Saturday, April 17, 2010

"The Buffalo Trace Bash" - A Spirits Tasting

White Lightnin'! -- A Bourbon & Rye Tasting

On Tuesday night, April 6, 2010, my favoritest liquor store in the whole wide world, Union Square Wines & Spirits, hosted a bourbon & rye tasting ... and it was my first opportunity to ever taste moonshine!

The evening featured a variety of bourbons, ryes and numerous other pleasant surprises -- including some southern barbecue.  The barbecue included ribs, pulled pork, baked beans, macaroni & cheese, cole slaw and corn bread.  In other words, I died and went to heaven.  And as if this wasn't enough, one of my favorite mixologists, Philip Pepperdine of 
St Germain, was present to make everyone some amazing bourbon or rye - based cocktails -- some classics and some new inventions of his own.

In total, there were five different types of bourbons, two types of rye, a couple of anise - based liqueurs and some of the cocktails included familiar bitters (Angostura, Peychaud's and Regan's).  While I didn't have the opportunity to taste all of them in the two hour allotment of eating and drinking, I certainly made my best effort to try some of the major brands, as well as sample some of Philip's exquisite original concoctions.

Bourbon vs. Rye

A representative from Buffalo Trace joined the tasting and gave a brief lecture about the American Whiskeys we'd be tasting this evening.  He said that in the United States, bourbon is produced in Virginia, Colorado and Kentucky -- but by far, Kentucky is responsible for the overwhelming majority, at 98%.  Bourbon consists of malt, rye and corn, but generally, corn is usually the greatest ingredient -- typically something along the lines of 51%, he explained, but each manufacturer varies their concentration of each ingredient.  The spirit differs from rye in that rye is the main -- if not only -- ingredient; as a result, he pointed out, bourbon tends to have a sweeter taste due to its high concentration of corn, while rye tends to be spicier.  Depending on your own preferences, renowned cocktails such as The Manhattan or The Old Fashioned can be made with either spirit.

I began my tasting with Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, something with which I'm extremely familiar and compared it against Eagle Rare Single Barrel.  Both are 90 proof Kentucky bourbons aged 10 years and contain about 25% rye.  While the Eagle is slightly more expensive, I couldn't really taste a difference between them.  That said, given a preference, I'd likely pick the Buffalo Trace if forced to choose between the two, if for no other reason than the fact that Buffalo Trace and Makers Mark are my two "go-to" bourbons.

Next was the Sazerac Straight Rye, aged 6 years and also 90 proof.  A classic rye, this is one that you would consider using as a substitute for any recipe that called for a bourbon.  I have tasted a few ryes -- mostly cheaper ones -- that lacked the quality of this, especially in the sense that the taste was less pleasant or even very overpowering.  Sazerac has always maintained a distinctness despite keeping a balance by not overdoing the spicy notes. 

Finally, I swung around to Philip's section, where he served any of nine different cocktails, some of which were original creations and many of which contained St Germain in the recipe -- but he also threw in a couple of standards, as well.  Asking me what I wanted as I perused the selection, I told him, "Make me anything except an Old Fashioned".  He then proceeded to whip me up something called a Salve Germainia, which contained Buffalo Trace, St Germain and Angostura Orange Bitters.  The first surprise about this was the fact that he had Angostura Bitters, which has been difficult to find the past few months; the next part of the surprise was the fact that Angostura made Orange Bitters (Regan's was previously the only Orange Bitters I'd known); lastly, the surprise was that this St Germain recipe was one that I'd never tasted before -- it turned out Philip created it just for that night.  I asked him if Regan's could be substituted for the Angostura Orange Bitters and he replied that he hadn't tried it before, so we then decided to play mad scientist and he made another version of the very same cocktail, except this one contained Regan's.  The main difference between the Angostura Orange and the Regan's bitters was the fact that the Regan's had a fuller, bolder taste to it while the Angostura Orange was subtler, gentler.  Although I preferred the version with the Angostura Orange Bitters, I think either way, you can't miss with this cocktail and I highly recommend you try this one.

The big surprise was kept for later in the evening, when they served what Buffalo Trace liked to call "moonshine" -- the official name being White Dog Mash # 1.  Sold only in the small 375mL bottle, this stuff is very powerful at 125 proof.  I started out with just a tiny sip on my tongue and because of the high alcohol content, it evaporated almost immediately.  The gentleman from Buffalo Trace said that it was about three - quarters distilled corn and was clear in color due to the fact that it was an immature, unaged whiskey.  It was also quite memorable for its rather profound burn and aftertaste, not to mention a strong, but nevertheless alluring aroma.

To end the evening, they served a bourbon and a rye that had a much higher alcohol content than anything we'd tried that evening.  First was the George T. Stagg Barrel Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which was 140 proof, followed by Sazerac Thomas H. Handy Barrel Proof Straight Rye Whiskey, which was 129 proof.  Unfortunately, I don't have any information about how long either was aged or what the aging process was like but what I can tell you is that either in spite of or because of their strength, they were by far the smoothest whiskeys of the evening.

My pick for this evening wound up being the White Dog Mash # 1, in part because it was the most unusual and also in part because it was the cheapest.  Although I bought that one, I wish I could've taken home one bottle of the Stagg Bourbon and one of the Handy Rye, as they were by far the best things I had tasted all evening.  Sadly, at almost a hundred dollars a bottle for each one, it would blow out my budget; if you can afford them, then I highly recommend them both.  But if you're feeling adventurous, do make sure to try the White Dog Mash # 1.

BTW ... the tasting menu may be found here ... 

And Philip's recipes may be found here ...