Raising a toast to National Bourbon Heritage Month.
As of 2007, September has been recognized, by Congress as National Bourbon Heritage Month, celebrating “America’s Native Spirit.” American whiskey, whether bourbon, rye or any other variation, is more popular than ever today. Modern, big-brand bourbon makers embrace the now-international love of bourbon, giving us special bottlings, while new start-ups try and break into the market.
Bourbon, by law, can be produced anywhere in the United States, must be made with a mixture of at least 51 percent corn, must be aged in new, charred, oak barrels—and a slew of other regulations.
Currently, 95 percent of bourbon is made in Kentucky, but, interestingly, no distillery exists in present-day Bourbon County, KY, where many people think bourbon has to be made.
The two main types of boutique bourbons produced are either crafted by distillers that source, distill, age and bottle themselves, or craftsmen that purchase barrels and are able to develop their own by altering their aging condition and blending or adding unique finishes to the previously distilled product. When done well, both should be treated as equal artisans.
Combing through a well-stocked bar or liquor store is a lot like shopping for a car. Some models are fast and flashy, some are job-specific, while others are practical and affordable.
If you search hard enough and are willing to pay the man, you can even find an old classic in its original body. Similarly, there are a lot of choices when it comes to picking a whiskey or bourbon. Information is now at our fingertips that tells us everything, from where the bourbon is produced, bought, and bottled, to who makes it, to how it’s made.
The Big Bourbon Guns
Making great bourbon is an art form. Though a lot of people can do it to some degree, few are truly exceptional. Imagine a huge bourbon warehouse with a million barrels in it. Now, someone gives you a glass and tells you to go pick out the best barrel in the building. This is, essentially, how huge distillers operate. The advantage they have is that they have most likely been aging bourbon in that warehouse for several generations and know what areas produce the best product.
The bourbon industry today is made up of more than 600 bourbons and whiskeys, with only a small fraction of distilleries producing all the brands on our shelves. Purchasing “open market” whiskeys for blending is not highly advertised, because it is generally looked down upon. As an example, there is a distillery in Indiana that is responsible for the large majority of all rye whiskey and a significant amount of different “generic” whiskeys in the U.S.
The distillery doesn’t bottle any of their whiskeys for themselves, but instead sells them to whiskey-makers. By most accounts, their whiskeys are well regarded, especially considering how many companies purchase from them and the quality of bourbons being blended from their stocks.
By law, companies are allowed to purchase barrels from other distilleries and bottle it as their own. Some companies are completely transparent about this practice, while others are less than forthcoming. This raises the question: Should a bourbon brand be required to complete the entire bourbon process from grain to bottle or does it matter?
Large companies’ Master Distillers are able to control the entire bourbon-making process from the grains they receive, to how it’s distilled, to how and where it ages. Some of those hundreds of thousands of barrels will simply age better than others; these specially selected barrels become the limited-edition brands, the others become their more standard brands like Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, or Heaven Hill.
The Sazerac Company arguably owns one of the most well-respected portfolios of whiskeys in the world (Colonel E. H. Taylor, G.T. Stagg, Eagle Rare, Pappy Van Winkle, and the list goes on). Each year, before the holidays, they release what they call their “Antique Collection.” These bottles are catalogued and labeled so you know in what season they were bottled. Hand selecting the best barrels is what makes this release so special.
Pappy Van Winkle might well be the most recognizable, sought-after bourbon you find in the spirits industry. Before the turn of the twentieth century, Pappy owned the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery. Old Rip Van Winkle, with its wheated sour mash, started being produced just before Prohibition. The distillery continued to operate during Prohibition, bottling “medicinal” whiskey as one of six active distilleries. It wasn’t until 1972 that Pappy’s son began to once again make Old Rip Van Winkle.
Here’s where it gets interesting: The original Pappy was produced during the twilight of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, before it was closed in 1992. The Van Winkle family controls most of what remains today. A large part of why Pappy is so hard to find is that there simply isn’t enough of it to go around. Hype plus low yield plus more hype plus delicious equals crazy demand and hysteria.
The Artisan Trends
The crafting-from-grains process is essentially the same for a small micro-distiller. The difference is the scale on which they are distilling or aging and how much technology or quality of products to which they may have access. There are relatively few micro-distillers creating bourbon entirely from scratch. The financial stability needed for the creation process is daunting. You must source your own grains, mill them, then ferment the mash, have a quality still to turn that “beer” into a quality distillate, then purchase or make quality barrels, finally having a large enough space with an ideal environment to let it age for 2-20 years. Yet there are some great whiskey-makers doing just that: Leopold Brothers, Balcones Distilling, Ransom Spirits, and a handful of others.
Another trend emerging is “open market” whiskey. Great brands are choosing the talent of Master Blenders over the talent of Master Distillers. These whiskey-makers select special barrels from other distilleries and modify their aging conditions to create a unique product. Jefferson’s Bourbon is a prime example.
Jefferson’s treats blending and aging bourbon like it’s a dinner party for eight—not 80. Their bourbons are praised as some of the best, but they do not distill any of the bourbon themselves. Rather, they purchase hand-selected barrels from other whiskey-makers and change the condition in which those barrels finish aging to make it their own. It’s becoming a more common practice. What’s refreshing are the honesty, transparency, and pride that Jefferson’s Bourbon and others take in their craft.
Yet another new trend is finishing bourbon in a barrel other then American oak. Angel’s Envy is exploding with bourbon that is finished in port barrels, giving it a mellower flavor. Maker’s Mark created a Maker’s 46 for which they insert slats of toasted French oak into the barrels to finish them off.
The “make-and-buy-local” trend translates to bourbon as well. Is a locally owned company selling a product that is made and packaged in a different location considered local? When making cheese, does it take anything away from the cheese if it is made from your own dairy cows or milk sourced from a nearby farm—or from a completely different region? Does the “local” business have to produce locally, provide towards the local job market, and have a local office? With more and more small brands popping up and touting themselves as “local,” you, the consumer, must make the decision.
Both large and small distillers give their special-edition bottles unique names to celebrate a part of their history, a moment in time or a description of their process. The bourbons in those bottles are examples of certain barrels they deem to be above and beyond or unique in some way.
Just as an artist may produce an impressive body of work, there are some pieces of art that are a step above the rest. And just like an artist, it is either a personal choice or a collective effort. From those choices, reputation is created. Reputation is what makes a simple item a brand and gives it name recognition.
As consumers, we’re fortunate to have so many great bourbons to choose from and are able to do our part to honor the craftsmen, distillers, and barmen for their commitment to quality. As long as bourbon-makers with strong integrity, passion for their work and a talent for their craft continue to give us special bottles that personify their commitment, we can stand behind their brand and toast to their name.