A slight departure today from my usual computer science rants (er, posts) as I do a side-by-side sampling of two of my favorite bourbons.
First, let me say that I am a wheated bourbon fan, and my go-to pour is Old Weller Antique, which is a Buffalo Trace product and closely related to the Pappy van Winkle product line. When you can find it, OWA is a $25 bottle and is consistently delicious; I find it better tasting than Weller Special reserve which is usually a few dollars more. Sadly, over the past few years a myth has spread that the Weller line is a ‘poor man’s Pappy van Winkle’ (especially if you blend the OWA and Special Reserve), and it’s been difficult to find ever since. The rumor is that Old Weller is the also-ran barrels when it comes time to choose which will become Pappy van Winkle, which can sell for $500 per bottle or more. There’s a shop in town that will sell you only one bottle of the limited supply that they get. SAD!
Old Rip van Winkle is a Buffalo Trace bourbon that uses their wheated mash bill; there’s more wheat than rye in the recipe. Wheat tends to soften the flavor a bit…bourbons high in rye have a slightly astringent smell and taste, while the wheats are sweeter. In both recipes, of course, corn is the main ingredient, since that’s what defines a bourbon. The parent company is Diageo. Old Rip is a ten-year-old bourbon that is blended and bottled at 107 proof, the same as Old Weller Antique. Its suggested retail is in the $50 range but it is not possible to buy at that price…a more typical bill is around $200.
Booker’s is a Jim Beam product (the parent company is Beam-Suntory), and is bottled at barrel proof, so each batch is slightly different. Typical ages for Booker’s batches range from 7 o 8 years. The batch I’m tasting now, 2015-06 Noe Secret, is 128 proof, aged about seven years. The mash bill is fairly high in rye rather than wheat. It’s a $50 bottle, though I’ve read rumors that Suntory is going to push that up to $100 for upcoming releases…time to stockpile.
If you just read the mash bills and overviews of the two bourbons, one wheat, one rye, you’d think they’d taste pretty different, but I recall thinking after my first sip or two of Booker’s, “Wow, that reminds me a lot of Old Rip. I should do a comparison one of these days.” Thus this post.
We’ll start with the nose. Old Rip is predomiantly butterscotch and vanilla. It’s one of the few bourbons that I can identify with my eyes closed. Remember how warm butterscotch pudding smells right off the stove? Add a drop of vanilla, give it a good long inhale, and you’ve got Old Rip. It’s rounder and sweeter than vanilla extract. I’ve often wondered if there’s some additional ingredient in there, since the smell is so unique, but I’ve not seen any indication that there is.
Booker’s is a little different…the astringency of the rye peeks through, and there’s a slight orange overtone with a little almond thrown in. At 128 proof there’s a significant alcohol overtone as well, so you’ll want to open your mouth slightly as you give it a whiff to offset that.
In color, both have a deep golden hue, though Old Rip is slightly darker. Both exhibit the kind of legs you’d expect at these proof levels.
Now for taste. First the Old Rip.
Sorry, I got lost there for a minute. Old Rip is amazingly smooth at 107 proof, and the butterscotch holds for a very long time. It’s a little viscous which makes me think that the overall sugar content is a little higher than an average bourbon. There’s a bit of bite at the tip of the tongue, then just warm buttery pudding goodness that spreads front to back. The finish lasts a good minute.
Next, the Booker’s.
It’s high proof, and it bites. For this comparison I didn’t water it down to 107 to match the Old Rip. There’s less viscosity, less butterscotch, and just a hint of rye astringency. It reminds me a little of crème brûlée, which has a little bit of ashy bitterness from the burnt sugar, and then toffee and orange in the finish, which is quite long…less than Old Rip but not significantly so.
The verdict? Booker’s is not Old Rip van Winkle by any stretch, however it is the closest in flavor that I’ve run across in a $50 bourbon. You can’t get Old Rip in your average liquor store…the few bottles that each store receives are allocated well in advance…but Booker’s is readily available (at least for now). For sipping, I’d add a little water to get Booker’s down to around 110 proof (half an ounce of water or an ice cube for two ounces of bourbon). I wouldn’t use Booker’s (or Old Rip, for that matter) as a mixer; that’s what Weller and other are for. Both have a lovely toffee-butterscotch flavor that is ideal for sipping in front of a warm fire. I pull out the Old Rip on special occasions, but Booker’s is almost always in play on my shelf.
One caveat…Old Rip is pretty consistent due to the way it is blended. Booker’s is bottled right out of the barrel, and each batch is slightly different. If you find a batch of Booker’s that you are simply ga-ga over, grab as many as you can.