After a decade of craft-beer drinking and writing, I consider myself something of an expert. But when it comes to bourbon, I’ve still got a lot to learn. That’s why when Caskers.com sent us six different bourbons to taste, my Paste co-founder Nick Purdy and I went to the real bourbon experts in Atlanta—four of the city’s best mixologists and publicans. Our tasting panel for the following bourbons included Greg Best (co-founder of Holeman & Finch), Miles Macquarrie (Kimball House, Leon’s Full Service), Jerry Slater (H. Harper Station) and Mike Gallagher (The Brick Store, Leon’s Full Service). We gathered one late afternoon at the brand new Kimball House near the Paste office in Decatur, Ga., just before Macquarrie opened it up for business.
For me, the tasting was like going to school, learning which bourbons leant themselves well to which cocktails and what they were looking for in flavor and mouthfeel. Here’s our ranking of the six bourbons, along with a little of what I learned about bourbon.
Distillery: Balcones Distillery
City: Waco, Texas
Appearance: Golden amber
Aroma: Vegetal with hints of rhum agricole and tequila
Taste: Notes of agave, graham cracker, walnut and pecan.
Verdict: This was the strangest whiskey we tasted, which is no surprise. The first whiskey made in Texas since Prohibition incorporates roasted Atole, a Hopi blue corn meal. It’s a unique take on the corn whiskey tradition. We appreciated how the boundaries of bourbon are getting pushed, but the end result didn’t win over our panel of judges.
Recommended Use: Whiskey Collins
Distillery: Peach Street Distillers
City: Palisade, Colo.
Appearance: Dark Amber
Aroma: Fruit cake, oats and barley
Taste: You can pick up fall spices and the individual grain notes.
Verdict: The first legal bourbon distilled in the state of Colorado is made from 60% sweet corn and 20% rye, but beer lovers will appreciate the 20% barley that you can really taste. It was a fun, playful holiday whiskey and Purdy’s #1 pick.
Recommended Use: Winter punches and ciders
Distillery: Few Spirits
City: Evanston, Ill.
Appearance: Medium amber
Aroma: Nuts, cedar and rum
Taste: Rich, full mouthfeel with notes of caramel apple
Verdict: Ironically named after a leader of the temperance movement in Chicago, the Evanston-based distillery comes in our favorite of the six bottles. The bourbon seemed a little raw and young, but we expect this distillery to improve with age, and it’s already a little like an Old Fashioned in a bottle.
Recommended Use: Champagne cocktails or Christmas cocktails
Distillery: Breckenridge Distillery
City: Breckenridge, Colo.
Appearance: Light amber
Aroma: Oats, honey and maple syrup
Taste: Heavy but subtle palate with notes of roasted nuts, bright cherry and grains.
Verdict: At 9,600 feet, Breckenridge Distillery is the highest distillery in the world. The bourbon was still a bit young and grainy, but our panel enjoyed its complex flavor and smooth finish.
Recommended Use: Old Fashioneds and Manhattans
Distillery: Widow Jane Spirits at Cacao Prieto Distillery
City: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Appearance: Medium amber
Aroma: Bready with notes of maple and cocoa
Taste: Notes of caramel and crème brûlée
Verdict: Very lean with an abrupt finish. Not an overpowering bourbon but a nice, clean whiskey, making it a perfect whiskey for cocktails and one of our panel’s favorites.
Recommended Use: All cocktails but especially those with citrus and syrups
Distillery: Charles Medley Distillery
City: Owensboro, Kent.
Appearance: Deep amber
Aroma: Orange peel, vanilla and brown sugar
Taste: Notes of Peppercorn, citrus, dark fruits and vanilla
Verdict: It’s no surprise that the oldest whiskey we tasted was the clear favorite. The a fat, full mouthfeel and elegant finish, the Kentucky Straight Bourbon was neither the highest proof nor the most expensive, but it was the near-unanimous choice for best bourbon.
Recommended Use: Straight or in classic cocktails