I’ve been really fortunate with finding some great single barrel picks lately from some shops here in San Francisco. Situated in the heart of San Francisco’s Polk Street, bordering the Tenderloin, is Royal Liquors. Judging from its outward appearance, one may find Royal as austere and more of a wall flower amongst San Francisco’s many colorful businesses and signature, flamboyant style landmarks – on the side of the building is a colorful depiction of the royal faces in a deck of playing cards. However after stepping inside you’ll realize that Royal isn’t just another Polk Street liquor store but is in fact one of SF’s few unknown gems that boasts a serious whisk(e)y selection ranging from Japanese single malts to single barrel store picks of bourbon.
One such store pick is a single barrel of Buffalo Trace that Sammy, the owner, purchased last year and received last December. He selected his barrel from a set of 3 samples.
Buffalo Trace, Royal Liquors Single Barrel #348
ABV: 45% // 90 proof
Mash Bill: Buffalo Trace #1, Low Rye (around 10%)
Nose: Total fruit bomb. Super juicy nose with notes of orchard fruits – oranges, apricots, lemons, lemon juice and this bright red cherry note along with some Starburst candy. This nose already is significantly richer than your standard bottle of BT. Light caramel and vanilla appear deeper in with more spice than I remember finding in previous bottlings of BT as well. Notes of dried corn, strawberry pie, pie crust, berry jam with a big raspberry breakfast pastry note. A subtle red wine-ness on the back nose. Unmistakeable Buffalo Trace mash bill #1 (low rye) which I definitely think contributes to the fact that this nose is more fruit forward with heavier sweet notes as opposed to vivid spice/dry characteristics. Nose finishes so light and refreshing. Light oak notes, not dark or charred round off the nose.
Palate: Medium body. Having the bottle open a week + definitely gave this more body and continually tasted thicker as it opened up. Oak, vanilla cream and some burnt toast. The oak is more oak spice and mostly on the tongue which gently coats the walls of the mouth where as the burnt toast starts mid sip and fades off before the finish. Oak tannins also work nicely and are more pronounced here than in the standard BT. Mixed berries, black peppercorn and a sweetness in the form of cane sugar intermingles throughout the sip. After 4-5 sips I found things to get more bitter and the oak became the loudest attribute. Wood spices and spent tea bag quietly lead into the finish.
Finish: Popcorn. Burnt popcorn. Coffee and milk chocolate notes follow. Very solid, medium length finish. A good depth of spice intermingles with Demerara sugars coating your tongue and some light pepper spices, that never come full throttle, follow the sweet sugars. Very solid considering this is Buffalo Trace – a sub $30 bourbon. The most gentle wisps of smoke are the final reminder of this bourbon.
Bourbon and House Rating: 88
To me these store picks are one of last special aspects of the bourbon world as they offer a unique and usually brief look into what distillers are capable of. Most importantly though these single barrel selections also prove that you don’t need to spend insane amounts of money for good bourbon. If you know where to look, and what to look for, the real gems aren’t just the one time, over-hyped, limited releases – they are the sub $30-$40 barrel picks that you can find in many liquor stores and restaurants. They don’t come in flashy packaging or with new “innovative” aging processes – they’re common brands that have stood the test of time.
When Sammy told me he had a single barrel of Buffalo Trace, I without hesitation picked up a bottle for $29.95 Now I have had some miss single barrels and went in with no real expectations, other than my pre-instilled confidence in Sammy’s barrel selection capabilities, and figured that at worst I would get an average bottle of Buffalo Trace.
Shortly after my first pour I was reminded more than anything of Eagle Rare’s former glory days. This barrel boasted a much richer profile than any bottle of BT, single barrel or not, I’ve ever had and my suspicion is that this single barrel is a little older than the standard BT. BT’s #1 (low rye) mash bill really shined through with this single barrel with loads of fruit and a slightly thicker mouth feel (BT is usually pretty thin to me). And at $29.95, I wouldn’t feel guilty about mixing this. This by far is the best value bourbon i’ve bought all year which is why I gave Royal’s BT single barrel a very solid 88. Buffalo Trace bourbon doesn’t get better than this.
For those of you in SF, or who plan to visit SF in the near future, be sure to stop by Royal Liquors and check out Sammy’s bourbon selection. I can promise you this single barrel of BT is one of the best in the city and he keeps one of the best selections of not only bourbon but rye, single malts from all over the world along with wine and beer. Sammy also just purchased a barrel of Four Roses during a recent trip to Kentucky which should be arriving in roughly September and has plans to purchase a barrel of Blanton’s in the near future…