EZdrinking

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary.

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary. EZdrinking is a drinks blog by Eric Zandona that focuses on distilled spirits, wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. Here you can find reviews of drinks, drink books, articles about current & historical trends, as well as how to make liqueurs, bitters, and other spirit based drinks at home.

Filtering by Tag: Blind Tasting

How Johnnie Walker Helped me to be Less of a Whisky Snob

In my last post I described a blind vertical tasting I helped put together of 11 different expressions of Johnnie Walker Blended Scotch Whisky. Post tasting I realized that my price bias (less expensive whiskies are not as good at expensive whiskies) was getting in the way of me realizing how good Johnnie Walker Red Label actually is. Now that isn't to say that Red Label is world's best whisky however, it is fantastic for what it is and how it is meant to be consumed.

The first time I drank whisky and fully enjoyed the experience was a glass of Macallan 12 Year Old Single Malt. The few times I tried Johnnie Walker Red or Black Label neat I didn't really enjoyed them as much. I took this to mean that my refined sensibilities (read inexperience) prefered single malts to blended Scotch because they were of higher quality. This belief was confirmed in part by my price bias since many blended Scotches are less expensive than single malts. However, in recent months I have started to rethink these assumptions.

After the blind tasting I began working my way through some of the leftover blended Scotch. I drank it neat, mixed with ginger beer and on the rocks. I realize that it wasn't that I didn't like blended Scotch because I prefered single malt but that I was mostly just drinking blended Scotch in the wrong way. Most blended Scotch is meant to be consumed with some dilution either from ice or with a mixer like water, soda, ginger beer or almost anything else. Lengthening the whisky in this way smooths out any rough edges it might have while retaining its core flavor. In addition to Johnnie Walker, I recently tried J&B Rare, and Dewar's White Label Blended Scotch Whiskies on the rocks. While each varied in flavor, they were refreshing , easy to drink , easy to prepare, and a bottle for your home bar can be found for less than $20! Who says blended Scotch isn't any good?

My change of heart on blended Scotch is similar to how I fell in love with Pabst Blue Ribbon. Years ago I participated in a blind tasting of about two dozen light beers and lagers in which PBR ended up being the clear favorite. While up to that point I usually drank craft ales, the tasting helped me to discover a fantastic American lager that works perfectly on hot days or when you're just not in the mood for a beer with more hops or malt flavor. In a similar way, I now see blended Scotch as an excellent choice for a satisfying and refreshing drink when other whiskey drinks or cocktails may not be as appealing. Or, maybe when you just don't want to think about what you're drinking and instead focus on enjoying your time with others.

There are three great things about being less of a whisky snob: first, it increases my options; two, it's easier on my wallet; and three, it increases my opportunity for drinking enjoyment. David Driscoll of K&L Wines has done a series of blog posts called "Drinking to Drink." Much of Driscoll's writing echoes the idea that the reason we drink should be because we like drinking not what it says about us. This is an easy trap to fall into for anyone but especially for those connected on social media and drinks writers in particular. I like to think about the process of how spirits and other amazing drinks are made and what makes them extraordinary. I also like to have a good drink while talking with friends or watching a baseball game or reading. When you have something special like a rare beer that you can only get directly from a monastery in Europe, the beer becomes the focal point of the evening, but when every drinking experience focuses on drinking the rarest, most exclusive, obscure, or expensive liquid, we lose track somewhat of why we are drinking in the first place. More and more when I'm not working, I turn to a drink I know I don't have to think about much. I want to enjoy the drink but I want to enjoy my experiences and the people I'm spending my time with more.

Blind Vertical Tasting of Johnnie Walker

Last year with the help of David T. Smith (Summer Fruit Cup) and Virginia Miller (The Perfect Spot) we arranged a blind vertical tasting of Johnnie Walker Whisky. A vertical tasting is typically when you drink several vintages  or expressions of the same wine, beer or whiskey. In our case we tasted 11 different bottlings of Johnnie Walker both from their core expressions as well as a couple of their more limited/less common expressions. We had Johnnie Walker Red Label, Red Label Export Blend (45.8% ABV), Explores' Club The Adventure, Black Label, Double Black, Green Label, Gold Label (pre-2013), Blue Label, Select Rye Cask Finish, Swing, and XR 21 Year Old. While Johnnie Walker has not been one of my favorite whiskies in the world I had strong opinions about a couple of them and I was excited to see if those beliefs held up when you strip away knowledge of price, age and bottle design.

The event's festivities were hosted by Virginia and her husband Dan, and while we had a good number of whiskies to taste, there were just five couples in attendance which made the event more intimate and relaxed. Now, while I suggested that we just bag the bottles and give them random markings like I'd done in my two previous blind tastings, David insisted that he would act as the steward for the evening and as usual he did an excellent job. David flighted the whiskies with the lighter character ones coming first and leading up to those with a heavier/smokier character at the end.

David and and my wife Tia brought out one whisky at at time which gave us the opportunity to taste, take notes and give it a score from 1-10. As much as possible, we refrained from talking about the whiskies until everyone marked their score  so as not to unduly influence each other's perception of the spirit in the glass. For the most part I didn't have any idea which whisky was which except for the Select Rye Cask Finish and the Double Black which are so distinct that they stood out from the rest.

After David tallied all of the scores the clear favorite among the whole group was Johnnie Walker XR 21 Blended Scotch Whiskey. According to Diageo (owner of Johnnie Walker) the XR 21 was created to commemorate when Alexander Walker II was knighted by King George V. XR 21 happened to be served fifth in our tasting and when I looked back on my notes I was in the minority only giving it a 5 out of 10. I was also very curious to see how I and the other tasters rated the Blue Label. My opinion of this whisky has changed significantly over the years from ecstatic to meh. Not too surprisingly Blue Label came right around the middle of the pack which matched my score of 6 out of 10. Since I have Blue Label so infrequently I don't know if the quality has declined over the past decade as it's popularity and prestige has grown or that I have consumed a lot more high quality whisky. Blue Label is a nice whisky but for the price, I can't justify a re-purchase. Rounding out the bottom of the tasting were The Adventurer, Red Label Export Blend and Johnnie Walker Swing.

Going into the tasting I thought I would score Green and Gold near the top followed by Black, and Double Black. I also thought that I would score Red Label near the bottom however that wasn't exactly the case which is why I love blind tastings.

Here is how I ranked the 11 expressions of Johnnie Walker:

  1. Select Rye Cask Finish Blended Scotch Whisky Aged 10 Years
    • The whisky picked up a lot of flavor for the Rye Cask and tastes sort of like a blend of American and Scotch Whisky.
  2. Double Black Blended Scotch Whisky (No Age Statement)
    • Extra smokey and has a very full mouthfeel for a blended Scotch plus it's easy on the wallet. 
  3. Red Label Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • This was big surprise for me, I really like the flavor of Red Label its got a medium body and best of all I can get it at K&L Wines on sale for $14!
  4. Gold Label (pre-2013) 18 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
    • A nice blended Scotch with a medium body and unfortunately much better than the current Gold Label Reserve being sold.
  5. Blue Label Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • Lots of character in this blend and significant oak character from the long maturation which is partially why I gave it a lower score and some people love it.
  6. XR 21 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
    • This blend has well balanced flavors between the fruit, oak, sweet and dry but for me the finish dropped off quickly and didn't leave a lasting impression.
  7. Green Label Blended Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 15 Years
    • Lots of malt and a good balance of smoke and fruitiness though I marked it down for having a thinner mouthfeel and more heat on the palate. Unlike most other expressions of Johnnie Walker, the Green Label is a Blended Malt which means it does not contain any aged grain whiskies.
  8. Explorer's Club Collection - The Adventurer Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • Main flavors are malt and smoke though this blend is very thin with a short finish.
  9. Black Label 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
    • I didn't find the flavors to be very complex and it had thin mouthfeel and a long hot finish.
  10. Red Label Export Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • Had an odd menthol note in the nose, mouthfeel was thin and it had a lot of alcohol on the finish.
  11. Swing Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • My summary for this blend is light, thin and sharp. One of the best features of this whisky is its bottle, which has a rounded bottom which allows it to gently rock back and forth on a boat without tipping over.

Thank you to Virginia and Dan for hosting and supplying the Blue Label. Thanks also goes to David and Sara who supplied the XR 21 and Red Label Export Blend.

Blind Tasting Bourbon Less Than $50

A while ago I organized a blind tasting of bourbons that cost less than $50. I was inspired to put this together after a small group of friends and I did a blind tasting of whiskeys under $20. That tasting was both a lot of fun and introduced me to a couple of bourbons that I really love. Wanting to repeat this process I put together a game plan. First, I wanted to focus the tasting only on bourbons between $20 and $50. I picked this price point for two reasons: one, my expectation was the overall quality would be a little higher than the under $20 bracket; and two, because it falls in the range that I and many of my friends would feel comfortable spending on a bottle to drink at home from time to time without feeling like its so expensive or exceptional we'd have to save it for some sort of special occasion. Second,  I only wanted bourbons that I knew were sold by the distillery i.e. no Non-Distiller Producer bourbons like Bulleit or Black Maple Hill. Third, I didn't want any single barrel products because by nature their flavor profile can change from barrel to barrel and I wanted to help people find a bourbon that they would like and be able to return to and have it taste the same as it was at the party.  With these criteria in mind I went about finding bourbons that fit.

I found over dozen bourbons that matched my criteria however, 12 samples of bourbons even at 1/4 oz each starts to add up. I wanted to be sure that people could get home safely so I limited the field to nine. As I spread the word among my friends I was able to find about 25 people who committed to coming and who were willing to chip in to cover the costs of the whiskey.

Now, because I also wanted to participate in the tasting, the trick was figuring out how to set things up so the tasting was blind for me as well. The solution I settled on was I would mark nine brown paper lunch bags with the planetary symbols, Mars ♂, Venus ♀ etc. and then my wife bagged the bottles. For a couple of the bottles that were more easy to identify we decanted the bourbon into clean wine bottles.

The tasting was hosted at a friend's house and I placed three bottles of bourbon in the kitchen, the living room and a spare bedroom. The reason for this was that it forced people to move around and not just all congregate in one room of the house. I wasn't concerned about the order in which people tasted the bourbons so it worked fine. In a more formal tasting, flight order is important but for our purposes it was an easy sacrifice.

After a few hours or tasting and eating snacks, I collected the score sheets that I handed out the to tasters. They rated each bourbon from 1-10 based on what they liked. When I tallied the results, one of the first things that stood out was there were no bad bourbons in the batch.  While people liked some bourbons more than others there were no clear winners or losers. In the tasting under $20 it was very obvious that there were a couple of whiskeys that everyone liked and a couple that everyone didn't like, but not this time. This was an encouraging result because what it said to me was if you are going to buy a bourbon in the $20-$50 price range, you can be sure that it is a quality product though you can't guarantee the it will be your favorite.

After tallying the scores here were the results from our group of tasters:

  1. Russel's Reserve 10 Year Old 90 Proof (45% ABV) Distilled by the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY.

  2. Henry DuYore's Straight Bourbon 91.3 Proof (45.65% ABV) Distilled by Ransom Spirits in Sheridan, OR. (This was the only craft bourbon and the only bourbon not from Kentucky in the tasting.)

  3. John E. Fitzgerald Larceny 92 Proof (46% ABV) Distilled at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, KY and owned by Heaven Hill.

  4. Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled in Bond 100 Proof (50% ABV) Distilled at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY.

  5. Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select, 90.4 Proof (45.2% ABV) Distilled at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, KY and owned by Brown-Forman.

  6. Elijah Craig 12 Year Old 94 Proof (47% ABV) Distilled at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, KY and owned by Heaven Hill.

  7. Four Roses Small Batch 90 Proof (45% ABV) Distilled at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, KY.

  8. Basil Hayden 80 Proof (40% ABV) Distilled at Jim Beam's Clermont and Frankfort distilleries in KY.

  9. Maker's 46 94 Proof (47% ABV) Distilled at the Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, KY.

From my personal score sheet my highest rating went to Colonel Taylor which was something I had never tried before and I was happy to find a new bourbon  that I really enjoyed. The other interesting thing was I gave my lowest rating to Maker's 46 which didn't surprise me since I'm not a huge fan of Makers Mark. It was reassuring to see that my taste buds are pretty reliable both when I know what I'm drinking and when I tasting things blind. In the end, this was a really fun event to organize and it was a blast getting a house full of people drinking and discovering some really good bourbon.

Blind Whiskey Tasting $20 and Under

In June, David Driscoll of K&L Wines wrote a series of post called “Drinking to Drink.” While the series touched on a number of things, one of the themes was how whiskey drinkers often correlate price with enjoyment.  Driscoll argued that just because one whiskey is $80 doesn't mean that a drinker will enjoy it four times more than a $20 bottle.  In that same vein he suggested that there were a number of quality whiskeys that could be had for $20 and enjoyed more regularly without breaking the bank. After reading this series, I was inspired to organize a whiskey tasting of bottles that retailed around $20 or less.  I was curious to find out if there was a whiskey that I had overlooked simply because it lived on a lower shelf in the liquor aisle.

With some help from another post by Driscoll and my own mental list, I put together a list of six whiskies around $20 for the tasting.

  1. Buffalo Trace Bourbon
  2. Old Weller Antique Bourbon
  3. Jim Beam Black Label Bourbon
  4. Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon
  5. George Dickel No. 12 Tennessee Whisky
  6. Bank Note Blended Scotch Whisky

I know that Bulleit Bourbon can also be found on sale for under $20 but my friends and I are pretty familiar with it so I decided to leaving it out of the tasting.  I also decided to conduct the tasting blind. That there are a number of factors that can sway the perception of how good a beer, wine or spirit is based on external factors like, what shelf it's on in the store, label design, bottle shape and price.  I wanted to get an honest assessment of the contents of the bottles without being swayed by some of those external factors, so I had my wife wrap all the bottles in brown paper bags before the tasting.

The night of the tasting a friend of mine hosted the event and provided glasses, snacks and still water. We tasted the spirits in random order in glencairn glasses, neat, at room temperature.  We each took notes about what we tasted and gave each spirit a rating.  Once everyone had tasted all the whiskeys we revealed each whiskey from lowest to highest score.

 The undisputed favorite of the evening was Evan Williams Black Label, the least expensive whiskey, which retails at my local Safeway for $9.99.  I had tasted Evan Williams only once before a few months prior and I thought it would do well in the tasting but I didn't expect it to come out on top. Next came Buffalo Trace and Old Weller Antique.  I wasn't that surprised that these did well for the whole group but personally I was shocked that I had rated Old Weller above Buffalo Trace. This surprised me because I really like rye whiskeys and I have never been a fan of Maker's Mark. I assumed that this meant that I didn't like wheated bourbons and that I preferred bourbons with rye in their mash bill over wheat.  But even at 107 proof, I felt like Old Weller was more balanced and had more character compared to the 90 proof Buffalo Trace.

Dickel, Beam and Bank Note finished in the lower half.  Bank Note is a blended Scotch, and for the price I still think it is pretty good but I suspect that compared to all the bourbons it stood out like a sore thumb, and not it a good way.  The results that evening are exactly why I like to do blind tastings.  My assumptions about what I do and don't like were challenged and as a result I now have two new favorite whiskeys under $20: Evan Williams, and Old Weller.