Jefferson’s Presidential Select 21-Year-Old: American Whiskey Has Grown Up So Fast

Last week a padded envelope arrived at my desk containing nothing but a small bottle of whiskey with "Jefferson’s Presidential 21" handwritten on a white label. There was no note or press release, but I soon figured out that the bottle contained Jefferson’s Presidential Select 21-Year-Old Straight Bourbon Whiskey, the latest expression from Jefferson’s Very Small Batch Bourbon. Having recently tasted a selection of bourbons, I was eager to give it a try. What makes Jefferson’s Presidential 21 interesting to me is that American whiskey is rarely aged for 21 years. That’s upscale Scotch territory. Most bourbons are aged for less than ten years, and when you get to 12- and 15-year releases, you start seeing age statements, because it’s a big deal.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that bourbon is less refined than Scotch, of course, it just means that it ages faster. Whiskey aging is largely a function of the climate. Warehouses that store bourbon barrels tend to be located in Kentucky and Tennessee, places that have a wide temperature range, with torrid summers and chilly winters. The climate in Scotland is more moderate. So, while many other factors contribute to the flavor of whiskey, bourbon tends to lose its alcoholic astringency and gain the flavors of the oak barrels at least twice as fast as Scotch.

And here we have a 21-year-old bourbon. Is it comparable to a 42-year-old Scotch, and should we even care? I’m of the view that people worry a bit too much about the age of spirit while undervaluing other factors. All the same, it’s hard not to wonder, so I went home and poured a shot’s worth into a small tumbler. The aroma’s striking, with a pleasant spice note that’s quite an eye-opener. Taking a sip, I noticed lots of cinnamon and pepper that grabs the tongue before mellowing into flavors of butterscotch, honey, and dried fruit. And it’s very woody, with a dark color and vanilla notes from here to Louisville. To be sure, it’s mellow, but still brings the heat like a bourbon should. It’s bold and interesting and delicious neat, but it wouldn’t be a crime to drop an ice cube in the glass if that’s how you like your bourbon.

For comparison, I poured some Glenlivet Archive 21-Year-Old, one of my favorite single malt Scotches (and yes, I do have a quite well-stocked liquor cabinet). The big difference between the two was apparent right away: the flavors of the Glenlivet, which was aged for the same 21 years, were subtler and more complex. There’s all kinds of stuff going on in the glass, including many of the same flavors, but there’s a restraint to the Glenlivet where the Jefferson’s Presidential is outspoken. The Glenlivet whispers in the forest, while the Jefferson’s climbs a tree and hollers. (I didn’t have a 42-year-old Scotch on hand–my liquor cabinet’s not that good–but I’ve tasted a couple of 50-year-old Scotches at events before, and recall deep wood flavors that bring to mind the Jefferson’s, while being a bit softer with the spice.)

I refuse to pick a favorite, though, because I love bourbon and Scotch for different reasons, and, regardless of the age, they’re radically different beasts. But with summer coming, the feisty nature of the bourbon seems to suit the season of active days and sultry nights perfectly. It’s a shame I only have that one tiny sample bottle. Jefferson’s Presidential 21 is available in limited quantities at upscale liquor stores for $120 a bottle. Buy one and invite me over.

Sample both whiskey and whisky at New York bars like Whiskey Ward and the Brandy Library. For more drinking spots, peruse the BlackBook New York Guide.

[Related: Update Your Liquor Cabinet for Summer with Six Brilliant American Bourbons; More by Victor Ozols; Follow me on Twitter]

For Father’s Day, Dad Wants Liquor

Screw the tie clip, the sweater, the lawn-care implements. A card is nice if you actually write something in it, but if all you’re going to do is sign the thing, save your $3.99. Absent absurdly expensive toys, Dad bought himself what he wanted long before you knew he wanted it. In fact, forget all that traditional Father’s Day stuff. You’ve put Pops through a lot over the years, and since you can’t give him back the youth you stole from him, the least you can do is give him a brief respite from the noise of the world: Give your dad a good bottle of booze this Sunday. Here are a few favorites that I’d totally expect my brood to offer up if I didn’t already have them.

Whisky: Perhaps the iconic dad spirit, it’s hard to go wrong with a bourbon, rye, or Scotch. I’d be happy uncorking anything from Jack Daniel’s, Dewar’s, or Johnnie Walker. Give dad a great drink and a Scotch education with a fifth of Glenlivet Nadurra 16 ($60), which is bottled at cask strength and is non-chill filtered. It has the flavor of apricots and oak and a healthy kick. If you’re ready to spend some serious – but not quite insane – cash, Talisker 30 is worth every one of the 350 dollars you’ll pay for it. With notes of vanilla, sandalwood, and caramel, he’ll forget about how you took out the lawn gnomes with his Buick that one time.

Tequila: Perhaps your dad prefers an agave-based spirit. If so, head straight to the tequila section of your local booze-mart, where you’ll find an amazing selection of quality bottles that simply weren’t around when he was coming up. While cheaper tequilas work well in margaritas, I’d definitely spend some extra scratch on the primo stuff if he’s just going to be sipping it. Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Silver ($53) has just a touch of grapefruit in its flavor profile, while Jose Cuervo Platino ($60) has citrus notes and a fun assortment of botanicals that dance on the tongue. I absolutely love Gran Patrón Platinum ($200), and offer it to guests who tell me they’ve never had a really good tequila. It’s butterscotch smooth, with flavors of honey, cream, and pear nectar. It’s so nice, in fact, that my prized bottle of the stuff is almost empty.

Rum: Rum’s having a moment, at least in my liquor cabinet, with so many varieties with wildly different flavor profiles – which means you have to try them all. You definitely can’t go wrong with Mount Gay Extra Old ($50), which has an oaky bouquet and flavors of vanilla and cinnamon. Creeping upscale, there’s Ron Zacapa XO ($100), a delicious drink with hints of birch and ginger, and the mind-blowing Bacardi Reserva Limitada ($110), which is made from rums that have mellowed in charred American white oak casks. Limitada is as smooth as rum gets, with flavors of lemon and orange practically jumping out of the glass. Educate dad on rhum agricole, which is made with fresh sugar cane juice instead of the traditional molasses. I like 10 Cane ($30), with a pleasant vanilla flavor, and Clement Premiere Canne ($32), which boasts a pleasing sandalwood aroma and coconut and citrus flavors.

Vodka: It might be the un-booze, but vodka’s supposed absence of flavor might be the ultimate expression of peace in your old man’s soul. I just wrote about vodka, so I’ll only mention a couple of standouts. At $23, Ketel One punches way above its weight class. It’s as smooth as a whisper and perfect in a martini. 42 Below ($22) is another good bet, traveling all the way from New Zealand to the side table by Dad’s TV chair. It has hints of grain and straw and a great mouthfeel. Square One Organic ($35) is delicious and has a great story. It’s made in Idaho from American rye and has vanilla notes and a hint of spice. Grey Goose ($40) tastes as good as it looks, and you know how sexy those bottles are. And I was impressed with Stoli Elit ($60), the iconic Russian vodka house’s most refined offering. The bottle looks like something from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, and the liquid tastes like a Siberian winter, with the faintest hint of grain. Chill it, pour it, and let dad sip it.

Of course, the obvious benefit of these bottles is that Dad will be obliged to share them with you, at least for a drink, so be sure to pick something you like as well. You’re a good kid, did I ever tell you that?

Sublime Single Malts: The Outtakes

Although we’re a week into spring, it’s nonetheless a cold, wet, miserable day in the city, which gives us one more excuse to focus on single-malt Scotches before moving on to balmier beverages. In my March 2011 spirits column, eight wonderful whiskies made the cut, including the $17,500-per-bottle Highland Park 50, but they were selected from a pool of nearly two dozen, the worst of which was still pretty darn tasty. Since there’s plenty of room on the internet, may we present the rest of the class, which all merit a hearty pour as we endure the last angry spasms of winter.

As enjoyable as it was, tasting a slew of delicious whiskies was a task I did not take lightly. I gave serious consideration to each, jotting down my impressions on the backs of a series of envelopes. Here, in random order, are my thoughts on a whole bunch of great bottles.

Highland Park 12 A bit harsh at the front, but settles into a pleasant melange of spice, fruit, and peat. A pleasant entry-level Scotch.

Highland Park 15 Balanced, refined, and smooth like butter, with no burn. Great paired with a Velvet Bowery cigar.

Highland Park 18 Smooth and mellow, and not particularly smoky or peaty. Notes of wood and banana with a mild spice. A subtle sweetness uncommon to Highland malts.

Oban A fun choice. Butterscotch and cocoa notes. Light and not very peaty – a crowd pleaser.

Cragganmore 12 Speyside Uniquely fruity, crisp, and very easy to drink. A good one to warm up with on a cold day.

Cardhu 12 Highland Brisk and tangy, with a tartness reminiscent of apple cider. A very nuanced flavor profile. What is that I taste, Calvados? Quite nice. Auchroisk Sharp and powerful with a pronounced spice and notes of orange. A little peaty with a light smokiness. Lends itself to quiet contemplation.

Caol Ila 12 Pure pleasure from the get-go. Sharp but balanced with notes of vanilla. Not overly peaty, but this Islay malt lets you know where it’s from.

Lagavulin 12 Bracing, almost pepperminty, with peat, spice, smoke, wood, earth, and grass notes. Pleasantly warming.

Glenkinchie 12 Super smooth for the (Lowland) style, with a hint of sweetness. Citrus and dark chocolate flavors make it quite accessible.

Glenlivet 12 Mild, wood-forward, with a medium bite. Subtly floral. An iconic single-malt that’s affordable and easy to drink.

Glenlivet 18 Very flavorful. Feels thick, not thin. I taste caramel, butterscotch, and maple. Wonderful – no bite at all and very little spice. I could drink it all night.

Glenlivet French Oak 15 Mango fun.

Glenlivet Nadurra Spearmint on the tip of the tongue, with apricot, vanilla, oak, and caramel flavors. A bold one.

Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask Sweet, fruity, almost tropical (hence the name, I guess). Notes of vanilla and coconut linger nicely.

Balvenie Peated Cask 17 Peaty (duh) with a tangy spice and notes of orange rind. Definitely smoky but very interesting. Quite possibly my favorite in the peaty category. Outstanding.