Review #306 and #307: Toasted Barrel Finished Bourbon Comparison - Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel vs. Down Home Toasted Barrel vs. Michter’s Toasted Barrel
Barrel finishing treatments have come a long way since Angel’s Envy made it popular in the bourbon scene years ago. For the most part, various wine and brandy barrels were the preferred barrel to finish a whiskey in because of their availability and what I imagine to be their cost to obtain (seeing as how they were already used). But in 2015, Michter’s caught us by surprise with their release of a bourbon that was finished in a brand new barrel that had nothing else done to it other than a toasting process on the inside.
The toasting process is well known in the wine industry. A heated source is placed inside the barrel, but does not char the wood. Instead the heat bakes the wood creating many new compounds inside of it or brings them to the surface. One of the most noticeable compounds is vanillin, which is the main component extracted from vanilla beans.
Michter’s maintained this exclusive finish for a few years, ultimately trying it on their rye recipe and sour mash whiskey recipe, before others began to catch on. Our first whiff that other distillers were also trying their hand at a toasted finish was in 2018 when Blood Oath (a Luxco brand that sources from Heaven Hill) released “Blood Oath Pact 4” which contained a 9 year old bourbon finished in toasted oak barrels. This would probably serve as a testing bed for the release of Elijah Craig Small Batch finished in Toasted Oak Barrels in mid-2020.
Even then, a Non-Distiller Producer (NDP) called Down Home released a Kentucky-exclusive bottling of bourbon that was sourced from MGP in Indiana and finished in toasted oak barrels. The only difference was that Down Home chose to keep the proof pretty high (110 proof) whereas Michter’s and Elijah Craig bottled theirs much lower.
Most of us are already familiar with the taste profiles of Michter’s, Elijah Craig and MGP, but in a 3-way blind tasting, who would come out on top? I sat down to find out. I sampled all of these neat and in a Glencairn.
Nose: A fantastic, complex nose of warm vanilla cupcakes, charred oak, deep caramel and buttered cornbread. As the tasting goes on, I can smell some additional chocolate sauce notes. This nose is extremely well put together.
Palate: Vanilla cake batter is the first thing I taste and it surrounds everything else. There are some well integrated baking spice with a little bit of black pepper heat followed by a nice oaky wood taste that never gets bitter. The sweetness is reminiscent of toffee and there’s even the faintest cherry juice note that I pick up on.
Finish: The finish is extremely mellow. Nothing dominates, but everything lasts for longer than expected. Light baking spices with vanilla custard remind me of sweet treats whereas oak and a hint of tobacco let me know that there is some age to this. It’s surprisingly well rounded.
Glass # 2
Nose: This nose is extremely sweet smelling. There are lots of caramel sauce and vanilla poundcake scents as well as roasted nuts and melted butter. Every scent I get it enveloped by a sweet and creamy note of some kind.
Palate: Like drinking a glass of melted Werther’s Original Candies, the sweetness is dominating. Perhaps it’s too much so because although I get notes of shortbread cookies, coffee grounds, ground cinnamon and drying oak, there isn’t as much complexity as the first glass it seems.
Finish: I’m surprised by how much spice comes on the tail end after a mostly sweet palate. There finish almost resembles something higher in proof with the spice and heat that follows, but there’s an oaky flavor that kind of quells it. Overall the finish is nice, but not much to it.
Nose: A sweet scent of wood, almost like cedar planks, hits first. There are Yellow Cake batter notes and some cinnamon and clove. Unlike the first two glasses, I do not really detect much vanilla.
Palate: The taste of this one may be giving away it’s MGP bourbon right off the bat. First of all, the proof is much hotter than the other 2 glasses but there’s some rye traits that point to a classic MGP bourbon profile. There’s molasses cookies, gingerbread, citrus zest and some mulling spices. It’s all very good, but is missing anything that would have me single out that it has been finished in a toasted barrel.
Finish: The rye spice doesn’t quit on the finish with mint, dill and some ginger root showing off a higher rye component of the mashbill. There’s even seasoned wood that lingers around and cherry Twizzlers. The wood notes become more noticeable as the dram goes on, but overall is a very balanced finish.
Glass #1: Michter’s Toasted Barrel Bourbon
Glass #2: Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Bourbon
Glass #3: Down Home Toasted Barrel Bourbon
Winner: Michter’s Toasted Barrel Bourbon!
As I was putting this comparison together, I thought it would be the Down Home’s battle to lose. After all, it did have the highest proof and could’ve won by simply overwhelming the competition. I also thought that if it didn’t win, that the Elijah Craig would surely come in as the next best bourbon due to its perceived age superiority of around 9-11 years old (the Michter’s is rumored to be around 5 years old, same with the Down Home). But at no time did I expect that the Michter’s, with the lowest proof and age of the group, would finish first.
As I wrote my notes and finished my drinks, leaving a tiny sip in each glass, I went back through them all at the very end. It was alarming how much better the Michter’s (Glass #1) got in smell and taste in the end. This only further proved to me that the Michter’s was the real deal all along. I recall in a previous review that I was not too kind to it by itself, but I can really see how nicely put together it was. The only sad part is that the Michter’s Toasted Barrel Bourbon easily fetches above $200 on the secondary market these days while the Toasted Barrel Elijah Craig can potentially be found for its retail price of around $55.
The Down Home bottle is not that expensive, coming in at $68 after tax, but it’s only available in Kentucky. It unfortunately proved to be one of the bigger let downs of the tasting. I say this because while MGP bourbon may be a favorite of mine, I had high hopes that the higher proof would show off some kind of unique toasted flavors that would overwhelm the others. This did not happen. In fact, it almost tastes like it made no difference at all.
As a final thought: the art of toasted barrel finishes always confused me. Why has Michter’s, Heaven Hill and Luxco never released their toasted barrel products at or near cask strength? I figured if a bourbon that was finished in a toasted barrel was good at ~90 proof, it’d be even better at a higher proof. This turns out to be a falsehood as the higher proof made the toasted barrel notes virtually imperceptible. Moving one step further in thought; maybe this is also why most double-barrel bourbons and ryes rarely get bottled at cask strength as well.
The one thing I did learn about the whole toasted barrel experience is that, for me, the juice may not be worth the squeeze… or price. The toasted barrel concept will add more sweetness and vanilla notes to your bourbon, but it doesn’t transform it into something that unique. Wine and other spirits barrels are known to transform bourbons and whiskies into liquids that are unique and fascinating
Review #305: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch (2020)
Bourbon Release Season is always predicated by the release of two important bourbons in early September: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch. Before the BTACs and the Pappy’s come out towards the end of the year, these two maintain a cult following to thirsty fans who love the history of the brands.
For years now, Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon has attracted much more attention among enthusiasts likely because of its signature packaging. But for the Four Roses crowd, they quietly await in anticipation for their Limited Editions to become available. Whereas the Birthday Bourbon slightly fluctuates in age, proof and taste profile, the simple truth is that there have been many years where it is considered a let down by those that can look past the hype.
Four Roses, on the other hand, continues to improve on their batches by incorporating some ultra-aged barrels into the blend. One of the most obsessed-over details of the Four Roses Limited Editions is the group of barrels with the highest age. In 2019, fans went crazy over a group of 21 year old OBSV barrels (which is a fairly common recipe). But this year, not only do we get a group of 19 year old barrels, but the recipe that was chosen is the ultra-rare OBSK recipe.
The 2020 SmBLE uses 12 year old OBSV and OESV barrels as well as 16 year old OESK barrels and those extra spicy (literally and figuratively) 19 year old OBSK barrels. For those of you who are still new to Four Roses, just by looking at these 4 recipes, we’re probably going to be in for a treat of lots of fruits and spices because that is what those yeast strains are known for.
I was able to lay my hands on a bottle recently, so let’s take a look at how well they’ve done. I sampled this neat and in a Glencairn.
Nose: I have smelled many fruity bourbons in the past, but very few live up to this level of fruit that envelopes my nose. There are black cherries, slices of oranges, fig spread, dried stone fruits and baked apples. All of the fruit smells are amplified in sweetness by an even sweeter, syrupy scent as well. The levels of vanilla are intense and are not easily hidden by the most extraordinary amount of sweet oak I’ve yet to encounter in a bourbon.
Palate: One sip of this and you know it’s different from other bourbon immediately. This liquid personifies the words “dark” and “old.” There is damp tobacco, worn leather, dark red fruits, fruit leathers and a tinge of wood and furniture polish (which is a note I find a lot in highly oaked/aged bourbons). But with these well-aged barrels, I noticed that the liquid must have extracted every last bit of vanillin out of the staves because this thing is also a crème brulee bomb. The K yeast strains are also at their finest with large amounts of mulled wine spices adding an enjoyable level of spice throughout.
Finish: The fruit and furniture polish notes on the palate now transform into a sort of musty Christmas fruitcake aftertaste. There’s syrupy sweetness enveloping everything as oak spice, baked pears and more aged leather mingle on the back of your tongue. The baking spices are unique and really highlight this lingering old mustiness that transpires throughout the whole sip. The finish lasts a pleasantly long time.
For many Four Roses enthusiasts, the 2019 SmBLE was the pinnacle of the LE’s. That bottle seemed to have the respect and admiration of all online reviewers as well as having great word-of-mouth reach. The 2020 bottle was always going to be hard to pressed to equal the 2019s success. But in a way, that’s not what these Limited Editions are all about. Four Roses has 10 different recipes in their arsenal and each year they are trying to make something unique and refined that amplifies the sum of its parts. Does the 2020 beat the 2019? That’s hard to say right now. But is it excellent in its own right? Absolutely.
This is a bottle that is worth its secondary pricing to seek out and, dare I say, is a better drinker than the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. Four Roses doesn’t really compete with bottles like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection or other high-proofed limited releases, but that’s not what it’s all about. For Four Roses, it’s all about achieving that perfect balance and complexity that lets you discover something new every time you put the glass to your lips. This could be the best allocated release of 2020.
1 | Disgusting | Drain pour (Example: Jeffers Creek)
2 | Poor | Forced myself to drink it (Fitch’s Goat)
3 | Bad | Flawed (AD Laws 4 Grain BiB, Clyde Mays anything)
4 | Sub-par | Many things I’d rather have (Tincup 10 year)
5 | Good | Good, solid, ordinary (Larceny, JTS Brown)
6 | Very Good | Better than average (Buffalo Trace, OGD BiB)
7 | Great | Well above average (Knob Creek SiBs, OWA, Most Old Forester)
While visiting @bourboncontinent, You’re given the privilege to bottled your own Barrel Strength Rye. We highly recommend this experience. You sign your own label, fill your bottle, seal it up and record it in the ledger. Besides going home with a very special new (and delicious) bottle of Michter’s , you get a gorgeous box to keep it in. With the weather change coming up, the Michter’s bottling experience would make any bourbon lover very happy. If you happen to find yourself in Louisville, Kentucky, and elsewhere in the world, Dm✉️now for historic Whiskey Row, take a distillery tour and bottle your own Michter’s. Cheers 🥃
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!! 🎃💀👻 Part 2 tonight with lighting #halloween #halloweendecor #chardoak #stringholdsippin #americanwhiskey #whiskey #whisky #bourbon #scotch #peat #bartender #60secondwhiskeyreviews #drinkresponsibly #wsetii https://www.instagram.com/p/CGN7FFMHRU3/?igshid=1askts5xchxye
🥂“Get Up & Go” 🏃🏿♂️🌏 have a good time tonight but be safe and DRINK RESPONSIBLY‼️ 🥂😂 #getupandgo #newmusic #hiphop #elaine #elainegenerator #distrokid #explorepage #saturdaynight #drinkresponsibly #hiphopmusic #floridarapper (at Orlando, Florida) https://www.instagram.com/p/CGL8kpiDx4f/?igshid=oc4ta6jnghcz
Friday Ryeday!! @rabbithole fantastic bottle and excited to try their others!! 🥃 This will make an amazing Old Fashioned!#rabbitholedistillery #ryewhiskey #boxergrail #chardoak #stringholdsippin #americanwhiskey #whiskey #whisky #bourbon #scotch #peat #bartender #60secondwhiskeyreviews #drinkresponsibly #wsetii https://www.instagram.com/p/CGL5IKmDm8U/?igshid=16h4o1bav3yxw