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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Sipp’n Corn Bourbon Review – “The 107 Proof Challenge” – Old Weller Antique vs. Pure Kentucky XO vs. Baker’s

I had often wondered why a handful of Bourbons were offered at 107 proof.  Was this supposed to be a sweet spot?  Knowing barrel-entry proof used to be lower, I wondered if it was a throwback to earlier days.  I read what supposedly had been Pappy Van Winkle’s explanation, as recounted by Sally Van Winkle Campbell, but I wondered about reliability.  I also wondered why seven years seemed to be a common age statement on 107 proof options.  But in reality, I was just guessing about everything.

Then Josh Feldman wrote about his epic tasting of 1998-2008 Old Weller Antiques, and followed up after talking with John Lipman about the origin of 107 proof – it was essentially “barrel proof” back in the 1940’s because distillers barreled at 100 proof, and couldn’t barrel higher than 110 proof.  While the mystery might be solved, I decided to compare three 107 proof Bourbons in three price ranges – under $20, under $30 and under $40, arranged here by price:

Old Weller Antique Original 107 Brand Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery:  “W. L. Weller and Sons,” which is really Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky
Age:  NAS
Proof:  107
Cost:  $19.99 (but sadly, good luck finding it, let alone at this price)

Pure Kentucky XO Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery:  Unknown, but bottled by “Pure Kentucky Distilling Company,” which is an assumed name of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd. (Willett), Bardstown, Kentucky
Age:  NAS
Proof:  107
Cost:  $28.99

Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery:  Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky
Age:  7 Years
Proof:  107
Cost:  $38.99

            I tasted these blind (but I knew the three up for review) in random order, each poured neat in a Glencairn.  My rankings below are from the blind tasting, but I re-tasted each Bourbon many times after the reveal to check my initial opinions and to elaborate on the aromas and flavors.

1st Glass (Old Weller Antique):

I’m plenty familiar with the Weller line, so I could identify this one blind, especially knowing that it was somewhere in the lineup.  The color is a rich amber, with a slight hint of orange, depending on how the light hits, and a little more brown in other light.  The aroma is medium intensity, with plenty of caramel, apple pie, and cinnamon rolls, with slight oak.  The dominant flavors are caramel and vanilla, but also with pastry sweetness, spiced apples, honey, and toffee, without any hint of bitterness.  It has a fantastic creamy sensation.  The finish was warm and satisfying, with more flavors of caramel (rich dessert caramel), cinnamon, and vanilla, and with decent oak balance.  It wasn’t a home run finish, which really would have taken this one to the next level, but was still a stand up double on the finish.



2nd Glass (Baker’s):

The appearance of the second glass stood out from the other two as much darker – pushing mahogany – and oily in the glass.  The aroma was the most intense of all three, and it hit from a distance.  It was hot, with black pepper, oak, old barn, citrus zest, and wet-dirt-in-the-springtime earthiness.  The taste seemed a little too hot at first, and I thought that I detected the telltale Beam yeastiness (but, admittedly, I was looking for it).  The primary flavors were oak, peanuts, black pepper, cedar, and a slight over-cooked vegetable flavor.  It finishes medium with nice warmth, but the flavors in the finish were uneventful.  This Bourbon clearly had a solid foundation, but something didn’t quite click; it didn’t commit to going all-out robust rock star, nor did it commit to balanced complexity, and instead got stuck in the middle. 



3rd Glass (Pure Kentucky XO):

The appearance of the third contender was a subdued brown.  The aromas were subdued, too, with every note being subtle, making it overall light and elegant, but nothing remarkable, either.  Corn sweetness, malt vinegar, and black pepper emerged as primary aromas.  Upon tasting it, though, I found a rush of complexity.  After initial flavors of corn pudding, it transitioned to slight caramel, coconut, oak, leather, char, and black pepper, all while maintaining an overall distinctly malt flavor.  The dry flavors continued through the finish, which was medium in length, with a nice swell.  This was a Bourbon that makes you want to ponder it for a while.


WINNER:  Each of these had its distinct pros and cons, each was very different from the other, and each seemed to be missing one component that could have improved it, but overall, the first glass – Old Weller Antique – rose to the top as the 107 proof Bourbon with the best aromas, taste, and finish.  It happens to carry the lowest retail price, too.  Unfortunately, it has fallen prey to allocations and hoarding, so it may not be available at your favorite retail store.  If it’s not on the shelves of your favorite store (or if you don’t go for the sweet profile), I highly recommend the Pure Kentucky XO.

Bottom Line:

The first-place finish of Old Weller Antique surprised me.  I had scored it high in a previous review (comparing next-to-bottom-shelf wheated bourbons), but the competition was stiffer here, so I expected it to show flaws in comparison.  Instead of revealing flaws in Old Weller Antique, the opposite happened; it helped me identify what was missing in the other two Bourbons.

With so much of the tasting experience dependent upon aromas, the faint nose of Pure Kentucky XO put it at a disadvantage from the start.  I have not compared my batch (No. 13-85) to previous or current batches to see whether the profile has remained consistent, but even with a sub-par nose, I really enjoyed this complex, malty, earthy profile, which really makes Pure Kentucky XO a contemplative Bourbon.  It was a very close second in my comparison, and it could easily become your new favorite sub-$30 brand.  Out of the three bottles, it is the one that I finished first.

Baker’s was a distant third.  I hadn’t had Baker’s in several years, and didn’t remember much about it, which is consistent with my impression that it’s often an overlooked brand.  In fact, the only reason I bought it was that I needed it for this 107-proof challenge.  I initially thought that Baker’s might have suffered because I tasted it on the heels of the sweet Old Weller Antique, but on re-tasting all three, I tried Baker’s first, and later I tried each one independently on different days, none of which changed my impression.  The back label suggests drinking it “over ice or with a splash of water,” so I tried that too, but to me, water seemed to accentuate bitterness.  I don’t see myself buying Baker’s again, especially with so many great alternatives for $40 or less, but I’m not going to turn it down. 

Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale:
Old Weller Antique:  3.5
Pure Kentucky XO:  3.5
Baker’s:  2.5


The Sipp’n Corn Scale:
1 – Swill.  I might dump the bottle, but will probably save it for my guests who mix with Coke.
2 – Hits the minimum criteria, but given a choice, I’d rather have something else.
3 – Solid Bourbon with only minor shortcomings.  Glad to own and enjoy.
4 – Excellent Bourbon.  Need to be hyper-critical to find flaws.  I’m lucky to have this.
5 – Bourbon perfection.  I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.

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