Okay, admit it, sometimes you are influenced by the bourbon reviews that you find on the interwebs. Let’s face it, there are so many blogs, websites, and Facebook groups with a focus on bourbon that it is hard not to find an opinion somewhere.
And my guess is that you’ve been both positively and negatively influenced by some of the things that you’ve read. Positively in that you decide that what you’ve read makes you have to find this particular bourbon or negatively in that something that you thought at one time was a good bourbon is now no longer good. Are you strong enough in your convictions about bourbon that you really like Kentucky Tavern no matter what anyone else says about it, or does a bad review tend to sway your thoughts and have you doubting?
One way to fight biases, both positive and negative, is through blind tasting, that is, sampling the whiskey without knowing what whiskey is in the glass. Usually blind tastings are done to compare more than one whiskey, and with at least three or four different samples. To do a good blind tasting for yourself, you’ll need to enlist a trusted friend or spouse to set up the tasting for you.
Recently, I decided I wanted to try a blind tasting to see what biases I may have been allowing to influence my drinking selection. Knowing that I couldn’t trust myself alone to get a real blind sample, I asked my wife for help. I started by labeling the bottom of four identical glasses with numbers one through four. Next I selected seven bottles of bourbon and asked my wife to select four of the seven bottles to pour as a sample into the four glasses. My thinking was that from seven, I would not know which were chosen or skipped and that might be a little more blind for my tasting. I gave her a sheet to mark which bourbon she poured into each glass and then left the room for her to pour and mark. I had also instructed her to hide the sheet from me until my tasting was complete.
Now, my wife is not a bourbon connoisseur. For the most part, she’s not a whiskey lover at all. Her drink of choice is an oaky, buttery chardonnay. As such, she really had little idea of what she was pouring for me to taste. Later she confessed to me that her choices were based how much she liked the label of each product. Here are the seven from which she had to choose:
- Henry McKenna 10 yo BiB
- Eagle Rare 10 yo (a local Memphis “store pick”)
- Very Old Barton BiB
- Old Ezra 7 yo 101 proof
- Old Forester 100
- Evan Williams BiB
- Heaven Hill 6 yo BiB
So all the bourbons used rye as the secondary grain and almost all were at 100 proof. The Eagle Rare was a 90 proof and the Old Ezra was at 101, but that is close enough to 100 to call even. My hope was that at least one of the bottom shelf whiskeys (VOB BiB and EW BiB) would end up in the glass as I was hoping to see how they would stand up against some of the others. I did not tell her to make sure that any one was included and totally left it up to her to select. My only specific instruction was that there should be four different bourbons; that is to say that she shouldn’t duplicate any of them. While I thought that this would result in something as close to blind as possible, my bottle of Eagle Rare was already pretty low and when I returned to retrieve the glasses, I noticed that the ER bottle was now almost empty. So I did at least know that ER was in the mix, but I did not know which glass contained that sample. Next time I’ll have her bring me the glasses and/or hide the bottles until after the test.
I grabbed an Apica notebook and one of my fountain pens and sat down at the table. I had planned to make notes at each step in the process for reviewing at a later time. My tasting started with the eye viewing each in the glass, comparing color, swirling and looking at the legs. All four were similar in color, although the second glass seemed to be slightly darker, indicating to me that maybe it was a little older than the other three. I would later learn that I was wrong about this assumption. However my best legs ranking was a pretty spot on with the age of the whiskeys.
Next, I nosed each of the glasses. Three of the four were similar. One I noted to be somewhat more complex, with more sweetness and mint and did note some alcohol telling me that it was most likely one of the higher proof bottles and probably one of the younger whiskeys as well.
Next came the actual tasting. I decided that I should taste in three rounds, each round in a different order, and with water and crackers between each round to cleanse the palate. I made notes at each round and ranked each along the way. The rank did change slightly after each round which actually didn’t surprise me. My notes throughout the tasting said that I liked them all and that all were solid bourbons — none that I’d throw out, but certainly two of them were better than the others. After two rounds, with most of the whiskeys being in the 100 proof range, my taste buds were starting to wear out. I jotted down a worst to best rating and then went looking for the answer key.
In some ways, the reveal surprised me. From the original seven, my wife had selected the Evan Williams bottled in bond, the Eagle Rare 10-year-old store pick, the Henry McKenna 10-year-old bottled in bond, and the Old Ezra seven-year-old 101 proof. The Evan Williams bottled in bond came out on bottom. That was not a surprise. While it is a decent whiskey, its best use is for mixers or possibly on the rocks, but it doesn’t hold up to the others when drinking neat. Having now seen the key, I would have suspected the Eagle Rare to come out on top, but it actually came out next to last. The Henry McKenna and Old Ezra were the top two. My surprise came when I realized that I’d selected the Old Ezra above the McKenna. And maybe that surprise was due to bias; you just don’t hear a lot of people talking about Old Ezra, and you do see a number of very good reviews of the McKenna.
A few days later, I had the opportunity to repeat this blind tasting with my brother-in-law as the blind taster. This time, the McKenna was left out of the mix and I knew which bourbons were in which glasses — he did not. Interestingly enough, the results were pretty much the same, the EW BiB came out last, the ER 10-year-old in the middle and the Old Ezra again came out on top. To me this was validation that I had picked the right one the first time. A short video of our tasting experiment is included here.
I originally purchased the Old Ezra because it was reasonably priced (I found it on a bottom shelf), it carried a seven-year age statement, and it was 101 proof. I knew nothing about it other than what I could see on the label, having not seen or read any tasting notes about this particular bottle. The blind tasting did prove to me that there are often those little-known value priced gems that can be every bit as good as those that are better known and well respected.