Two of the more highly sought after releases this year (rather a large percentage of the sought after releases this year) came from Willett Distillery. I’m talking about the 22yr B49 and B49C. People seem to fall into two camps regarding which one is better, and after reading other opinions, I decided to check them both out myself, and weigh in. Could the B49C live up to the hype? Were these sister barrels exactly the same as some said, or did the “individual characteristics of each barrel” make an overwhelming difference in the flavor profile and enjoyment of this bourbon?
That two amazing bottles came from Willett should not be a surprise at all, seeing as how Drew Kulsveen and Company have been cranking out the hits all year, from the extremely delicious 10 through 13yr bottlings, to the ultra-aged 22yr barrel proof nectar. C barrels. B barrels. Wheaters. Whatever you like to call them, all I know is I have enjoyed those that I’ve had opportunity to taste. When I hear rumblings of yet another release dropping on that hill in Bardstown, my mouth starts watering and I get a glimmer in my eye, which I typically compare to Robert Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver, with drink, fight and gold on his mind in the 1950 Disney classic, Treasure Island.
Instantly my world descends into a flurry of mental mileage calculation and risk versus reward.
If I leave now, driving 90mph, can I make it before they close? No.
If I leave now, driving 100 mph, can I make it before they close? Probably.
Will I get nabbed by the speed trap in Ashland, Ky? Probably.
Will I get caught by my wife, and will the punishment be severe? Yes.
Do I have a spare $800+ to spend, or that I can spend without getting caught? No.
Is it worth it? ABSOLUTELY!
After setting a blistering pace down I-40 (quicker than Rowdy’s pole time at the last Charlotte race), I already picture myself flying down the old main street in Bardstown like a scene out of the Dukes of Hazzard, Roscoe trying to tail me in a bullhorn clad 1972 Cadillac convertible, Flash’s head hanging outside the window, yarlping “Bow! Bow! Bow!” I slide through the round-about in front of Talbot Tavern, partially sideways with the rear passenger door flying open, like Steve Kinser in a World of Outlaws feature…getting off into the grass, plowing through Janice Worthington’s freshly laundered white’s that are drying on the clothesline, flapping in the breeze. I blast up that gravel road shifting rapidly and burning through every gear, fishtailing all the way, and hand-brake turn crookedly into the nearest spot adjacent to the gift shop. I run in, panting, sweating, and eyeing the display case. I ask if they have anymore wheaters. The lady says “We didn’t release anything today. Who told you we did?”
“THWARTED AGAIN!” I scream at the Heavens. An orange cat looks up from cleaning himself, nods in quiet admonishment as I sulk dejectedly back to my car….and drive off into the darkness of the Blue Ridge.
Such is a typical story (although this only happened this way once…or twice).
So the B49, and B49C, both special bourbons, in their own ways. For the purposes of this tasting, I tried each one knowing what it was, in order to get a good mental baseline, then I tried them blind, then once more knowing the contents. I found that the B49 might have benefitted from a misting of water. But the B49C? No way. It was perfect. Despite that, I left them neat. They were pro-boxers, squared up toe to toe blow for blow, ready to see who had the moxie to go the distance.
Here were my notes on each:
Nose – “Oh shit, that’s nice.” Oaky and thick. I wrote “Big dog tobacco. I love tobacco.” So much of personality dancing around in the glass. Sweet, chocolaty, and peppermint. My nose says mint chocolate chip. I make a mental note to pair this bourbon with a sleeve of Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies in the near future.
Flavor: Again, sweet and enticing. My notes say, “A geyser up through the roof of my mouth. Proofy, sweet and nutty.” The flavor jumped out of the glass onto my tongue. While it’s hot, it’s not overbearing. I didn’t bother making any adjustments to it, and it needed very little air. Nope, it was perfect on its own. There was something almost floral happening, as opposed to the dankness I sometimes pick out of a bourbon that’s sat in oak more than half my life. I detected a crisp note of sweet honey that gave way to a pillowy shot of cocoa. It’s just delightful. The consistency of the liquid is so light, yet has such a punch. It evaporated almost instantly in my mouth. I said something similar about another aged Willett I had months ago, and I remember it well, that the liquid had the same lifespan and quality as cotton candy. It just kind of resonate for a moment, then went through a fission process and was gone, leaving you with just the candy.
Finish. The finish is fast; zippy. No aftershocks or explosions, and not a lot of separation between blasts of heat. No, it broils, a very acute sizzle. It lingers on the front of the tongue, and the rear palate/top of the throat. It’s utterly pleasant.
My first impression was “Oh, well, this is similar.” But after a moment, the similarities ended.
Nose: This one was hot to my nose. Hot oak and tobacco. I can just picture a bolt of lightening striking the old tobacco barn, causing a fire that blazes all night, emanating the sweet smell of drying leaves and caramelized oak in the misty July air. The VFD can’t get their truck through the muddy ruts, so the barn cooks down to its skeleton, till nothing is left but the smell and memories. Underneath was a faint drip of honey, but not much, and I wasn’t sure it my nose was just playing tricks, as if I expected the honey, and therefore it existed. But it lacked the cool cocoa and mint.
Flavor: Full of the tobacco and caramel I described before. But those components are the underlying magma to a very peppery, spicy mantle. I said, “More heat than sweet.” I didn’t proof it down, though it may have benefitted from a drop of limestone water, but rather I let it stand on its own accord and merits. But whereas the sweetness balanced the heat in the B49C, that same balance was lacking here. Not that it wasn’t good; I don’t mean that at all. It just didn’t possess that same sense of singular harmony that I found in the 49C.
Finish: In the simplest of terms – Hot. I wrote “A forest fire in my chest”. It was a wily one, burning all over the place, with no stated direction or destination. It just flowed like liquid looking for the quickest way south, scorching everything in its path.
The Post Nose on both of these was similat, and it was a bomb of choco-oak and vanilla. Not much I enjoy more than getting up in the morning and nosing the remnants in the glencairn while waiting for coffee….
While these are both fine bourbons, for me, the B49C was clearly the winner. Without a shadow of a doubt. Everything just worked in harmony, all of the components complimented each other, nothing was overshadowed, everything shined. In all three tests, known and blind, I picked the 49C. In my notes, it looks like I was negative on the B49, but that’s not the case. I did enjoy it. But B49C was just better through all phases, so much so that I believe it shone a spot light on the B49’s deficiencies that may not have been as obvious had this not been a side by side. So there you have it. B49C.
Now if you’ll excuse me. I just heard that Willett may be having a special midnight release, and if I leave now, I can just get there….
Cheers and Happy New Year. Here’s to more epic bourbon in 2016!