Bourbon legends: Imbibe’s great bourbon tasting


There might be only a handful of producers, but bourbon is punter-friendly and has huge stylistic diversity. More please, say our tasters, watched over by Jake Burger and Alice Lascelles

It’s a little known fact that virtually all the 250-odd bourbon brands out there are produced by just eight distillers: Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Tom Moore, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve/Brown Forman. This, plus the fact that bourbon is one of the most tightly regulated spirits in the world, should surely mean that there’s little room for stylistic manoeuvre? Not so, said bourbon aficionado Jake Burger when we put the question to him one evening over cocktails – and so the idea of this tasting was born. To begin, we rounded up seven of the top pouring brands, drawn from across the range of distilleries, for a blind tasting. We then also asked Burger to select seven of his all-time favourite bourbons for a tasting and discussion, to see if house styles were sustained as one progressed up the ladder.


For the first part, seven leading pouring brands were tasted blind and scored by the panel, with the results being converted into a percentage score. For the second part, Jake Burger’s selections were tasted and discussed, but not scored.



76 Maker’s Mark (distillery: Maker’s Mark)

A real crowd-pleaser – both on the nose, packed with dark, rich aromas of Jamaican ginger cake, chocolate, coffee, black tea and vanilla, and on the palate a lively, well-integrated mix of spicy tobacco, mace and pepper flavours, underpinned by richer leather and vanilla notes.

45% abv. RRP £23/70cl. Beam Global, 01786 430700

75 Wild Turkey 8yo (distillery: Wild Turkey)

Very powerful, spicy wood characters on the nose – a tad too much for some, but ideal for others. Lots of pepper, sandalwood and nutmeg on the palate, plus tobacco, dried orange and softer nutty/toasty flavours, topped out with some light mint characters and a long finish. A bourbon to reckon with.

50.5% abv. RRP £21.99/70cl. Pernod Ricard, but moving to Gruppo Campari. Call 0800 376 5550 for details.

74 Buffalo Trace (distillery: Buffalo Trace)

Sweet and soft on nose, with several tasters commenting on a subtle floral quality – violets, heather, incense – along with a romantic mustiness redolent of dusty drawers, sunflower seeds and smoke. Structure added by burnt orange, ginger, charcoal, dark chocolate and salted caramel flavours. Great mouthfeel.

45% abv. RRP £20.00/70cl. Inspirit, 020 7739 1333

73 Beam Black (distillery: Jim Beam)

A lot going on in this whiskey, starting with a light, slightly oily nose boasting distinct almond/nutty characters which reappeared again on the palate. Sweet spice and an aromatic floral/pine needle quality joined on the palate by lots of fruit: cherry, stewed fruits, banana and pears.

43% abv. RRP £19.79. Beam Global, 01786 430700

64 Woodford Reserve (distillery: Woodford Reserve)

A very divisive whiskey. While some found the rich, creamy characters (freshly baked sponge cake, coconut, crème caramel) attractive, others found them a little too dominant. Lots of weight on the palate – rich fruitcake, peaches and marzipan – with a touch of heat on the finish.

43.2% abv. RRP £25.99. Bacardi Brown Forman, 01962 762100

63 Bulleit (distillery: Bulleit Distilling Company)

Light on the nose, majoring in sweet top notes of honey, pear and caramel. Also quite light-bodied on the palate. Some liked the maple syrup/aniseed qualities while others found them a little confected. A short finish with a dry spiciness.

40% abv. RRP £18.99/70cl. Diageo, 020 7927 5200

62 Four Roses (distillery: Woodford Reserve)

Some found that this woody whiskey lacked sweetness, but others praised its restrained, dry style which included pepper and juniper, along with more herbal eucalyptus and wet bracken notes. Low on fruit, but rounded out with hints of vanilla and soft chocolate leading to a sooty finish.

40% abv. RRP £18.50. Blavod, 020 7352 2096


Four Roses Single Barrel (distillery: Four Roses)

Jake Burger: Four Roses is an interesting distillery because it does things a bit differently, experimenting with different recipes and yeast strains. The style tends to be quite dry with a lot of wood.

The Panel: The evolved wood character drew a lot more fans this time with its musky, white pepper, bonfire smoke, tobacco and chocolate notes. The only query was an unexpected confected note which was picked up on by three tasters and likened to Love Heart sweets.

43% abv. RRP £33.50. Blavod, 020 7352 2096

Evan Williams Single Barrel 1988 (distillery: Heaven Hill)

JB: This is a really classic bourbon with a very good mouthfeel. Evan Williams was the first bourbon to come with a year vintage – before that, bourbon-making had traditionally been all about creating consistency by getting the blend right.

TP: This bourbon had subtle, waxy sultana and Bramley apple aromas along with notes of caramel, leather, honey and vanilla. Restrained sweetness on the palate, which was also praised for a fine mouthfeel and a very well-integrated, warming finish.

43.3% abv. RRP £62.99/70cl. Eaux-de-Vie, 020 7724 5009

Pappy Van Winkle 15yo (distillery: Buffalo Trace/Van Winkle)

JB: This bourbon is among the oldest examples that you’ll come across. It’s got a lot of alcohol which really helps to sustain the length of flavour – it’s simply sensational.

TP: Very fruity nose full of pear skin, stewed fruit, oranges and a subtle, exotic hint of lychees/potpourri, offset by more manly tobacco and liquorice. Lots of spicy fruitcake, caramel, gingerbread and brandy butter on the palate. Very popular.

53.5% abv. RRP £69.99/70cl. Amathus, 020 8808 4181

Wild Turkey Rare Breed (distillery: Wild Turkey)

JB: A neglected brand that’s still making great stuff. The unusually high rye content plays a big part in making this another sensational whiskey.

TP: A nose full of mushroom/forest floor at first, opening up into coffee, tobacco and nuts. Spicy tea and dried orange, apple and pear flavours liven up the palate, overlaid on soft, rich almond, caramel and chocolate notes.

54.1% abv. RRP £39.99. Pernod Ricard, but moving to Gruppo Campari. Call 0800 376 5550 for details.

Booker’s Bourbon (distillery: Jim Beam)

JB: This has beautiful balance, cracked black pepper and a mouthfeel like a piece of dark chocolate. The kind of whiskey that’s still going 90 seconds after you’ve sipped it. All a bourbon should be.

TP: Tangy, spicy and peppery on the nose in a manner that proved slightly abrasive for some, with lots of rich, sweet spice and nutty flavours on the palate and a very moreish maple syrup sweetness to help the long peppery finish go down.

63.4% abv. RRP £41. Beam Global, 01786 430700

William Larue Weller Bottled 2008 (distillery: Buffalo Trace)

JB: My favourite new whiskey of recent times, made by the Buffalo Trace, which I’d say is among the most innovative of the distilleries. The use of wheat as the flavour grain in this whiskey gives it a little more sweetness. Add a little bit of water to really bring out the flavours.

TP: Soft, smoky aromas blend with cocoa and vanilla and a hint of bitter orange. Beautifully balanced on the palate, full of brooding bonfire, dark honey, bitter marmalade and coffee, softened by toffee and stewed dark fruit. Another favourite.

64.95% abv. RRP £94.99/70cl. Inspirit, 020 7739 1333

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2007 (distillery: Woodford Reserve/Brown Forman)

JB: This is very good, but the 2006 is incredible, it really seduces you – if you see a bottle on eBay, snap it up!

TP: Dramatically different in style, encompassing lively fruit characters (cherry/passionfruit/apricot) at one end and charred tea, toast and bonfire smoke at the other. Blackcurrant leaf and hints of eucalyptus on the palate with a long, caramel biscuit finish.

47% abv. RRP £n/a. Bacardi Brown Forman, 01962 762100.

Thanks to Jake Burger and the Portobello Star for their help with the tasting.

the panel

JAKE BURGER Portobello Star

‘This tasting shows that despite there being only a handful of distilleries working in bourbon, there is still so much character between them – although at the moment there are too few to really sustain a connoisseur’s market. But there is hope on the horizon in the form of new, micro-distillers like Charbay and Hudson Bay, who are going back to bourbon’s roots with small batch production. ’

LUCA CORDIGLIERI China Tang/UK Bartender’s Guild

‘Not only do I like the taste of bourbon, but also the love and the passion and the history that goes into it. It’s fascinating how, out of one mash bill, you can get three or four completely different whiskies. But I think bourbons should do more to promote consumer awareness.’

ANDY FANNON Sandinista

‘I love bourbon but I have a bit of trouble getting people to drink it, straight, at least. I can’t remember the last time someone asked for it straight. But we sell a lot of Juleps, particularly as everyone and his dog has now tried the Mojito so it’s time for something new!’


‘I love bourbon because there is such massive variance in style – and yet it’s still got a bit of a stigma attached to it among many consumers. There should be more of a collective effort to promote bourbon – but at the moment distillers are too worried about compromising their own brand. It should be strength in numbers.’


‘You’ve got to admire the craft and passion that goes into making bourbon. I’m finding that women drink bourbon a lot more these days – particularly in cocktails like the Whiskey Sour. But it’s hard to sell bourbon when you can’t pinpoint the distillery. It would be nice to have a bit more transparency in the industry.’


‘The closeness of the scores shows that bourbon not only has a lot of variety, but also some impressively consistent quality. But the discussion suggested that the current confusion and subterfuge surrounding who distils what is not doing bourbon any favours, preventing bartenders from telling the spirit’s great story.’


‘If you visit the bourbon distilleries it’s amazing to see how passionate they are about what they put in the bottle. In our bar we’re definitely seeing a lot more women drinking whisk(e)y – it’s awesome! Based on today’s tasting, I think more should be done with Wild Turkey.’

Would you like to be on an Imbibe tasting panel, or host a tasting at your bar?

Then email [email protected]

Full English Bourbon?
It might sound odd, but try jazzing up your bourbon offering by adding flavourings of your own to your favourite bottle…

Bourbon and bacon fat may sound like a hangover cure from hell, but it’s actually a smoky/sweet/salty combination that works a treat according to Richard Gillam, who is one of a growing number of bartenders experimenting with homemade bourbon flavourings. ‘Simply grill some smoked bacon, take the fat that runs off and add it to

a bottle of bourbon. Leave it in the freezer until it separates and then strain. It’s great in a Whisky Sour or a Manhattan,’ he says.

● Ginger cake, pumpernickel and fruitcake are also great for giving bourbon cocktails an extra dimension, says Gillam – just add to the bottle and leave for a few days, shaking gently every day, 

and then strain and serve.

● Darren Insall, meanwhile, has been making a special ‘Easter Bourbon’ infused with buttered hot cross buns, while Jake Burger recommends malt loaf – a trick learned from hip speakeasy Death and Co in New York.


Recipe by Richard Gillam of the Gorgeous Group

‘This vintage classic from New Orleans is steeped in history and is named after the original cognac used to make it. We take this classic, bring it right up-to-date with the addition of a perfumed rose, lychee and gold foam for the modern and exotic edge. The lychee foam creates a beautifully smooth bed for the powerful bourbon to follow.’

Glass: Rocks

Method: Fill the glass with crushed ice and add the absinthe. In a mixing glass add the sugar cubes and dash on the rose water. Crush the cube, add half the bourbon and stir with ice, making sure the sugar is broken down. Then add more ice and the rest of the bourbon. Discard the crushed ice and absinthe and fine strain into glass. Crown with golden lychee foam.

  • 60ml bourbon (Pappy 15yo if possible!)
  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 dashes rose water
  • 10ml absinthe
  • 75ml golden lychee foam

For the golden lychee foam:

  • 500ml lychee juice
  • 15ml rose water
  • 75ml eucalyptus honey
  • 50ml lychee liqueur
  • 4 sheets leaf gelatine
  • 50ml egg white
  • Edible gold leaf

Warm the lychee juice and dissolve the gelatine into it. Mix remaining ingredients in a bowl. Pour mixture into a syphon and charge with two ‘creamer’ canisters. Chill in a fridge for about one hour before use.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – May / June 2009

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