The Times tasting panel assessed six long-aged bourbons, tasting them first neat and then with a splash of water. Joining me were restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, Features Editor Michalene Busico and Image Editor Booth Moore.
The bourbons are listed in order of our preference. The first three were imposingly rich and harmonious; our first reaction to each was awed silence followed by a gust of attempts to describe them. We ranked all three very close, with the A.H. Hirsch ahead by a hairbreadth.
The next two were slightly younger and less overwhelming but still a big step above everyday bourbons. We rated them very close to each other.
The 17-year-old Eagle Rare ranked far below the others, which was rather a surprise. I've tasted younger versions of Eagle Rare that struck me as far better.
A.H. Hirsch 16-year, 91.6 proof. Wonderfully polished and elegant. The aromas are delicate, floral and inviting, with a hint of the plushness of a very old wine. A splash of water brings out rich toasty, butterscotch-like flavors. Available at Beverages & More stores, www.bevmo.com; Beverage Warehouse in Los Angeles, (310) 306-2822, beveragewarehouse.com; and Wine and Liquor Depot in Van Nuys, (818) 996-1414, wineandliquordepot.com, $100 to $130.
Vintage Bourbon 23-year, 94 proof. A venerable whiskey with an impressive old nose of caramel, leather and dried fruit. With the addition of a little water, aromas of banana and baked apple come forward. Having spent nearly a quarter century in wood, this whiskey begins to suggest a Cognac or Scotch of the same age. At Beverages & More stores; Beverage Warehouse; Mission Liquor & Wines in Pasadena, (626) 797-0500, missionliquor.com; Wally's Wine & Spirits, Los Angeles, (310) 475-0606, wallywine.com; and Wine and Liquor Depot, $94 to $125.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20-year, 90.4 proof. Sweet, dense and rich with aromas of apple and brown sugar. A bit of water adds a note of berries. A stately, meditative bourbon. At Beverages & More; Beverage Warehouse; Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463, hitimewine.net; Wally's; and Wine and Liquor Depot, $80 to $100.
The Classic Cask 15-year (batch GL-110, bottle No. 337), 90.8 proof. The mellow nose of warm wood and briar gives the impression of substantial age, but this has a surprisingly vigorous mid-palate burn for an old whiskey. At Mission Liquor & Wines, $80.
Elijah Craig 18-year, barrel 2049 (barreled 5/17/88), 90 proof. A rather sweet bourbon with festive, fruity aromas, a note of brown sugar and an odd hint of linseed at first -- water smooths this out into a suggestion of bananas and other tropical fruits. The pleasant finish is particularly long. At Beverages & More; Beverage Warehouse; Hi-Time Wine Cellars; Mission Liquor; Wally's; and Wine and Liquor Depot, $37 to $43.
Eagle Rare 17-year, 90 proof. A strange, blunt whiskey. Peculiar aromas of citrus and violets with very little of the usual caramel and vanilla flavors of bourbon. At Beverages & More; Beverage Warehouse; Hi-Time Wine Cellars; and Mission Liquor, $55 to $100.
-- Charles Perry