Bulleit’s Bombshell: Tasting Four Whiskeys (Including Barrel-Strength Bulleit)

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Bulleit’s Bombshell: Tasting Four Whiskeys (Including Barrel-Strength Bulleit)

Members of the Paste office in Atlanta were fortunate enough to recently have a little visit from a very unique mobile bar platform—Bulleit Bourbon’s “Woody” tailgate trailer, a $150,000 rolling collection of whiskey and barcraft that parked out in front of our office for a rather delicious happy hour. It was a relaxed, fun afternoon of chatting about the ever-expanding American whiskey market and enjoying a few signature mixed drinks.

For me, though, the real sensory experience was well after the tailgate trailer rolled away. I love doing side-by-side tastings of full product lines, and this was a great opportunity to do so with the line of bourbon and rye produced by Bulleit. Since 1999, it’s the brand that Diageo has used to make massive inroads in the American brown liquor industry, achieving huge popularity along the way. The base bourbon is a bar fixture all over the country and can be dependably mixed into just about any recipe, while in more recent years Bulleit Rye and Bulleit Bourbon 10 Year have helped diversify the brand. But what really got me excited about the prospect of a side-by-side tasting was access to a small amount of Bulleit’s new Barrel-Strength Bourbon, which tips the scales at around 120 proof and is only being sold in Kentucky. How would this bruiser compare to the standard, 90-proof Bulleit?

Let’s find out.

Bulleit Bourbon

The base form of Bulleit has become one of the country’s best-known and most recognizable bourbon brands, existing in the “everyday-plus” price region—pricier and “fancier” than your Jim Beam white label or Evan Williams bottom shelf MVPs, but never breaking the bank at $25 or so per 750 ml bottle. It fills this role in the high-rye bourbon niche, as opposed to a classic bourbon mash bill such as Elijah Craig Small Batch or a wheated bourbon such as Maker’s Mark—more spicy rye than in a classic bourbon (28% of the mash), but less than in a true rye whiskey, which requires at least 51%. This makes Bulleit pretty versatile, easily swapped into mixing and cocktail situations that might also call for rye.

Tasted next to the full lineup, though, the base bourbon is unsurprisingly the least unique of the bunch. On the nose, one gets the requisite caramel and vanilla notes, and a sweetness that makes me think of toasted marshmallows. It’s corny on the palate, before a rush of spicier notes in the finish—classic, peppery spice and a bit of cinnamon. It’s a profile familiar to many bourbon drinkers who like a rye-influenced dram. At 90 proof, it’s a bit more assertive than the 80-proof rank and file that make up most of the budget bourbon rack, and also just a tad hot for its proof. It is, however, ultimately on the drier side—no one is going to taste Bulleit and mistake it for say, Maker’s Mark. Its relative dryness and spice notes are primary reasons why so many use this bourbon for mixing these days, and it fills that role admirably. It doesn’t have quite as much character as one might hope for neat drinking, but the 10 Year, on the other hand, is a very different story. More on that shortly.

Bulleit Rye

Most Bulleit whiskey is being distilled and aged at Four Roses while Diageo finishes finally getting its own Bulleit distillery open, but Bulleit Rye is instead sourced from MGP in Indiana, the same location as the juice for many other ryes such as Templeton, Redemption, etc. It comes from that same initial 95% rye stock, meaning that these ryes tend to be quite similar, although not identical. This “factory whiskey” is a big sticking issue for some drinkers, but as I’ve written in the past, it’s really not something I care about as long as I like the product—and I personally like most of the rye whiskeys coming out of MGP.

Given the differences in mash bill and the fact that it’s being produced in a different location, it makes sense that Bulleit Rye is strikingly different from the brand’s flagship bourbon. It’s a shade or two lighter in the Glencairn glass, brilliantly clear and much, much more rye-forward. The nose is a blast of spice, very peppery and also significantly fruitier, in ways the evoke stone fruit (apricot?) and candied apples. On the palate, there’s no missing that this is rye whiskey—it would be a great example to use to explain to someone the difference between bourbon and rye, honestly. It’s thinner of body and hugely spice-forward, like a multi-color peppercorn shaker with touches of cinnamon and cardamom. It’s also interestingly herbal, with notes of pine/mint and lots of fruitiness as well (green apple, peach). It’s an obvious whiskey to use for classic cocktails that call for rye (Manhattan, sazerac, Brooklyn, et al), but I personally prefer it neat over the standard Bulleit bourbon, with or without a cube of ice (probably without, if it’s me).

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Bulleit 10 Year

Bulleit’s standard bourbon doesn’t carry an age statement, but it’s already a healthy 6 years old. I personally wouldn’t have expected an additional four years to make that much of a difference with the same mash bill and treatment, but that additional aging comes up huge in Bulleit 10 Year. In fact, of all the whiskeys in this little tasting, it’s the clear winner for neat drinking—even moreso than the barrel-strength expression of Bulleit Bourbon. Here, the 10 Year reigns supreme.

On every level, the 10 Year is a bigger, more robust whiskey, but it’s also more refined. Compared with the rye-dominated flagship bourbon, it’s far richer, with pronounced brown sugar/molasses sweetness that comes forward on the nose to mix with a plethora of baking spices. The caramelized sugar and vanillans on the palate are lovely, blending toasted oak with a very complex spice profile—fragrant, sweet cinnamon and cardamom in particular. At the same time, the peppery quality of the rye spice is toned back somewhat, and the final whiskey is actually smoother and easier to drink than the standard Bulleit Bourbon when all is said and done. It is at once a more decadent and more inviting dram, and one that continues to unfold over time. Toward the end, I became especially aware of a pronounced cocoa sort of nuttiness that I’d been overlooking throughout, and I expect the next time I taste the 10 Year, I’ll stumble upon another perception the same way.

Unsurprisingly, you’re looking at a substantial price hike here—around $45 to the standard Bulleit’s $25, but it’s an objectively superior whiskey. Whether the hike fits in your budget is something you’ll have to answer for yourself.

Bulleit Barrel Strength Bourbon, 119 proof

As mentioned above, this cask-strength bourbon is only being sold in Kentucky in very limited quantities, so it may be difficult to sample without planning a little trip. It is, however, pretty heady stuff.

As you would expect for a bourbon pushing the 120 proof mark, this is a dram that many drinkers would have some difficulty drinking entirely neat, and a little ice or water may be a necessity. In its base state though, the Bulleit Barrel Strength is pungent, boozy and ripe with dark fruit influences. On the nose, it carries a much more port wine-like character, and notes of raisin or prune. The caramelization is likewise intense, with maple syrup and molasses richness.

On the palate, this whiskey is aggressive and a tad caustic in its strength, although the burn isn’t so much initial as it is developing—it’s the type of stuff you can feel 15 seconds later after going down your throat. It’s as fruity here as it is on the nose, with black cherry, molasses and creme brulee-like sugars, supported by the now-familiar Bulleit Bourbon spiciness. It would undoubtedly make a great nightcap with one big chunk of ice in your double old-fashioned glass, although some of the whiskey faithful will no doubt want to drink it neat. With a price point that is almost the same as the 10 Year ($50 vs. $45), it comes down to a matter of taste—I’ll take the balance of the 10 Year, but if your friends go gaga for overproof whiskey or lean toward the decadent, then the cask-strength expression will likely impress.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident beer guru and nascent whiskey geek. You can follow him on Twitter.

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