Bourbon chaser on a quest for the best single barrel

7:46 AM, May 25, 2013   |    comments
Co-owner Jim Bledsoe pours another round of samples at his Tallahassee, Fla., liquor lounge/Gannett/Glenn Beil, Tallahassee Democrat
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by Doug Blackburn, Tallahassee Democrat

Jim Bledsoe's Holy Grail is a pale copper-colored distilled spirit, gently aging in an oak barrel. He knows it's out there, somewhere. It has to be.

He's been on his quest for more than a decade, trying to find the world's best bourbon - a product that's as American as baseball and apple pie.

It's hard to imagine anyone more dedicated or enthusiastic in this pursuit. Bledsoe, a managing partner at the four Market Square Liquors stores in Tallahassee, Fla., as well as a lounge adjacent to the flagship shop, has made nearly a dozen trips to Kentucky distilleries in pursuit of the ultimate single-barrel bourbon.

Has he found the world's best bourbon? In two words: Not yet.

But the journey's the thing when it comes to Bledsoe's quest, and it has resulted in a rare collection of single-barrel bottles for sale, all hand-picked by Bledsoe and his band of merry bourbon enthusiasts. The list is impressive: 27 different single barrels from which to choose, ranging in price from $30 to $179 per bottle.

That's only the first wave. During his April pilgrimage to Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Wild Turkey and a handful of lesser-known distilleries, Bledsoe selected 42 more single barrels to be bottled exclusively for his properties.

"To me, the taste profile that's offered by bourbon is 100 yards wide. There's so many, it's just intriguing," said Bledsoe, who came to bourbon from scotch.

Bledsoe and several dedicated members of the Tallahassee Whiskey Society tasted as many as 40 different barrels a day over four days, trying to keep their palates clean in order to choose only the very best.

"We're trained; we've done it so much. You tend to pace yourself," he said. "It's like a football player psyching yourself up for a big game. You get ready."

There's much more to bourbon than Jim Beam and Jack Daniels, the two major labels lining liquor stores from coast to coast. There are, in fact, hundreds of bourbons to choose from and not all are made in Kentucky and Tennessee. One of the hottest new distilleries, High West, is located in Park City, Utah.

High-end, small-batch bourbons have been popular for some time, riding the momentum established by single-malt scotches. But the most distinctive bourbons of all are the single barrels set aside by master distillers, barrels that may have a more cinnamon or vanilla flavor, perhaps notes of caramel or chocolate - all a result of the charred oak barrel - than the rest of the barrels in that particular batch.

This is where Bledsoe separates from the rest of the pack of bourbon enthusiasts. Most shops carry one or two single-barrel offerings, but 27, much less 65 to 70?

"Jim's bourbon selection is second to none geographically. I can't imagine another store in northern Florida coming close to what he does for bourbon," said Jim Rutledge, the master distiller at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, Ky., whose 2012 small batch received the coveted Whiskey of the Year Award from Whisky Advocate magazine.

Tallahassee businessman John Hill was among the bourbon lovers who accompanied Bledsoe to Kentucky in April. He enjoys the blind tastings that Bledsoe oversees at his lounge, allowing the group at large to determine from small samples which single barrels to order.

"We're looking for pretty much the same thing in bourbon. Jim leans a little more toward what I call the 'big boy' bourbons than I do," Hill said.

While Bledsoe continues to explore distilleries hither and yon for the world's best bourbon, he sleeps well knowing that at least one mission has been accomplished.

"Our goal is to basically have the best bourbon selection that anyone could ever want to see or be involved in," he said. "On that end, I believe we have now accomplished greatness."

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