In another post, I mentioned that one way to get around preconceived biases regarding bourbon was to use a blind flight taste test. In the previous post I had chosen rye-based bourbons for the test. Looking through my stash of bottles, I noticed that I had at least four wheated bourbons on hand and thought that it might be a good idea to try another blind flight, but with with the wheaters this time.

The line-up consisted of:

  • Maker’s Mark (standard 90 proof)
  • Rebel Yell (the standard 80 proof)
  • Weller 12 year old (90 proof)
  • Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old (90.4 proof).

I prepared four Libbey Master’s Reserve 9217 Distilled Whiskey glasses by numbering them one through four. I then instructed my wife to put about ¾ an ounce (give or take) of each of the bourbons into a glass, and to note on an answer key which bourbon went into which glass. She would keep the key until I had finished my tasting. I then left the room so I wouldn’t know which bourbon was which. Once she had finished the pours, I moved the glasses to my table, grabbed my notebook, and started the experiment.

I began as usual with a visual examination of each pour, swirling to check the legs and comparing the color of each. The samples marked #3 and #4 seemed to be slightly darker than #1 and #2, with #3 possibly being the darkest. All were golden to amber in appearance.

Next, I nosed each glass starting randomly with glass #3. I picked up faint aromas of banana, but also noted that the overall nose was light and non-assertive. Moving to #4, I noted that there was something “odd,” not something that I usually smell when nosing bourbon — or nothing that I remembered as being found in previous tastings. I started making assumptions that this might be the Rebel Yell since it was one of the lowest-priced bourbon in the flight. I tried to remind myself that the purpose of the blind tasting was to eliminate biases and to just taste, note, and then finally rank without trying to second guess my choices. Next I nosed #1, noting that there were some floral notes, although it was not very bourbon like — there was something else on the nose that didn’t seem right. Finally I nosed #2 and noted that it was light, non-assertive, and didn’t really have a defining note. None of the samples had the big caramel/vanilla the I usually get, which made me think that the difference could be in the flavoring grain. Based on nose alone, I ranked (least favorite to most favorite) the samples as #1, #2, #4, #3.

Tasting came next, keeping the order the same order as the nosing. Sample #3 had a fairly decent burn, which, knowing that all the samples were no more than 90 proof surprised me. It also had a bit of peppery spice to it. Had I not known that all were wheaters, I might have deemed this one a rye-based bourbon. This sample also had a fairly viscous mouth feel. I liked it a lot. Sample #4 was disappointing. Something just didn’t seem “right” on the tongue. It seemed to be missing some of the classic bourbon flavors and actually had a slightly medicinal characteristic to it, enough so that I quickly moved on to the next sample.

The next glass, #1, contained some spice and hints of mint, although I noted that nothing really stood out. As in the nosing of #1, I continued to pick up some floral notes and there was some sweetness. It was better than #4, although still not fantastic. Moving to sample #2, I noted that this one had more of the classic bourbon flavors and that I was picking up some barrel char, which again started my second guessing that this must be either the Pappy or the Weller. I decided to hold off on ranking them following the first taste, deciding instead to try a second round in a different order.

For the second round of tasting, I made the following notes:

  • #1 – maybe a little banana on the nose. Front of tongue spice. Char.
  • #2 – somewhat more balanced and a little more complex. Char.
  • #3 – developing more complexity (or I’m starting to get to a point where I can’t tell)
  • #4 – No. Very medicinal. Somewhat reminds me of my scotch experience with Laphroig. I think I’m rating this one last.
  • #2 – Thin. Licorice?
  • #1 – Flavors seem “off”

Next, I added three drops of water to each sample and continued tasting.

  • #1 – Floral nose, slight burn
  • #2 – More bourbon-like. One of my favorites at this point in the tasting.
  • #3 – Getting more caramel on the nose now – could be a tie between #3 and #2
  • #4 – Nose is a little better now, more caramel. Taste is still not there, more burn.

At this point I decided to rank the whiskeys and check the answer key. Continuing to second guess myself, I made a note that said I hoped the Pappy and the Weller were samples #2 and #3. My ranking, from least favorite to most favorite came out as follows:

  • #4 (Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old)
  • #1 (Maker’s Mark)
  • #2 (Rebel Yell)
  • #3 (Weller 12 year old)

Wait, what? The Pappy came dead last? I was shocked. How could this happen? I do believe that the reason for the outcome was in the age of my bottle of Pappy. I did some research and checked the bottle code and found that mine was bottled in August 2009. I probably purchased that bottle in October 2009 ,when you could find Pappy sitting on the shelf. The bottle was down to about the last fourth, so I’m sure that nine years of oxidation took its toll on Ol’ Pappy. The bottle of Weller 12 on the other was freshly opened for this tasting

What did I learn from this experiment? First, don’t try to hang on to your whiskey too long. I had been saving that last few ounces for a “special occasion” that never materialized and therefore waited too long and the whiskey suffered. So did I as I would have enjoyed it much more had I drunk it while it was still good.

Next, the urge to second guess yourself can be strong. I knew that I had two well-regarded bourbons in the flight. Thoughts of “what if I pick the Rebel Yell over the Pappy” went through my mind. Of course, this is what should happen in a blind test — you do want to remove the strong biases of marketing, packaging, and popular opinion and focus on what you like to drink.

I’ll probably run this blind flight again. I’m sure that I will not be able to find a Pappy 20 for the test, and I may even want to remove the Weller 12 since it is becoming almost as hard to obtain as the Pappy. I’d like to have Larceny in the next wheated tasting along with the Weller Special Reserve, the Weller Antique, and maybe an Old Fitzgerald. Of course, that is if I can find them.

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