Rare Bourbon, Well Done | Wine Enthusiast
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Rare Bourbon, Well Done

This month, some truly special Bourbons came up for review. Among them was the debut release by Wild Turkey’s new Master Distiller, Eddie Russell, and one of the final bottlings from Master Distiller Jim Rutledge, who recently announced his retirement from Four Roses after almost 50 years making Bourbon (P.S., we’re excited about his new project—making whiskey at his own J.W. Rutledge Distillery).

Though it’s a nice problem to have, frankly, it can be a little intimidating to sit down to taste so many special whiskeys, including several that are old and rare. So it was refreshing to read the following story from James Beard award-winning chef John Currence, restaurateur and author of the newly-released Big Bad Breakfast cookbook.

Currence recounts a tale of visiting New York City for the annual Big Apple Barbecue summer event, which features plenty of Bourbon alongside BBQ from around the country. At the event, he met Julian Van Winkle, scion of Pappy Van Winkle, producer of some of the best-known and most expensive Bourbons.

There’s no wrong way to enjoy Bourbon, including rare or special bottlings.

“On a particularly lubricated Saturday afternoon, the two of us leaned on the bar to order a drink as the house band wailed away,” Currence recalls. “Half in the bag and without thinking, I asked the bartender for a glass of 20-year-old Bourbon with a couple of rocks and a twist of lemon, as I had consumed my whiskey for years.

“The moment the words escaped my lips, Julian wheeled around, eyebrow cocked, and said, ‘Did I hear that right?’ I was immediately sobered. Terrified I had offended him, I tried to explain how my dad had ordered his Scotch my whole life and how I liked my Bourbon. Before I was close to finishing my excuse, he clamped my shoulder and said, ‘You are the only other person in the world I know who drinks their whiskey like I do!’”

That gracious response illustrates an important point: There’s no wrong way to enjoy Bourbon, including rare or special bottlings. What’s most important is simply that you enjoy it.

Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Bourbon (USA; Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, KY); $150, 97 points. The first product released by Eddie Russell (son of Jimmy Russell) as Master Distiller is a knockout. This powerful, flavorful, limited edition whiskey starts with a rush of rich salted caramel and goes down warming and butterscotchy. The finish is exceedingly long, with toffee, chocolate, hazelnut and a faint smoky exhale. It needs nothing more than a bit of water to balance the alcohol heat. Aged 17 years.

Michter’s Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon (USA; Michter’s Distillery, Louisville, KY); $53, 96 points. After aging in a charred barrel, this Bourbon then rests a second time in a custom barrel that has been toasted but not charred. This results in rich dulce de leche and butterscotch aromatics. The pleasantly sweet palate discloses almond paste, clove and cinnamon, plus a long, warming caramel fade with a faint citrus-peel note. Pour over a big cube of ice and garnish with a lemon twist.

Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel Bourbon (USA; Heaven Hill Distillery, Bardstown, KY); $120, 95 points. Due to inventory shortages, this bottling had been discontinued; in fall 2015, it returned after a three-year hiatus. This is a robust, full-flavored whiskey, scented with oak and toffee. It tastes almost like an Old Fashioned, meaning distinct orange peel and cherry notes intertwined with the vanilla and caramel. The long finish offers vanilla, oak and orange peel. 15,000 bottles released.

Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2015 Release Barrel Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (USA: Four Roses Distillery, Lawrenceburg, KY); $120, 95 points. Master Distiller Jim Rutledge recently announced his retirement after almost 50 years in the biz—and this bottling marks his exit on a high note. The youngest whiskey in this bold barrel-strength blend is 11 years old. Look for a bright copper-penny shine and plenty of caramel aroma. It’s quite fiery on the palate, but water tones down the heat and brings forward crème brûlée, vanilla, candied lemon peel and clove.

Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength (USA; Bulleit Distilling, Louisville, KY); $50, 94 points. Look for a warm, concentrated caramel aroma and a relatively sweet palate that suggests cookie dough, vanilla bean, espresso and almond, with a concentrated hit of booze on the finish. Dilution with water smooths out flavors to sugar cookie and dulce de leche sprinkled with ground coffee bean. Limited edition.

John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 20 Years (USA; Heaven Hill Distillery, Bardstown, KY); $300/375 ml, 94 points. Made from a blend of 12 barrels from the original Stitzel-Weller distillery, this was aged for a remarkable 20 years. Look for a very dark, ruddy hue and complex, sweet aroma that suggests dried figs and vanilla bean. It’s drying on the palate, with caramel chased by dusty cocoa and clove, finishing long and spiced, with hints of red fruit and figs. Limited availability, and a collector’s item.

Barrell Bourbon Cask Strength Batch #007 (USA; Barrell Craft Spirits, Georgetown, KY); $85, 93 points. This is a five-year-old Tennessee straight Bourbon bottled at cask strength, so be prepared to add a little water, otherwise it’s quite hot. The reward is luscious caramel and toasty butterscotch, finishing with orange peel and clove.

Bonus: One extra 90+ point bottle that will be a bit easier on the wallet.

Flatboat Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (USA; Sazerac Company, Frankfort, KY); $25, 91 points. Sip or mix this Bourbon that shows pleasing notes of sweet vanilla bean, almond extract and orange peel, finishing with cocoa and hint of campfire smoke. Best Buy.

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