Maker’s Mark has long been our choice of bourbon, but it was time to see if that was still true. We did a blind taste test of four top-shelf bourbons: Booker’s, Maker’s Mark, Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek.

Booker’s and Basil Hayden’s are made by relatives of the famous and very successful bourbon-maker Jim Beam. Another bourbon that we didn’t test is Baker’s, also a relative of Jim Beam (they like names that start with B, apparently). Knob Creek is also in the Jim Beam family of bourbons, made by the Jim Beam company. Maker’s Mark’s history has nothing at all to do with Jim Beam, but started by William Samuels in 1959 and later credited with sparking the revitalization of bourbon. Today, all of these bourbons are owned by Fortune Brands, which owns many companies including Titleist, Moen (the faucet-maker), several wineries and both low- and high-quality bourbons, including Jim Beam.

Aging of bourbon is usually cited as an indicator of quality. These four bourbons are all aged different number of years. Basil Hayden’s is aged 8 years, Knob Creek is aged 9 years and the other two are aged a varying number of years, apparently decided by the taste panels at the distilleries. Booker’s claims their bourbons are aged “6 to 8 years” and Maker’s Mark doesn’t make any claims at all about the aging, just that “it’s sold when it’s ready”. Our bottle of Booker’s is stamped as having been aged 6 years and 3 months. Given that temperature has the biggest impact on the aging process, Booker’s and Maker’s Mark seem to have the better model than the fixed aging time of the other two. But will we notice the difference in our taste test?

The alcohol percentage is also different in each bourbon. Bourbon is typically 40% alcohol (80 proof) and Basil Hayden’s meets that exactly. Maker’s Mark is slightly more at 45% (90 proof). Knob Creek is higher still at 50% (100 proof). But Booker’s is off the charts at 63% (126 proof)! Will that be noticeable in our taste tests?

As these are all top-shelf (and small batch) bourbons, they aren’t inexpensive but they don’t vary much. Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s and Maker’s Mark are all about $32-$35 for 750ml. Booker’s is $54. Will price make a difference in our test? Booker’s also comes in a stupid wooden box. I guess they need to justify its higher price somehow and I imagine there’s some nut who collects the things as badges of honor or something, but they should do away with it and put it in a nicer bottle. The bottle is a wine bottle with black wax holding the corked cap and a ribbon on the bottle. The only worse packaging is Basil Hayden’s, which is also in a wine bottle with an identical corked cap but it has a paper label draped around its neck and held in place with a balsa wood strap with a metal “bh” bolted to it. It looks like a monk wearing a frock and belt with a belt buckle. Knob Creek gets marks for an interesting bottle shape, inspired by an old flask and the label resembles a newspaper wrapped around it, which is how bourbon used to be packed many years ago. It also uses a corked top and wax holds it on. But Maker’s Mark is the master of packaging: a uniquely shaped square-base bottle with the trademark dripping red wax. The label is like parchment paper with a very classic logo. The red wax and label were the ideas of founder Bill Samuels’ wife. And best of all, it has a screw-top which keeps the contents preserved better than a loose-fitting cork.

We did a blind taste test, meaning we didn’t know which bourbons were which – they were in identical glasses marked on the bottom and randomly arranged. We evaluated color, smell and, of course, taste. This is how I evaluate beer, so I figure I’d test bourbons the same way. We rated each as best (4 points), second-best (3 points), third-best (2 points) and worst (1 point) and then unveiled each one to see the winner.

Color: We scored exactly the same in this test. Booker’s was easily the most pleasant color, a very dark brown, which we find appealing, so it got 4 points. Maker’s Mark had the next best color which I thought was very close to Knob Creek, Gay thought they were less close in color. We both agreed that Basil Hayden’s very pale color was not at all appealing. Booker’s is the only bourbon in this group that is “uncut and unfiltered”, which I assume is why it has a richer color.

Smell: Again, we scored identically here. And again, Booker’s won with the best “nose”, spicy but not a strong alcohol smell which is surprising given it’s 50%-higher level of alcohol. Maker’s Mark scored second with a full “oak-y” aroma. Knob Creek and Basil Hayden’s were very similar to me and both smelled terrible, like nail polish, i.e., a very strong alcohol smell, which I don’t like at all (in beer or wine either).

Taste: This is what really matters and this is where we differed in our scoring. For me, Maker’s Mark was the winner. Booker’s was second simply because it’s high alcohol level really showed in its taste, it really gave you a kick while Maker’s Mark had a pleasantly smooth, but sweet and spicy taste all the way through. Booker’s had a slightly better after-taste to me, but the initial whollop you get was just too much. Knob Creek was a distant 3rd, drinkable but lacking a robust flavor. Basil Hayden’s was undrinkable to me. For Gay, surprise, surprise, Knob Creek was her favorite followed by, yikes, Basil Hayden’s due to a “grassy” taste (she loves that in white wines too, I hate it). Booker’s was her third favorite but close to Basil Hayden’s and Maker’s Mark finished dead last!

Our scorecards:

Troy:

    Booker’s Maker’s Mark Basil Hayden’s Knob Creek  
  Color 4 2 1 3  
  Smell 4 3 1 2  
  Taste 3 4 1 2  
  Total 11 9 3 7  

Gay:

    Booker’s Maker’s Mark Basil Hayden’s Knob Creek  
  Color 4 2 1 3  
  Smell 4 3 1 2  
  Taste 2 1 3 4  
  Total 10 6 5 9  

In my opinion, there’s three “proper” ways to drink bourbon: straight, on-the-rocks or with water and in a Manhattan. This only tested one: straight. We never drink it straight, however, so next we need to test these on the rocks and in a Manhattan. But this was too much for one night, so we’ll have to do it another night.

I did have Booker’s on the rocks to see if the alcohol hit was lessened and it was. On the rocks, Booker’s is probably better to me than Maker’s Mark, but again, the high alcohol content keeps it from being an “everyday” bourbon – just 2/3 of drink with Booker’s and I’ve hit my one bourbon max (unless I want to feel terrible the next day). Maker’s Mark will remain my all-around favorite.

We’ll have to keep a bottle of Knob Creek around for Gay, however. So she can stay away from my Maker’s Mark from now on.

To answer our questions, do age and price affect our evaluations? The most expensive bourbon scored highest overall, but only second- and third-highest in taste. The worst performer, Basil Hayden’s is clearly over-priced. Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek appear to be competitively-priced given that they were our favorites and are priced very similarly. Age is harder to gauge because we don’t know how long my taste winner, Maker’s Mark, is aged. But clearly Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek’s longer aging compared to Booker’s is of no help for my tastes, which must match the tastes of the taste panels at Maker’s Mark and Booker’s. Gay’s taste-winner is Knob Creek, which is aged the longest (9 years) and her second-favorite is aged the second-longest (8 years), so a longer aging seem to matter to Gay’s tastes.

Stay-tuned, soon we’ll repeat this test in Manhattans and on-the-rocks.