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Blind Taste Test: Are Older Bourbon Whiskeys Really That Much Better?

Does bourbon get better with age? Absolutely… to a point. If you’ve ever tasted white dog or moonshine fresh off the still, you know that’s true. But bourbon does eventually hit just the right age for universal consumption — and it’s not quite as long as it is with rum.

Usually somewhere around 10 years, in most cases. Sometimes up to 15 years, though rarely do great bourbons spend 20+ years aging, like spendier rums.

So are longer-aged bourbons that much better than, say, seven-year-old expression? Are they worth the higher prices the juice demands? Can a savvy drinker — who’s been paid to taste alcohol for the better part of a decade — tell the difference in age statements without looking at the label?

Those are the questions I’m trying to answer in this blind taste test. I had a friend select six bourbons — five bottles that are ten years or older (blended and single barrel) and one affordable and accessible seven-year-old single barrel bourbon, thrown in as a monkey wrench. Once I tasted each dram, I ranked them according to taste and taste alone. Straight up; no concessions made for price or availiblity.

Spoiler: I didn’t get them all right!

Part 1: The Taste

Zach Johnston

Taste 1

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

F*ckin’ A. Oak, cinnamon, and cherry stand out behind a veneer of hot oak and spice. Yes, there’s creamy vanilla and a bit of bitter woodiness with a toasty edge. But this sip is fire and not in a cool way.

I don’t know on this one. I wasn’t ready to be slapped in the face with “f*ck you, this is bourbon, motherf*cker!” at eleven in the morning.

Taste 2

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Okay, I’m back after a pint of water. There’s a mix of vanilla, Christmas spice, and stonefruit (apricot, I think) next to cherry candies and spicy wood. It’s really mellow. The end has this hint of cedar and cherry tobacco that’s really enticing.

This is good; the epitome of “smooth.”

Taste 3

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Okay… this is a complete departure — with hints of oak and vanilla leading toward a really herbal, almost green wood nose and taste. There’s a light pepperiness but it’s really that green herbal note that sticks out the most, with accents of vanilla, oak, and spice (and maybe some apple caramel) in the background.

Interesting.

Taste 4

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Um… Am I drinking the same dram? This really, really smells and tastes like the exact same thing I just tried but maybe a little more intense. Yes, there’s a bit more vanilla, spice, and oak. But that herbal green note is undeniably front-and-center.

It has never been clearer that Baker’s and Basil Hayden’s are from the same warehouse as having these two back to back. They taste almost identical. That also means that I have no idea which is the younger Baker’s now.

Taste 5

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Oh, hello Michter’s.

Maple syrup sweetness with spicy tobacco, creamy vanilla, and burnt toffee next to leathery oak? Yup. There’s that charred bitterness next to a touch of caramel fruit that lingers back through that tobacco, leather, vanilla, and maple.

It’s hard not to love that maple syrup edge. That being said, after the almost savory herbal voyage of the last two drams, this reads a little sweet.

Taste 6

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Another departure. This has an earthiness that’s really enticing and almost … mossy … with a bit of worn leather. Then there’s this underpinning of nutty toffees and cherry tobacco with a slightly spicy edge, orange oils, and a bold-yet-light body of yeasty rolls dripping with cinnamon and brown sugar-laced butter.

Finally, there’s an almost savory fruit edge that’s not quite melon but not quite pumpkin. To which I say… Yes.

This stands out and is really f*cking delicious.

Part 2: Ranking The Bourbons

Zach Johnston

6. George T. Stagg Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2020 (15 years old)

Sazerac

ABV: 65.2%

Average Price: $550 (MSRP: $99)

The Whiskey:

This expression from last year’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is the boldest of the batch. The ABVs for this bottle is the same as absinthe. The juice is a mix of Kentucky corn, Minnesota rye, and malted barley from North Dakota that’s aged for 15 long years on three different floors of one warehouse.

That time draws out 59 percent of the whiskey to the angel’s, leaving this hefty bourbon behind.

Bottom Line:

I didn’t much care for this when I had it for the first time. I still don’t. It’s … a lot. Maybe on the rocks, to cool it goddamn down, it’ll be fine. But it’s too expensive to play around with.

4. (tie) Baker’s Single Barrel Aged 7 Years

Beam Suntory

ABV: 53.5%

Average Price: $60

The Whiskey:

This is the first single barrel release from Baker’s, which used to only come in small-batch expressions. The new expression comes from the Beam warehouses and is hand-selected for its specific flavor profile and bottled at barrel-proof, leaving it untouched.

Bottom Line:

This was a true outlier on the list, except for the fact that it tastes exactly like the next entry. Really, these could be from the exact same barrel just with this being a little more intense thanks to not being proofed with water.

That being said, this feels like a steal for $60 — kind of proving you don’t need to go old to go big.

4. (tie) Basil Hayden’s Bourbon Aged 10 Years

Beam Suntory

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $75

The Whiskey:

This bottle from Beam’s high-end Basil Hayden’s line is a blend of hand-selected barrels of ten-year-old barrels from the Beam warehouse. The barrels are chosen to heighten the Basil Hayden’s bourbon experience and then proofed with that soft Kentucky limestone water to make it more accessible as a sip.

Bottom Line:

This is a bit more drinkable than Baker’s Single Barrel thanks to the lower ABV. But that then doesn’t give it the same kick. So, these two even out and land as a tie because … they taste the same!

3. Michter’s Single Barrel Bourbon Aged 10 Years

Michters

ABV: 47.2%

Average Price: $200

The Whiskey:

Michter’s 10-yo Bourbon is a very sought after and beloved bottle of booze. The barrels are hand-selected by Michter’s team for their taste and texture. Then the booze is bottled with only a touch of water just to take the edges off and make it more pleasant on the tongue.

Bottom Line:

This is usually a pretty high ranking whiskey for me. And sure, it’s in the top three on this list, but it still rang a little sweet today.

2. Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition 2017 (12, 13, and 15-year-old blend)

Four Roses

ABV: 53.95%

Average Price: $380 (MSRP: $150)

The Whiskey:

Every year, Four Roses release around 13,000 bottles of their Limited Edition Small Batch. 2017 was a banner year for the brand’s release. Four Roses is known for its ten distinct bourbons. Three of them are blended in this one. This expression blended three whiskeys: A 15-year-old low rye/slight spice mash, a 13-year-old of the same, and a 12-year-old low rye/delicate fruit bourbon.

Bottom Line:

Goddamn, this is smooth. This dram was nearly number one because of that. It carries a nice velvetiness that’s just enticing. It feels like it’s worth the hunt and the price.

1. Barrell Bourbon Batch 23 (10, 12, and 15-year-old blend)

Barrell Craft Spirits

ABV: 53.89%

Average Price: $90

The Whiskey:

Barrell Craft Spirits might be one of the best whiskey blenders working today (especially in the U.S.). This expression blends 10, 12, and 15-year-old barrels from Kentucky, Tennesee, and Indiana into a final product. On paper, this shouldn’t be this refined. Moreover, this is all about expert barrel selection and blending as the final product is bottled at cask strength with no proofing or filtration to hide behind.

Bottom Line:

This really was special. Well, special today in the context of this tasting. It was so easy to drink while also carrying deep textures and flavors. It was smoothly rounded and feels like it’s something a bit more than your average dram.

Part 3: Final Thoughts

Zach Johnston

Baker’s and Basil Hayden’s tasting almost identical today meant I really couldn’t figure out which bottle was the younger ringer.

What stood out, though, was that the blends really shone the brightest. Of course, most whiskey is built for its flavor profile (even the single barrel stuff). But both of the whiskeys that are fully crafted from various ages and barrels stood out as the best-tasting drams. By far, if I’m being honest.

Lastly, yes, older whiskeys are delicious — most of the time. That 15-year-old George T. Stagg is not for the faint of heart — some could it’s argue off-putting. Yet Four Roses and Barrel Bourbon both have 15-year-old bourbons in the mix that are phenomenal.

Does age matter, then? Sure. But it will still always come down to the taste.

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