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We Blind Tasted Classic Bourbons And Were Shocked By The Winner

Everyone should have a classic bourbon on their bar cart. When I say “classic,” I mean something that’s recognizable even by novices, that has a history that matters to the modern bourbon industry and is maybe not widely available anymore. Name recognition is pretty important too, but all of that still takes a backseat to what’s actually in the bottle. The most important factor in any classic bourbon is the taste, and tasting classic bourbons blind seemed like a good way to find the best.

Since this blind taste test is about classic bourbon, there are a few things I’ll be looking for specifically: the kinds of flavors that scream “classic bourbon,” with hopefully a little extra to make it stand out from the pack. There should be big notes of vanilla, oak/wood, sweet caramel, and maybe some fruits (cherry, apple, orange) nuts, and florals too. These are, or should be, the kinds of whiskeys that tell you from the first nose that you’re in Bourbon Country, USA.

For this blind tasting, I’ll be pouring:

  • Woodford Reserve Bourbon
  • Weller Special Reserve
  • Four Roses Small Batch
  • Gentleman Jack
  • Booker’s 2015-02 “Dot’s Batch”
  • Elijah Craig 12

Let’s get tasting and find a winner!

Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months

Part 1: The Taste

Classic Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Taste 1

Classic Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Vanilla comes through first on the nose with a good dose of caramel, soft oak, dark chocolate oranges, red berry tobacco, and the faintest hint of fresh mint. The palate delivers on those notes while layering in a soft toffee and silkiness with more dark chocolate, orange oils, and a cinnamon-forward tobacco leaf. The finish really holds onto the silken texture as the spice, dark chocolate, and vanilla linger the longest with a nice caramel sweetness.

Taste 2

Classic Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Leather vanilla and apple florals mingle on the nose with a hint of cherrywood, caramel candy, and winter spice. The taste moves between spicy apple pie filling with walnuts, vanilla pancakes, and a hint of maybe a dried cranberry. The mid-palate sweetens with plenty of toffee from a sticky toffee pudding while cherry syrup, dry wicker, and vanilla-laced tobacco round out the finish.

Taste 3

Classic Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Apple and cherry trees with plenty of fruit open the nose alongside a rush of soft leather, cinnamon and nutmeg, and a hint of dried florals with plenty of caramel sauce. That caramel binds with dark red berries as more leather and dried flowers drive the palate towards vanilla pods. The finish is soft and tips between blackberry jam, cinnamon sticks, and vanilla pudding.

Taste 4

Classic Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This is like candy on the nose with cherry coughdrops, banana cream pie with a lard crust and plenty of soft vanilla whipped cream, white cotton candy, apple Jolly Ranchers, nutmeg and clove, and a hint of cedar. The palate layers that cedar with spicy cherry tobacco with a good dose of dark chocolate powder next to more vanilla, leather, and apple candy. The finish rolls between the leather and spiced cherry tobacco and the super soft and lush vanilla creaminess.

This was great!

Taste 5

Classic Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Pow! You can feel high ABVs on the nose with sharp and hot cinnamon spice, anise, cherry root beer, apple crumble, vanilla cookies, and a salted caramel sauce. The palate largely delivers on all of that with a mouth-coating heat that amps the cinnamon up to Red Hots and the vanilla to a smooth creamy sauce with a hint of pepperiness, cherry cough syrup, and vanilla wafers. The end is long, hot, and full of burnt cedar, cherry tobacco, waxy cacao beans, and creamed vanilla honey.

Taste 6

Classic Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

The nose is a little washed out compared to the last one but there’s still plenty of caramel candy, vanilla pudding, orange/chocolate, and pine panels. The taste balances nuts, apple fritters, vanilla pods, and a touch of leathery cherry tobacco. The end is a little thin with caramel and vanilla playing nicely with leather and wood with a little winter spice, cherrywood, and dark cacao.

Part 2: The Ranking

Classic Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

6. Elijah Craig 12 — Taste 6

Elijah Craig 12
Heaven Hill

ABV: 47%

Average Price: $300

The Whiskey:

This is the discontinued version of Elijah Craig that became the beloved Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. It’s standard Heaven Hill mash of 78% corn, 12% malted barley, and ten percent rye. The juice then spent at least 12 years in the rickhouse before blending, proofing with that soft Kentucky limestone water, and bottling.

How Classic Is It?

This is basically as classic as you can get given the old-school bottle and age statement. However, it was the thinnest on the nose and palate and felt a little too proofed down.

Blind Notes (From Above):

The nose is a little washed out compared to the last one but there’s still plenty of caramel candy, vanilla pudding, orange/chocolate, and pine panels. The taste balances nuts, apple fritters, vanilla pods, and a touch of leathery cherry tobacco. The end is a little thin with caramel and vanilla playing nicely with leather and wood with a little winter spice, cherrywood, and dark cacao.

Bottom Line:

I wouldn’t turn this away if someone poured it for me, but it doesn’t really excite me.

5. Four Roses Small Batch — Taste 3

Four Roses

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $28

The Whiskey:

Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon is a blend of four whiskeys. The blend is split evenly between the high and low ryes with a focus on “slight spice” and “rich fruit” yeasts. The whiskey is then blended, cut with soft Kentucky water, and bottled.

How Classic Is It?

Very! Four Roses Small Batch is an early “small batch” bourbon that helped give the designation prestige in the modern era. The bottle feels like it’s from a different era and the whiskey inside feels like it’s Kentucky bourbon defined.

Blind Notes (From Above):

Apple and cherry trees with plenty of fruit open the nose alongside a rush of soft leather, cinnamon and nutmeg, and a hint of dried florals with plenty of caramel sauce. That caramel binds with dark red berries as more leather, dried flowers, and leather drive the palate towards vanilla pods. The finish is soft and tips between blackberry jam, cinnamon sticks, and vanilla pudding.

Bottom Line:

This was really nice. The only reason it’s this low is that as I tasted it, it really felt like I was tasting a cocktail bourbon and not a dope sipper. So here we are.

4. Booker’s 2015-02 “Dot’s Batch” — Taste 5

Booker's "Dot's Batch"
Beam Suntory

ABV: 63.95%

Average Price: Limited Availability

The Whiskey:

This very limited edition bourbon is a barrel-proof blend of juice that aged for exactly seven years and 18 days. Those whiskeys are the standard Jim Beam mash of 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% malted barley. The key difference with Booker’s is the barrel. This expression comes from barrels that survived the aging process with a gorgeous enough flavor profile for as-is bottling.

How Classic Is It?

This is the fifth release of Booker’s in the modern era (1,000 cases were released in 1988 initially). This is old-school bespoke bourbon from a true master, Fred Noe, and something unique to its time.

Blind Notes (From Above):

Pow! You can feel high ABVs on the nose with sharp and hot cinnamon spice, anise, cherry root beer, apple crumble, vanilla cookies, and a salted caramel sauce. The palate largely delivers on all of that with a mouth-coating heat that amps the cinnamon up to Red Hots and the vanilla to a smooth creamy sauce with a hint of pepperiness, cherry cough syrup, and vanilla wafers. The end is long, hot, and full of burnt cedar, cherry tobacco, waxy cacao beans, and creamed vanilla honey.

Bottom Line:

This was really nice but those high ABVs really were a lot. This was hot and bold and, honestly, need a rock to cool it down and let it bloom a bit more.

3. Woodford Reserve — Taste 1

Brown-Forman

ABV: 45.2%

Average Price: $30

The Whiskey:

This is where everything comes together that makes Woodford unique. The mash bill on this bourbon is mid-range rye heavy with 18% of the grain in the bill for support. The triple distilling in pot stills and blending with column distilled whiskey is utilized. And yes, this bourbon rests for six to seven years — taking time to mature before barrels are pulled for blending, proofing, and bottling.

How Classic Is It?

Woodford was one of the first “new” bourbons to hit the market in the late 1990s when bourbon was damn near dead. Brown-Forman’s belief in a turnaround and the founding of Woodford helped bourbon sort of redefining itself as a high-quality and trendy product well before the current boom began in earnest. That is classic by definition.

Blind Notes (From Above):

Vanilla comes through first on the nose with a good dose of caramel, soft oak, dark chocolate oranges, red berry tobacco, and the faintest hint of fresh mint. The palate delivers on those notes while layering in a soft toffee and silkiness with more dark chocolate, orange oils, and a cinnamon-forward tobacco leaf. The finish really holds onto the silken texture as the spice, dark chocolate, and vanilla linger the longest with a nice caramel sweetness.

Bottom Line:

This was really nice. It didn’t quite hit the heights of the next two but really felt like an easy sipper or cocktail mixer with a super inviting texture and flavor profile.

2. Weller Special Reserve — Taste 2

Sazerac Company

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $79

The Whiskey:

Buffalo Trace doesn’t publish any of their mash bills. Educated guesses put the wheat percentage of these mash bills at around 16 to 18%, which is average. The age of the barrels on this blend is also unknown. We do know that they cut down those ABVs with that soft Kentucky limestone water.

How Classic Is It?

Weller has some of the best name recognition in the game. It’s beloved and sought after by whiskey lovers who know good bourbon. It might be the most classic on this list because of that.

Blind Notes (From Above):

Leather vanilla and apple florals mingle on the nose with a hint of cherrywood, caramel candy, and winter spice. The taste moves between spicy apple pie filling with walnuts, vanilla pancakes, and a hint of maybe a dried cranberry. The mid-palate sweetens with plenty of toffee from a sticky toffee pudding while cherry syrup, dry wicker, and vanilla-laced tobacco round out the finish.

Bottom Line:

This is just delicious. It’s so bourbon-y yet subtle and enticing. There are really no notes and I would have put serious money on me scratching a “1” next to my tasting notes for Weller. But, alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

1. Gentleman Jack — Taste 4

Jack Daniel

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $34

The Whiskey:

Gentleman Jack is classic Jack — 80% corn, 12% malted barley, and eight percent rye — that’s twice filtered through sugar maple charcoal filtration. First, the hot spirit drips through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal and then goes into barrels for a long rest. Then, the aged whiskey goes through another filter, this time through three feet of sugar maple charcoal before vatting, proofing down with de-ionized water, and bottling.

How Classic Is It?

This bottle goes back to 1988 when Jack Daniel’s was expanding its core lineup for the first time in a while. It’s one of those whiskeys that was all about creating a modern classic that became one over time.

Blind Notes (From Above):

This is like candy on the nose with cherry coughdrops, banana cream pie with a lard crust and plenty of soft vanilla whipped cream, white cotton candy, apple Jolly Ranchers, nutmeg and clove, and a hint of cedar. The palate layers that cedar with spicy cherry tobacco with a good dose of dark chocolate powder next to more vanilla, leather, and apple candy. The finish rolls between the leather and spiced cherry tobacco and the super soft and lush vanilla creaminess.

This was great!

Bottom Line:

I. Am. Shook. I cannot believe I put this at this number. I would have guessed this in last place, not first.

Still, this was … fun. It was light but refined. There was serious flavor with a bourbon-y vibe (yes, Tennessee whiskey is bourbon). It just hit really well today and, well, won the day.

Part 3: Final Thoughts

Classic Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

I still can’t believe Gentleman Jack beat out the competition today. That just goes to show you the power of the blind taste test — you really never know what’s going to rise to the top. I know for a fact had I known what was Weller and what was Jack, I would have picked the Weller 10 out of 10 times, yet here we are.

Overall, I think it’s time to reassess where Gentleman Jack should sit on my shelf.

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