Back in May, I announced a blind tasting in which I would pit the classic A.H. Hirsch 16 year old gold foil against an off the shelf bourbon. After receiving hundreds of responses, I picked 12 individuals for the tasting. I tried to create a diverse group so I included people with a variety of tasting experience. All were whiskey drinkers (they read my blog after all), but some had more bourbon experience than others. I picked some people I knew and some completely at random. The one requirement was that no one in the tasting could have tasted any A.H. Hirsch bottling.
Each taster was given two sample bottles, labeled only "A" and "B." One contained the A.H. Hirsch 16 year old; the other contained...Elijah Craig Small Batch, which I bought at my local shop for $25 (the one I bought for this tasting was the version that still had the 12 year old age statement on the back label, which has since been removed).
Each taster was given their bottles individually and was told to report back to me, in as much detail as they cared to give, about which bourbon they liked best and why. The goal of the blind tasting was to see how a cherished bourbon that goes for thousands of dollars on the secondary market would compare to a standard, good bottle of bourbon off the shelf.
Well, the results are in and...it's a tie. Six of the tasters preferred the Hirsch and six preferred the Elijah Craig. There was not particular pattern having to do with tasting experience. A few bourbon veterans correctly identified which was the Hirsch, but not even all of them thought it was the best. And many tasters were lukewarm to both samples. That being said, a few tasters were very excited by the Hirsch and found it markedly better. Below are a few excerpts from the tasters' notes on each bourbon.
A.H. Hirsch, 16 year old (gold foil), 45.8% abv.
- "Not as complex"
- "Okay, nothing I'd run out and get, no matter the price"
- "Very smooth, sweet, warm, maybe a little one-note, though."
- "It has a really nice old-time flavor that I enjoyed."
- "It goes bitter on the palate and I'd call it over oaked. There's some wet grass in there. Overall it comes off as very tired."
- "This is pretty great. Not crazy complex or powerful, but well balanced. If this is the Hirsch, it lives up to the hype for me."
- "I wouldn't turn it down at a bar, but I wouldn't be excited to drink more of this."
- "Classic dusty caramel mouth feel."
- "Nothing I'd run out and get, no matter the price."
- "A fairly straightforward dusty-like pour with a lot of higher alcohol notes and a classic woody character."
Elijah Craig Small Batch (12 year old on back label), 47% abv ($25)
- "Banana bomb like most current bourbons."
- "Harsh and alcoholy."
- "TONS of butterscotch! The mouth-feel on this was much nicer than A, with a velvety smooth feeling..almost creamy."
- "Dry taste and mouth feel at first, tastes older but not sure it is, lots of dry wood."
- "I'd buy it, though not for three or four figures."
- "Spicier, the sweetness is at the backdrop and there is more balance from nose to palate on this one for me. It's a creamier dram."
- "Simple bourbon with not much in the way of flaws but nothing to make me want more."
- "When I think of bourbon, this is the essential profile I imagine."
And a few concluding notes folks had on both of them:
- "I honestly didn't really enjoy either one. They would not be something I would go back to my bar for consistently."
- "Neither is fantastic."
- "I'm disappointed I didn't really jump for joy over at least one of these."
What does it all mean?
Twelve people is too small a sample size to make any definitive statement, but the failure of Hirsch to blow away the competition, even among those who preferred it, certainly raises questions about its current value. If a bourbon that costs four figures on the secondary market isn't demonstrably better than a $25 off the shelf pick, then its value is obviously based on something other than the quality of the whiskey. The fact that it's scarce, no longer in production and famous increases its value just as scarcity does among any other collectible, and like it or not (and I'm firmly in the "not" camp), bourbon is now that sort of collectible. But if you're one of those increasingly rare folks who actually buys rare whiskey to drink, I would think this tasting might make you pause before plopping down thousands of your hard earned dollars on a bourbon that you might not like much better than one you could buy today for $25.
Many thanks to the Hirsch tasting group for their time and their fantastic notes.