I tasted nearly three dozen bourbons on a recent trip to Kentucky. Here were some of my favorites (prices are indicated for those available in Pennsylvania):
Elijah Craig 18-year ($36.99): A single-barrel bourbon that Scotch drinkers might like, with notes of vanilla and lemon that segue into a lingering smoky char with a briny, pleasantly sour finish.
Four Roses Single Barrel: Complex and rich with licorice, mint, fresh-baked bread and cocoa. Every barrel is unique. To debut outside Kentucky this month at Park Avenue Liquors in Manhattan.
Pappy Van Winkle's 20-year ($72.99): The top of the line for old bourbon, this is what pipe smoke, caramel and clove-stuck oranges might taste like after two mellow decades in the barrel. The 15- and 23-year-olds are also spectacular.
Eagle Rare 10-year ($22.99): Vanilla cream, almonds and citrus peels hover behind a spicy whiff of rye in this racy single-barrel bourbon from Buffalo Trace. Lots going on for the price.
Woodford Reserve "Kentucky Derby" ($31.99, 1 L): This favorite "house bourbon" issues a colorful collector's edition bottle each spring in honor of that year's Run for the Roses.
Rowan's Creek: This 12- to 15-year-old from tiny Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (Willett Distilling Co.) in Bardstown packs a lot of dried figs, honey and floral spice into its 100-proof juice.
A.H. Hirsch 16-year ($49.99): Very limited, but a remarkably big and complex sipper (with just a few bottles left in Montgomery County State Stores).
Jim Beam Black ($19.99): Beam's premium bottle before the small-batch series (Knob Creek, etc.) was launched, the 7-year-old black label is still a value winner, a lusciously balanced drink of spicy and sweet.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed ($29.99): A barrel-strength whiskey that dances lightly, considering its stiff 108.4-proof punch. Exhibits Turkey's signature barrel-wood notes of nutmeg and spice.
Woodford Reserve's Four Grain: A special collector's edition that adds the cereal sweetness, ripe fruit and vanilla of wheat to Woodford's brassy pot-stilled brew. Extremely hard to find (even in Kentucky), but Barclay Prime still has a couple of pours left at $15.50 a shot.
- Craig LaBan