September is Bourbon Heritage Month!

photo by Keith Allison
photo by Keith Allison

It's Bourbon Heritage Month! Each Friday for the month of September, we’ll be posting articles about bourbon. I’d like to start by discussing a bit about the state of bourbon in America now, and how brands, marketers and consumers are approaching this category.

In 1964, an act of Congress declared bourbon “a distinctive product of the United States,” meaning that whiskey produced by the same methods anywhere outside the US can’t be called “bourbon.” Just like wine made in the methode traditionelle anywhere outside Champagne is just sparkling wine.

It’s an interesting time for America’s distinctive product. Bourbon is at its highest point of production since the 1970s, and new distilleries are cropping up all over the US map. The demand is there. The problem is that consumers have been somewhat mislead about the category as of late, and some people seem to have a hard time making the distinction between what is a distillery and what is simply a brand.

It should be evident that the distillery is the one with, you know, the still(s). However, there is so much bourbon on the market now that isn’t made by the brand releasing it. What many consumers, and sadly, some people in the media who report on spirits, fail to realize is that just because a brand’s name is on the bottle, they didn’t necessarily make the liquid inside of it. It was sourced.

Much has been said lately about the brands who have sourced bourbon from distilleries such as MGP/LDI, or other distilleries with behind-the-scenes commercial contracts. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it unless the brand isn’t forthcoming with this practice. Some of these whiskeys are quite delicious and I sip them proudly. But sadly, for every brand that openly admits their product is a blend of sourced (you also hear the term “small batch” bandied about a lot) barrels, there’s one that tells the story of how their product is the first drop bled by the ancient family still since Prohibition from a secret recipe, and how Grandma Dorothy is smiling down at them from heaven to see it working once more. They really do this. They can mostly get away with it because, as of press time, there are no restrictions or labeling requirements in place to prevent them from doing so. More importantly, most consumers don’t know enough about the brands, or even the category, to do the math: If the youngest whiskey in the product is older than the actual age of the company producing it, then it clearly wasn’t made by them. Then there’s the discussion of words like “craft” and “artisanal” as it applies to things that aren’t made with scissors and glue, but let’s leave that alone for now.

photo by Keith Allison
photo by Keith Allison

Why is there so much sourced bourbon? For one thing, even if you are set up as a legal distillery, the journey to a proper drinkable bourbon is a long and expensive one. You have to build the facility to code, clear the license, buy the equipment, grow or procure the grain, gather the water, decide on a recipe (this may take a few tries), distill it, age it and bottle it.

This should take years. Some distillers choose at this point to cheat the timing a little, so that there is now a product available to sell, by aging the bourbon in smaller barrels, which some think makes it taste like it’s been aged longer.

It doesn’t. I have yet to taste a small or micro-barrel whiskey, some aged in casks as small as 5 gallons, that even begins to match the richness and complexity of something aged more than one year in a 53 gallon barrel. Not to say that all of it is bad. In the right hands, this isn’t a bad thing at all. However it’s a very clear stylistic difference that is immediately age identifiable by its sharp edges, thin texture and unavoidably hot finish. It’s like comparing Vampire Weekend to David Bowie.

Another product choice is to sell an unaged whiskey while some of the other liquid ages in barrels in its cocoon stage on the way to being a bourbon.

Let’s be clear about what this is. Or rather, what it isn’t.

Here's a checklist.

  • Are you avoiding the payment of government taxes to release your product?
  • At any time, was a firearm a necessary component for a transaction between yourself and either your customer or purveyor?
  • To the best of your knowledge, have you, or anyone you know, been seriously threatened simply because your product exists to the point where you feel it should have a hiding place, just in case?
  • Are you apprehensive about selling your product during broad daylight when anyone can see?
  • Has anyone ever chased you menacingly, especially at night, in order to steal your product from you on the way to a purveyor?
  • Are you on an FBI most wanted list for producing this product?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above questions, congratulations! You make moonshine!

If not, then your unaged distillate IS NOT NOR EVER WILL BE MOONSHINE!!!

Deep breath.

Anyway, that’s why there has been such a proliferation of that… stuff (some politely call it “white dog”)... all of a sudden. Also more vodka and gin. It’s something that can be made during the waiting period. Again, not all of it is bad. Especially many of those vodkas and gins, some of which have even gone on to deservedly win awards at such events as the NY International Spirits Competition.

Back to bourbon. What is so wonderful about this category of whiskey is that there are so many styles to choose from, and the majority of them, mavericks and old establishment alike, are great. You don’t have to pay a lot for a great bourbon, but some are worth it for the splurge, especially some of those limited edition one-offs. Below are a few to try.

photo by Joe Kirschling
photo by Joe Kirschling

Elijah Craig 12 Yr - It’s inexpensive. It’s solid. It’s everywhere. It’s a trusty friend that never disappoints.

Dry Fly Washington Bourbon - One of the aforementioned young ones that actually tastes good.

Noah’s Mill/Rowan’s Creek - If you see either one of these in a store, on a whiskey list or behind a bar, you will be treating yourself to a perfectly aged, rich tasting, delicious drop. Both produced by Willett, though not made by them. These are 2 examples of sourced whiskey that I sip proudly.

Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel - named for the former master distiller, and he’d be proud of every drop. Barrel aged in a proper rickhouse and bottled at a respectable age (at least 4 years) once it’s had some time to rest up. Taste this next to a young bourbon and you will immediately understand why I made those statements above.

John J. Bowman Single Barrel Bourbon - can be hard to find, but worth the extra schlep. Tasting this again recently, I was reminded of just how well balanced and smooth this beauty is. A classic American whiskey too few know to look for. Just leave some for me, OK?

Parker’s Heritage Promise of Hope - Quit dumping ice water on your head and support ALS research by purchasing this fantastic bourbon. Film yourself drinking it if you must.

Four Roses 2014 Single Barrel Bourbon - Admittedly, I haven’t tried this one yet. However, I have yet to taste any of this distillery’s limited releases that haven’t taken their traditional offerings up a few notches. It’s high on my wish list. Hey, anyone want to try it and let us know what they think?