Friday, August 3, 2012

Ancient Age Taste Off

When I was in North Carolina, I stopped in their state controlled liquor store.  I had hoped to do some real dusty hunting at liquor stores on the way down, but it wasn't meant to be, I'd have to settle for whatever the fine state of NC had to offer.  Most of the mid and higher shelf products, in both scotch and bourbon, were the usual suspects, nothing I couldn't find up here.  Invariably, however, the bottom shelf looks different from state to state.  All of the major bourbon distillers make 1-3 primary recipes, and age, proof, and package them all to have their own identity.  Thus, Benchmark is the same juice as Buffalo Trace, which is the same juice as Blanton's, George T. Stagg, and so forth.  The nice thing about this store was that they had a bunch of cheapos in pints, so I was able to get a few different ones to try for not a lot of coin. 

In addition to the two Ancient Age labels I picked up, I bought a handle of TW Samuels 100 proof bottled in bond, by Heaven Hill.  You might recognize the Samuels name as a famous one in the bourbon business, as they are the family that started Maker's Mark in the middle of last century.  The label is pretty funny, see if you can read the quotes:

I guess I should have known from a bottle with a "built in pourer" that the stuff inside was not likely to be good.  It wasn't.  But you never know, I've had some good cheap whiskies.

I digress, let's taste.  These Ancient Age whiskies pictured at the top are from Buffalo Trace.  The one on the left is 80 proof and aged "thirty six months."  The one on the right 90 proof and called "10 Star."  Who knows what that means, it has no age statement.  Interestingly, the 80 proof version states that it is made by Buffalo Trace, while the 10 Star says it's made by Ancient Age Distillery.  Each costs about 5 bucks.

Color:  Both are very, very light in color, like straw.  The 90 proof has a slightly richer tinge. 

Nose: The 80 proof is very corny, light, and sweet smelling.  The 10 Star has a bit more interest, with some cinnamon and spice.  I don't think it's the higher proof alone, this one must be a bit older.  I just did a quick Google it seems this one is 6 years old.  My nose didn't lie.

Taste: The 80 proof is hard to describe.  It tastes simultaneously good and harsh.  There is flavor there, some vanilla, some fruitiness, but buried under a certain unpleasantness.  Maybe it's too young, or it's a bad "cut."  The 10 Star is leaps and bounds better.  It has the cinnamon spice that was on the nose, and a bit of vanilla pudding.  It has the character of Buffalo Trace, but more like Benchmark in terms of overall quality, in my opinion.  I wrote this post while tasting and a few nights later had the 80 proof again.  It might satisfy a sweet tooth.  Not so bad.

Finish: As you might expect, the 10 Star wins here, with a higher proof and more barrel, it lingers a bit. It has a similar fade to Benchmark, mostly pleasant, on the top of your mouth.  The 80 proof doesn't stick around too long.  Maybe that's a good thing? 

Value: Clearly the 10 Star is the better value, it was pennies more, at least in North Carolina.  I don't think either of these whiskies are particularly bad, but not that good, either.   I'd probably grab Evan Williams Black Label or try something else before going back to either of these.  Jim Murray rates the 10 Star 91.5, that's pretty high for him.  I'm not sure I was that taken with it, but the fact that some connoiseurs regard it that well does speak to it's value.

Intangible: Buffalo Trace puts out great products from the top to the bottom.  Remember my Dad's Hat review recently?  Buffalo Trace's crappiest stock is 3X older than these new upstarts.  It will take a while for craft distillers to make a major impact, as, unlike beer, whisky requires years to truly shine.  What a luxury to have rows and rows of warehouses to dump whisky from.  I can imagine the folks down in Frankfort now, "This barrel is not fit for our flagship Buffalo Trace.  It's okay, let's just dump it into the next Benchmark batch, sell it for a few bucks and still make a profit."

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