Bourbon at Its Best

To evaluate potential gift bourbons, we assembled a panel of in-office enthusiasts, including editors, a business-development analyst, an IT guy, and a blogger. Ethan Kelley, sommelier at Tribeca’s Brandy Library, oversaw the proceedings and laid out the basics of the beverage. Straight bourbon, he explained, must be distilled from a mash containing at least 51 percent corn and aged for two years in an American-oak barrel. Distilleries produce multiple brands; the ten we tasted came from six sources. The brands’ tastes are differentiated by grain content, the makeup of aging barrels (which also determines color), their temperature during aging, and other factors that give them various caramel, wood, and citrus flavors. The winners are listed below, starting with the best overall.

1. Michter’s ten-year ($60 at LeNell’s, 416 Van Brunt St., nr. Van Dyke St., Red Hook; 718-360-0838). The overall winner; Kelley appreciated its “minty” finish, while panelists praised its butterscotch flavor. It also has a noble heritage; it’s made by the distillery that supplied rye to the Revolutionary army.

2. Parker’s Heritage Collection ($95 at Park Avenue Liquors, 292 Madison Ave., nr. 41st St.; 212-685-2442). Even our expert wrote, “Hot, hot, hot … good God.” Which just means it will be particularly warming in January.

3. Booker’s six-year, nine-month ($49.99 at Soho Wines & Spirits, 461 W. Broadway, nr. Prince St.; 212-777-4332) was a relative youngster (Kelley prefers the six-to-nine-year range for its “grassier” taste). Caramel, tobacco, and citrus flavors were particularly noticeable.

4. Several praised Knob Creek ($33.99 at East Village Wine & Liquors, 183 Stanton St., nr. Attorney St.; 212-358-7700) for its fruitiness—a “white-grape flavor”—but considered it sharp. Kelley advised cutting it with water (but not soda).

5. Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage ($27.95 at Sherry-Lehmann, 505 Park Ave., nr. 59th St.; 212-838-7500) was our expert’s co-favorite—he found it the best-balanced of all sampled.

6. One panelist wrote, “maple-flavored, sweet, viscous, rich, with apricot flavor. What bourbon should be” about Woodford Reserve ($31.99 at Astor Wines & Spirits, 399 Lafayette St., nr. E. 4th St.; 212-674-7500).

7. Maker’s Mark ($32.99 at East Village Wine & Liquors) had a comforting familiarity that one panelist called “noggish.” “Tastes like home, not that my parents are alcoholics,” said another.

8. Black Maple Hill Small Batch ($43.95 at Sherry-Lehmann) had the best-looking bottle; its smoky flavor appealed to some but was “too bracing” for others. Kelley attributed that to insufficient aging.

9. Old Pogue Master’s Select ($40 at LeNell’s). The lighter color threw some tasters off, but there’s a complexity that had one panelist remark she detected a “hint of celery, or the flavor of something earthy, I think.”

10. Basil Hayden’s eight-year ($36.95 at Sherry-Lehmann) was dubbed “approachable” and “sweet,” with caramel notes; another taster detected “dried cherry and smoke” flavors.

Bourbon Tasting Note:
Don’t tip your glass and stick in your nose—you’ll just smell alcohol. Keep the glass flat and sniff from above with your mouth open slightly. (You can sample several at one time if you try a splash of each, though you still may not be able to keep up with Kelley, who, after tasting the ten bottles below, hurried out to tape an appearance on CBS’ The Early Show.)

Bourbon at Its Best