High Quality Bourbon for Discriminating Consumers
By Mark H. Waymack
The Bourbon drinker of today has at his fingertips higher quality Bourbon than has ever been on the market before. This is a bold statement, but one that I think is true. It is true partly because of greater attention being paid to quality control. But it is also true partly because of a new kind of product on the market – single-barrel and small batch Bourbons.
When Prohibition was repealed, the Scots and Canadians already had stocks of aged whiskies on hand. The Bourbon distillers, on the other hand, had to start from scratch. By the time they had new Bourbon in the barrel aging in the warehouses, imported whisky already had a substantial head start. So for economic reasons, the pressure was on to get Bourbon out of the warehouse and into the market as quickly as practical. Consequently, Bourbon distillers rushed things along and bottled a product that had a hard time competing in terms of quality with the better-imported whiskies. And Bourbon thus earned an image of a relatively low-end spirit.
Bourbon has climbed its way back, however, and its latest moves in the market are its best so far. Noticing the phenomenal success of high-end, single malt Scotch whiskies, the Bourbon distillers persuaded their corporate offices that the American consumer was indeed willing to pay a bit more for a particularly high quality drink. But what was that special, high-end Bourbon going to look like? All straight Bourbon is already ‘single’ in the sense of single malt Scotch (since it is not blended with any neutral spirits and comes from only one distillery), so ‘single’ by itself wouldn’t say much about Bourbon. The distillers came up with three different ideas.
Single Barrel Bourbon
The first is single barrel Bourbon. The idea is something like this: Each barrel of Bourbon is a little different, and the whiskey in it acquires a slightly different flavor. Furthermore, where the barrel is stored in the warehouse can make a considerable difference in how the whiskey ages. Typically, when a distiller bottles a Bourbon, he collects together several hundred or even thousand barrels. These are dumped together, chilled and filtered, cut with water, and then bottled. What results is a reliably uniform whiskey. What the master distiller does, then, is to periodically sample the whiskey in barrels, especially those barrels in the best part of the warehouse. Usually this is the very center of the warehouse, called ‘the heart’ of the warehouse. Those barrels that are discovered to contain unusually fine whiskey are recorded and tracked with care. They are allowed to mature in years far beyond the average Bourbon. When they are at their peak of perfection, they are taken from the warehouse – one by one – and bottled one barrel at a time. In this way the cream of the crop, so to speak, becomes single barrel Bourbon.
Leestown Distilling, formerly known as Ancient Age Distilling, first developed this idea. Long-time master distiller Elmer T. Lee managed to persuade the office folk to go along with his experiment: to take especially good barrels and bottle from them a single barrel at a time. And under Elmer’s guidance, the first single barrel Bourbon, “Blanton’s,” came on the market in 1984.
Elmer chooses the barrels that go into Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon as well as a slightly lower proof Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon. Elmer has since retired, though he still plays as active role. Gary Gayheart is the current master distiller, and the barrels he chooses as most excellent go into Hancock’s Special Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon as well as Rock Hill Farm Single Barrel Bourbon.
Other distilleries have followed suit. As a companion to its other ultra-premium version of Wild Turkey, called Rare Breed (an exquisite melding of six, eight and twelve year old Wild Turkey, Wild Turkey has introduced Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel Bourbon, bottled from barrels chosen by master distiller Jimmy Russell. As Russell says, “What I’m doing in the single barrel version is tasting each single barrel to keep that special quality and consistency.” When asked just what it is he’s looking for, Jimmy Russell rocked back in his chair and replied, “that deep amber color, that good vanilla-caramel flavor along with a touch of sweetness.”
Heaven Hill Distilling has also entered the market with Evan Williams Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. The distinctive result is, in no small measure, due to the talent and skill of Parker and Craig Beam, the father and son distilling team at Heaven Hill.
Small Batch Bourbon
The second approach to ultra-high quality is that embraced first and foremost by the folks at Jim Beam. The Jim Beam philosophy here is that single barrels are much too quirky, too idiosyncratic to bottle individually. If you’re going to put your name on the bottle, you want the person who buys it to be able to trust that what’s in that bottle is what they expect, that it’s like the last bottle that they liked so much. From Jim Beam Brand’s point of view, it makes far more sense to select your choicest barrels, but instead of bottling them one at a time, they are dumped together to make what they term small batch Bourbon.By using two different grain formulas (the regular Jim Beam formula and the ‘high rye’ Old Grand-Dad formula), different ages, different bottling proofs, and different filtering techniques, Jim Beam has come up with four distinctive small batch Bourbons: Basil Hayden is from the high-rye formula, bottled at a fairly standard alcoholic content of 40%. Knob Creek shares the high-rye formula, but is well-aged and then bottled at a higher proof of 50%. Baker’s uses the standard Jim Beam formula, but is aged for seven years and bottled at 53.5%. Finally, there is Booker’s Bourbon. Booker’s Bourbon uses the standard Jim Beam formula and is aged for six-eight years, but what makes Booker’s unique is that it is the only Bourbon on the market that is then bottled unfiltered and without any added water at whatever the barrel strength happens to be – usually around 125° proof. It goes straight from the barrel into the bottle. As Booker himself puts it, “this is the way it was a hundred years ago, the way my grandfather, Jim Beam, made Bourbon before Prohibition. Back then they didn’t go through all this chilling and filtering. So Booker’s Bourbon is different, it’s got more natural barrel flavor in it.”
United Distillers has also introduced something like a small batch series, called, “The Bourbon Heritage Collection.” Our favorite comes from their Stitzel-Weller distillery in Louisville, the W.L. Weller. And in the past year, United bottled and sold off some of its older whiskey in small batch style under such labels as “Finch’s Rare Whiskey.”
Most recently, several new “small batch” whiskeys have appeared on the market with labels ascribed to distilleries that are really legal fictions. (For example, try out a bottle of “Rowan’s Creek” small batch Bourbon.) Some of these are nice whiskeys, but I at least would prefer a bit more clarity in labeling – because if you hope to drive down to Kentucky and find some of these homey sounding distilleries you will be sadly disappointed.
Small Scale Bourbon
The third approach to producing and bottling high quality Bourbon is to make sure that all the Bourbon you take from the barrel and bottle is of the highest quality. Such uniformity of product and consistently high quality can be difficult to attain on a large scale. This philosophy of Bourbon making is exemplified by Maker’s Mark Distillery, which at around 54 barrels of Bourbon a day undoubtedly ranks as the smallest Bourbon distillery in operation – well, at least the smallest legal Bourbon distillery. You could think of Maker’s Mark as the “micro-distiller” of the Bourbon industry.
While Maker’s Mark is one of only two Bourbon distilleries that uses wheat instead of rye – arguing that doing so produces a “softer” Bourbon – in other respects it is hyper-traditional. It cooks its mash gently and slowly; it ferments in the traditional (but hard to maintain) cypress tanks; it uses a beautiful, all copper still; the wood for its barrels is seasoned an extra year before being made into barrels; and in a labor-intensive process, it diligently rotates its barrels around the warehouses in time- honored tradition, starting on the hottest, top floors and gradually working downward to the more temperate and stable lower floors.
So, if you have a hankering for really fine Bourbon, you can thank your lucky stars that you live in some of the best of times. Many of the single barrel, small batch, and micro-Bourbons on the market are better than anything that’s been on the market before.
Published with permission from Straightbourbon.com