There are bourbons you pour for special occasions and there are bourbons better made for sipping. Either way, why do we like the bourbon we like? Is it a strictly taste preference or does the distillery, the label, and, perhaps, even the price influence our choices? To find out, we set up a blind taste test and enlisted the help of some of the South’s most discerning palates—twenty award-winning chefs.
What We Served
With the help of G&G’s drinks contributors, we compiled five bottles to sample. We included some staples (Bulleit and Four Roses Small Batch), a high-end option (Blade & Bow 22-year), and one at a much lower price point that contributor Wayne Curtis called “a good everyday bourbon” (McAffe’s Benchmark, which sells for less than $15 a bottle). To round out the test, we also included a higher-proof option (Old Grand-Dad 114), which contributor Tom Wilmes called, “a great value bottle that drinks much bigger than it is.”
Setting Up the Blind Tasting
We poured the contents of each bottle into identical glass decanters marked with a randomized three-digit code for identification. Ice and droplets of water were available, but most chefs wanted to taste the bourbon neat.
What We Learned
Age Matters—You Really Can Taste It
After tasting all the samples, when asked if they had a favorite, nine out of twenty of the participating chefs chose the twenty-two-year-aged bourbon from Blade & Bow, which is made with the solera method using older stocks. “This is what bourbon is supposed to taste like; you can taste all the age it has on it, and it has a complexity I like,” said Todd Richards. Even without knowing what they were drinking, testers detected this was a rare bottle. “This seems like it might be a really special bourbon,” said Steven Satterfield.
Price, However, Doesn’t Matter as Much
While only one chef picked the inexpensive bottle of Benchmark as an overall favorite, it did earn several fans. “This reminds me of Japanese whiskies because it’s much lighter than all the others, it’s slightly sweet,” said Shuai Wang. Ashley Christensen agreed. “It’s interesting,” she said, “definitely doesn’t feel weighty at all, no residual sugar.” Old Grand-Dad 114, which sells for around $30, impressed Jerry Slater, who pegged it as a much more expensive bottle, “the astringency of this reminds me of Pappy 15-Year.”
Trust Your Eyes and Your Nose
Even before tasting, the chefs were getting impressions of each sample. They studied the decanters looking for variations in color (a darker hue generally signifies more age) and they all took a moment to smell each sample before the first sip. “This reminds me of butterscotch candy,” said Katie Button of the Blade & Bow. Griffin Bufkin agreed and when he sniffed his pour said, “On the nose I’m getting maple and sugar. This is older and has more caramelization and alcohol.” Annie Pettry’s first sniff of the Benchmark reminded her of vacation. “There are these appealing light seafood notes,” she said, “almost like driftwood. To me, it smells like sitting on the deck at a beach house.” From the aroma, you can also get a preview of the proof. “You can tell this is going to be strong out of the gate,” said Joe Kindred about Old Grand-Dad 114.
Loyalty is Blind
When asked what his go-to bourbon is, Jean-Paul Bourgeois proudly declared Four Roses, and he was true to his word, choosing that as his taste-test favorite, too. “Ha. I knew it,” he said. “I’m proud of myself!” Another fan of Four Roses was Maneet Chauhan, who also chose it as her taste-test favorite. “To me this is bourbon,” she said. “There’s caramel and a lot of sweet spice. I want to make a cake with it.”
There is a Bourbon for Every Occasion
Mixing a drink? Meherwan Irani recommends using the Bulleit, “It’s balanced and would be good for a cocktail.” Vivian Howard would go for the higher proof Old Grand-Dad 114 when making a Manhattan because it “would hold up well and is not too distracting.” Giving a gift? “ Wait, how good is the friend?” joked Rodney Scott—he later selected the Bulleit sample as his gifting bourbon. Another fan of Bulleit was Ashley Christensen, who picked it as her favorite in the tasting and it was also her choice for a gifting bourbon. “It feels more balanced,” she said. Pit master John Lewis suggested the Blade & Bow as a post-meal sipper. “This has more vanilla,” Lewis said. “This would be great for dessert after dinner.” When it comes to stocking up for a party, we agree with David Bancroft, who suggests simply serving all of them.
The Final Tally
When asked which was their favorite, here’s how the bourbons stacked up.
Blade & Bow 22-year: 9 votes
Bulleit: 5 votes
Four Roses Small Batch: 4 votes
Old Grand-Dad 114: 1 vote
Benchmark: 1 vote