Bulleit Bourbon is introducing its fourth variation since its high-rye mash bill was first distilled almost three decades ago. For this one the recipe is unchanged, but the concentration is amplified in a barrel-strength version that is not chill-filtered. Still, it presents a new take on the whiskey.
The brand's founder, Tom Bulleit, says the latest iteration has been two or three years in the making as they tried out the uncut version on select bartenders at events like Tales of the Cocktail, in New Orleans, to good effect. It joins the flagship Bulleit as well as a rye whiskey, brought out in 2011, and a 10-year-old, debuted in 2013.
"I don't like to bring products on too quickly," Bulleit says about the process, which depended on what he calls his promise to the trade to provide quality and consistency. In short, he says, that meant taking it to bartenders and saying, "Do you like this?"
When Bulleit was introduced, it distinguished itself from other Bourbons through the amount of rye grain in it recipe—about one-third—while most Bourbons contain less than a quarter. That mash bill remains unchanged.
The high-strength, limited-edition whiskey comes in varying proofs from 118 to 125. It is not a single barrel, but rather batched in small amounts. The differences in proof result, Bulleit says, because they were melding for consistency of flavor rather than strength.
Because it is not chill-filtered, drinkers may note a cloudiness when adding water or ice. Bulleit notes that that is a sacrifice for added flavor. "The taste is what we're looking for."
The whiskey is higher proof because no water has been added after it comes out of the barrel. Most whiskey is bottled at the minimum allowed by law (80 proof). It starts out with more alcohol and gets that way through the addition of water. Doug Kragel, master of whiskey for Diageo, which now owns the label, says that as whiskey drinkers have evolved they are becoming sophisticated about the advantages of high-proof Bourbon. "There is a wrong assumption that there is a burn associated with high proof, but really it gives you so much more flavor."
The Bulleit variation also brings a new label. The bottle is now adorned with a black strip (as opposed to orange) with a small orange accent. "It's amazing what that little label will do to the color of the whiskey in the bottle," Bulleit says.
Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength (tasted at 119.4 proof, or 59.7 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $49.99 a 750-milliliter bottle, $29.99 a 375-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep amber color; very slow legs.
NOSE: Deep caramel and maple-candy notes, with hints of honey and some licorice spice.
PALATE: It's predictably strong, but once you get past that the whiskey becomes sweet and friendly. The caramel and maple of the nose is joined with vanilla and toasty stave notes. Then red berries creep in, followed by a slew of spicy notes, including cinnamon, licorice, nutmeg and pine.
FINISH: A long-lasting ending with an encore of maple and caramel and an enrichment of spices. Adding a bit of water releases some chocolate and agave notes. The whiskey also makes an excellent highball with seltzer water.
CIGAR PAIRING: Ashton Estate Sun Grown 22-Year Salute (6 inches by 52 ring gauge; $20; 90 points; June 2016 Cigar Aficionado) Oily and dark, this softly pressed torpedo has an earthy, cocoa quality balanced by sweet notes of graham cracker and honey. A spicy ginger note emerges on the finish. This pairing was an exercise in the theory that you match body with body (in this case full body and full body). It resulted in almost perfect balance. Not only that, the whiskey coaxed out chocolaty and spicy notes on the cigar that were previously absent. The Bulleit's recessive fruitiness also came to the fore, with cherries and blackberries. All and all, there was a wonderful agreement about caramel, honey, ginger and graham cracker.