What Does A Distillery Taste Like?

, | June 8, 2022

One way to think about tasting whiskey is to think about tasting distilleries. Most distilleries sell multiple expressions of their whiskey. Some also make multiple recipes.

Beam Suntory, for example, makes three basic bourbon recipes, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Old Grand-Dad. The representative expression of the Jim Beam recipe has to be white label, but what’s the best expression? Black label? Knob? Booker’s?

Secondary wood finishes destroy the paradigm, so we’ll ignore them.

Distillery Taste

A Jim Beam aging warehouse (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

This is not, “What is the most representative expression?” It is what is the best representative expression? What is the easiest way to taste a given distillery’s best work? With ‘easiest’ defined as available and affordable. So in addition to secondary finishes, we’ll leave out limited editions, unicorns, and dusties.

I’m fickle about this, which is why I’m opening the floor. If you’ve never tasted the Jim Beam recipe before, where is the best place to start? White Label? I tend to say Black Label, but a case can be made for Knob, or something else.

But for Wild Turkey, I say start at the top with Kentucky Spirit. That doesn’t make sense, but it’s what my gut tells me. Four Roses too, go for the Single Barrel. In general, single barrels are a good way to ‘taste the distillery’ because there is nowhere to hide. The maker can’t ‘fix’ things with blending.

Buffalo Trace is easy. They have consistently put some of the best whiskey they make into their eponymous brand. Their only problem seems to be making enough of it.

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Maker’s Mark is equally easy. Everything except standard Maker’s Mark is a secondary wood finish, so ruled out for purposes of this exercise. That’s deliberate. The core tenant of the Maker’s Mark faith is that Maker’s is the best whiskey there is so, by definition, there cannot be a ‘better’ expression of it, just a ‘different’ one, hence finishes.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage has always seemed Heaven Hill’s standard bearer, but its star has faded. Is Elijah Craig Heaven Hill’s exemplar today? That’s another good word for this exercise. What is each distillery’s exemplar?

A distillery should have an exemplar, a standard bearer, a flagship. Unfortunately, the industry’s commercial nature dictates that success determines the flagship. Brown-Forman will always officially equate ‘flagship’ with its founding brand, Old Forester, even though Brown-Forman’s real flagship is Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7. But is Old No. 7 the best thing Jack makes that is available and affordable? You tell me.

What do you think is the best way to taste this or that distillery? Recommend whatever you want. Since we’re tasting distilleries, your recommendation won’t be very useful if you don’t know where it was distilled. But I’m not going to curate this any more than I usually do, which is hardly at all. Recommend whatever you want.

Take price and availability into consideration. We’re talking drinkers, not collectibles.

This isn’t an assignment. I’m not suggesting you need to go through every recipe at every distillery. In fact, don’t. Please don’t. But if you have something useful to share, share it.

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The idea is that if you’re trying to try different things, how do you make sure you really are trying different things. Beam Suntory had an excellent advertorial in a magazine recently in which they made great suggestions for trying different whiskey combinations, all of which just happen to be made by Beam Suntory. That seems to be their strategy now, to flood the market with new expressions.

The same thing can happen if you try to do it yourself in a liquor store. You might find yourself tasting the same whiskey in five different bottles. That’s what we’re trying to help people avoid.

So, readers, you have the floor.

Editor’s Note: This article is a repost from this author’s blog.

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Chuck Cowdery

Charles K. Cowdery is an internationally renowned whiskey writer, specializing in American whiskey. He is a Kentucky Colonel (Patton, 206) and a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame (2009). He is the author of multiple bourbon books, including Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey, and is a...