If you’ve been a reader of Paste’s Drink section for a long time, then you likely remember that we know our way around a blind tasting. For years, we conducted massive blind tastings of various craft beer styles, before moving into blind tastings of “bottom shelf” spirits, determined to help people find the best bang for their buck. We’ve always enjoyed both the challenge of blind tasting beer and spirits, and the humbling results it tends to elicit. It’s the one true way to judge the acuity of your palate, and we’ve seen more than one person who thought themselves a capable taster ultimately be embarrassed when what they were tasting was revealed. Blind tasting, as they say, is the great leveler.
Unfortunately, though, blind tastings can be hard to arrange without at least a little help. First, there’s the issue of acquiring the proper spirits, and the fact that your knowledge of what is in a tasting can skew your results of that tasting. Then there’s also a need for physical help in many cases, which typically means a friend or family member pouring samples and keeping track of the results. These hurdles can keep drinkers from conducting blind tastings as often as they might like.
Enter, an upstart company like Blind Barrels, which is specifically focused around facilitating blind tastings of numerous styles of American whiskey from craft distilleries, in an effort to bring this style of tasting directly to the consumer. Blind Barrels works as a subscription service, delivering quarterly boxes that each contain four whiskey samples, simply marked as “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” These whiskeys can vary wildly from each other, running the full gamut of styles (bourbon, rye, wheat whiskey, malt whiskey, etc.), cask finishes and proofs.
The game is simple: You taste the whiskeys, and take notes. When you’re ready to reveal what the whiskeys are, you simply use the attached QR code to look up profiles of each whiskey, and see how close you ultimately were. If Blind Barrels members particularly like any of the samples, they can then buy entire bottles directly from the service and have the bottles shipped to them, at least in most U.S. states where this is legal.
I’m always up for a blind tasting challenge, so I gladly accepted an offer to taste through a box from Blind Barrels myself. So without further ado, he’s how I did in tasting.
This whiskey smells pretty young, fresh and grainy on the nose. It has a bready, husky quality to the grain-forward profile that makes me think it is young, and that there’s either wheat or malted rye involved in this mash bill. I’m getting lots of caramel, some anise, some grassy notes, and toasted bread. All in all, I’m leaning toward this being some kind of wheat whiskey, although if it’s a rye, it definitely features malted rather than unmalted rye. All in all it’s pleasant, though it’s a bit “doughy” for my taste.
Sample A was revealed as Black Button Four Grain Straight Bourbon, from Black Button Distilling of Rochester, NY. My nose wasn’t too far off on this one, as I correctly detected the presence of that wheat in the grist, though this turned out to be a four-grain bourbon rather than a full-on wheat whiskey. This is indeed young, with a 2 year age statement, and is bottled at a very approachable 42% ABV (84 proof). I’m not sure if Blind Barrels specifically chose this to be Sample A because it would be the lowest proof and most approachable of the group, but that would make sense to me if that was the intent.
Sample B was the most certain I felt about anything in this tasting, pegging this one as a pretty classic bourbon profile from the moment I first brought it up to my nose. It features inviting tones of warm caramel, brown sugar cinnamon and hints of dark fruit, evoking something a bit like an oatmeal raisin cookie. Fairly light on the palate and quite easygoing in terms of ethanol heat, but still quite round in terms of texture, it’s a delightful and effortless sipper. Mildly sweet, it has a nice baking spice profile, a combination of sweet and spicy caramel, ginger candy and nutmeg that suggests hints of something like French oak. I certainly found myself enjoying this one, and I feel pretty strongly that this is bourbon.
Sample B was revealed as Kings County Distillery Straight Bourbon Whiskey, from the titular urban distillery in Brooklyn, NYC. This is a surprisingly young whiskey, with only a two year age statement (45% ABV / 90 proof), but its maturation is sped up by Kings County’s use of a variety of different barrel sizes—they use the standard 53 gallon barrels, but also make use of smaller barrels which see much faster maturation thanks to greater surface area. I’m not always a fan of this method, which a lot of whiskey geeks view as “cheating,” but in this context, as part of a blend, it works nicely and captures a lot of nice, oak-accented spice. Interestingly, this mash bill actually doesn’t contain rye at all—it’s 80% corn and 20% English Golden Promise malted barley, a variety often used in beer brewing. Regardless of the eclectic techniques that are used, though, the end result is a pretty classic bourbon profile, which made this one easier for me to identify.
This sample is where things start getting a bit more adventurous and unusual. From the nose, it was clear pretty quickly that this sample was of a significantly higher proof, with a slightly “raw” boozy note to it. Under the ethanol, I’m getting green apple and grainy impressions, and eventually some big caramelized sugars once the booziness blows off a bit more. On the palate, this one becomes pretty sweet, with lots of rich caramelized sugars and vanilla, along with darker fruit impressions. Oak is moderate here, giving this one some trailing dryness not present in the last two samples. I find myself wondering if this whiskey was finished in some kind of other cask, but my palate can’t quite make sense of it. I ultimately have to admit that I don’t feel at all confident in guessing what this one will be.
Sample C was revealed to be OYO Oloroso Finished Wheat Whiskey from the Double Cask Collection of Middle West Spirits in Columbus, Ohio. This is a distillery I know more by reputation than having tasted their wares before, and I often hear of them referenced as the source for Horse Soldier Bourbon in particular. This is a very different sort of product, though, an almost entirely wheat-based (95% wheat, 5% malted barley) whiskey that is initially aged three years in toasted oak before then being finished for an impressive two years in Oloroso sherry barrels, before being bottled at 51% ABV (102 proof). I’m impressed that this one isn’t more syrupy sweet, which is what I would have expected from a sherry-aged wheat whiskey of this strength. Indeed, the sherry isn’t quite as dominant as I would expect it to be, either, and that’s coming from someone who is a big fan of sherried single malts.
This whiskey initially led off on the nose in a slightly subtle way, being notably spicy and very “dark,” with caramelized notes evoking both the sweetness and bitterness of molasses. Probing further, I’m getting a lot of grassy and herbaceous tones, which have me thinking rye. On the palate, though, the first taste of this one floored me in its assertiveness—Sample D is much stronger than I initially took it for from the nose, and it’s intensely spicy, roasty and herbaceous all at once. I am absolutely getting mint/menthol here, along with what seems like copious rye spice and massive amounts of pepper, to the point that I’m still tasting the pepper 10 minutes after taking a sip. I can only guess that this is a bruiser of a barrel proof rye whiskey.
Sample D is revealed to be 291 Colorado Rye Barrel Proof Whiskey, from the titular 291 Colorado Whiskey in Colorado Springs. As I suspected, this is very strong indeed, at 63.5% ABV (127 proof). It’s also surprisingly young, having an age statement somewhere under two years according to Blind Barrels, which likely accounts for some of its heat and brashness. This whiskey is made with malted rather than unmalted rye, which is rarely my favorite style of rye whiskey, with a mashbill of 61% malted rye and 39% corn. Ultimately this one is very assertive and powerful, but it struck me as a bit too unrestrained and lacking in composure for my taste. I suspect that more time in the barrel will help calm things down in what is an intensely flavorful spirit.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.