"Could this informal event convert a committed gin zealot into a whiskey lover? I’d have to wait and see"
If you live around Oxford and you like cocktails, you’ve probably been to Raoul’s. With its low ceiling, dimly-lit ambience, affable bartenders and unparalleled selection of mixed drinks, it’s not difficult to see why The Sunday Times listed the Jericho haunt as one of the best 50 bars in the world. I’ve spent many an evening at Raoul’s enjoying the surroundings and sipping daiquiris, and for cocktail lovers, it’s a true Oxford institution. Last Monday, however, we weren’t just there to drink cocktails, as Oxford Alcademics put on an evening of tasting, learning about and generally celebrating small-batch Bourbon whiskey.
It’s probably worth pointing out at this stage that I’m not a whiskey drinker.
Whilst I appreciate the sweet subtlety of cognac and adore the juniper complexity of gin, I’ve never quite understood why you’d want your choice spirit to taste like a burnt-out office block. Having said that, as we descended Raoul’s stairs and into their packed basement bar, the lively atmosphere and good cheer of all the attendees almost made me forget that I was about to repeatedly assault my tastebuds with varying degrees of smoked paint thinner.
Our host for the evening was Amanda Humphrey, a knowledgeable, witty and energetic (if sometimes painfully on-brand) representative of the whiskey labels we were to about to taste. As Amanda talked us through the colourful history of the Jim Beam family, I found myself drawn into the heritage surrounding these fiery drinks, and by the time she’d completed the Beam timeline from originator Jacob Beam, through the famous Colonel James B. “Jim” Beam, down to current master distiller Fred Noe, I was completely on board with the idea of tasting their whiskeys, if only to truly appreciate the work that goes into them. In retrospect, I’m not sure how much of the narrative is strictly true and how much is a delicately constructed PR exercise, but there it is.
With my anti-bourbon bias swayed by the fascinating Beam story (and an admittedly delicious whiskey sour courtesy of Raoul’s bartenders) it was time to begin the tasting. As Amanda talked us through the differences in definition between Kentucky straight bourbon and rye, a measure of our first whiskey was served into wine glasses: Basil Hayden’s. As the lightest-bodied bourbon in the Jim Beam family, I could instantly identify spicy, peppery flavours, and the result was almost enjoyable: a million miles away from the thick, peaty Scotch whiskies that had put me off in the past. Could this informal event convert a committed gin zealot into a whiskey lover? I’d have to wait and see.
Next, it was time to taste Baker’s. Amanda told us that Baker’s is bourbon for Cognac enthusiasts, but as the product is bottled at an eye-watering 53% ABV, I had little faith in it tasting like a fine brandy and I prepared myself for a full-frontal tastebud violation. To my surprise, though, the flavour was astonishingly smooth, and I actually wound up finishing off the glass of a friend who thought Baker’s wasn’t to their taste. Boasting clear toffee and nut flavours and finishing smooth and sweet, Baker’s doesn’t particularly resemble Cognac but is very, very nice anyway. This was all going far too well.
Apparently, Fred Booker Noe was a larger than life character and a big drinker, so I guess it makes sense that his signature Booker’s bourbon is bottled at an absolutely staggering 63.7%. After mixing with a little water to tame the ethanol, I took a sip and attempted to appreciate the flavours. The very malty, woody taste was a little too close to Scotch for my liking, but I was assured by my more esteemed comrades that this was a very fine Bourbon indeed, so there you go.
Over the course of the evening, we went through Knob Creek rye and bourbon (by this point, the group had enjoyed a fair amount of drink so the name caused some mild laughter from the audience) as well as Jim Beam Signature Craft, a 12-year old bourbon that reeks of oak and vanilla. After finishing off with an Old Fashioned, I’m pleased to say that I left Raoul’s with a newly discovered recognition of the subtleties of whiskey, even if I’m still unlikely to order one over a Courvoisier when it comes down to it.
I’m not here to sell you Jim Beam whiskies, although given my limited experience I’d suggest that you could do a lot worse. What I will recommend, though, is checking the Oxford Alcademics timetable and getting yourself down to Raoul’s for their next event – it’s a fantastic evening for those who want to learn about spirits in a lively and relaxed environment. Cheers!
- Jack Rayner