Jefferson’s Reserve

JEFFERSON’S RESERVE
Very Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

MASH BILL – Unknown (rumored 60% corn, 30% rye, 10% malted barley)

PROOF – 90.2

AGE – Blend of up to four bourbons, with 50% being 15 years old

DISTILLERY – Bottled for McLain & Kyne (a.k.a. Kentucky Artisan Distillery)

PRICE – $43

BUY AGAIN? – Yes

Having very much enjoyed Jefferson’s Ocean Voyage #15, an exceptionally well blended wheated edition of their Ocean Aged at Sea line, I was looking forward to trying this blend of well-aged bourbons. And given the price is quite moderate for a whisky comprised of 50% well-aged bourbon, there was little reason not to gamble.

Here are some notes in brief:

COLOR – a late summer / early autumn honey-orange amber

NOSE – antique floral potpourri, gentle rye, mild sweet honey, a faint rustic caramel sprinkled with baking spices, tart baked rhubarb, a nice whiff of well-aged oak wood

TASTE – very floral up front, then baking spices nicely integrated, dried or candied mango and other still-juicy dried bright stone fruits, a nice creaminess throughout, with a soft warm peppery splash on swallowing

FINISH – darker than the taste and nose, with lingering caramel, dark dried floral notes, and that peppery warmth

OVERALL – Grandma’s old antique parlor late one early autumn night, a fire going, with Grandma steadily matching you drink for drink!

This was a surprise. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe something more refined, light, and salty like the Ocean Voyage #15 with its wheated softness and literally sea-salted caramels. But here we have something very old fashioned and antique-like, which risks being boring and stuffy. Yet the density of flavors, among them the baking spice elements, give it enough edge to make you believe Grandma can hold her own. I can imagine playing a good game of chess while sipping this, and that it would be a heartier game than usual, with cheers like one might expect while watching a sport. It’s old fashioned but not behind the times, at once special and familiar. Maybe “classic” is the word.

It’s an interesting task to describe this bourbon. I wouldn’t call it great. It’s far from boring. It’s simply very, very good. It’s approachable enough for someone new to bourbon, and yet complex enough to intrigue more experienced drinkers. The floral aspects remind me of the Old Forester and E.H. Taylor ryes, suggesting the bourbons in this blend indeed contain a fair amount of rye in their mash bills. 

As I wrote that, I looked up and my eye caught these flowers drying in a vase on the table where I sat. Their colors and textures perfectly capture the floral aspects of this bourbon:

I want to say this is a kind of unsung stalwart. I don’t read many folks talking about it in reviews, nor does the name buzz among the online circles I click in and around. There is no buying frenzy when bottles appear on shelves. The rarer, higher-aged Jefferson’s bourbons—typically bottled in the Jefferson’s Presidential Select series—get some notable mention from time to time. Yet there Jefferson’s Reserve quietly sits, for an affordable price, in a modestly elegant bottle with minimal design, containing much more inside than its outer restraint would suggest. I’d even say it’s a gentler sister to Wild Turkey 101. They share an autumnal bent and a certain heartiness. 

So I poured some 2006 Wild Turkey 101:

Definitely distinct, and yet quite related.

Where the Jefferson’s nose presents a bouquet of colorful dried flowers sprinkled with cinnamons, the Wild Turkey offers caramel dusted with cinnamons and other baking spices. The Wild Turkey then tastes of caramel, cinnamon, sparkling baking spice, all vibrant and ready for a hearty laugh. Next to it, the Jefferson’s tastes more subdued now, thinner, yet still bright with autumn flowers and light buttery caramels. They each then finish warmly and comfortingly, with the Wild Turkey a bit more peppery than the gentler Jefferson’s.

The Jefferson’s indeed tastes older, perhaps wiser, with an inner calm the Wild Turkey has yet to learn. Though the Wild Turkey is no dumb kid, but witty, and as willing to ride a bucking Branco as play a rowdy game of chess. They make an excellent, complimentary pair—to the point that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Wild Turkey stock that Jefferson’s had bought and blended! Though I don’t actually imagine that’s the case.

I love it when a bourbon compels me to experiment with comparisons. It was not a thought in my head to bust out the 2006 Wild Turkey 101 when I first poured a sample of this Jefferson’s Reserve to write up these notes. Its lack of showiness belies its range.

I didn’t buy a second bottle of that Jefferson’s wheated Ocean Voyage #15 due to the cost. It was excellent. It just did not amaze enough to warrant another investment given how many other bottles I hope to $ample. Now having been surprised by this rather affordable Jefferson’s Reserve, I wonder, were I ever again to spot a decently priced Ocean Voyage #15 on a shelf, would I buckle? It’s a different experience than the Reserve. But together they compel me to explore more of the Jefferson’s line. And in fact the more recent Ocean Voyage #19 is also a wheated bourbon, so perhaps that’s what’s next.

Among the many sourced bottlers out there, Jefferson’s is up to some of the more interesting experiments. The whole Ocean Aged at Sea concept alone speaks to their curiosity, and a willingness to invest significantly in experimentation. I appreciate that. I also appreciate that they go even further with their experiment, partnering with OCEARCH, a globally recognized nonprofit dedicated to the study and tracking of keystone marine species. OCEARCH ages the Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea barrels on their ships, and in return Jefferson’s promotes and donates to OCEARCH.

Of course I’m curious who actually distills the bourbons with which the Jefferson’s blenders tinker. But the fact is they are rendering a worthy product that grabs my attention more than some labels that are bottling their own distillates. Jefferson’s makes a good argument for the significant contribution of blending and aging to a whiskey’s final impact, and that one need not distill the whiskey oneself to make of it a fine experience.

Classic makers like Wild Turkey, who do it all themselves, will always earn our respect for their total achievement. But any bottler and blender as accomplished as Jefferson’s deserves a glass on the table.

Cheers!

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