Using a Reference Bourbon


In this post I describe how a reference Bourbon can enhance your enjoyment and ability to assess how various Bourbons meet your needs.

If your the type of drinker who pours half a glass of Bourbon and loves it and thinks all this tasting is pretentious nonsense, this post is not for you.   The frontier spirit remains alive and good for you.     

In a Distillery the best Bourbons are tasted against the reference sample.  A reference sample ensures that a brands taste profile, quality and consistency are maintained.  Since all but single cask are made from a number of barrels with small batch which may be 40 to over 200 barrels.  Although these barrels are individually tasted and selected, there are differences, so before bottling each final batch must be tasted against the reference sample.  The taster noses and tastes the reference carefully reminding themselves of the profile which is then compared to a number of pre bottling samples. This is the job of the Master Distiller.

When comparing separate Bourbons we can use the same approach to assess our preferences.  I have my reference Bourbon comparing it to any new ones I taste.  Of course unlike the distillery I am not comparing like with like only my chosen reference Bourbon with a new expression which may or may not be of the same Brand.

I use Elijah Craig 12 year old and will explain why below.

Firstly, it is key to be clear what your objective is in assessing new Bourbons.  In my case I want a repeatable process to decide which Bourbons I enjoy most and which provide me best value. 

If I don’t taste against my reference sample I find that my opinion is subjective.   One day I prefer a new Bourbon but the next day I can just as easily have the opposite opinion.   To eliminate any distortion from anything that might have effected my palate or just my mood, it pays to be comparing one against one. I am a writer not an expert and whilst my palette is good it is far from the best in the small town i live in.

So, you might ask, how did I go about chasing my reference sample?  There are a number of factors to employ:


Price does not necessarily equate to quality but there is certainly a relationship to taste and body.  I wanted a middle of the road price point so as not to completely overshadow the lowest price whiskies or at least give them a fair chance to compete.  I have tasted low cost Bourbons that completely blew my mind.  Not reaching the heights of the best I have tasted but faring well against my reference Bourbon.  This is particularly useful when the manufacturing process changes.  Likewise, the higher priced Bourbons really ought to excel against a mid priced Bourbon but often do not and this is immediately apparent.  My reference process ensures my opinion is not beguiled by my high expectations only to be disappointed at a later date.


Clearly it is preferable to use a reference against the same type of whiskey.  For this reason try to use a broadly similar Mash Bill.  A Rye ought not to be compared to a regular Corn Bourbon nor should a ‘Wheater’.   Minor differences in Mash Bill don’t make a huge difference once a barrel has been matured over time and will serve to demonstrate your own profile preferences.

To help you with this here are the main mash bills with the biggest differences highlighted.  These cover the main distillers.  I have gathered them from various Blogs so offer no guarantees as the exact details are proprietary information.


Mash Bills

Each of the major Distilleries makes several Mash Bills. A Distillery like Buffalo Trace for example might have 14 or so Brands and up to 35 expressions and are reputedly covered by 4 Mash Bills, 2 ‘standard’ differing in rye content by a few percent, a high rye and a wheat,  expressions differ by proof and age.

Mash Bills are not exactly compatible from Distillery to Distillery as types of Rye differ as does starch content of corn so between distilleries it is not like for like.   We are just focussing on which we enjoy so the best use of the Mash bill chart is to ignore the outliers as references and pick a middle of the road sample of a whiskey you like.  For me it would be a 75% Corn, 12.5% rye and 12.5% Barley.  this leads me to  Heaven Hill or Wild Turkey.  I enjoy several others as well but they are close enough to my preferences to be compared with my reference and appreciate the differences.   

Regarding strength, a Master distiller will taste at around 60 proof but not invariably.  I suggest you compare at the proof you like to drink at.  Comparing a cask strength reference to a 90 proof sample wont work so well.  The high alcohol will deaden your ability to taste and higher proof Bourbon tends to have more intense flavours.  I suggest that you experiment but keep it between 60 and 90 proof, roughly.  Beware however that not all Bourbons will bear too much water but practice and experience will guide you here.  Now, you see why you don’t want to be buying too expensive a reference given the amount of practice you need.

To argue with some of what I just said, I do find that by taking a Bourbon to 60 proof the nose opens up to reveal more flavours and taste is easier to discern the different notes.   I did hear Elmer T Lee used 60 proof as his tasting value.  Despite all of this I drink at full proof but add a couple of drops of water except with cask proof when I might add a teaspoon or two.

Depending how much Bourbon you buy or taste and if you find this process helpful, you might want to select a different reference for each of the main Distilleries.  This would then take account of the influence that different yeasts give to each expression.  Yeast and maturation are.  the major contributors to taste and differ from Distillery to Distillery and from brand to brand

The final consideration might be Age.  Something in the middle of the range say from 8-12 meets your needs, not so old as to be too expensive or too woody or have too different a profile meets most needs.  I just use the one – Elijah Craig 12 I enjoy it and it gives me a marker to assess any other whether from Heaven Hill or from a different Distillery.

I would not wish to suggest there is any single answer to choosing your reference.  those that spring to mind as possibilities are, Jim Beam Signature craft 12 y.o or Knob Hill 9 y.o. for Beam Suntory   Eagle Rare 10 y.o. for Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey 101 for the rest.

Once you have compared your reference to the new bottle you will decide which you prefer and position it in your personal ‘league table’ of Bourbons or Ryes or whatever.    Of course may then wish to iterate comparing it with the Bourbon above it in your ranking or the one below adjusting its position accordingly.  The important thing is to have fun, learn and enjoy.  This is best done with good friends as we all have different palates and preferences.  The distilleries use tasting panels to reach a consensus.

i tend to initially rate new Bourbons as Much Better (than the reference), a bit better, about the same, not as good, much poorer.  This seems to work for me and fit my collection categories of Daily drinking, Indulge, Stock, Don’t replace.   It may take a few attempts to be sure I am happy with my rating.   I do have a scoring system which I use for a more accurate assessment when I take the time to make tasting notes.  for more on this see my post

Note that Elijah Craig has intimated as of January 2016 they are to lose their Age Statements on the expressions I mentioned.  This offers an excellent opportunity to grab one of the last few age statement bottles to practice your reference sample techniques.  Does the new expression equate to the Age statement reference.  Now if you really want to have some fun, keep a couple of 5cl samples each of the Age Statement and the new expression.  Label these, date them and keep them safe as these are the foundation of your sample library.  It goes without saying it is best to remember to do this before you finish the bottle.  You cant get it back.


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