Bulleit 10 Bourbon: Designed for the Elitist Bourbon Cocktail

Bulleit 10 Bourbon: Designed for the Elitist Bourbon Cocktail

by Neal MacDonald

Bulleit Bourbon is a success story. It launched in 1987 by four-generation removed Thomas Bulleit (descended from Agustus Bulleit), met acclaim and good sales, and was then acquired by liquor giant Diageo. The whiskey is known for both a bourbon with a high rye-grain mash bill as well as a straight up rye whiskey, both well-regarded in critical circles.

In 2013, they launched a more prestigious bourbon: a 10 year aged variety (appropriately enough named Bulleit 10) that is meant to compete in the more elite echelons of whiskey-dom. We were sent a small sample and thought to test it directly against other high-profile 10yr bourbons: in this case Buffalo Trace’s Eagle Rare and Wild Turkey’s  Russell’s Reserve. Each of these bourbons are aged 10 years; all bottled at 90 proof (the Bulleit 10 being just a hair higher at 91.2 in our bottle); all are said to have a high rye content with their 50%+ corn mash bill; and all are in the $30-$40 price range (which is another demonstration of the awesome value of bourbon relative to other products).

In short we wanted to answer one question: is there a reason for bourbon drinkers—notoriously committed to their product of choice—to make the leap and try out Bulleit 10? Let’s find out.

Thunderdome: Bulleit 10 vs Eagle Rare vs Russell’s Reserve

Preparation

Eagle Rare

Russell’s Reserve

Bulleit 10

Sipping Neat

Win

Third

Runner Up

Sipping on Ice

Win

Runner Up

Third

Old Fashion

Tie

Win

Tie

Kentucky Colonel

Third

Runner Up

Win

Chapel Hill

Third

Runner Up

Win

Verdict:

Competes in the Top Shelf… Mix It in Spice and Citrus!

 

Sipping Neat: As ever we get to know the whiskey at room temperature and served neat. Let it sit in the glass, naked as it is, look at it, nose it, and drink it.

Eagle Rare: The nose is rye and spice and fruit; very flavorful on the tongue—almost no needle for a 90 proof (a credit to the distiller) with a light char/oaky finish. Just a little sweet. You can really taste the rye; in fact, it almost reads like a rye whiskey. The finish lingers but it’s subtle like background music.

Russell’s Reserve: The nose is a little more citrusy—perhaps a touch sour—and a little less spicy-rye in comparison.  One member in our party described it smelling of a “desolate highway.” The taste is much more classic bourbon with lots of caramel and sweet—again, much less rye. A very short, snappy finish but definitely a heavier char.

Bulleit 10: these are both highly competent bourbons that the newcomer has to stand up to! The Bulleit 10 aroma is more similar to the Russell’s, with the same citrusy-sour note. The taste is also very similar to the Russell’s… perhaps a touch less heavy oak on the nose but still difficult to tell apart blind. On the front there’s lots of heavy caramel and sweet—a definite presence of spice (rye) as well. The finish is much oakier and much more lingering than the Russell’s. It’s also much more bourbon than the Eagle Rare.

The decision: We’re highly conflicted—these are 3 very good bourbons. We feel the Eagle and the Bulleit edge out the Russell’s but for different reasons: the Eagle is a little smoother and the Bulleit a little more robust. We feel the Eagle is just the tiniest bit better but many classic, heavy-char bourbon drinkers would disagree with us.  

Sipping on Ice: Most whiskey drinkers will water back their whiskey just a touch—a practice we think is very important with 90+ proof spirits. Here, we drop in a single ice cube and sip after a slight delay.  

Eagle Rare: A little water and a little time make this good bourbon exceptional. The grain comes out, the sweet comes out, and somehow the finish manages to lengthen.

Russell’s Reserve: Ice and time do something special to Russel’s as well: if the oak was tucked away waiting Christmas morning than ice and water are Santa Claus. Out comes the oak and the char… the finish lengthens. 

Bulleit 10: Somehow, ice and time brings out a tropical fruit note in the Bulleit 10: this is peculiar and unusual. Drinking, ice and time do the sad and predictable: it greatly lightens the spirit in both flavor and finish. It becomes almost wine-like or lite beer-like. Water did not improve this bourbon… this was very, very good neat but not so good with ice.  

The decision: High proof sipping bourbons need to stand up to water… very seldom do they go down neat. For whatever reason, the Bulleit 10 suffers a bit watered back. It’s still good—no one would turn this bourbon down and it would soundly defeat more moderately priced whiskey—but in comparison with the classics in this price range and age, it has trouble competing. 

Old Fashion: even before Mad Men, the Old Fashion is a great cocktail. It’s designed to make good bourbon shine. We do ours with just a little sugar, a lemon twist, and orange bitters.

Eagle Rare: This is a lovely drink with Eagle Rare—and please, please remember the lemon twist because it does make a big difference—but we have to say, we’re not positive that the Eagle’s character comes through in the drink. It’s lovely… but it’s likely as lovely as many other bourbons. On its own, Eagle can shine; in this cocktail, it’s just the frame.

Russell’s:  As we suspected, Russell’s stars in this kind of classic cocktail setting. Where the Eagle was good, this was damned good in comparison and immediately elicits calls for pitchers and refills. The heavier oak finish mixes beautifully with the citrus and sweet for a wonderful balanced flavor.

Bulleit 10: This was going to be interesting—we felt the profile of Bulleit was more similar to Russell’s, which augurs well but we also felt it weakened under dilution, which is inevitable in this cocktail. Oh, the paradox! In serving the Bulleit 10 is good… but once again, we feel that the age disappears a bit in the ingredients. It’s lovely but ultimately not standing out. But the oak does finish nicely and the more intense bourbon flavors serve it very well.

The Decision: Russell’s wins this with ease.  But please remember, we’re splitting hairs here. These are all fine, fine bourbons. In fact, for perspective we whipped up an Old Fashion with a garden-variety (to be unnamed) bourbon and the result’s not even close. All these bourbons we’re testing are all clearly better. But in a contest of “the better,” Eagle and Bulleit are in a split-decision for second place.

Kentucky Colonel: We wanted to try another cocktail and Kentucky Colonel is interesting because of its brevity—another drink to show off the whiskey. It calls for simply 1 ½ ounce of bourbon, 2 teaspoons of Benedictine (we actually used Harlem Kruiden, one of our favorite bitters liqueurs), and a lemon twist. Elegant, spicy, almost more of a Euro-styled Manhattan.

Eagle Rare: the smell is very nice… but doesn’t scream or even particularly smell like bourbon. It does smell like warm sunshine on a hot beach body. Drinking it is not quite so pleasant. The bourbon and herbal characters are in a bit of conflict. It’s good—but there is an unexpected  war zone in your mouth when you drink.  

Russell’s Reserve: not surprisingly, with the heavier Russell’s you can almost smell bourbon here. It does not smell like a sunrise… rather more dusky. Maybe a sun breaking through the clouds. Drinking, it is greatly better than the first version. The front of the palate is richer, the back of the palate has a longer finish. Best of all, the flavors are in some kind of armistice. They’re not peacefully co-existing but they are at least in a kind of suspicious free-trade agreement.    

Bulleit 10: Once again, this will be exciting. Will we get the diluted, passive Bulleit, or the full-blooded 10yr Bulleit? Let’s find out. Amazingly, there’s a little wine aroma… light wine… maybe a Chardonnay. It’s surprising and nice. This drink smells good all around. Keeping with the weather motif, this smells like a dewy morning with prancing fauns and butterflies. Not sure that’s a manly image for the typical bourbon drinker but let us assure you, it’s nice. The drink, is awesome. Not sure why, exactly, but where the Eagle was a war and the Russell’s an armistice, the flavors in the Bulleit 10 are as harmonious as a chorus of chanting Buddhas.

The Decision: If you’re going to make Kentucky Colonels (or use spice liqueurs in general, we would presume), you use Bulleit 10.

Chapel Hill: This is an interesting drink which calls for 1½ ounce of bourbon, ½ ounce of each triple sec (we used Cointreau… what else with a 10yr bourbon?), and a lemon twist. This should be a chance for bourbons to stand up against strong, sweet flavors.

Eagle Rare: the aroma is all citrus—orange and lemon. This was very pleasant for those who like citrus and a little—let us say—difference of opinion from those who didn’t want so much Florida in their whiskey aromas. There’s no bourbon here… could be vodka for all we could tell on the nose. Tasting, it was by far the most disappointing drink of the night… the oak does not mix readily or well with the orange or lemon. The spice of the Eagle Rare is present but it comes through like Georgia wet clay. That is, it doesn’t help.

Russell’s Reserve: So Russell’s has shown in drinks and this is an interesting challenge. Can this drink that was so bad with Eagle Rare actually be good?  The aroma is much softer… still citrusy, sill no bourbon, but less intense citrus. It smells like something we’d actually want to drink. And indeed the Russell’s made this cocktail actually drinkable. Perhaps the lessened rye was the difference, but the oak finishes off the orange in a nice, pleasant way. It lacks the sophistication of, say, a Sazerac cocktail or the Kentucky Colonel we just had… but it’s quite nice in a feminine, elegant uni-flavor kind of way. We’d not order it; but we’d finish it.

Bulleit 10: Now, having a spectrum of not good to drinkable… what can Bulleit 10 do to this rather suspicious recipe? After all, the mark of a good spirit is its ability to elevate otherwise poor cocktails. (We make plenty of those.) For the first time tonight, not only is the aroma nice but we can actually smell bourbon here! And drinking, the flavors are again perfectly matched. There’s no blast of oaky, spicy bourbon but the citrus and the whiskey blend fine loving. We’d order another one of these with gusto.

The Decision: Bulleit 10 wins here in a landslide. It’s not close. And we can say definitively, citrus works very, very well with Bulleit 10… far more than its peers.  

Verdict: this is about as rigorous a test as it’s possible to put Bulleit 10 through. As a newcomer, it’s competing against acclaimed bourbons with decades of experience. It’s very interesting to us how the verdicts worked out. Bulleit 10 can not entirely dominate but it can go toe-to-toe with best in class in the 10 year range. In citrus forward cocktails—and we’ll go ahead and venture a guess in mint juleps—Bulleit is outstanding and the clear favorite.

[Disclosures: we were provided wee 200ml of Bulleit 10 free of charge. We purchased all other spirits and mixers on our own.]


2013-02-13
Published by Proof66.com