Overhyped & Underrated

This weekend I finally had the opportunity to taste the single most hyped American whiskey of 2012 – the Jefferson’s Ocean Aged bourbon. This whiskey was immediately notorious among whiskey fans for its backstory, which was either a clever idea or the dumbest ploy to date to separate people from their money. The story, in brief, was that a few barrels of bourbon were placed on a research ship and were aged at sea. If you believe the story, the elements encouraged greater wood interaction and gave it a profile of an older whiskey.

Oddly, this all sounds like a familiar version of the usual refrain from microdistilleries (which Jefferson’s/McLain & Kyne are not, they’re an independent bottler) which is some variant of “we have found a way to cheat time by altering some variable regarding the aging process”. Such claims should be regarded with the same suspicion you should have when you hear about cold fusion or perpetual motion. That’s not to say that larger climate differences don’t play a role – bourbons are pushing into greatness in the 8-12 year range and are dangerously woody in the 15-17 year old range, while Scotch whisky is really great at 15-18 and tends to get oakier in its 20s. However, Kentucky and Scotland have definite differences in climate.

If that was all there was to Jefferson’s, it would have just been ignored. This bourbon, however, was limited. Like 250 bottles limited, which is a pretty shockingly small run for a bourbon batch – closer to a single cask scotch release, honestly. And the price tag? It hovered around $200 - if you could find it. Most people couldn’t. The hype naturally blew up on Twitter, and reached fever pitch when K&L had a spirits auction for it. I personally set my over/under line at $750, thinking it’d just barely crest that number given the level of the hype and how crazy people were getting (not to mention the “whisky bubble” factor this year).

I was wrong – dead wrong. It broke the $1000 mark. K&L did a good thing and donated $900 to charity (so don’t crucify them, they just held the auction – your fellow spirits aficionados are the knuckleheads who bid it up that high). Jefferson’s Ocean officially crossed into “bizarre curiosity” territory for me, but with that kind of value on it I didn’t have much thought of ever trying it. Until, as I said, this weekend rolled around.

The actual Jefferson’s bottle we had – photo by Bino Gopal.

So what does aging at sea do? As best I could tell, not a lot. There were light rye notes initially, but then I got a very standard modern bourbon profile with sour, somewhat vegetal aromas on the nose and some lightly woody undertones. There were light hints of raw sugar as well.

The palate was light and a little thin, with faint wood notes, again the slightly vegetal sourness, a bit of corn sweetness, some turbinado sugar, brown sugar, and a touch of cinnamon. The finish opened up a bit and had some light black cherries, more turbinado sugar, a more straightforward cherry note (verging momentarily on Luden’s cough drops), and had an even later faint hint of peanuts.

Jefferson’s Ocean Aged was, to put it simply, very unremarkable.

For me, that’s a very unsurprising result to this ultra-hyped whisky. To be totally frank, it tastes like a very anonymous younger bourbon. I’ll give some benefit of the doubt to the micro-climate-aging and say the Evan Williams Single Barrel was what jumped to mind on when I had this. Good but by no means great – and absolutely NOT worth a thousand dollars.

So, on one hand there’s that, which blew the whiskey world up. On the other hand, we’re in the fall which is traditionally Pappy-and-Buffalo-Trace time. Already my traffic is spiking with searches about Pappy availability. If you hit this post wondering if Pappy or Stagg or Weller or any of the others are available near you, I don’t know. Make friends with your local liquor merchant, they’ll know better and it’s a relationship worth having if you are tracking hyped and limited releases.

But seemingly under the radar and ignored by the mass audience is the absolute best bourbon of 2012 – the Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition for 2012. I’m going to make this hard for me to find any future bottles, but it’s worth spreading the gospel: this is hands-down the best bourbon of 2012.

Start your spending.

This version of Four Roses is a mixture of four whiskies – the 17 year old OBSV that I loved so much earlier this year, an 11 year old OBSV, a 12 year old OBSK (also a great, spicy recipe) and a 12 year old OESK (a higher-corn mashbill). It’s about $75 though some people will no doubt gouge a bit on it. Unlike the boat bourbon, this is worth it.

The nose on the Four Roses has nice spices up front – fresh black pepper, a little cinnamon, some nutmeg in the background. There’s some clay earthiness but it’s balanced by some prominent wood. Caramel, a little fudge, and some molasses add a nice sticky depth. Mint and cedar give some top notes and there’s some corn at the center of it.

The palate has a wonderfully thick, almost syrupy mouthfeel, leading with wood and then building. A sweet, lightly vegetal (in an entirely pleasing way) corn body with accents of cherry and hints of oranges. It’s momentarily a touch salty, balanced with caramel sweetness and a little hint of apples hiding in the back.

The finish leads with wood, unsurprising with the 17 year old bourbon in the mix, black cherries and cinnamon, and it lasts and lasts. It’s a rich, strong finish with a vegetal hint to it that really works well when held as a counterpoint to the sweetness and wood. A little waxy apple emerges as it dries.

The Four Roses Small Batch 2012 LE is everything you’d want in a premium-priced bourbon: ridiculously complex yet totally accessible, full bodied and not overproofed, sweet but not cloying.

And in spite of all of this, everyone’s going to be freaking out about Pappy as usual this year. It’s a shame, because they’re missing out on one of the best.

At a glance:

Jefferson’s Ocean Aged Bourbon 41.15% ABV
Nose: Light rye notes initially, but then a very standard modern bourbon profile with sour, somewhat vegetal aromas and some lightly woody undertones. Light hints of raw sugar as well.
Palate: Light and a little thin, with faint wood notes, again the slightly vegetal sourness, a bit of corn sweetness, some turbinado sugar, brown sugar, and a touch of cinnamon later in the palate.
Finish: Opens up a bit with a light dose of black cherries, more turbinado sugar, a more straightforward cherry note (verging on Luden’s cough drops). Later faint hint of peanuts.
Comment: Very unremarkable.
Rating: C+

Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition – 2012 55.7% ABV
Nose:  Nice spices up front – fresh black pepper, a little cinnamon, some background nutmeg. A little mix of clay earthiness, but there’s some prominent wood. Caramel, a little fudge, some molasses. A little mint and a cedar aroma too. Corn at the heart.
Palate:  Thick and syrupy mouthfeel, a little wood leads and then continues to build. Sweet, lightly vegetal (in an entirely pleasing way) corn body with a little cherry accents, some hints of oranges; slightly salty for a moment; caramel sweetness and a little hint of apples hiding.
Finish:  Leads with wood, black cherries and cinnamon, lasts and lasts. Very rich and strong finish; a hint of vegetal character that really works well when held as a counterpoint to the sweetness and wood quality. A little hint of waxy apple as it dries faintly.
Comment:  Ridiculously complex but totally accessible, full bodied and not overproofed, sweet but not cloying, probably the best bourbon all year.
Rating: A-

8 thoughts on “Overhyped & Underrated”

      1. Ocean maturation is a fascinating topic. Kelt XO cognac uses 3 months on freighters as part of its finishing. I’ve tried it, and it’s good. But it’s not categorically distinct from most other XO cognacs in its class. Without access to a non-ocean aged Kelt XO version I can’t say what it adds. The answer, most likely, is a little bit of extra wood extraction. What else could it add?

        1. Mystery…Suspense…Moxy.

          I might have taken a swing at $80 for the Ocean, but for the $260 that my local store wanted, I left it for the true collectors.

          On the other hand, the Four Roses was well worth the $80. Hoping I can find another.

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