On more than one occasion I’ve mentioned the merits of blind tasting bourbons, primarily that it eliminates any bias, either positive or negative, that one may have picked up from reviews and tasting notes from numerous sources. I believe that we are often overly influenced by what others have said, or what is hard to find, or seems to be the bourbon that everyone says is a must-have. Blind tastings will often surprise you and may lead you to some new bottles that you will find enjoyable.
In the past, I’ve enlisted the help of my wife, Beth, to set up my pours and ensure that I don’t know what whiskey is in what glass. Recently, I’ve started making blind tastings a little more interesting by adding even more “blindness” to the mix. While I may want to blind taste three different whiskeys, I’ll bring in four or five bottles from which she will choose three without my knowledge. At times I might specify that a particular one must be selected, but the other two are up to her. This has kept me from second guessing my choices during the actual tasting, as there have been times when the bias still tried to creep in. I’d find myself thinking that “this one’s got to be the “good” one.”
For the most part, I have kept the blind tasting flights with a similar theme: all bonded bourbons, all rye-based bourbons, all higher proof, or all wheat-based bourbons. Many times, I like to include a “bottom shelf” offering or something that’s not often talked about — or maybe it has been talked about, but not in the most flattering way.
Time to take on another blind taste test for this site, I decided another “wheater” flight might be a good topic. It’s that time of year when the allocated whiskeys are hot and everyone is hunting Pappy. This led to some research — after all, once you get past Pappy, Weller, Maker’s Mark and Larceny, what other “wheaters” do you find? This research led me to Rebel Yell from Luxco.
Until last year, Luxco was a non-distiller producer. They have several brands: Ezra Brooks, David Nicholson, Rebel Yell, and their higher-end offering Blood Oath. In the late spring or early summer of 2018, Luxco opened a new distillery in the Bardstown, Kentucky area as Lux Row Distillers. Prior to distilling their own juice, family-owned Luxco often sourced their bourbons from Heaven Hill, another family-owned distillery. After some correspondence with Luxco, they sent me a few samples, one of which was a 10-year-old single barrel Rebel Yell.
Rebel Yell hasn’t always enjoyed the best of reviews. Known mainly for its bottom shelf status, many would skip it in favor of a better-known brand. I had previously tried Rebel Yell and found it average. But I had never seen the single barrel offering. Not only was this a single barrel, but a 10-year age stated single barrel. After trying one of these stand alone and finding it quite tasty, I decided that it should go against some other wheaters in a blind taste test.
Opening up the liquor cabinet, I pulled all the wheaters I had in stock. I gave Larceny, Maker’s, Weller 12, Weller Antique, and the sample of Rebel Yell 10-year single barrel to my wife to set up, with instructions that the sample of Rebel Yell must be in one of the four glasses. Once she had poured, I began the tasting.
Visually, the four glasses appeared the same; not enough color difference to give any indication to what might be there. Nosing each, I made the following notes:
- Glass 1, slightly minty,
- Glass 2, very similar to #1 — the same faint minty scent.
- Glass 3 had a more oaky note but also a more prominent alcohol-forward note.
- Glass 4 came across with more sweetness and a grassy note.
A second round of nosing was similar, with notes of hay being detected in #1 and #2 and somewhat in #3. I noted that #3 was slightly floral as well and described #4 as “clean.”
The first round of tasting yielded the following notes:
- Glass 1, slight mineral taste, not at all unpleasant, but there. The finish moves to the roof of your mouth and sides of your tongue. The finish was long, but missing was a typical caramel note that is usually found.
- Glass 2 had a much creamier mouthfeel. There was more sweetness that from #1 although the alcohol made itself known. It had a medium finish that ended as a tingle on the sides of the tongue with a slight minty taste in the end.
- Glass 3 had more typical notes of caramel, vanilla and a slight hint of banana. It had a creamy mouthfeel. I noted that this might be my favorite so far, but also noted that I still had one that had not yet been tasted.
- Moving to glass 4 vanilla was the big flavor note coming forward. I noted that it had a shorter finish. It was not a short finish, only not as long as the first three.
At the end of the first round of tasting I did a quick rank and, from most favorite to least, I ranked #3, #4, #2 and then #1. Generally, I’ll do at least two, maybe even three tasting rounds during a blind test, so I took a short break to get some water and rest the palate.
When I returned for the second round of tasting, I noted the following:
- Glass 4 nosed more caramel now, with a slight hint of chocolate on the initial palate.
- Glass 3 offered more vanilla and caramel, but I was picking up a slight mineral taste in the background.
- Glass 1 seemed to be somewhat hotter and higher in alcohol.
- Glass 2 again had the creamier mouthfeel and started to exhibit a little more oaky characteristics.
At the end of the second round, my ranking had changed slightly with #4 coming out slightly ahead of #3 followed by #2 and lastly #1. I made a note that all four were close and I’d keep any of them in my cabinet. I also noted that I didn’t really think any of them would “beat” some of the standard rye-based bourbons either. While a good wheater is a welcome change from time to time, my palate favors those bourbons that use rye as the second flavor grain.
Retrieving the answer key, I was somewhat surprised when viewing the results.
Glass 1: Weller Antique 107
Glass 2: Heaven Hill Larceny (92 proof)
Glass 3: Weller 12 (90 proof)
Glass 4: Rebel Yell 10 year Single Barrel (100 proof)
Going into the taste test, I had fully expected the Weller 12 to be the winner. And while it was good, the Rebel Yell single barrel edged it out.
Several weeks later, while visiting extended family over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday, I decided to repeat the test, this time with my brother-in-law, just to see if the results might be the same.
In the second test, we only sampled three — the Larceny wasn’t included. During this test, we both selected the Rebel Yell single barrel. I felt that my original taste test was confirmed. My brother-in-law was as surprised as I was the first time that he had liked the Rebel Yell as much.
We differed on our two and three picks; he put the Weller 12 in 2nd and OWA in 3rd and I placed the OWA over the W12. My notes from the second session said the Rebel Yell was the smoothest and most complex of the three, with a good deal of vanilla and caramel with a medium to long finish. I also noted that the Weller 12 continued to have a slight metallic taste on the back end.
So what did I learn? First, blind tasting is a good tool. Not knowing what’s in your glass forces you to go with your palate and pick what you like. Second, bias is almost always out there. I said above that I fully expected the Weller 12 to win, probably from all the hype on the interwebs that W12 is the next best thing for those that can’t get Pappy. Had I known what was in each glass, it may have been easy to pick the W12 due to the hype.
Remember that not only is everyone’s palate different, but that your tastes can change over time or even from day to day. Also remember that the Rebel Yell in this taste test was a single barrel and that single barrels can differ. That being said, the two different tests that I conducted were from different barrels, and the flavor profiles were very similar. The most important thing to remember, though, is to drink what you enjoy.