Bourbon is a classic gift. It also makes for tasty holiday cocktails. (See the recipe for a bourbon Manhattan in the Neighborhood Chef colum.) But what’s a spirit novice to do when faced with so many choices? That question was roundly and tastefully answered last week at Saugatuck Grain & Grape’s Big, Bad Bourbon tasting event.
Shop owners Jeff Marron and Mimi McLaughlin and their staff offered guests two dozen bourbons for their consideration and walked the savvy and the uninitiated alike through each sip. “I definitely recommend you spit,” laughed McLaughlin as she handed out the papers to those who wanted to take notes. Good advice when you’re tasting multiple bourbons upwards of 80 proof.
Plenty of the best known names in bourbon—Maker’s Mark, Jefferson's and Jim Beam—were in evidence, though mostly in reserve or small batch form, giving even the usual suspects a twist on taste. The big, bad discoveries, however, came from the smaller, lesser known distillers such as Four Roses, Berkshire, Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare. The flavors from bottle to bottle were as varied and diverse as their labels.
“This is almost butterscotchy,” noted CTBites’ Amy Kunderat of the Buffalo Trace as she compared it to a Berkshire Corn Whiskey with a notable cherry accent. “It’s delicious.”
The next table over, Donald, a SG&G bourbon expert, kicked things up to the next level. “This is serious,” he said of the Eagle Rare. “You’re not getting lost in all that caramel and vanilla. The spice of the rye really comes through, but without any harshness. It’s really a signature bourbon flavor.”
For the label-conscious gifter and drinker, co-owner Marron offered some bottles at his tasting station that were more easily recognized in name, if not as much in taste. “This is kind of a ‘new age’ bourbon,” said Marron of the Maker’s Mark 46, a reserve bourbon. “It’s aged in heavily charred oak barrels and has slightly mellower vanilla and cinnamon notes. They’re taking a signature bourbon and making it a little more appealing to a younger audience. It’s not your grandfather’s bourbon.”
If you missed your chance to get up to speed, don’t worry. The SG&G staff will happily talk you through your spirit options for the holidays and beyond.