I’m a big fan of oak flavors in bourbon—not only the vanillas and caramels that come from the oak, but that sweet taste of the wood itself. I attribute this predilection to my having grown up in the foothills of the northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains, surrounded by oak trees.
There was one oak tree adjacent to my family’s house with which I was particularly familiar. It was over fifty feet tall and I could climb it in about 20 seconds. I knew how every branch took my weight, how every angling of the trunk guided my trajectory, how each stub of past branches long since broken off could serve as a quick foothold. I knew the smell of its moss-speckled bark in winter, spring, summer, and fall. The aroma of its leaves freshly budding or freshly fallen. That rich fragrance when I raked the mulch made from dead oak leaves, acorns, earth, and rain…
So whenever I encounter a particularly oaky bourbon, my senses start pinging. Very specific memories often come wafting back to mind as my experience of the given pour takes shape. I’ve really come to appreciate the role oak can play in a bourbon, whether to ground it in a solid, polished foundation, or to give it a savory zip via some well-balanced wood tannins. Too tannic and things can turn bitter or overly drying. But a nice, easy layer of sweet oak can hold a bourbon steady while its other flavors dance with a solid footing on the oak flooring.
In honor of oak’s contribution to the bourbon tasting experience, here are some capsule responses to a handful of oak-centric bourbons. I tried them each individually and on different days, always in a simple brandy glass chosen for its tendency to concentrate intense flavors. That done, I then lined them all up in traditional Glencairns for a comparison—not to determine which I like best, but rather to appreciate their variations on the oak theme.
I hope you enjoy the climb. Cheers!
Baker’s 13 Year Limited Edition
This 2019 limited edition single barrel, offered at a crisp 107 proof, comes with a lot of doodads in the form of a fancy box and necklace. It’s too bad. They up the price tag and raise suspicions, distracting attention from the solid experience of the bourbon itself. I’ve written about Baker’s 13 before and am glad to be tasting it again.
The color is a rich, deep orange copper, as lovely in the glass as in the bottle. The nose is sweet, oaky in a fresh autumn rain kind of way, with sparkly cinnamons and a stream of caramel gurgling through it. The taste follows on from the nose, emphasizing that oak grove soaked in sweet autumn rain, with the caramel and baking spices wafting in the background. The 107 proof adds an edge, yet remains quite easy going. The finish then gently fades in waves of the autumn oak, a bit of soft tannins, a mild peppery tingle, something like fresh baked loaves of crusty walnut bread, and finally a slightly too-tart tang that over asserts itself and outstays its welcome. That lingering tang throws the experience a bit off balance right at the end. But then I smell the empty glass and the residual nose offers up this bourbon’s best attributes: autumn oak, finely blended baking spices, caramel, and ease.
Baker’s 13 Year is certainly not worth the secondary price tags slapped on it. At its $100 msrp it’s already steep. (The standard release Baker’s 7 Year is also a good oaky bourbon, and half the price.) But if you like oak, happen to find it near msrp, and are feeling flush, go for it. At the very least try it in a bar. It’s not a mind-blower, just solid and very easy to get along with.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
To rev myself up for this 136-proof Elijah Craig (Batch #C916 from September 2016) I opened the gates with a bit of the 107-proof Baker’s 13 Year, followed by a splash of the 123.14 proof Woodinville Cask Strength. My palate now fully prepared, I poured a glass of this caramel and oak beast.
The color is a dark, rusty, late-sunset orange. The nose offers rich caramel, fresh spring water, a dusting of baking spices, with the oak surprisingly faint—I really had to search for it. But once I took a sip, there was the oak, drenched in caramel, dark cherry pie and… baked apple? (That fresh water note keeps seeping in to distract.) A firm peppery bite clenches its teeth on swallowing, easing up with further sipping. The finish is long with caramel, oak, baked orchard fruit skins, and that persistent fresh water.
The fresh water aspect is a curiosity. It reminds me of the 7-year-old 31n50 Batch #1, the tannic oak of which was sharply spiked with a flavor like water conveyed through metal pipes. I found it off-putting. The 31n50 Batch #4 had 3+ more years under its belt, and by then this fresh water / metal pipe aspect amounted to an inconsequential splash and the oak tannins were more in balance. Age is quite unlikely the key factor, though, since this Elijah Craig is 12 years old. Hmm…
Unlike other of the bourbons featured in this post, this Elijah Craig’s oak aspect, though unmistakable, is content to highlight the bourbon’s other flavors. I’ve had Elijah Craig Barrel Proof batches and single barrel offerings (e.g. the 2019 Randall’s Wines & Spirits store pick) that pushed their oak influence much more forwardly. This Barrel Proof batch puts its oak to use as a solid, smooth, polished table for serving up gobs of caramel and baked orchard fruits. Unfortunately, that fresh water aspect, which I never find pleasing, hampers the bourbon from achieving outright amazement. It’s a shame. In any of its variations, Elijah Craig typically makes an excellent ambassador for what oak and caramel can do to enhance one another.
Four Roses Barrel Proof
Four Roses is dependably oaky. However, the oak doesn’t always lean so forwardly as it typically does with Elijah Craig—despite the above example. Four Roses is all about blending, even with the Barrel Strength Single Barrel store picks, which each feature one of the ten Four Roses recipes. All on their own, each Four Roses recipe offers a rich blend of key flavor features: oak, caramel, cinnamons, and various fruits.
This particular OESK was aged for 10 years and then bottled at its natural 110 proof in October 2017, when it was selected by K&L in California. The color is a soft yellowish-orange, right in line with the easygoing personality to come. The nose frontloads soft oak alongside caramels, meaty orange peels, and an array of cinnamons. The taste then also leads with the soft oak, slathering it with caramels, the orange aspects, honey, and fresh wheat bread. The finish takes its time, dispensing with the fruits and buttery caramels first and lingering longest in the oak and its gentle tannins.
With regard to oak, what’s so nice about a well-aged Four Roses like this OESK bottle is how beautifully it integrates the wood into the other flavors at play. Any Four Roses bourbon inevitably strikes a nicely swaying balance between its array of flavors. Sometimes a 120+ proof can throw things in a fiery direction that overpowers the subtler details. But even that loss can be a gain in terms of more robust core flavors. In any case, with Four Roses, oak will always be a key player, the constant keeping things grounded. This bottle is no exception.
Knob Creek Single Barrel 14 Year
Like the Four Roses OESK, this 2017 single barrel (#5300) was also selected by K&L. Though the label states the old standard 9 years, in truth it’s a 14-year-old barrel. Brought down to a still kicky 120 proof, those 14 years have a lot of support.
For such a well-aged, high proof bourbon the color is surprisingly pale in its orange and honey spectrum. Knowing Jim Beam, this was likely well over 130 proof out of the barrel before getting watered down to 120. On first smelling the nose, I let out a spontaneous “Oh…!” Thick rich honey up front, then oak and roasted peanuts floating in gooey caramel. That famously savory, herbaceous Jim Beam “funk” laces through everything. With air, strong vanilla emerges from the oak. The taste then is very well balanced between thick caramel and thick oak. It’s quite smooth and easy up front, with a sprinkling of baking spices. Then on first swallow, that 120 proof shows its fangs with a sudden sharp bite. Ouch! A bit like burning your tongue on the first sip of fresh hot coffee, which then dominates the rest of the cup. I waited a bit and had some water. With more sipping and air, the finish eventually showed a chewy breadiness, like doughy, fresh baked cinnamon rolls.
This Knob Creek single barrel is a lovely pour, balancing the refinement of age with a youthful panache. That crotchety bite on first swallowing is something to prepare for. But after that, this bourbon conjures cozy late nights, whether in a leather chair near the fireplace or gathered close to a crackling campfire. People have reported varied experiences with the slew of well-aged Knob Creek single barrels released in the past couple years. They can lack the refinement of Jim Beam Distillery’s excellent small batch blends. But in their singular expression of what Knob Creek offers, they can also be great fun. I won’t pine for this barrel #5300 when it’s gone. But I will thoroughly enjoy its warm comforts while it lasts.
Woodinville Cask Strength
When I first tasted the standard Woodinville Bourbon release, I was immediately struck by its prominent weathered wood aspects. The barrels are left out to season in 18 months of Washington State weather, which doesn’t lack for rain and richly scented mountain air. Combined with its orchard fruit aspects, the standard Woodinville bourbon struck me as a rustic Buffalo Trace, a kind of cabin-in-the-woods bourbon.
This cask strength single barrel (#1307 selected in 2019 by you know who: K&L) comes at a robust 123.14 proof. Its color smolders in the thick bottle, reminding me of summer forest fires burning on the horizon at night. It then relaxes to a glowing autumn orange when poured in the glass. The nose offers weathered wood and orchard-fruity caramel up front, followed by an easygoing blend of baking spices in soft cinnamon bread. I could be back home in the bakery cabin of Grandpa’s Cellar in Camino, CA., where sundry baked goods made from freshly harvested ingredients pile up ready to be enjoyed. The taste then carries on with the weathered wood, serving up a sampling of caramel chunks, lightly baked apples, apricots, marmalade, and freshly shelled hazelnuts. The finish lathers the marmalade on a plank of weathered wood, bringing out some tannic oak and leaving a cooling heat to linger at the back of the throat.
Woodinville waited for its stock to age 5 years before going national. Smart move. They have established a solid reputation for making tasty, rustic, pleasing whiskeys redolent of what mountain agricultural communities have to offer.
Having tasted them each separately, I then lined them up in a flight as follows:
I arranged the bourbons in order from lowest to highest proof. I nosed them each in turn and took notes. Then I sipped each individually three times, noting their taste and finish, and clearing my palate with water before moving on to the next. The notes below reflect the chronological order of how the flavors hit my senses.
After tasting all five bourbons, I took a thirty-minute break with more water before round two. I nosed and tasted each bourbon again from lowest to highest proof, making further notes, this time also noting their overall impacts.
Here are the notes in brief:
BAKER’S – forthcoming, fresh orchard fruits, sweet rich oak, caramel. On second nosing: fresh oak, rich caramel, old fashioned caramel hard candy, root beer.
ROSES – reserved, oak, baking spices, fruity caramels. On second nosing: caramel and subdued cinnamons.
KNOB – reserved, roasted peanut, oak, dark caramel. On second nosing: chocolate caramels and oak.
WOODINVILLE – quite forthcoming, boozy tart fruits like apricot and peach, bright vanilla-caramel, weathered oak. On second nosing: red hots, French toast, boozy doughnuts, weathered wood.
ELIJAH – forthcoming, that dang fresh water almost metallic like pennies, bright rich caramels, faint spring oak. On second nosing: the caramel is darkening now and moving forward, the fresh water pennies now more integrated into the caramel’s sweetness.
BAKER’S – the fruits and caramels all stirred up together and bright with sweetness, and then the oak wafts in… On second tasting: oak and rich caramel, a bit of the root beer.
ROSES – caramel and sweet dense oak, dry baking spices. On second tasting: caramel, the oak a bit drier now, an effervescence coming into things.
KNOB – triple whammy of caramel, roasted peanut, and oak up front, then a brightening into some dusty dried fruits and peppercorns. On second tasting: roasted peanut shell, cola, oak, everything drier…
WOODINVILLE – weathered oak, tart caramels, prickly pepperiness. On second tasting: weathered wood, tangy sweet syrup.
ELIJAH – caramel, herbal oakiness, spikey pepperiness. On second tasting: that interesting herbal spiciness mixed with the caramelized sweets.
BAKER’S – warm, cozy, an easy peppery tingle, sensations lingering more than flavors. On the second round: root beer and oak, some caramel, the flavors fade first and sensations linger…
ROSES – oak, dark dry caramel, a glowing warmth. On the second round: oak, dry, musty…
KNOB – lots of tingling from the peppercorn and proof, with saccharine-sweet fruity caramel lingering a bit. On the second round: prickly, warm, chocolate caramel…
WOODINVILLE – prickly pepperiness, weathered oak in fresh air, saccharine-sweet caramels. On the second round: weathered wood, old-fashioned cinnamon hard candy.
ELIJAH – herbal oak with caramel, fresh misty forest air in sunlight. On the second round: sweet oak tannins and gooey bright caramel.
BAKER’S – surprising, approachable, an old guy in good shape. Of them all, it’s the most root beer.
ROSES – an old oak cabinet of old-fashioned caramel candies. Of them all, it’s the most reserved and I wish it would just come on out and play.
KNOB – robust, solid, steady. Of them all, it’s the most nutty.
WOODINVILLE – a bright, bold country character, a little loud but also sweet and sincere so it’s okay. Of them all, it’s the most fun, like a doughy cinnamon roll.
ELIJAH – a perplexing caramel, oak, and freshwater-penny-metallic bomb. Of them all, it’s got the strongest caramel notes.
Well this was informative.
What came across so clearly was, yes, I’m a big oak fan, yet too much of a good thing is indeed too much of a good thing. As the tasting went on things gradually creaked out of balance. These five bourbons are all excellent. They each have their particular and exceptional appeal. But lined up back to back, the collective emphasis on oak had the cumulative effect of overwhelming other flavors, emphasizing dry wood and sharp tannic sugars, generally drying things out while also bringing about unexpected fizzy root beer notes. Very interesting.
Oak bombs indeed! Although their combined shrapnel eventually buried the caramels, fruits, nuts, and baking spices, this was an enjoyable and helpful experience toward future whiskey flights and tastings. Adding an oaky bourbon into a flight to contrast variously sweeter bourbons could be a great thing. But all oak all the time, or all sweet all the time, or all floral all the time… maybe not so great. As in many aspects of life, variety, contrast, and difference make for a more interesting and satisfying experience in the end than sameness.
Despite the aim of this experiment (to enjoy the variety offered by oak) having been eventually overwhelmed by the cumulative impact of all five tasted together, still I was able to appreciate certain oak tendencies. I gained some clarity about two broad impacts of oak: (1) To serve as a solid platform for other flavors, allowing each to stand in relief, as with the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch #C916. And (2) to blend itself into those flavors, as with the Four Roses, so that together the flavors create a soup-like effect balancing integration with specificity. A third tendency, not represented here until the combined impact of the five bourbons began to kick in, is for oak to so dominate a bourbon as to render it impenetrably woody or tannic. And then there was Woodinville’s particularly weathered oak, a fairly unique experience I’ve not had with other oaky bourbons, lending that bourbon a distinctive identity.
These aren’t revelations. But as points of clarity, I find them interesting and helpful. I’m left curious to try other such experiments that test the limits of some particular whiskey attribute. If you have suggestions, please let me know in the commentary section below.