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Handicapping a Bourbon Derby

PHOTO BY WILLIAM M. DOWD (double-click to expand images)

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY -- There they stood, a half-dozen strong, the photographer's lights glinting off their sturdy necks, all eyes upon them as they prepared to battle to the last drop in their very beings.

The true aficionados in the crowd evaluated the contestants as though they were prize yearlings at one of the horse sales in this famed racing town: "A slow starter but a powerful finisher." "Lingered a little too long." "Could be a winner for some."

The venue was 9 Maple Avenue, a cozy tavern in this horsey-set little city where owner-barkeep Mike Sirianni stocks 120 scotches, 28 bourbons, dozens of vodkas and on and on. An old-fashioned brick pub with modern spirit sensibilities.

The occasion: a private tasting session of six top-end specialty bourbons.

The resurgence of "brown whiskeys," an offshoot of the rebirth of the cocktail hour that started a few years ago with new martini bars and a run on collectible barware, was the impetus for the tasting. No sense limiting such things to wines, coffees, teas and chili. The bourbon industry -- the Jim Beams, Wild Turkeys and Maker's Marks of the world -- has put on a global full-court press, scooping up medals in spirited tasting competitions, making themselves available in markets that had only heard rumors of this bold, smooth American liquor but had never had access to it.

Our panel of tasters met to try six labels on the upper end of the price and craft scale: $3.50 to $11.50 a shot. Each was rated on a scale of one to five points for color, clarity, aroma, smoothness and aftertaste.

The five judges' tasting process was straightforward. The entries were poured and sampled one at a time with or without water, beginning with the lightest -- Basil Hayden (80 proof, 8 years old) -- and ending with the powerful Booker's (120.5 proof, 7 years, 10 months old). Both are from Jim Beam Brands. In between were Hancock's President's Reserve (88.9 proof, age 5 years plus) from the Ancient Age distillery; Woodford Reserve (90.4 proof, age 5 years plus) from Labrot & Graham; Elijah Craig (90 proof, 18 years old), and Pappy Vin Winkle's (90.4 proof, 20 years old).

The results, bearing in mind that individual chemistry and preferences can easily cause the same whiskey to be viewed in widely divergent ways:

Basil Hayden: This was a nice starter. Mild enough not to deaden the palate for the later samplings. It's one of the popular Jim Beam Brands "small batch bourbons" and a good starting point for those people curious about bourbons but under the misapprehension that one sip will knock you head-over-teakettle. It's a light, clear distillation with slightly citrus overtones, a pale amber look and mild aroma.

Hancock's: This single-barrel whiskey (which means it is not a blend of several barrels) has a somewhat sweet taste, making it perfect for mixed drinks. One taster said it had "almost a clove taste," another that it was "a tad strong and sour." It got its highest marks for color and aroma.

Woodford Reserve: Here we began nudging above the 90-proof brands. This one attacked the palate with its not-unpleasant hints of leather and tobacco. "Too much going on!" said one judge. However, "That is beautiful," said another while holding his glass up to the light. Two sips later he compared the taste to that of diet soda. Several found the aroma flat after the initial leather/tobacco experience, but two others liked the lingering finish. Everyone loved the look of it and the mellow aftertaste.

Elijah Craig: Here we were into the 18-year-old stuff, although still at around 90 proof. "It's amazing what age does to a bourbon," remarked one judge. "Great when sipped slowly," said another. Most thought the aroma complex with many diverse scents -- vanilla, caramel, spice. Finished on top of the field in three categories: clarity, aroma and smoothness.

Pappy Van Winkle's: This 90-proof 20-year-old was much touted by our barkeep, but didn't fare as well with some of the judges. The good comments: "Sweet, woody finish." "Could be a winner for some." "The color is perfect." The bad: "A bit sharp and fruity." "Too much bite." "Far too pungent an aroma; works against the taste all the way."

Booker's: This unfiltered 120.5-proof whiskey is bold in color, aroma and taste. Its powerful taste and high alcohol content can smother other tastes, so it's best to have it as an after-dinner drink with a splash of water. (Contrary to what you may think, adding a bit of water to a fine bourbon only lengthens the lingering aftertaste, rather than diluting it.) "It has a strong initial bite that levels out just a bit. The bite shouldn't be confused with the fact that it is very smooth," said one judge. "Makes me want to dance," said another who, it should be noted, did not.

When the scores were counted up, Elijah Craig (109.2 points) was the winner by a fairly wide margin over Pappy Van Winkle's (101.5) and Booker's (100.5). The bottom three were Hancock's (94.5), Basil Hayden (86.5) and Woodford Reserve (82.4).

Of course, given the Elijah Craig place in history that gives credit to Mr. Craig for creating bourbon, just being selected to be in the same competition with it is an honor.

Then, mission completed, photographer's lights packed away, and bottles and glasses returned to their upright positions, we slunk into the night, designated driver at the wheel.

We felt good.

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