Friday, November 6, 2009

Review: Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.
G.K. Chesterton

Welcome to the inaugural post of Spondologos!

...Yes, I know it's not the prettiest name for a website. I had a hell of a time coming up with it, though. I knew I wanted something Greek, mainly because I'm a horrible nerd, but beyond that nothing much suggested itself. I couldn't use one of the billion or so words for "wine," not only because I don't know jack about wine (yet) and probably won't be posting on it (yet) but also because "wine" is only a very small part of what I'd like to talk about here. This site is meant to be a celebration of some of the best liquids ever created by mankind, most of which just happen to have alcohol in them, and that includes far more than just fermented grape juice.

Then I remembered the word spondē. It comes from a verb, spendein, meaning "to pour a libation." This is a very common word in ancient Greek literature, where people were pouring libations left and right. It can also mean "to agree on a peace treaty" or just "to make peace" in general, which makes sense: even today there's no better way of getting good with former enemies than sitting down with them and sharing a few beers (just ask our current president). The root for this word has made its way into our own language in some rather strange ways, chiefly through its Latin adoption (spondere, "to pledge"). "Despondent," "respond," "sponsor," even "spouse" - all of these words come from spondē, libation. This detail tickled my fancy enough that I decided to use it in my ridiculous website title. So Spondologos it was: ho tēs spondēs logos, the word/discussion/discourse of libation.

In fact, the history of the word spondē is so rich that it gives me an idea. For many months I have been trying to find a way around a single nasty word: "drinking." There is, so far as I know, no other good verb (or none sufficiently different; e.g., "imbibing") to describe what human beings do with alcoholic beverages. The problem, of course, is that this "drinking" is usually understood in a very specific sense. The telos of "drinking,", its goal and completion, is intoxication. One drinks to get drunk. A drinker tries to absorb enough alcohol that (s)he inhabits an alternative state of mind; this is just what drinking means.

That's fine, I suppose, except by that definition I am not a drinker. Sipping this fine glass of bourbon, I couldn't care less about whether or not it's going to smash my head in: I'm doing this because it's utterly delicious, a true delight after a long and toilsome week. Is there a word for this kind of appreciation? If so, I can't think of it. And thus, like poor Chesterton up there, we try to tease apart the senses of a word that basically shall not support both.

Allow me, then, to propose a neologism: rather than a drinker, I should call myself a spondent, and what I do, sponding.

Spondents are not drinkers. They see drinking as something violent and abusive, not only for the drinkers but for the fine substances they misuse. Spondents must love what's in their glass, even if only in some small degree, for if they don't then there's no point to sponding it. Spondents must view intoxication, at most, as a rather pleasant side effect.

All of that out of the way, then, I'd like to talk about Buffalo Trace.

This stuff has a rather ambiguous place in the bourbon marketplace. The fifth I've got here cost a cool $24, just slightly higher than Maker's Mark but still about $5-10 lower than the beginnings of the top shelf stuff (Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, etc.). Buffalo Trace, then, is entry-level luxury; if it were a car, it would be an Acura TSX. Still, it costs a slight premium; is it worth it?

Yeah, I'd say so. There's just more to it than Beam White, which is a little bit too one-dimensional (the black label stuff is another story though). As for Maker's Mark... well, Mark has a niftier bottle and smells a bit better (in fact, the smell of a freshly-opened fifth of Mark may be one of my favorite scents ever), but aside from that I think it loses out. Sure, you could argue that it's smoother, but this is bourbon God damn it. Go drink Jameson or something if you want smooth.

Into my glass she goes, then. There's not much to say about the color, of course (Bourbon is never particularly surprising there), but the nose is pleasant indeed. Trace smells like vanilla and heat initially (no surprise there, this monster is 90 proof), but in the back there's a little bit of oak. Okay, bottom's up!

Well, this is pretty close to my idea of a perfect bourbon. Right up front you've got a good hit of corny sweetness, although it's cleaner and not quite as strong as some other bourbons. It's in the midpalate where this stuff really starts to shine, though. The oak comes out to play, along with some cardomom and - is that lime? Whatever it is, it's absolutely delicious. There's not much time to savor it, though, because Buffalo Trace has one hell of a finale. The rye, which had been biding its time, finally pushes through and spices up one's whole mouth, and the 90-proof heat gives everything just a touch of dragon's breath - not overwhelmingly, but just enough to be entertaining (45% alcohol? really?). The aftertaste is of more oak, rye tingliness, and - rather improbably - a cool mint flavor. No, really. I half-suspect you could down a shot of this stuff just before a night out and your date might compliment your fresh breath.

There's not much to criticize here; Trace really is almost perfect. All I can whine about, really, is that it just doesn't go far enough in the direction of sheer punk rock bourbon rowdiness. Take Knob Creek, for example - now, that's a bourbon that wants to clean out your fridge, fuck your wife and daughter, steal your stamp collection and set your house on fire. Buffalo Trace also enjoys doing these things, but as a matter of courtesy it would probably leave a note on your doorstep afterwards. It's a little too soft and civil, a little too easy to drink. A strange criticism to be sure, but if Trace is trying to compete in the easy-to-sip game then I'm afraid Maker's Mark has it beat before the contest even starts.

Still, it's a great bourbon, the best pick I've had in its price range. But if they were to crank things up a bit - more aging, more complexity, more spice, more alcohol - well, then they'd have something fantastic. Yes indeed, it would be a bourbon legend to be praised by the proud order of spondents a hundred years from now.

Grade: A-
Summary: A fantastic bourbon that falls short of utter perfection only due to its relative civility. I'd love to taste an older, 100-proof version of this stuff.

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