Age: 15 Years Old
I recently read McCay Coppins’s remarkable profile of Donald Trump. It left me chewing on a couple of questions: first, why a man with so much – not simply wealth and fame, but also a family – seems so fragile, so stripped of all joy, and second, why Trump seems compelled to stamp his name into every object, no matter how incidental, associated with his properties and products. Maybe, in a dark and primitive place Trump understands that once he’s gone nobody else will ever affix his name to so much as a book of matches. If so, then he also knows that his physical legacy is completely in his own hands, and since he will have no other kind, he remains fixated on whacking “Trump” onto everything, even if the act ensures only that future generations remember his name as an eyesore.
Maybe Ezra Brooks 15 year old bourbon, then, is the perfect opposite of Donald Trump. It spreads joy wherever it is dispensed (at least my bottle did). It certainly is not fragile; indeed, this bourbon’s sheer oomph silenced an entire table full of tasters in my kitchen. And it is a relatively little-known product made decades ago under a brand that now exists only in name. Which means that we – the whiskey geeks – bear the happy responsibility of maintaining and burnishing its memory. And so we should. In a world in which artisanal achievement received proportionate reward, men and women would name streets, buildings, even children after this bourbon. I adore it. I want to learn Italian, so I can sing soulful Neapolitan ballads of its greatness. Yes, yes, taste is subjective, but if you’re a whiskey geek and this stuff doesn’t chisel a wistful, thousand-yard-stare of a smile into your face, the problem lies with you, not this bourbon. Boom.
Let’s pause for a moment, so I can stop panting and provide some background. First, the knee to the groin: this is a dusty bottle of long-ago discontinued bourbon and you can’t easily buy it. Moving on to less painful specifics, the bottle bears a federal tax stamp and metric (as opposed to earlier imperial) measurements. There is no state tax stamp and no bar code. The bottle is sealed with a cork, rather than a screw top, the design of which might provide an additional hint as to its age. The digits stamped into the bottom of the bottle yielded nothing to me, but perhaps others could extract knowledge from their sequence. Based on the available information, I think the bottle dates from the early 1980s – after the implementation of metric measurements in or around 1979, but before the phase-out of federal tax stamps in the mid-1980s. I believe it was made at the Medley distillery (DSP-10) in Owensboro, Kentucky.
In practical terms, I’d give up a bottle of almost any bourbon or scotch in my stash for another bottle of Ezra Brooks 15. I’d give up a bottle of the damned antidote for more of this stuff, were I lying somewhere, a victim of poisoning. Ezra Brooks 15 offers everything I’m looking for in a bourbon: a 5W-30 mouthfeel, heavy but not overwhelming barrel influence, powerful spice, a smell of leather so strong it’s as though I’ve wandered into some sort of cowboy/S&M outfitter, and a backbone of butterscotch that is absolutely gorgeous. Butterscotch is a flavor I’ve come across in other dusty bourbons, but not to this extent, and it might be overwhelming if not for the heavy-duty spice and wood keeping it in check. Everything is in balance, and it is glorious. To clarify what an achievement this is, understand that Ezra Brooks 15 is an extremely woody and spicy bourbon. So spicy that it leaves a tingle on my lips not unlike a hot pepper. Yet it’s not dry, and the spice never overwhelms the rich, buttery sweetness and luxurious mouthfeel of this whiskey.
Everything about this bourbon walks a glorious edge between richness and aggression. Its color is best described, with my apologies to author and Civil Rights activist James Weldon Johnson, using a phrase from his poem, The Creation. It is “Blacker than a hundred midnights / Down in a cypress swamp.” Place this Ezra Brooks 15 next to a contemporary bottle of Elijah Craig 18 (a very old bourbon, by the standards of any era) and the modern bourbon looks like apple juice. Of course, looks do not necessarily reflect upon smell or taste, but in this case, the opaque surface of this whiskey is a pretty solid indicator of what lies ahead. The nose, as I mentioned, is so full of leather and spice – actual hot spiciness, not nutmeg or cinnamon – that it almost, but not quite hurts. And it’s much the same on the tongue. The assault of wood and dryness from 15 years in a barrel verges on painful, but is always saved by huge waves of that incredible, soothing butterscotch and fruity sweetness. Interestingly, there’s not a lot of vanilla to be found. That’s something I’ve noticed in other dusty bourbons and I’m not sure how to explain it, as vanilla is such a staple aroma and flavor in modern bourbons. The finish is hilarious. It is so powerful, so enduring, that I actually found myself chuckling as I chewed at my cheeks, at least ten minutes after finishing this bourbon, and felt as though I’d last taken a sip just moments earlier.
Cautions and concerns? From a sensory perspective, I’m coming up blank. I’m picking up every damned thing this whiskey puts down. The nose, the taste, the mouthfeel, the seemingly never-ending finish – they’re all textbook. Other aspects, such as the butteriness, are singular. Still, if you’re looking for subtlety or the maple syrup-y embrace of a Stitzel-Weller bourbon, it simply isn’t here. This is balanced and beautiful bourbon, but it’s far more wooly, woody, and complex than a standard-issue Pappy Van Winkle or Stitzel-Weller dusty. There’s one additional meatball hanging over everything I’ve written: even if you’re lucky enough to find some of this stuff in circulation, it’ll be 30-plus years old and potentially suffering from cork taint, contamination, evaporation, or any other affliction that can bring down a glorious old bottle. I’ve come across a couple of old ceramic decanters – not bottles – of Ezra Brooks whiskey, as well, all of which have tasted heart-wrenchingly foul, perhaps due to lead or other unpleasant industrial goodies leaching out of the ceramic and into the whiskey.
I wanted to hoard this bottle. Really, I did. But I found myself pouring samples for friends, simply to enjoy the expression on their face as they smelled and tasted this beast of a bourbon. That’s the point of this whole exercise, right? The odds that I’ll find another bottle of Ezra Brooks 15 are cruelly low, but it brought me a lot of joy while it was here. I’m glad that I shared it, and I weep rich, butterscotch tears that it’s gone.
Oh, and if you have some, TELL ME!