A Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon Brands

“Can you taste that Jim Beam funk?”

“This has that typical Buffalo Trace sweetness.”

These, and many more, are all statements that I hear when sampling the many different whiskey brands produced by the small handful of extremely large and diverse bourbon producers.

These statements have often caused me to wonder what, if any, definable characteristics makes each bourbon product line* unique.  This post provides one man’s observations** of just that – six major bourbon distilleries and six basic descriptions of what to expect from each.

Click here to expand.

*The above chart is one often borrowed across the Internet.  It is an infographic displaying the major distilleries across the United States and the lineage linking specific brands to one another.  The chart is taken most recently from GQ, but is originally excerpted from The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining.

**I have enlisted Stephen Netherton to review and provide comment and criticism, which I’ve attempted to incorporate with changes herein.

First, an aside.  Let’s make a few things very clear at the outset:  This article is overly simplistic, it narrowly describes subjective characteristics, and it attempts to pigeonhole undeniably diverse brands.  But here is the thing, this is intended as a 30,000-foot view to provide general guidance and basic knowledge.  It is intended to help those just beginning to enjoy bourbon to identify basic flavors and aromas of those products they enjoy, and to enable them to make better educated decisions on what other bourbons to try in the future.

Below I take six of the largest bourbon producers, each of which have fairly diverse product lines.  For each producer, I describe what you might find generally across the producer’s product lines, using these five categories of characteristics:

Spiciness –  From a scale of 1-5, how spicy are the bourbons?  How would you describe those spices:  rye spice, cinnamon, clove, herbal, floral, minty, peppery, etc.?

Fruitiness – From a scale of 1-5, how fruity are the bourbons?  How would you describe those fruits:  citrus, cherry, dark fruit, berries, dried fruit (like raisins or dates), etc.?

Sweetness –  From a scale of 1-5, how sweet are the bourbons?  How would you describe the sweetness:  corn sweetness, brown sugar, burnt sugar, butterscotch, toffee, caramel, honey etc.?

Nuttiness – From a scale of 1-5, how nutty are the bourbons?  How would you describe the nuttiness: peanuts, pecan, almond etc.?

Other – What other primary characteristics describe the bourbons:  woods, grains, malt, charcoal, tobacco, leather, vanilla, chocolate or cocoa, etc.?

I’ll note that the above list of characteristics is simply my take on a typical tasting guide commonly used in the bourbon community.  Some lists have more or fewer categories, but I believe the above works just right for this purpose.  Notwithstanding, I welcome your comments on anything I may have left out.

Jim Beam Products – (Jim Beam, Old Grand-Dad, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s, Booker’s, etc.)

Jim Beam

Beam products are best known for what many call the “Beam Funk.”  This nuttiness/mustiness is prevalent to some degree from the lower end, lower proof bottlings up to the higher end, higher proof bottlings.  At the lower end of the spectrum, the “funk” takes on a bit more wet cardboard flavor (3-4), while at the higher end it takes on a bit more of a peanut flavor (4-5).

Beam has two mash bills (i.e., recipes), one low rye and one high rye (bourbon by definition consists of no less than 51% corn, and the remaining 49% is generally made up of 5% or so of barley, more corn, and then either wheat or rye, with the percentages of rye varying from 5-10% to 30+%).  On both recipes, Beam rates pretty low on the spiciness scale (1-2 on the low rye), but products like the Old Grand-Dad line have a bit more peppery spice (2-3 on the high rye).

Beam is known for their oak flavors, with most of their products having some slightly woody char characteristics.  On a sweetness scale, Beam is probably in the middle (2-3), with balanced caramel and corn like sweetness throughout. Fruitiness comes in some of the older products in the way of dark fruit; while present, it isn’t prominent (in the 2-3 range).   As to the “other” notes, Beam stays pretty true to a typical bourbon with vanilla notes throughout the product line.

Links to the lower end Jim Beam Black Label can be found here, while Knob Creek and Bookers can be found here and here, respectively.

If you like the Beam products, I might suggest some of the older Heaven Hill products, which share some of the same nutty characteristics, moderate sweetness and light spiciness.

Buffalo Trace Products – (Buffalo Trace, E. H. Taylor, Eagle Rare, Stagg, Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee, Weller, Pappy Van Winkle, etc.)

Buffalo Trace

Sweetness dominates the lineup of Buffalo Trace.  The Buffalo Trace Distillery products four mash bills: one low-rye bourbon, one high-rye bourbon (which isn’t even that high in rye), one wheated bourbon, and one rye whiskey (still very low in rye).  Across those mash bills, Buffalo Trace produces very sweet bourbons with heavy corn, caramel, brown sugar and butterscotch notes (4-5).

Spiciness is low across the board (1-2). Even Buffalo Trace’s Sazerac Rye is very sweet (4) and lacks much spiciness (3-4 even on a rye).  Much of Buffalo Trace’s spiciness comes in the nature of baking spices, like cinnamon and allspice, and not in a pepperiness or rye spice.

There is little to no nuttiness in any of the Buffalo Trace products (0-1).   On a fruitiness scale, the products are fairly diverse (1-3 range), with some products having an orange-citrus flavor while others have a darker fruit or dried fruit flavor (fruit leather, raisins and dates).  Other flavors like vanilla, chocolate, cocoa and leather can be picked up in some of the products (1-3), but char, graininess and maltiness are largely absent.

Links to the wheated lineup are here and here and here, and the high-rye mashbill lineups can be found here and here.   A review of the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac can be found here.

If you like Buffalo Trace products, well…, try more Buffalo Trace Products.  Beyond that, you might venture into the Heaven Hill lineup, which probably best limits spiciness and heightens sweetness.

Brown-Forman Products – (Old Forester, Woodford Reserve, Jack Daniels).

Old Forester

Bold caramel syrup sweetness and deep oak leads, follows, and finishes Brown-Forman’s profile.  On a sweetness scale, Brown-Forman rates fairly high (3-5) with notes of thick caramel syrup, some butterscotch and often toffee.  Compared to the other sweet bourbon Buffalo Trace, the caramel is deeper and more dominate and candied.

Although sweetness is often a product of the wood, these offerings have separate and distinct robust oak flavors across the board (3-4).  The oakiness is not generally an old, musty, aged oak, but more of heavy dark sugar sweetness and caramelized wood. There is certainly heavy vanilla accompanying the caramel sweetness (3-4), but the pure wood notes definitely dominate.

Fruitiness is lower than some but still prevalent (2-3), highlighted by some citrus flavors and dark cherry.  The spice is middle-of-the-road (2-3) and fairly simply just rye spice.

If you like Brown-Forman products, you might consider Jim Beam products as those tend to also feature dominating wood notes.

Four Roses – (Yellow Label, Small Batch, Single Barrel, etc.)

Four Roses

The Four Roses products are at first blush the least diverse, as their only products carry the Four Roses name.  But the Four Roses ten unique recipes make it one of the most diverse and difficult to summarize.  Notwithstanding, I’m still going to try.  Four Roses produces ten distinct distillates:  five different yeast strains are paired with each of two mash bills (a low-rye, which is still 20% rye, and a high-rye, which is 35% rye).  Prominent in nosing and tasting all the bourbons is the spice – even Four Roses low-rye recipe is, by all comparison, high-rye.  The strong spice (3-5) comes across as largely a rye spice, but is generally accompanied by some cinnamon, pepper and plain ol’ rye heat (not alcohol heat, but spice heat).

Interestingly, Four Roses tends to balance the heat and spice with a light caramel, corn and brown sugar sweetness (3-4) and a rich berry fruitiness (3). Oak is prevalent but not dominant (2), providing primarily a burst of vanilla (3).  Notable in many (but not all) of these recipes are rich floral or herbal spice notes.

A link to several of Four Roses offerings can be found here.

If you like Four Roses, you are most likely a fan of high-rye bourbons.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much else on the market that balances the spiciness with sweetness and oak like Four Roses.  However, you might like Wild Turkey or some of Jim Beam’s higher rye bourbons, or even a buffalo trace rye whiskey like Sazerac (it too has an amazing balance of sweet and spice).

Heaven Hill – (Evan Williams, JW Dant, Fighting Cock, Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna, etc.)

First, full disclosure.  Heaven Hill speaks to my flavor profile, so I’m generally a bit protective of “there isn’t anything like it.”  But Heaven Hill produces some extremely well-balanced products.

First and foremost, most of Heaven Hill’s products have a sweet fruitiness to them – something that I describe not just as sweetness and not just as fruitiness, but a combination of the two.  The dark fruits (3-4), along with some caramel, tends to define the sweetness (3).  This sweet fruitiness is balanced by a cinnamon-like spice (2-3) and a rich oakiness (3).  Vanilla and caramel notes are most prominent in the wood flavors.  Surrounding all this is often a delicious nuttiness (3-4, not quite like Beam’s younger funk but more like its older peanutiness).

Links to Heaven Hill’s product reviews can be found here and here.

If the sweetness of Heaven Hill speaks to you, maybe give Buffalo Trace a try.  If the sweet fruitiness or nuttiness speaks to you, try Jim Beam.  If the wood flavors and stronger caramels speak to you, then give Brown-Forman or Wild Turkey a try.

Wild Turkey – (Wild Turkey, Rare Bread, Kentucky Spirit, Russel’s Reserve 10, Russel’s Reserve Single Barrel, etc.)

Like Four Roses, the total offerings by Wild Turkey are fairly limited.  However, unlike Four Roses which uses multiple recipes, Wild Turkey uses a single recipe, a single yeast strain, and is pretty predictable across the board.

A strong sweetness (4-5) comes primarily by way of toffee and caramel, but often takes a turn towards butterscotch.  Spiciness is a rye spice paired with pepper (3-4), often with some light cinnamon.  Fruitiness (2-3) is primarily dark fruit and orange citrus.  Other notes include vanilla and a nice rounded seasoned oakiness (3-4).  Alcohol smell and burn is a common characteristic.  There is no general nuttiness to these offerings (0-1).

Although the wood notes are more “seasoned” and balanced here, if you enjoy the woodiness you might enjoy Brown-Forman.  If you most enjoy the spiciness, give Four Roses a try.  The sweetness is a bit unlike the other brands, but Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace and Brown-Forman might all provide some interest.

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