The Frazier History Museum presents a bourbon series and I was lucky enough to be part of it earlier this summer to discuss Bourbon Justice alongside legendary Master Distiller Jim Rutledge and incomparable Heaven Hill brand ambassador and author Bernie Lubbers.
In addition to the lively discussion, The Frazier provided a guided tasting of two current-day classics—Jim’s revival of Cream of Kentucky and Heaven Hill’s Old Fitzgerald Decanter—along with a vintage Old Taylor distilled and aged at the historic Old Taylor Distillery, which is now the home of Castle & Key.
We had a lively discussion and an engaged crowd, and some folks who missed it have asked about tasting notes, so here we go:
Bourbon: Cream of Kentucky (Batch 2, 2019)
Distillery: Sourced by J.W. Rutledge Distillery, Crestwood, Kentucky
Age: 11.5 years
ABV: 51% (102 proof)
Bourbon: Old Fitzgerald Decanter Series (Second Release, Fall 2018)
Distillery: Heaven Hill, Bardstown, Kentucky
Age: 9 years
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Bourbon: Old Taylor (distilled Fall 1953; bottled Fall 1957)
Distillery: The Old Taylor Distillery, Millville, Kentucky
Age: 4 years
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Surprisingly, the much younger Old Taylor was just as dark—if not darker—than Cream of Kentucky and Old Fitzgerald, and it wasn’t because the Cream of Kentucky or Old Fitzgerald were light. As the oldest and because it was bottled at (barely) the highest proof, the Cream of Kentucky should have been the darkest. Maybe because of lower entry proof, higher barrel char level, tighter wood grain, or aging conditions, however, the Old Taylor never would have been taken for a four-year bourbon in a blind tasting.
Jim remarked how much difference a mere four months of aging meant for his second run of Cream of Kentucky; the aromas are sweeter and less peppery. The Old Fitzgerald 9-year had more baking spice, familiar aromas of baking fresh bread, brown sugar, caramel, and oak. Old Taylor was remarkable—again, there’s no way that this is a four-year old bourbon. Warm, deep aromas of oak, pepper, and caramel make this an inviting nose.
The second batch of Cream of Kentucky also has a fruiter palate according to Jim, but I wouldn’t call it fruity just yet; it’s still more focused on oak and baking spice. The Old Fitzgerald had more caramel with a transition to pepper spice, not really what I might have picked blind as a wheated bourbon, but checking all of the boxes and with the most complexity of the three. It will sound like a broken record, but the Old Taylor was unlike any other four-year old bourbon that I’ve ever tried: creamy, spicy, less sweet than the nose, and full-bodied.
The finish on all three bourbons were fantastic, but in different ways. Cream of Kentucky was more elegant and gentle. The Old Fitzgerald was more robust, like a big warm hug that trails off with vanilla and oak. And Old Taylor had the biggest initial burst of warmth that trailed off with lingering oak.
There’s a reason that Kentucky passed a Vintage Spirts law—many truly dusty bourbons pack in a unique experience that can’t be duplicated by current-day brands. Sure, there’s also the sense of exclusivity and historical awe, but for people focusing on the spirit itself, it’s about experiencing bourbon made the old way, producing a depth of flavors rarely found today. If you have the opportunity, definitely try mid-century or older bourbon.
Of course, many current-day brands are still worth pursuing hard. Cream of Kentucky and these limited release Old Fitzgerald Decanters are two that should be at the top of every enthusiast’s list.
Jim Rutledge is not only one of the best distillers, but he has the added dimension of being a genius blender. His decades of experience distilling at Four Roses gave him the unique role of blending ten recipes to create a consistent profile for Four Roses and blending a handful of recipes of varying ages each year to create his award-winning Limited Edition Small Batches. I will buy any bourbon that Jim has touched, and even though Jim didn’t distill it, Cream of Kentucky is one of those.
And finally, as for the Old Fitzgerald, Heaven Hill not only continues to lead the way in both age-stated bourbon and Bottled in Bond bourbon, but it also does so by reinvigorating a once-famous brand that had slipped to a “value brand,” and seemed all but replaced by Larceny. I have a soft spot for historical brands but those names aren’t worth anything unless you strive to exceed the quality of the past. That’s what Heaven Hill has done with the Old Fitzgerald Decanter Series.