I became enamored with a television series called Justified, starring and produced by Timothy Olyphant and co-produced by the well-known criminal writer Elmore Leonard and his son.

Moreover, the bourbon drinking antics of the many violent episodes of this sensational series that takes place in Harlan County, Kentucky are a prominent sideshow. A little research had me on the chase for Pappy Van Winkle, the most difficult alcoholic beverage to find in the United States. If you think I'm joking, try and find a bottle, especially of the 20-year-old and the very rare 23-year-old bourbon. They are much more difficult to find than esoteric and limited production French wines such as Romanée-Conti, Montrachet or Petrus.

But persistence and knowing a lot of people in the wine and spirits business finally paid off as I was able to secure a bottle from a Washington, DC wine merchant, who shall remain anonymous in order to prevent him from being inundated with requests since he receives so little of it.

What started as a fun distraction to see what was so special about Pappy Van Winkle led to a full throttle inspection/conquest of bourbon. To tell you the truth, I have never been a big fan of liquor, but I was blown away by the quality of the top bourbons. They are every bit as good as a great cognac or Armagnac ... and I'm not kidding!

While the following list is far from comprehensive, there is no question this is fashionable as well as profitable area in the marketplace as the single barrel and limited production bourbons seem to fly off retailers' shelves as quickly as they appear.

In any event, I hope this off-the-cuff article (which probably did more damage to my liver than 35 years of wine consumption has) is helpful to readers. I highly encourage those who don't know how good a sip of bourbon, no ice, can be to check some of the following out.

Buffalo Trace Distillery Experimental Collection 1993 Barrels Rediscovered Sour Mash Whiskey Blue Grass; aged in white oak Blue Grass Cooperage; Bottled at 17 years and 7 months of age; alcohol 43.6%; 90 proof
One of the more aromatic bourbons with a light amber color, this experimental batch from Buffalo Trace has sweet, but not overwhelming aromas of toast, vanilla, maple syrup, honey and a crème brûlée-like richness. Full, long and persistent with a touch of heat, this impressive, beautifully rich and textured bourbon possesses a long finish. 95 points

Woodford Reserve Distiller Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from Labrot and Graham; 90.4 proof with no indication of age
Lots of caramelized fruit and whiffs of vanilla and spice emerge from this medium amber-colored Kentucky bourbon. It is potent in the mouth with the wood spice dominating the other flavors, and a hint of sharpness and pungency. While very good, too much heat and sharpness emerge from this bourbon. 88 points

Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey; Bottled 12/27/12; 93 proof; from the Blanton Distillery Co., Frankfort, KY with no indication of age; Packaged in a squat, designer bottle with a horse and jockey on the cork-finished top.
Smoky, woodsy, caramelized flavors of brown sugar, honey and maple syrup include a hint of wood. With a light to medium amber color, a full-bodied, gorgeously textured, fleshy, broad, savory mouthfeel, and no harshness, this is either a brilliant master blend or a bourbon with some serious age. If the latter is the case, they should promote that fact on the label. Velvety, opulent and age. If the latter is the case, they should promote that fact on the label. Velvety, opulent and stunningly complex, this is one of the most complex of the Kentucky bourbons I tasted. 97 points

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey from the Sazerac Co., Frankfort, KY; 132.4 proof; 66.2% alcohol; uncut and unfiltered
This medium dark amber-colored straight rye whiskey exhibits spicy, earthy, woodsy aromas. It is a penetrating, full-bodied, slightly sharp, pungent rye whiskey that carries its heat remarkably well for its high octane firepower. It offers a distinctive rye taste that is not as sweet as that found in top bourbons, but is very interesting. More of a cultivated taste, it is an impressive whiskey that somehow manages to remain well-balanced even with this degree of power. 93 points

Colonel E. H. Taylor Single Barrel Kentucky Bourbon; 100 proof; from the Old Fashioned Copper Distillery, Frankfort, KY; packaged in a tall, handsome bottle that looks like the bourbon version of the bottle used by Sine Qua Non winery in Ojai, CA
A medium dark amber color is accompanied by a spicy, earthy nose exhibiting aromas of honey, wood spice and a touch of smoke. There is no harshness to this superb bourbon. It displays a velvety, full-throttle outhfeel with noticeable, but not distracting alcohol. Caramelized, smoky, honeyed flavors coat the palate and provide a beautiful, complex sipping beverage. 95 points

Jefferson's 18 Year Old Presidential Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; Batch #6, Bottle #80; distilled from wheat in Fall, 1991; 94 proof; 47% alcohol
This is a medium dark amber-colored whiskey with big, full-throttle, projected aromatics of smoky caramelized honey and candy corn. It is a gorgeously full-bodied, powerful yet silky-textured bourbon with no hard edges. Penetrating, pungent and spicy with beautiful honeyed flavors as well as a long finish, this terrific bourbon is one of the stars in my tastings. 96 points

Bulleit 10-Year Old Bourbon Frontier Whiskey; Bulleit Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY; 45.6% alcohol; 91.2 proof
Medium amber-colored with a woody, peppery, spicy nose as well as a less caramelized character, this bourbon exhibits honeysuckle and molasses-like notes. It is a good, competent, reasonably attractive, medium-bodied, spicy, slightly angular effort that lacks the palate persistence and personality of the best examples of Kentucky bourbon. 86 points

Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve; 20-Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; 90.4 proof; 45.2% alcohol
Medium dark amber in color with a big, smoky, spicy, woody nose displaying notes of caramelized citrus, honey and maple syrup, this bourbon hits the palate with wonderful sweetness, expansiveness and richness, and not a bit of burn or harshness as well as a long, persistent finish.  It is stunning on its own merit until you taste its more renowned and more expensive, virtually impossible to find, bigger brother, the Pappy Van Winkle 23-Year Old Family Reserve. 95 points

Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23-Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; Bottle #7851; bottled at the old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, Frankford, KY; 95.6 proof; 47.8% alcohol
This is the legendary Kentucky bourbon that is the Château Latour of bourbons. Pure perfection, it is nearly impossible to find and retailers hate to have even a couple of bottles because it creates problems for them given the demand. Truth be told, it is everything one would want in a bourbon.  With a deep amber color, it is one of the darkest of the Kentucky bourbons and boasts a strikingly intense, room-filling smorgasbord of aromas ranging from subtle smoky wood, caramelized orange rind, maple syrup, molasses, crème brûlée and cappuccino/coffee-like smell. Full and rich with profound sweetness, persistence and no hint of harshness or angularity, this prodigious bourbon could sit alongside the finest cognacs ever produced. It offers a remarkable tasting experience be sipped, savored and like all the top bourbons, never diluted or served on ice. 100 points

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Bourbon Whisky 20 Barrels made with Corn and Rice; 45% alcohol; 90 proof; bottled after 9 years and 5 months in barrel
This light amber-colored bourbon is restrained and subtle with notes of smoky wood and a bit of intensity, but it lacks the personality of other Buffalo Trace Experimental lots. It is a more delicate style of Bourbon that, while interesting, is not what one expects from this fascinating beverage that merits more attention. 86 points

Maker's 46 Bourbon Whiskey Barrel Finished with Oak Staves; 94 proof
A medium dark amber color and an oaky nose are found in this bottling from Marker's Mark. It seems to dress up and exaggerate the wood more than I cared for. In the mouth, it reveals some nice sweetness and softness, but again, the wood dominates. It is certainly a good bourbon, but it is not worth the price of admission. 88 points

Lincoln Henderson Angel's Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Port Wine Barrels; 86.6 proof
Offered in a striking package, the Angel's Envy, which represents the expression for the evaporated portion of bourbon that goes with aging, has a delicate, refined nose of spicy wood, caramelized tropical fruits and spice. In the mouth, it is elegant by bourbon standards, silky smooth and persistent as well as surprisingly subtle, gracious and refined. If that's what you're looking for, and persistent as well as surprisingly subtle, gracious and refined. If that's what you're looking for, give this bourbon a try, but its understated personality will be something you either love or find lacking. 90 points

Buffalo Trace Eagle Rare Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 10-Years Old; 45% alcohol; 90 proof
A sensational Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, this single barrel project is a powerful, pedal-tothe-metal, balls-to-the-walls style of bourbon that has been aged 10 years and has 45% alcohol, which makes it 90 proof. Seemingly bigger than that in the mouth, it is full-bodied with lots of caramelized citrus, maple syrup, smoky crème brûlée and cappuccino-like notes as well as terrific fruit from the fermentation. The wood is only a complementary aspect of this velvety textured, full throttle bourbon. It appears to be a classic. 95 points

Black Maple Hill Limited Edition Kentucky Straight Bourbon Sour Mash; 47.5% alcohol; 95 proof
I don't know much about this offering other than it is called a Limited Edition and comes from the Black Maple Hill Distilling Co. in Bardstown, KY. A foresty, earthy, foreboding style of bourbon, it possesses a dark amber color and a powerful, spicy, peppery personality displaying hints of maple syrup and caramelized fruit. Unctuously textured, rich and concentrated, its style reminds me somewhat of the 20-year old Pappy Family Reserve Bourbon, but of course the Black Maple Hill is far less expensive and easier to obtain. It is an impressive, rich, persistent bourbon with no hard edges and a long finish. 96 points

Willett Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey Sour Mash Pot Still Reserve; bottled in a distinctive Captain's like bottle
There is little information available on this Willett bourbon, but it reveals plenty of spicy, smoky wood notes, a full-bodied mouthfeel, and an attractive delicacy and gracefulness with no hard edges. Although not the greatest bourbon I tasted, it is a very fine, competently made, impressive offering. 92 points

Old Bardstown Black Label 90; 90 proof
Believe it or not, this bourbon came close in taste, texture and smell to the more expensive, virtually impossible to find Pappy Van Winkle 20-Year Old Kentucky Bourbon. Wonderful rich, honeyed, caramel, toffee, maple syrup, wood spice, smoke and vanilla notes are found in this fullbodied, broad, rich, medium amber/tawny-colored bourbon. 94 points

Johnny Drum; 86 proof
This is a soft, velvety, light garnet-hued, well-balanced, smooth, medium-bodied bourbon with plenty of caramelized nut-like characteristics. I liked it quite a bit. 89 points

Rollins Creek; 100.1 proof
A sensational small batch bourbon, this fiery offering exhibits lots of apricot and orange marmalade notes intermixed with honeyed citrus. There is a bit of heat, but it is not that aggressive. Some peppery, earthy, smoky notes make for an impressive aromatic explosion. If the aggressiveness were toned down just a trifle, it would be even greater. 94 points

Noah's Mill Small Batch Boutique Bourbon; 114 proof
Remarkably silky, as smooth as cashmere and creamy textured, this bourbon offers lots of smoky marmalade, caramel, toffee and new saddle leather-like characteristics. It is a fabulous, intriguing, distinctive bourbon. 96 points

Buffalo Trace 23-Year Old French Oak Experimental; 90 proof
A whopping aromatic explosion is nearly beyond belief. Amazingly, it is not the least bit hot or burning. This bourbon was aged 23 years in French oak barrels, and the result is a full-bodied, light amber-colored bourbon that I would call the Lafite Rothschild of bourbon. Delicate, nuanced and precise with lots of honeyed fruit, toffee, molasses, caramel and a subtle note of chocolate, this bourbon's remarkable smoothness must be a result of its extended aging. It is almost impossible for a wine lover such as myself to believe that a bourbon could be this complex and nuanced. 97 points

Old Pogue Master Select; 91 proof
Another small batch bourbon, this sensational effort is a fiery, full-bodied bourbon with a medium amber color as well as lots of vanilla, smoke, marmalade, spice and caramelized citrus notes. Very aromatic, rich and heady, but not overly hot, this is a superb bourbon. 95 points

Abraham Bowman TPS Private Label; 147.5 proof
Packaged in a distinctive, squat bottle and at 147.5 proof, I was somewhat fearful of having my olfactory cells and palate scorched. That was not the case. This highly caramelized, deep ambercolored bourbon is remarkably smooth and silky with lots of pungent wood spice, vanilla, molasses and crème brülée-like notes. Persistent and long, this is a tour de force in jet fuel-styled bourbon, an ounce or two of which won't kill you. 94 points

Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Small Batch
Obviously Four Roses produces a lot of bourbon, but their Limited Edition showed better than the Maker's Mark 46 (for which I had high hopes, but it did not hold up against the great stuff with which it was tasted). The bottle is mediocre looking compared to some of the other packaging from the boutique producers, but the bourbon exhibits a powerful perfume of sweet caramel, toffee and a flowery character. The aromas are followed by a silky, round, spicy, generously endowed, fullbodied bourbon that goes down easily. I assume this has been aged in oak a lot longer than the basic Four Roses, and that shows in its softness. 92 points

George T. Stagg
A tall, narrow bottle is striking as is the vibrant stag horn label. I forgot to write down the alcohol of this bourbon, but I assume it is pushing 100 proof given its powerful, rustic and rugged style. It is a beefy, pedal-to-the-metal bourbon with slight astringency as well as plenty of sweet caramelized earthiness, foresty, barbecue smoke, and rich, candied coffee and honeyed flavors. This is fullbodied, rich and impressive. 93 points

Parker's Heritage Collection 2012 Mashbill Blend
Apparently this is no longer being produced, but it comes in a great looking package with a wax capsule over top of a cork-finished bottle, a striking label, and an interesting bottle shape. Powerful, rich and silky smooth, it reveals notes of honeyed wheat, smoked caramel, fig and a hint of molasses. This is an impressive, textured, full-bodied bourbon. 92 points

Hudson Baby Bourbon; 375 ml bottle
This comes in a squat package that is quite attractive, but it was one of the most disappointing bourbons I tasted. Somewhat diluted, simple and harsh, it was over-matched by everything around it. Don't go for the sexy, squat bottle which is more about packaging than quality. 82 points

High West Whiskey Campfire
I threw this in because this distillery in, of all places, Park City, Utah (better known for skiing than high quality spirits), is apparently a fascinating operation. They make a pre-blended Manhattan that is a killer, but the two whiskies I tried included their least expensive, Campfire. It is a silky smooth blend displaying hints of a Highland-like peatiness intermixed with sweet caramel, subtle wood smoke and spice box. The richness, full-bodied flavors and sweet versus spicy flavor profile make this an interesting, delicious sipper. It would be a shame to waste it over ice and mix it as a cocktail. By the way, I have not tasted it, but apparently at the distillery you can purchase their 12-,16- or 21-year-old rye whiskies, which are hors classe for their category. 91 points

High West Rendezvous Rye Whiskey
A sensational offering of a younger rye blended with a much older rye made from both rye and barley malt mashbill (53% rye and 37% corn), this is a sweet, smoky, spicy, flamboyant whiskey that is full, rich and intense, but not the least bit harsh. Just about everything I have tasted from High West in Park City, Utah is impressive. 94 points

Evan Williams 23
A spectacular as well as super-expensive bourbon (a bottle will set you back about $400, if you can find any), this offering was aged 23 years in oak. It exhibits lots of caramelized honey, sweet crème brülée, molasses, maple syrup, wood spice and smoke. 95 points

A. H. Hirsch Reserve
Cork-finished in a straightforward bottle style (unlike most of these limited production bourbons), this Reserve spent 16 years in wood. From a distillery in Pennsylvania, this expensive ($325 a bottle) bourbon is rich with lots of spicy wood, thick, juicy, fiery, smoky notes intermixed with caramel, honeysuckle, chocolate and espresso. Although it may not be worth the money, it is unquestionably outstanding bourbon. 93 points

Thanks Bob! Can't wait to try some of that Rollin's Creek.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll