Most bourbon lovers probably knew that September was Bourbon Heritage Month. If you follow the popular bourbon blog Bourbon and Banter, you may have participated in their #30DaysOfBourbon challenge, which involved a 30 day calendar that noted 30 bourbons tried during the month.
The guidelines for the challenge stated that different meant that you could not count changes in proof as different bourbons, i.e., Very Old Barton 90 proof and Very Old Barton bottled in bond (100 proof) were too similar and therefore wouldn’t qualify as different bourbons. While I might argue that at some point, I took it to be the rule and decided to accept the challenge. That said, I knew that I didn’t want to break the bank by acquiring 30 different bottles so I looked for other sources for the challenge.
In a prior post, I mentioned that an easy and affordable way to discover new bourbons, especially before purchasing a full bottle, is to find a great bourbon bar and try new bourbons there. I needed to find some bourbons that I wanted to try, so I started looking for local establishments with diverse bourbon selections.
I was happy to learn that not far from me is a relatively new restaurant, Southern Social, a fine dining establishment nestled next to the train depot in Old Germantown, a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. The restaurant, open seven days a week, is primarily a dinner establishment, opening a little before five each night and brunch on Sundays. The bar opens at four in the afternoon daily.
The restaurant is wedged between the road, the train tracks, and a Methodist church. You enter from what appears to be the back of the building from the parking lot. While the lot is small, valet parking is available. I arrived just after they opened and was greeted by a hostess at the door. She showed me to the bar. While the bar was surrounded by several tables for dining, seating faced the barback so you didn’t really notice the tables.. The bar has a comfortable atmosphere — somewhat dark, but with golden light coming from the bottom-lit bottles on display.
The bartender brought a glass of water and a bar menu. I was somewhat surprised to note that the menu did not list all the bottles behind the bar. It included featured cocktails, small plates, and two flights: a Kings of Kentucky bourbon flight which consisted of Weller Special Reserve, Eagle Rare, and Blanton’s for $15, and the Tennessee Whiskey Flight which was Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, and Belle Meade for $11.
I asked if there were a more complete listing of their whiskeys and was told that they were in the process of putting that together. I also asked if it were possible to “build” my own flight, they said they thought so, although the card with tasting notes would be blank. Not to worry, I was there for a specific choice, one of the 1792 selections from Barton, if they had it.
While the 1792 comes in three variations: small batch, single barrel, and full proof, only the small batch was available, so I placed my order — 1792 Small Batch, neat. I also requested that they bring the bottle so that I might check the label and take a photo or two. While waiting for my dring to arrive, I scanned the back bar. There were some excellent selections.
While my goal was bourbon for the #30DaysOfBourbon challenge, I did see quite a few nice scotches and ryes as well as some Japanese whiskeys. Among the bourbons, I spotted Blanton’s, William Larue Weller, George T Stagg, and Elmer T Lee. I made a mental note that I would have to return to sample some of those that I’d not had in a long time.
My drink arrived quickly along with the bottle. I was somewhat disappointed — not in the whiskey, but in the glassware that was used to present it. A standard rocks glass; a high-quality, hefty rocks glass, it was more appropriate for a cocktail than for a neat pour of bourbon. The thick rim and shape of the glass made it difficult to gain an appreciation for the aromas from the pour. So without being able to really appreciate the nose, I moved on to the tasting.
My first sensation of the taste was that the mouthfeel was ever so slightly oily, yet it continued on to develop a slightly creamy texture. Overall, a good start. I noticed caramel, oak and barrel char initially and hints of maple syrup.The finish was long with notes of vanilla. I checked the label and saw that the small batch comes in at 93.7 proof. I tend to prefer bourbons in the 90 to 100 proof range.
As I continued to nose and taste, the 1792 reminded me of one of my “daily drinkers,” the Very Old Barton bottled in bond. This shouldn’t be a surprise as they are made at the same distillery and I’d wager that they are the same mashbill, the only difference being the barrels that are selected for each. The choice barrels are used for the 1792 product. While I had hoped to try the single barrel or the full proof, the small batch was good enough to put on my list for a bottle purchase in the future.
A week-and-a-half later, I needed a place to meet a friend for a drink. Given that it was still Bourbon Heritage Month and I needed a bourbon that I didn’t have in my cabinet, I suggested that we meet at Southern Social. On this occasion, ordered the Elmer T. Lee. It had been several years since I had a bottle of ETL, and I wanted to see if it was as enjoyable as I had remembered.
Again, I asked that they bring the bottle with the glass as I wanted to get a picture for this post and for Instagram. Again it arrived in a hefty rocks glass. Okay, I really didn’t expect them to order new glassware in a week. Visually, ETL is a light straw to honey gold color. It is a 90-proof single barrel bourbon, although there was a 93 proof version created in honor of Elmer upon his death at age 93.
Nosing the whiskey, I noted that it was fairly light and non-descript, perhaps a result of the glassware. The palate was light and not overly complex — there were some floral notes and oak. The finish was dry and short to medium. I noted that this would be a good introduction for a bourbon newbie, especially if they were somewhat reluctant to give bourbon a try. Although in some ways, I’m not sure that it is the best representation of the complexity of the spirit. It does show the lighter side of the range of bourbon.
I’ll have to admit I was somewhat disappointed. Was I incorrectly remembering what I used to enjoy in ETL? Had my tastes and preferences changed over time? Was the allure due to the hype and scarcity? Maybe all of these played a factor.
I believe that over time I’ve come to enjoy bigger, more complex and higher-proof pours. Should you buy a bottle? If it is possible (and I don’t think it is any more) to find this at the old $40 price point, I’d say go for it. At $50 and above, I feel there are better choices out there. That being said, if you’ve never tried it and happen to find it at a bar, you owe it to yourself to try a pour, if not only for its history.