Comparison: Mystery Samples…!

Normally a comparison post would start off with the stats of the given bottles. But as I don’t know what I’m tasting, that will have to wait!

I came into these two mystery samples in a bottle trade I did with a fellow member of a local Facebook whiskey group. He labelled them A and B, and gave me only one clue: “One of them is a dusty.”

The bottles we had traded involved Wellers and Jefferson’s Presidential Select. So if I leaned into psychology, I could posit that he may have picked samples related to either of these brands. Or perhaps he chose something to contrast them. Or maybe he made his selection according to some other logic entirely.

In any case, I love a good mystery!

So here they are, freshly cracked (although I have no idea how long the bottles they came from have been open) and tasted in traditional Glencairns. Let’s see what’s what…!

COLOR

A – a nice clear amber with orange

B – soft orange with yellow

NOSE

A – antique butterscotch (is that a thing?), fresh cut oak, corn, wood lacquer or stain (in a good way, not varnishy but sweet), crystalized honey and maple; my mind is going to Henry McKenna or vintage Wild Turkey though neither seems quite right…

B – a similar antique note only going more toward wood and leather, maple on pancakes, a fine dusting of baking spices, a bit of caramel, some pine and eucalyptus; my mind is going to a Kentucky-style rye or high-rye bourbon, perhaps something craft…

TASTE

A – cherry cough syrup without the medicinal ick, tart but light butterscotch, corn sweetness, everything with that nice antique aspect about it, then very round and warm on swallowing

B – caramel with bright baking spices, what tastes like a rye spiciness, and strong wood aspects like whicker and pine

FINISH

A – nicely warm, lightly peppery, leaving the butterscotch and a faint bit of the cherry aspect; I’m thinking most of a 2001 Wild Turkey 101 I once had.

B – warm, pepperier than the A sample, some very dried (i.e. dried of all juices) fruit notes like raspberries and strawberries

OVERALL

A – I’m struck most by that antique quality around the flavors… Henry McKenna, Wild Turkey, and Old Grand Dad all came to mind—bourbons from three very different distilleries…

B – More herbal and floral, nicely spiced like an exotic tea… My mind goes to the broad region of “craft,” where things often taste rougher, younger and unrefined… Maybe it’s a rye, or a high-rye bourbon, or even some unusual grain like millet…

Very interesting. These could be family, or they could have nothing to do with one another. Their color is almost indistinguishable, and these photos don’t catch the exceedingly fine differences that the naked eye does. There is also some cross over in those antique flavor areas.

There are clear distinctions, too. The butterscotch in sample A is absent in Sample B. And the extremely dried fruit notes and herbal spiciness of Sample B are not remotely to be found in Sample A.

What are they?! I sent a text… 🥁🥁🥁🥁🥁

SAMPLE A – EARLY TIMES OLD STYLE KENTUCKY WHISKY
circa 1970s

MASH BILL – unknown blend of bourbons and light whiskeys

PROOF – 80

AGE – NAS

DISTILLERY – Brown-Forman Distillery

SAMPLE B – OLD GRAND DAD 114
late 1990s / early 2000s

MASH BILL – 63% corn, 27% rye, 10% malted barley

PROOF – 114

AGE – NAS

DISTILLERY – Jim Beam Distillery

Wow! I’ve never had Early Times, from any era. It was revived as a Bottled in Bond offering in 2017 and isn’t yet sold in California. And even though this sample is of the blend, not the more highly regarded Bottled in Bond, it came from a different time and that means good things in terms of taste. Sanitary standards were different then. The still’s pipes were left with more build-up in them, for example. Like a seasoned iron skillet, this build-up impacted taste. Who knows what all went into these 1970s blends. But however it came to be bottled, it’s a welcomed tasting experience I’ve not personally had before.

Old Grand Dad, on the other hand, I know well. Early on in my whiskey journey I was quite a fan of both Old Grand Dad Bottled in Bond and its spicier brother, the 114 proof bottling. After some time I grew to not care for either as much. A 1997 bottling of the discontinued 86-proof edition, and a 2012 bottling of the Bottled in Bond alongside it, didn’t fair well in a tasting comparison this past autumn. But this bottling of the 114 from 20 years ago has a very different quality to it than either of those.

Hilarious that my mind went to the craft world, since Old Grand Dad is about as mainstream as it gets! There’s a bright, brash roughness to the high rye mash bill here, all pushed quite forwardly by the 114 proof. If Old Grand Dad 114 still tasted like this I might be more likely to keep it on the shelf.

Even though one of these is from Jim Beam Distillery and other Brown-Forman, they make a good pairing given both have roots with Beam. Early Times was originally created by John Henry Beam, the son of Jim Beam’s brother, David Beam. John Henry left the Beam distillery in 1860 and started his own near Bardstown, Kentucky, where he created Early Times. In 1923, the Early Times brand and barrel stock were bought up by Brown-Forman, and in 1945 they started putting out Early Times Bottled in Bond, which was very popular. But when bourbon in general lost its popularity in the 1970s, the Bottled in Bond was reduced to this cheaper blend of bourbon and other light whiskeys.

Aaaaand bottle kill!

This was fun. Despite my not favoring blind tastings as an arbiter of what one enjoys most, since for me the associations around a given whiskey are all a key part of the experience, I very much enjoy tasting mystery samples from fellow whiskey aficionados. These are always chosen with care and generosity, in the true spirit of sharing, and according to the quirks of the gifter’s own tastes and enthusiasm. Knowing the Early Times is a favorite dusty pour of the fellow who shared it with me, for example, now adds to my enjoyment of these final sips.

Cheers!

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