For some reason unknown to me in the last few months, I’ve been browsing reddit’s various whisky subreddits. It’s not quite the pace or depth of discussion I like to browse at (lots of repeats, too much Aberlour), but for a quick fix of some sort of banter, it’s not an awful spot to check on.
However, one thing that always makes me laugh is the level of derision heaped upon Johnnie Walker Red (I haven’t reviewed it yet but it will certainly get its time in the hot seat). If reddit is your only source of information, you’d probably come away thinking not only is no whisky worse than Red, it’s virtually impossible to imagine anything worse than Red (as I saw one redditor comment recently).
That’s one of the craziest things I’ve read. I can think of a dozen whiskies almost immediately that are so much worse than Red it’d make your face melt off like the guy in the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In terms of whisky, I’ve been a believer that it’s worth searching out experiences good and bad. I think it’s really easy to get attached to the good side of things – hey, it tastes good! – and ignore everything that’s less than, say, a C+ by my reckoning. After all, why spend your money on crap?
However, as the more experienced drinkers know, sometimes your curiosity about a bottle that’s not being talked about is punished with the most vile and horrific stuff imaginable. After all, you might reason, how bad can a Sonoma Cutrer casked bourbon REALLY be (see above illustration for answer)? I saw a Macallan 19y bottling from Rattray at one point and picked it up. It turned out to be pretty bad. At the time, I said I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. It was, at worst, a C- by my reckoning these days. So what do you do with these godawful bottles?
Well, in my circle of friends, you publicize the awfulness and curiosity tends to get the better of people. So you arrange a bad-sample-swap. (Or, as I did last summer, you timidly ask your host if you might try that one whisky he gave a super-low grade to).
This all easily avoids the point: WHY subject yourself to the unpleasantness of something that tastes like burning garbage and pleather?
The answer lies in palate and nose development for me. One whisky I’d inquired about was later characterized as having the most clear-cut case of a butyric acid contamination that person had ever encountered. Butyric acid, you might know, is one of the more foul off-notes whisky can develop. Its presence as a dominant note in this particular whisky helped me spot it a little more readily.
Similarly, I’ve had ones attune me to feinty notes of leather, plastic, and so on. Having whiskies that are flawed in some way tend to help develop my palate or help me better understand what a certain note is. I’ve been able to pin down more concretely some notes that were defying description previously. It also provides a nice contrast to the great whiskies so those are savored.
One of the red flags this year that was waved in front of me was John Hansell’s review of the most recent Buffalo Trace Experimental collection releases. John’s reviews are generally pretty positive and friendly, and any sort of negative aspect or flaw is generally addressed in a pretty even-handed manner.
However, John led with “Don’t buy this whiskey!” in his review of the Oat & Rice bourbons. One of the choice lines from the review was that the whiskies were “borderline unpleasant!” This, coming from John, seemed to me to be the rough equivalent of “This tasted like a dead cat that had been left in the sun for six weeks” from anyone else I knew. I was on the hook almost immediately for these.
The two whiskies are the Buffalo Trace “Bourbon Made With Rice” and “Bourbon Made With Oats” experimental releases. The name gives the details of the experiment away: these trade the traditional flavor grains of wheat and rye for rice and oats. Both sounded like worthwhile experiments.
The rice bourbon was more immediately interesting to me – rice is a pretty benign thing, flavor-wise, and I couldn’t see how that would result in a whiskey that got such negative notes from John.
The nose was lightly sweet, and had some grain and definite corn upfront; maple syrup and butterscotch also were present. There was a very little bit of black pepper, and some very faint cherry and clay notes. Pleasant so far.
The palate was extremely light, and almost watery. It didn’t make a huge statement at all. The flavors developed gradually, with sweetness leading in the form of maple syrup, with a little clay and cherry to balance it. White pepper showed up with a faint hint of cinnamon. There was a moderate wood note which did almost go towards being too bitter. The corn from the nose picked up at the end but it wasn’t very bold.
The finish was hot and dry, with cinnamon, black cherry, a dry and odd grain note which was hard to describe – I guess that’s the rice – overall a bit funky but still clean. It was more textural than taste. The finish was reasonably lasting, and sits on the cusp of bitter and sweet.
That grain note in the finish was distinctive and unlike anything I’d had in a whisky. It seemed to me to be slightly reminiscent of the aftertaste you get on a slightly warm Sapporo. It’s an interesting whisky with a light nose, but it’s more a curiosity than something to keep on the shelf. Ultimately, not really that bad – I’d even say it’s worth a try.
If the rice was OK, that must mean the oat bourbon was the real mess. I put off tasting it for a couple days and came to it with a clean palate.
The nose on the oat bourbon was sharply woody and had a heavily “toasted” character. There was some vegetal sourness peeking out, and some black cherries which initially seem to temper the bitterness, but ultimately started to reinforce it. A little corn and toffee made themselves known, and there was a definite oaty presence after a moment (more Cheerios than oatmeal). The nose stayed dry though it softened a bit and got the caramel sweetness and a light marshmallow note.
The palate was medium-bodied, though woody initially. That toasted aroma from the nose came through on the palate, and it was intensely woody. Dark fruits from the nose were all over the palate – black cherries, plums, and slightly overripe berries. It had a light fruit-derived sweetness that was also syrupy. Faint vanilla sat beside a moderately earthy taste, but it was all blunted by the wood.
The finish was very woody and got dry, and had the toasted flavor. It was slightly bitter, with some corn, vegetal sourness, and pepper. As it goes on it went more vegetal and bitter.
There’s no question the rice was the better experiment; the oat bourbon was closed off on the nose and everything seemed blunted by the wood. The only thing that was at a similar intensity was the dark fruit, but those tastes seemed to reinforce the woodiness, and it was left wanting for something brighter. Even with substantial time in the glass, it opens up a bit but never goes towards balance.
I’m not sure that it was the oats in the mashbill that made this one what it was. It’s entirely possible; High West’s Silver Oat whiskey is a white whiskey but unusually flavorful (in my opinion) for a white whiskey. Maybe it’s a grain that intensifies too much in wood? I’m not sure, but between the wood and the vegetal hints, it seemed more like a questionable cask to me.
In any case, it was an interesting experiment and I’d love to see any future experiments like these from other distillers. The rice has definite potential in a lighter style.
I can’t say I agreed with John’s strongly negative take on these, but as usual with the strong negative reaction, they tend to be quite informative – sometimes even if it’s just about the original source’s personal preferences.
At a glance:
Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection: Bourbon Made With Rice 45% ABV
Nose: Lightly sweet – grainy notes and some definite corn upfront; butterscotch and maple syrup. A very little bit of pepper to it, extremely faint cherry and clay notes.
Palate: Light mouthfeel; almost watery initially. Doesn’t make a huge statement. Sweetness slowly comes in; maple syrup with a little clay and cherry to balance it. White pepper on the palate; a faint hint of cinnamon. Moderate wood which is right on the edge of becoming a bit too bitter. Corn perks up near the end but the palate isn’t very bold.
Finish: Heat and dryness initially, with a bit of cinnamon, some black cherry, a slightly dry and kind of odd grain note (which must be the rice but is hard to describe) – a little bit funky but still clean. It is almost more of a mouthfeel and texture than a taste. Finish is reasonably lasting and sits on the cusp of sweet and bitter.
Comment: The finish grain note is really unlike anything else I’ve had. I’m fairly sure it’s the rice making itself known; the only thing that I’ve had that reminds me of that note is Sapporo. This is a pretty interesting whiskey but I think it’s more interesting as a curiosity than something you’d really want to settle down with.
Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection: Bourbon Made With Oats 45% ABV
Nose: Sharply woody initially with a heavily toasted character. There’s a bit of vegetal sourness peeking out against it. Some black cherries temper the wood a bit, but still feed into it. A little bit of corn. Some light toffee and a definite light oat presence – more cheerios than oatmeal. Somewhat dry. Eventually softens and gains some light caramel and some marshmallow as well.
Palate: Medium thickness, woody entrance on the palate. Toasted flavor again, intensely woody. Dark fruits in abundance – black cherries, plums, slightly overripe berries. Very light fruit-derived sweetness that’s a bit syrupy. Faint vanilla, moderate earthiness that is blunted a bit by the wood.
Finish: Very woody, drying, toasted. Slight bitterness on the finish. A little corn, a little vegetal sourness, a dash of pepper. A slightly more bitter vegetal note as it lasts.
Comment: Interesting experiment. Rice is the better of the two. The nose is just a little too closed off and everything gets blunted by the wood. The only thing that can really hang with that – the fruit notes – are very dark and it all cries out for something brighter to balance it. Even letting it sit, it opens up a bit but not enough to pull it into balance.