Like the Derby, There’s No Clear Winner in This Kentucky Bourbon Taste Test

(Bloomberg) -- An estimated 120,000 mint juleps were served to the 150,000 spectators at Churchill Downs on Saturday—requiring a half-ton of mint and 60,000 pounds of ice—to accompany half a million cans of beer and 142,000 hotdogs. But 700 miles away, in a less-rainy New York, the Race Day experience on the rooftop of the Empire Hotel proved to be a more modest affair, despite the valiant attempts by an advertised “live Dixieland band.” (Though there was a complimentary mint julep with a takeaway copper mug included with your $50 ticket to attend.)

But an unadvertised feature at this inaugural event was our very own inaugural Kentucky Derby Triple Crown Tasting, conducted at various intervals that afternoon by a panel of three battle-weary, seasoned tasting veterans I had enlisted as guinea pigs. The cause? To determine the finest of three esteemed, Derby-themed Kentucky bourbons: Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old, a $300 limited release that honors the 84th anniversary of the opening of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery; Calumet Farm Single Rack Black, a $50 whiskey produced by a successful horse breeding and training farm; and the Woodford Reserve Kentucky Derby 145, the “official” bourbon of the Kentucky Derby that runs about $44 per bottle.

The panel included myself; Ollie Roeder, a writer and nationally ranked Scrabble player; and Kurt Emhoff, entertainment attorney and boxing manager to several world champions. The two of them had agreed to supply their tasting acumen to the proceedings despite battle scars from their last invitation, about seven months ago, to sample Conor McGregor’s Proper Twelve.

Little did we know that, by afternoon’s end, the horse racing world would be left reeling, and the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby mired in controversy after a protracted 22-minute deliberation reviewing “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”

With enough expected money riding on Saturday’s race to exceed the entire gross domestic product of three of the world’s smallest countries, we took the opportunity to commemorate the famous 1892 Kentucky Derby, when there were only three horses who raced for immortality. These three bottles, likewise, are the most qualified ones in this race for thoroughbred-themed bourbon supremacy.

Woodford Reserve

Like the Derby, There’s No Clear Winner in This Kentucky Bourbon Taste Test

We began with the Woodford Reserve Kentucky Derby 145 bottle, its flagship offering that’s been distilled from a site in operation since 1780. All of us enjoyed the buttery, caramel nose on this bourbon and slightly floral note on the tongue. There were also peppery notes of cinnamon and “toast on the finish,” according to Roeder, who would like the reader to know that his whiskey experience traditionally skews heavily hedonistic rather than critical. But even for a casual drinker of bourbon, this was remarkably smooth to drink without any assistance as a mint julep. Beyond the warm, gradual maple finish, I could feel my fellow tasters absolving me for the sins of McGregor’s whiskey after several long months of bitter resentment.

Calumet Farm

Like the Derby, There’s No Clear Winner in This Kentucky Bourbon Taste Test

We followed that with the Calumet Farm Single Rack Black, which is aged for 10 years. Roeder’s immediate reaction to his first sip led him to remark that the bourbon “ran a risk of being disqualified for interfering with my tastebuds.” He added: “Oily, chewy, cinnamon—distinguishable mouthfeel.” Emhoff’s verdict focused more on a “harsh, unpleasant heat” and “potent vanilla extract” notes. To my palate, behind the tingly fire was a lingering secondhand-smoke tobacco flavor that polluted the otherwise pleasurable notes of subtle spices and fruit, arousing little desire to finish what I’d allotted to sample.

Blade and Bow

Like the Derby, There’s No Clear Winner in This Kentucky Bourbon Taste Test

Lastly, we poured the Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old Limited Release into our purloined Starbucks cups from across the street from the Empire Hotel. Taking the measure of our entire selection, Emhoff concluded, “I wouldn’t call it Secretariat, but I would certainly give Blade and Bow a half-length victory in this race. Woodford beats out Calumet by at least a nose. No triple-crown-winning bourbons here, but all Derby-eligible.” Roeder was less charitable, declaring it, with its hefty price tag: “A volatile, cloying burn. It ran hard but ultimately faded in the stretch. Notes of citrus rind.”

Unable to narrow it down to one overall winner, we named the Woodford Reserve best for overall value, and the Blade and Bow best maturity. Thus, just as their equestrian counterparts had beneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs on Saturday, the whiskey stewards delivered their verdict after lengthy consideration.

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