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]