True Mastery


by  Blake Riber, creator of  Bourbonr

I don't have a traditional story. I got into bourbon pretty heavy about six or seven years ago, and then, I started to blog about five years ago. I grew up in a family where no one drank, so, it’s definitely a different path then from when I was younger. It was just one of those things where I was like, “Oh, this is pretty cool.” I am a little bit OCD anyway, so if I am into something I research every little caveat or small little “rabbit hole” I can find. I had George T. Stagg for the first time, and got a bottle around 2012, and that was kind of when the collecting side really started. There are definitely those memorable bourbons along the way — Blanton’s was a big one and Weller Twelve was abundant here in Jacksonville. But it was really just more about everything else that went into it. Understanding distillation and how these small changes like, where something is aged in a warehouse can have a huge effect on taste. I’ve selected six barrels from Buffalo Trace, and these days I’m doing about two a month from someone. Here's a few tricks I've learned.

1. Know the history

Single barrels really started with Buffalo Trace. They would always pull barrels aside and say, “Hey, we really like this barrel. Let’s put it aside and bottle it.” As bourbon was trying to move into that higher end and not just be the old whiskey that all the bars serve in their well, they wanted to get a little better reputation for bourbon. Elmer T. Lee was the master distiller at the time, and the owners told him, “Go and pick some of your favorite barrels. We’re going to put them into this new lineup called Blanton’s.” That’s where it all started. If anybody has a good idea, everyone else is going to follow.

2. Train your Palate

You know what the big notes are in bourbon. You’ve got vanilla, you’ve got cinnamon, you’ve got caramel, a little bit of brown sugar, nutmeg. Things like leather, mint, chewing tobacco, black pepper. Those are some of the main ones, so go raid the pantry. Pull those things out, and say, “Okay, here are three different bourbons. I’m going to smell some of the caramel or vanilla extract. Do I get that from this bourbon? No, not really. Okay, well what about some of the black pepper? Am I getting any of the spiciness? That doesn’t fit either.” You can train your mind to say, “Okay, whatever this ester is, usually it is associated with blackberries, for example.” You definitely can train and improve. That’s the fun part - it just takes practice.

3. Brush way before

Don’t do anything that is going to throw off the flavor. Make sure that there are a couple hours between when you are tasting and when you brush your teeth, if it happens to be in the morning. Try not to eat anything at least a couple hours before. Drinking anything like coffee or even sweet drinks could throw it off too.  

4. Stock up on swiss

Whenever Eric Ripert’s staff from Le Bernardine is tasting a new dish, he has them taste off-the-shelf mass-produced Swiss cheese. It is the same today as it is tomorrow, so, if you taste it and you say, “Hmm, this tastes saltier than normal. That tastes a little bit sweeter than normal. I’m getting more nutty notes” then that is kind of your baseline. It doesn’t throw off your palate for tasting anything else and it lets you know where your palate is that day. I’ve done it before barrel picks. You’ve just got to make sure which pocket you keep it in is not getting too hot! 

5. know your bias

It’s hard to be unbiased when you are sitting in a warehouse pulling bourbon straight from the barrel. You’ve got all these barrels around you, and you’ve taken this tour. It’s so cool. Sometimes, everything tastes amazing. You kind of have to go in knowing that can play a factor. A lot of time it’s about who you are tasting with. You get a good group of people, and everybody is sitting around having a good time, stuff just naturally tastes better.

When the bourbon warms up, more comes out of it. When it is colder, it is just a little bit harder to taste. You want it at room temperature. I’ve seen barrel picks where it’s cold in the warehouse and they are wrapping their hands around the glass for a minute or so to kind of warm it up. And then they say, “Alright, now let’s see what we’ve got.” But it’s like how a really cold cocktail goes down a whole lot easier, just because you are not getting the nuance of the flavors as much. “Oh, man. This is cold. And kind of sweet.” Luckily, Buffalo Trace is somewhat controlled. I think that it usually stays around 70 in the tasting room for barrel picks.
7. Consider Closing Your Eyes
I’ve seen people close their eyes. You hear about wine people who have a heightened sense of smell and sound. I’ve heard of someone who was blindfolded for a few days just to heighten his other senses. It worked. 
8. Be openminded

Know what you like, but don’t go in there thinking, “Alright, we’re just going to choose the oldest barrel.” Or, “we’re just going to grab whatever barrel has the most bottles in it.” The exciting part about the single barrel programs is that you can pick a unique, sometimes off the general flavor profile of that brand.

9. understand the classic flavor

Buffalo Trace produces bourbon which is much more on the caramel and vanilla side. You get a little bit of spice, but not a whole lot. There are no real off notes. They are consistent. The flavor is good.

10. Study the specs

Rick height matters because the higher the floor, the higher the temperature during the summers. It could get up to 120/130 degrees at the very top, whereas at the bottom floor, it’s 90. So, you get a lot more evaporation, and typically you’ll see the proof increase when you are higher in the warehouse. You’ll see it decrease when you are on the first floor or lower levels of the warehouse. In the case of the True Barrels, the six and three that you’re talking about is a difference of 25 feet or so. Overall, that’s not too big of a difference. The three True Barrels are all in what I call the “sweet spot” of age too. If you get too old… sometimes it gets over oaked. But, they are all around that eight to nine-year range, which will be good.

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