Sku (he of Recent Eats) recently conducted a blind tasting of two bourbons by providing two samples (named only 'A' and 'B') to twelve very innocent volunteers. One of those two samples contained one of the most famous non-Pappy bourbons in recent history, the A.H. Hirsch 16 year old (distilled in Pennsylvania(!) and now selling for over $1000). The other sample was a current on-the-shelf mystery bourbon.
I was amongst the twelve volunteers Sku selected. (Riveting Disclosure: I had never tried the famous Hirsch before, thus had no idea what the thing smelled or tasted like.) We all emailed our findings to Sku and then, this past Wednesday, he published the results. First off, the mystery bourbon turned out to be Elijah Craig 12yo (with the age statement on the back label). Then secondly, the overall results turned out to be a tie. Six of us preferred the Hirsch and six of us preferred the EC12.
Below you will see two sets of notes. The first set are the very notes I sent to Sku immediately after the blind tasting. The second set of notes is from my retaste of those two bourbons, one week after the blind tasting, now knowing what I'm drinking.
"I liked Whiskey 'B' better than Whisky 'A'. I don't know if I should hope that Hirsch was "B" or that a current and more easily accessible whiskey was 'B'."
Nose: A lot of barrel char, burnt notes, tobacco, and caramel. Smaller moldy oak and medicinal notes show up after some air.
Palate: A solid fruity and peppery start. Cherries, brown sugar, and cream soda. Improves with time.
Finish: Cherry juice, molasses, pepper, ethyl heat.
Nose: Three Musketeers bar, toffee, and apples arrive first. Then pepper and horseradish. Some wood smoke appears later on.
Palate: Soft, creamy, lightly spicy, lightly tangy, graceful, and subtle. Adjectives! Creme brulee, citrus fruit, brown sugar, and simple syrup.
Finish: A burst of baking spice, almost like a rye. Citrus, vanilla, sugar, and a slight good bitter note.
"'A' was okay, nothing I'd run out and get, no matter the price. I'd drink it again though, so it would probably fall in the C+/B- range. I did like 'B' right from the start. Great nose on it. Somewhere around a B+. I'd buy it, though not for three or four figures."
Whisky A was A.H. Hirsch 16 year old Famousness. Whisky B was Elijah Craig 12yo. So, yes, I was one of six folks who liked the EC12 better. I really do like the EC12 a lot and that letter grade I gave it above matches the number grade from my March review.
A.H Hirsch 16 year old (gold foil)
Nose: Lots of caramel and vanilla. A mild cherry fruitiness meets wet moldy cardboard. Werther's Originals, orange oil, and furniture polish. After a lot of air, it develops a rich maple syrup note.
Palate: Ethyl heat, baking spice, mint, and lots of oaky bitterness. Smaller notes of mild rye, wood pulp, and black pepper.
Finish: Endless oaky bitterness, ethyl heat, and black pepper. It's a little sweeter than the palate and picks up some caramel along the way.
Elijah Craig 12 year old Small Batch (the final edition)
Nose: Brighter, less oaky, fruitier. White stone fruits and apricot preserves. Hints of lemon, caramel, and orange gummi bears. Some less pleasant tree bark and peanut notes show up occasionally.
Palate: Lots of tart limes and pepper. Rye, salt, pixy stix, and a little bit of tangerine. Some ethyl heat here too.
Finish: Rye, salt, and a mild bitterness. Vanilla and tart citrus candies. More oak than the palate.
I still enjoy the EC12 more than the Hirsch, but the distance between them lessened slightly. The Hirsch's nose needs time to open up because it doesn't start well, but once it kicks into gear it's the best part of the whiskey. I really don't get much from the palate except lots of oak and heat. Maybe I'd bump it up to a solid B- on a happy day, but that's about it. Meanwhile the Elijah Craig seemed fruitier this time, which is good, but also picked up some disappointing qualities in the nose. Its palate works better for me than the Hirsch's because the oak is more restrained, resting in the mid- to background. I wouldn't call either of them complex or fascinating, but I'd prefer drinking the Elijah Craig without a second thought, though it drops to a B grade here. (On a side note, Kristen preferred the Hirsch. Bingo.)
I have two not-particularly-profound things to say in conclusion:
1.) My palate doesn't like to be bludgeoned by oak staves, so I tend to not enjoy most bourbons older than 12 years (my palate saves me money that way!). That's a partially a personal preference, but on the objective side of things a load of oak can narrow a whiskey's palate and ruin much of its complexity.
2.) As Sku's experiment demonstrated, it's quite possible that there isn't much difference in perceived quality between these two whiskies. So then, why pay 40 to 60 times as much for the Hirsch? It's for the story, the scarcity, the history, and not the liquid itself.