Begin at the Beginning

When I first walked into Corti Brothers several years ago I quickly learned of Darrell Corti and his expansive knowledge. Although he is well known in the world of food & wine I think his knowledge of spirits is less well advertised. If you don’t know who Darrell is don’t feel bad – neither did I. That is a different story though. Today’s story is about my start in bourbon and how long it took me to get there!

I had discovered an enjoyment of bourbon during my residency. Like many, mine started with a soft wheated bourbon – Maker’s Mark. I had read a little and learned a little but really had no bearings. This is where Darrell helped me. When I told him I wanted to learn about bourbon he walked over to a shelf and took in hand a bottle of Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12yr (VSOF12) bourbon and said very simply, “Here. This is what bourbon is supposed to taste like. Start with this.” Although that is where I started it is only now, years later, I feel I am truly able to begin with it. Of course now it is long gone from the shelves since Larceny came on the scene and I had to spend way too much on the secondary market to get a few more bottles. Here are my notes. I like tasting in comparison with something similar yet contrasting and tonight it is a bottle of Elijah Craig 12 year (EC12) I purchased in 2015. It has been open for about a year using Private Reserve inert gas spray can. I picked this not just because of the age statement but because it entered my life at about the same time and from the same store.

VSOF12 & EC12 are both Heaven Hill brands but with notable differences. Elijah Craig uses their standard mash bill of 78% Corn, 10% rye, 12% malted barley all aged in a #3 or #4 char barrel of new American oak. VSOF12 on the other hand is 75% corn, 20% wheat and only 5% malted barley in a #3 char barrel.

Nosing Neat:

VSOF12 has a sweet sugary corn nose with some light vanilla & leather notes. Butterscotch.

EC12 nose is initially a very notable hot corn cinnamon sugar with deep rich oak. Chocolate.

Tasting Neat:

VSOF12 arrives initially with caramel & a slightly bittersweet citrus. Alcohol is present but not overpowering and mixed with a touch of pepper. A little lemon note that thins it out appears midway and then develops some delicate fresh oak & melon rind. The finish is medium long without any complex notes. Leaves perfectly between dry and sweet.

EC12 arrives with a dry slightly bitter mint leaf and some burnt sugars and light varnished oak. The sweet flavors follow behind shortly but they are light and mixed with complex dried spices & nutty flavors. A little bitterness on the finish that is more clean than unpleasant. Overall thinner than I expected.

Water & 10 minutes later . . .

VSOF12 nose is pure butterscotch now. Caramel. The arrival is sweet as promised & balanced with enough astringent oak to make it feel fresh and not overly sugary. Honey. Baked oak.

EC12 nose is now sweeter corn pudding. Fudge with a little cognac pipe tobacco still in the tin. Minimal alcohol heat. The arrival is much richer and sweeter with some mineral notes & oak. Brown sugar. Sugar cane & rose water. Develops a quick bitter transition to some oak and leather with a touch of old pipe tobacco.