Who would win at croquet: Usain Bolt or Batman?
Back in the time before the internet, when diversions were harder to come by, I used to while away the hours with my adolescent friends by debating these nonsense matchups. The outlandishness of the competitions was matched by the earnestness of the debate, with serious consideration given to each contender’s advantages and weaknesses.
A key feature of these discussions was their inessential nature, as they often involved fictional characters matched against celebrities, with no coexistence between the two in actuality. At this point, even our most patient readers are probably scratching their heads. How does any of this pertain to whiskey?
I continue to love a good head-to-head, and have embraced this format (featuring whiskeys, rather than Olympians and superheroes) in several of my reviews on this site. However, usually there’s some internal logic underpinning them. Comparisons of varying whiskeys from a single distillery can highlight which expressions from a given range best showcase that producer’s strengths. Alternatively, comparisons of several different whiskeys of a single type (e.g. wheated mash bill, barrel proof, or what have you) can be used to crown categorical champions.
In reality, though, this approach is not reflective of the daily experience of most consumers. It’s impossible to imagine an average customer entering the liquor store and thinking about which expression from Heaven Hill’s Rye Mash Bill best suits her fancy. Casual drinks with friends often incorporate a shared bottle or two, but one would start catching quizzical looks by trying to turn the event into a rigorous tasting of a half dozen bottled-in-bond whiskeys (depending, of course, on the wonkishness of the friends).
Thus, these contrived contests are largely an academic exercise, existing as conceits to justify the writing of a review. They may be of interest to readers for their intellectual aspects, but they’re unlikely to be useful at the moment a decision needs to be made. Gazing at a quotidian store shelf, one is likely to encounter a motley selection of bottles assembled and presented without rhyme or reason, beyond some combination of availability and what the retailer thought would be most economically successful to stock. There might be the occasional gem or rarity, but mostly one would expect to find the same big, well-known brands with broad distribution.
So, what would a review structured to replicate this experience look like? You’re going to find out directly. At the heart of today’s piece is a comparison, albeit one chosen essentially at random. The backstory is: Will, a friend of this site, sent me a sample of Elmer T. Lee to review (three cheers for Will, and all our generous donors). Another supporter, Scott, mentioned that he’d like to see this tasted against Woodford Reserve. Why? Just because.
I pressed Scott on what prompted his request. Was there some angle I was missing? Traded stocks, a secret connection, or some other similarity that required investigating? He responded, “The only connection I hypothesize is they are both good for $35.” That’s it and – per the above – it’s a good enough reason to carry on.
Speaking of price: like many of its prestigious siblings in the Buffalo Trace stable, Elmer T. Lee is seldom found at all and more infrequently found at suggested retail price. A scan of the Instagram channels dedicated to overpriced bourbon shows this marked up to prices as high as $300 or $400. I haven’t even tasted this yet, but I’m fairly confident in saying that this bourbon is probably not worth 10x SRP.
Why? Time for some particulars: this is from Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #2, which is said to be higher rye (12-15%) than Mash Bill #1 (<10%). You’ll recall that Mash Bill #2 also underpins Blanton’s, itself created by the eponymous Mr. Lee. You can refer to my initial dalliance with Blanton’s if you’re interested in more of his story.
The markup and mash bill are not the only similarities between “ETL” (as those acronym-rich and time-poor social media folks have dubbed it) and Blanton’s. This is also a single barrel expression, diluted down in this case to 90 proof (45% ABV), compared with 93 proof (46.5% ABV) for Blanton’s. It’s not clear from any of this that Elmer T. Lee should be an improvement over Blanton’s, itself not a standout in terms of delivering flavor.
As always, though, an open mind is a prerequisite. I am now interested to taste this whiskey which commands enough interest that someone feels it can plausibly be offered for four Benjamins. For the purposes of scoring, I’ll be evaluating it as though I paid around $40 for it.
Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel – Review
Color: Bright orange.
On the nose: A rich and round note of butterscotch immediately jumps from the glass. There’s a baked and buttery scent of fresh croissants, as well as a fruity mélange of key lime and underripe cherries. Cinnamon sticks, Christmas spices, and freshly sanded cedar wood notes finish off what is, in total, a very appealing aromatic profile.
In the mouth: This starts silently on the lips, but the tongue is greeted with more of the tart cherry nuance. Falling more or less mute at midpalate, the whiskey takes on a soft and creamy texture before reversing into a pert nip of limestone. The rich butterscotch note re-emerges as this moves toward the back of the mouth. There’s a surprisingly spicy heat that radiates from this through the finish which, while not yielding much in the way of flavor, is intriguingly textured and would have had me guessing that this was well above 90 proof.
This is better – both on the nose and in the mouth – than Blanton’s. Overall, the whiskey isn’t terrifically complex or challenging. However, it makes up for this with a gently pleasant and mildly charming character. By way of flaws: it is mute at certain points in the mouth, but there aren’t any off-notes or disharmonious clashes to be found, either. I wouldn’t dream of paying much more than $40 for this, but at that price it performs at a level consistent with other comparably priced offerings on the shelf.
On to Woodford Reserve. Though I have tasted this whiskey (dubbed “Distiller’s Select”) on many occasions, I have yet to give it a proper consideration through the lens of the Malt critical framework. I did take a crack at the Woodford Malt Whiskey; have a gander at that review/animal rights screed if you’d like to learn about the history of the distillery.
As for similarities: it’s also got a high rye (18%) mash bill. Proof is close to “ETL” at 90.4 (45.2% ABV). Unlike Elmer T. Lee, Woodford Reserve bourbon is not allocated or scarce or priced opportunistically. 750 ml of this runs $35 in my neck of the woods and bottles remain in plentiful supply. It’s also not a single barrel, but rather a batched release; in this case, we’re dealing with bottle 3776 from batch 1033 (this is a 375 ml).
Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Auburn-tinged copper.
On the nose: Sumptuous notes of cherry mingle with a hard-edged and sappily woody aroma of pine. At first sniff I loved this, then began to feel a little sickened by it after the third or fourth inhalation, at which point an acetone-like intensity overwhelms the fruit. There’s the medicinal herbal note of the pitch-black liqueur that you’d be served as a hazing ritual in an eastern European country (Becherovka, I’m looking at you). After some time in the glass, the sickly-sweet scent of overripe (to the point of being nearly rotten) peach starts to creep in.
In the mouth: At the fore, this has a roasty note that turns immediately toward a piquant, sickly green woodiness. This is ameliorated at midpalate with a turn toward the fruitier cherry notes, though this is accompanied by a lamentable thinning-out texturally. There’s a brief, punchy, and much-needed limestone note, but only for a second. This whiskey then makes a watery disappearance with a vague and muddled note of mocha.
It would have been a fun bit of turnabout if the widely available bourbon with nearly identical specs bested the one that is chased and overpaid for and hoarded and Lord knows what else. Regrettably, it was not to be, as this whiskey has several off notes that more than cancel the few positives that sing out. The wood seems to have been overused to bad effect here, imparting aromas and flavors that are so excessive as to be repellent. In total, it gets docked a point from the average.
These each stand alone as bottles of whiskey in the $35 range, at which price they perform within a standard deviation of expectations. I wouldn’t buy or order the Woodford Reserve again unless I were in a pinch. The Elmer T. Lee is alright but little more; I’d drink it again on the condition that no exertion of brain, body, or bank account were required to secure it. On to more important matters: Simone Biles vs. Superman in “Battleship.”
Lead image kindly provided by Hedonism with the Woodford photograph coming via the distillery. There are commission links above if you wish to support Malt and make a whiskey purchase – such things don’t even create an itch to scratch on our opinion.