I can rightfully claim no particular expertise on Bourbon Whiskey. I enjoy it immensely and have gone out of my way to try as many of the older Bourbons as I can lay my hands on........ and, I try most of the new products. A few of these new products are gimmicky, and many are first rate, but priced too high for comsumption by the general public.
So I venture out on this project with trepidation, but do so anyway.
Generally, I like to classify Bourbons into four groupings.
There are those that are unmistakeably Bourbon (or Tennessee Whisk(e)y) and are quite drinkable, but lack anything special or memorable in their flavor profile........ this includes most Bourbons and Tennessee Whiskies sold in America. At this time, I do not know, of my own personal experience, any 'rot gut' American Whiskies...... and this includes some whiskies that only cost about $10 a bottle. I have, and keep, these Bourbons (and Tennesse Whiskies) on hand and drink them pretty regularly. Some of these are 80 proof and often seem to be watered down (Four Roses Yellow Label being one exception). Examples: Evan Williams Bottled in Bond 100 proof at $8.99 (last time I bought some), Ezra Brooks 101 ($9.99), Old Weller Special Reserve 90 proof ($9.99 recently). Aside from Four Roses Yellow Label, I do not recommend any 80 proof Bourbons as being excellent......... but they may well suit some folks and none are unworthy of the Bourbon name.
Another class of Bourbons are those that owe a great deal to the barrel. There is a nice display of rich barrel flavors in these Bourbons. They have an upfront creamy thick sweetness with lots of vanilla and caramel flavors with an obvious oak heritage. This thick and viscous sweetness carries right through to the finish, even in the presence of a nice dollop of spicy challenges. This is often one of the strengths of Barrel Strength Single Barrel Bourbons, and if even if they are diluted to about 95+ proof they retain those wonderful barrel flavors. Examples: Knob Creek Single Barrel at about $44, William LaRue Weller Barrel Proof at about $80, and Wild Turkey Rare Breed or Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, both of which sell for about $50 or less.
Yet another class of Bourbons is one that I like to label as 'soft', or even 'delicate'. In general these will be lower in proof, say around 86 to 95 proof, but they do not taste watered down. They seem to benefit from a very nice clean distillate that does not carry over any undesirables elements that can yield 'off' flavors. There are also Bourbons that use wheat instead of rye in addition to corn as one of the grains, many of these Bourbons are somewhat 'softer'. Examples: Van Winkle 12 YO Lot B (90 proof wheat Bourbon), Jack Daniel's Single Barrel (94 proof Tennessee Whiskey), Evan Williams Single Barrel (86.6 proof). These Bourbons and Tennessee Whiskies usually sell for about $50 (the Evan Williams is almost always under $30 and is well worth that cost....... Van Winkle Lot 12 YO Lot B is probably in very short supply...... try an available Weller Bourbon in its place).
My last classification is that of what I call the ultra aged Bourbons. These generally start at about 15 years of age on go on up from there. In these Bourbons (and Rye Whiskies by the way), the oak plays a predominate role. Among the best of them I have claimed for a number of years that there is a softness and delicacy that owes a lot to the oak. Tannins play a big role in the taste of these Bourbons and when the tannins take a too prominent role, the Bourbon will be bitter or sour and very dry in the finish. BUT, I have always maintained that ultra aged Bourbons have a special complexity wrought by time in the barrel that makes them 'barely Bourbon', but OH! so good. Just as I have said that I think rye imparts a perculiar sweetness all it own, I think extended time in the barrel yields an unusual softening effect on barrel sweetness that makes it a more complex sweetness, like that of dark chocolate, which can border on bitterness itself, just as the tannins in ultra aged Bourbon can.
It is pretty much these classifications that I use when I do vattings, usually ignoring the first class, but not always. I think the best characteristics of the last three described classes of Bourbons are each highly desireable. If one is predominate, that can be a good thing (example: the deep barrel flavors in Knob Creek Single Barrel), but it can also lack what I like in the others. So, I take a Bourbon like Evan Williams Single Barrel (soft and delicately sweet) to correct for that lack in KC (and cut the 120 proof). At times I further soften the sweetness with a skosh of malt sweetness from a malt whiskey to round it out.
For myself, I do not try to make an inferior Bourbon better by adding 'good' qualities. I always start with good to excellent Bourbons and work with their strengths, not their weaknesses, to achieve a better all round Bourbon....... one with qualities from the last three categories. It is never my goal to make a 'good' Bourbon from an inferior one and an excellent one. The result of a vatting like that will just degrade the excellent one.