Tasting Notes with Jim Beauregard: Exploring some fine single-barrel bourbons

By JIM BEAUREGARD January 23. 2018 9:40PM

You may have come across announcements of the past couple months from the New Hampshire State Liquor Commission about single-barrel whiskey. Just in case you hadn’t, let me fill you in.

The Liquor Commission recently hand selected some excellent single-barrel Tennessee whiskey and bourbon, expanding their selection of offerings. Representatives of the SLC traveled to Tennessee and Kentucky and purchased a total of 62 individual barrels of premium whiskey and bourbon.

In honor of these new additions, let us consider whiskey and bourbon.

First, some context. Grapes and wine production were fairly late arrivals in the United States. What was growing here from the late 1600s, though, was lots and lots of grain — wheat, rye, barley. Like grapes, grains can be fermented (after their more complex starches have been broken down into simpler sugars) to make beverages with alcohol in them.

In the late 1700s there was a substantial immigration of Scotch-Irish and Germans to the brand new United States of America, and they brought with them knowledge of making whiskey. If they happened to settle in the Maryland and Pennsylvania region, rye was abundant and that’s what they used. In contrast, when they started moving further west into places like Kentucky or Tennessee, they encountered corn much more frequently, and some made their whiskey from that.

The folks in Kentucky began to ship their distilled spirits down river to New Orleans in barrels that were marked “Bourbon County” and the name stuck.

Things changed in the early 20th century because of the temperance movement, and the passage of the Volstead Act in 1920 shut down the whiskey industry for more than a decade. Whiskey production suffered another hiatus during World War II.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when taste and fashion started to demand more flavorful whiskeys, and both bourbon and rye (the latter had suffered from a lack of consumer interest) came back into fashion.

In order to be called bourbon, a whiskey has to be made from a minimum of 51 percent corn, along with other grains — rye and malted barley being the most common. Some makers will also use wheat.

Why the specific grains? Corn is what provides the soft and sweet taste for which bourbon is justly known. Rye, on the other hand, is what hits you most noticeably in terms of the strength of a bourbon and provides the intensity, acidity and bite, as well as some spice. The alcohol tops out at 40 percent, or 80 proof.

Bourbon is a distilled spirit, which means that it goes through a still — a container into which a beverage fairly low in alcohol is placed and heated. The distillation process essentially separates the alcohol from the water (the latter making up the majority of the beverage). Along with pulling out the alcohol, the distillation process concentrates flavor.

The tasting process, as you have observed many times before in this column, remains essentially the same: looking at the appearance, considering the nose and palate, and then forming some conclusions about quality.

While the process is the same, there will be one significant difference in the aroma and the palate, because the grains used to make bourbon and whiskey are quite different from the materials used to make wine. Spirits can have fruity and floral notes, vegetal aromas and flavors — and because they are aged in oak barrels — all of the things that can be drawn from oak, including toast, butterscotch, vanilla, mint, caramel, molasses, and various and sundry spices.

Furthermore, they can contain other types of aromas including peat (a characteristically scotch type aroma), leather and meaty flavors, tobacco, cheese, and many other flavors.

So, all this having been said, let’s look at some of the SLC’s single-barrel specials.

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Kentucky Street Bourbon Whiskey, Barrel No. 4926.

Clear in the glass, pale to medium intensity, of light amber color. The nose is clean and of pronounced intensity with aromas of fruit, some herbs, and oak. The palate has a hint of sweetness to it, the alcohol is both smooth and warming, the body is medium. Flavor intensity is medium-plus, and brings flavors of fruit, with hints of citrus, herbal notes, and a variety of oak flavors including vanilla, some charred notes, some spice and some caramel notes on the finish. Intense and delicious.

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, Barrel No. 4507.

From the same distiller, different barrel, this is a slightly lighter beverage, clear at the rim, pale to medium intensity and amber in color with hints of gold as it moves out toward the rim. The nose has a deeper feel to it, medium—plus in intensity and it is the wood flavors that initially jump out of my tasting glass. This one has a real kick to it right from the get-go. There is some sweetness that stays right through the finish, the alcohol leans a little more toward the harsh, and this is a medium bodied drink with good texture and medium flavor intensity with flavors of tangerine, peach, just a hint of mango at the beginning, some herbaceous flavors in a wide complement of oak flavors that include vanilla, burnt sugar, and spice. Strong and good.

Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon.

Slightly lighter than the two above, this is a gold—amber bourbon, clear in the rim, gold hues all the way through. The nose is clean and crisp with oak and fruit. There is a bit more bourbon sweetness in this pour, not as much of a kick as the one just above, just below medium body, good texture, and medium flavor intensity in which oak is quite strong, and includes caramel, vanilla, cedar, some toasty notes and, as it develops, just a tiny hint of cinnamon and pepper. Which is satisfying.

That’ll do it for today. We’ll have more next week.

Contact wine, beer and, occasionally, spirits writer Jim Beauregard at tastingnotesnh@aol.com


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