I must admit, I have literally no clue when it comes to bourbon. With regard to spirits, like most twentysomethings, I choose my spirits based on alcohol content and the typical narrow selection available from the shelves of your average supermarket (rum, vodka or gin being the usual suspects). Bourbon was a foreign language to me and my basic experience of whiskey gained from a brief and boozy masterclass attended months ago. So as I sat down around the horseshoe table with my five glasses at the Buffalo Bourbon Empire set up in Hackney House I felt duped – I’d been told I was going to a cocktail masterclass for fuck’s sake.
Slight disappointment at being misinformed aside, the Buffalo Trace experience (or the mini-version being staged in Shoreditch at least) turned out to be a pretty good shout. My initial “I’m not a whiskey drinker” attitude was quickly replaced by intrigue as our comic and charismatic host Charlie ran us through the history of the Buffalo Trace Distillery. If ever there was a time to add sophistication to my non-existent drinks cabinet and pretend to be grown then why not now, as I blunder through a 9-5 trying to convince the world I’m an adult (fake it until you make it and all that).
He told us the story of the trailblazing McAfee brothers surveying the site by the Kentucky River and how they were followed in 1775 by the company of Hancock and Willis Lee; taking advantage of the fertile soil to grow grain and eventually open a distillery (one that would remain open during the prohibition by obtaining a medical license to dispense alcohol… Didn’t even know that was a thing).
Before hitting the bourbons, Charlie gave us a taste of the base liquid in all five of the Buffalo Trace recipes, called White Dog. It contained a balance of the 3 grains used in BT’s whiskey – corn, rye and wheat – and was fairly sweet and a little spicy, but also the kind of strong that could burn through the roof of your mouth if you’d just sampled that spicy jollof, and probably more a souvenir than a drink you’d sit and sip after a hard Tuesday producing slide decks or running financial models on Excel.
Next we tried the OG flavour, Buffalo Trace. The drink that birthed the brand was a sweeter than the White Dog, definitely fruitier and very smooth to drink. I could tell why bourbon lovers would get excited over this. It’s definitely an easy place to start for you wannabe mobsters with a penchant for kicking back in an expensive chair – made of materials you’ve never heard of – with a fat Cuban cigar and a stiff drink. It’s also a top choice for us fake adults too.
After polishing off the second taster, we moved onto the Eagle Rare (for which apparently there’s no real reason for the name except they thought it sounded cool). Containing slightly less corn and more rye than the Buffalo Trace, it was noticeably spicier and a little sharper and probably less my thing and better suited to someone with less of a sweet tooth. Nonetheless, some of the other bourbon tasters at the table preferred it to the first (and they actually knew their stuff) – probably proof that the same sweet-tooth I had when I was 8 is still going strong.
The third, Sazerac Rye, was by far my favourite; spicy as it was a rye but still with an element of sweetness from what I learned was caramel and vanilla undertones. One sip had me feeling like Don Draper minus the chauvinism. Charlie told us gleefully that this was the drink to get a bartender friend for their eternal love and gratitude and, while I’m no bartender, my birthday is less than two weeks away and I’m accepting gifts. Eternal love awaits you – you know what to do.
After I’d finished raving about how good the Sazerac was, we moved onto the drink that definitely sounds best said in thick Southern drawl. The George T. Stagg took us back from wackily named rye whiskey to bourbon and with that a return to a sweeter, more complex flavour. At 69%, I noted that it tasted a lot like memory loss; imagining an expensively boozy post-lash where we cracked open the ‘Stagg and promptly descended from drunk to blackout drunk. Of the lot this was probably my 3rd favourite by taste and favourite by branding.
Lastly, we got a taste of the W. L. Weller. Elegantly named after William Laure Weller himself, this whiskey was noted as the first recipe to replace rye with wheat. The experts complimented the oaky taste and that alcohol taster’s favourite word “complexity” was bandied about a few times. This bourbon was good but not great but that was probably just due to the quality that preceded it.
All in all the Buffalo Bourbon Empire may have claimed a whiskey convert. Our host was both engaging and informative and really took us through the narrative of the distillery in a way that got me interested in bourbon beyond my usual consideration of alcohol – i.e. “what am I gonna drink tonight for optimum wave?” In terms of the drinks themselves, the Buffalo Trace recipes were absolutely brilliant and changed my perception of bourbon from some weird whiskey thing that people only drink on tv to acknowledging the status that it has among high functioning alcoholics everywhere. I fell in love with the Sazerac Rye in particular and, like I said, my birthday is coming up so if you’re reading this and you love me, buy me a bottle.