Democracy. Freedom. House of Cards. All of these things existed before America laid claim to their creation. Whiskey also existed before America did, but just like House of Cards, our version is the best. (Come on, even scotch uses our old bourbon barrels). In honor of his friends' mutual recognition of this fact, the incomparable Ed Moore hosted us for an evening of samples. The contenders were five whiskeys that Ed had recently procured, and no one factor tied them all together aside from their domestic origins. Our diverse collection included three bourbons: Rowan's Creek, Larceny, and Berkshire; one rye: Rittenhouse; and one American straight whiskey: Bully Boy. Probably not a fair fight, all things considered, but we had a good time ranking them and picking out the various notes of almond, abandoned tractor, and new cell phone. None of us were experts, least of all me. Yet as Milton Babbit lamented, in politics and music the layman is regarded as an expert--and we can add whiskey tasting to that list too.
Disclaimer: What follows is the least-possible scientific or controlled account of the whiskeys and should be considered of no use to anyone anywhere.
We each had our favorite rankings, but since I'm writing, I get to order them according to my taste. So of our contenders, I begin with:
#1: Berkshire Straight Bourbon Whiskey
While it was a close call with Larceny, we nearly unanimously preferred the Berkshire. Taking a page out of Irish whisky protocol, Berkshire is distilled three times, giving it a very smooth and refined taste. All of the bourbons claimed to have caramel notes, but in the Berkshire that connection was made most clear. This was great for drinking neat, but it would also work in any bourbon cocktail as its flavor doesn't get in the way of anything else. It'd be especially great for warm drinks like a hot toddy or in a hip flask while caroling...
#2: Larceny Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
What set Larceny apart from the others was its secondary grain: wheat instead of rye. This gave the bourbon a very soft, warm taste. The saison of whiskeys. Though I like the Berkshire as my overall favorite, I'd be most likely to buy this one of the five simply because its flavor is a unique alternative to the Elijah Craig/Elmer Lee ilk without straying too far from what makes bourbon great. Larceny is one I wouldn't want to bruise with water or ice, but rather keep it neat for slow sipping. Incredibly smooth for being 92 proof, especially considering the much harsher 80-proof Bully Boy.
#3: Rowan's Creek Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey
Rowan's Creek was the most variable among our five rankings, and part of that had to do with its description. I'm comfortable with a little suggestion that whiskeys may have toffee notes or a smoky finish; in fact, I like trying to penetrate the complexity of the various tastes. But Rowan's Creek's own advertised description went a little overboard and colored our perception of it, as we struggled to find the hints of "cellar" and "camping under the stars," and the other fifteen supposed taste notes. This also introduced us to Poe's Law, whereby the parody of the thing is indistinguishable from the thing itself. (For us that meant tasting notes, but James's fine example of a Tea Partier works just as well). But it was a solid performer, even if what I swore was a balsam finish was actually cedar, and what I tasted as dusty record collection was actually mint.
#4: Rittenhouse Rye
Rittenhouse Rye was the only one of the five that I'd had before, and I love rye whiskey. For it to come in fourth out of five for me was a bit surprising, but the top two were just such smooth-drinking bourbons that it was really only in contention with Rowan's Creek. It was a solid rye, hitting all the right notes, (you know, like rye bread), and I'm sure that it would make a good, but spicy Sazerac.
#5: Bully Boy American Straight Whiskey
Bringing up the rear was Bully Boy. From Boston. Not even a bourbon, this one stood out harshly against the other more mellow offerings. There's no mistaking the fact that there was a lot of rye used in making this whiskey, and its complexity and finish were somewhat masked by its aggressive bite. Ed (being an organist) and I agreed that it was the Franck Pièce Héroique of the bourbons that evening in this regard: easy to miss its finer points beneath its incessant energetic facade. I suppose that would make the Larceny the B major Cantabile. I'd write something about how its abrasiveness is similar to that of a Red Sox fan, but I'd just come off sounding like a depressed Orioles fan.