The (over)aging of bourbon?

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Unread postby angelshare » Thu Dec 30, 2004 3:06 pm

bourbonv wrote:It would be a mistake to think that a distiller could set out to make 300 barrels of bourbon and turn them all into a 20yo product. There are simply too many variables in the barrels for this to happen. When I was at United Distillers they decided that they were only going to sell "premium" bourbons and they sold off all of their "bottom shelf" products. This was their first big mistake. Not every barrel of whiskey they made was worthy of the "premium" classification. This does not mean that they made bad whiskey, but they made some that simply did not age well.


So, in effect, it sounds like the JBW's, WT 101s, Evan Williams's, Weller's, etc. have to exist in order to have a pool of barrels from which the premiums can be hand selected. If you get 30 premium barrels out of three hundred, you've still got to sell the other 270 to stay in business. Am I understanding your point correctly? It is a subsidy of sorts, I guess.

I guess the only question is how good can you get your non-premium, bottom shelf to be in (typically) 4-8 years? Personally, I see WT 101 as the yardstick there.

Stitzel-Weller under the Van Winkles had the perfect system. They made a single mash bill of a wheated bourbon. They sold Cabin Still at 4 to 5 yo at 90 proof. Rebel Yell was 5yo and 90 proof. Old Fitzgerald was bonded and usually 5 or 6 yo. W.L. Weller Special Reserve was 7yo and 90 proof with Weller 107 (the original barrel proof) was also 7yo. Old Fitzgerald 1849 (originally Weller 1849) was 8yo and 90 proof. These were their base products. From the whiskey made for these products they were able to pick barrels for Very Old Fitzgerld, or Very, Very Old Fitzgerald or Very Extra Old Fitzgerald or the Very, Very, Extra Old Fitzgerald. They needed all of these other products to have the "honey barrels" needed to bottle these premium brands of Old Fitzgerald.


It sounds like WT does this on a smaller scale (with the exception of doing the rye also, I guess) and BT currently tries to do this on a grander scale with multiple mashbills. Would you agree with that comparison?

It sound like the Stitzel-Weller model combined a good "bourbon business" model (the simplicity of one mashbill and vary proofs/age for the different products based on the decisions of able experts to provide a wide range of bottom shelf to super premium offerings) with the "...but always fine bourbon" philosophy.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Thu Dec 30, 2004 4:14 pm

Dave and Tina,
I would say you are understanding me completely. There has to be a pool of whiskey to choose from to get the honey barrels for the top end brands. Wild Turkey is another good example of what I am saying. Maker's Mark is the exception to this rule to some extent, but not really. They too have special brands, but only offer them overseas. My point is that without the Ancient Age, Jim Beam White, and Wild Turkey 101's of the world, you don't get the Geo T Stagg, Knob Creek and Russell's Reserves either.
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re: BOURBON COUNTRY READER article

Unread postby Strayed » Mon Jan 10, 2005 10:21 am

Chuck Cowdery,

Okay, it might not be ethical for YOU to plug your Bourbon Country Reader's current issue, but I suppose I can.

I love the ideas you bring out in the lead article about the causes for the current trend toward ultra-aged bourbon. Marvin Franz would certainly agree that distillers themselves seem to feel six to eight years is the right age for bourbon whiskey and much of the super-premium product being marketed today is too old for their personal tastes. But Marvin also shares my enjoyment of that over-woody flavor (examples: EzraB, Rowan's Creek, Wild Turkey 12), so who's to say? Personally, I enjoy campfires, and drinking whiskey around them, and whiskey that makes me think of them when I'm stuck at home not doing that.

What I especially like about the BCR article, is that (typically for you) it looks at the subject from other-than-standard-issue viewpoints, some even contradictory to each other. Articles on the internet by Charles K. Cowdery were among the first non-label information about bourbon I ever read, and I'm convinced my "contrarian" and hopefully imaginative views grew from that early exposure.

In your article you mentioned the influence of Julian Van Winkle's success with marketing aged products, especially overseas. Drew Kulsveen's family has also been at the forefront of that movement, and we know much less about their experiences. Hopefully Drew can add some further perspective to marketing twelve-year-old-and-above whiskey.

There have always been plenty of people in this country who like that "burnt oak" flavor that comes from lots of barrel age. The problem was there just wasn't any of it. Prohibition (the medicinal whiskeys of which probably did more to turn Americans off from aged bourbon than did all the Canadian product ever smuggled into this country) ended in 1934. By the time there was any twelve year old whiskey to bottle, World War II was going on and the distilleries stopped making new product. Since then the supply/demand cycle has had trouble getting synchronized until fairly recently, resulting in overproduction and an accumulation of un-dumped barrels from year to year. A lot of that is masked by the legal requirement to use only the year of the youngest whiskey in any age statement. Some of those fine "eight"-year-olds may contain more fifteen-year-old whiskey than you might suspect. Our friend Mike Veach totally amazed us one time with a demonstration of this (actually, I think you might have been present). He made a very minor proof adjustment to a respected 10-year-old super-premium whiskey well-known for the quality of its extra aging. In blind tasting, the result couldn't be told apart from the same distillery's more common bottling. Mike pointed out that overproduction had been dealt with by using 10 to 12-year-old stock for the normal bottling. I wonder how many of the "traditionalists" you mentioned in the article avoided the "old version" because it was "too woody" for their tastes? :roll:
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Unread postby cowdery » Mon Jan 10, 2005 8:43 pm

John,

Thanks for the thoughts and kind words.

I remember back when I lived in Louisville (before 1987) I would hear that so-and-so was using 10-year-old whiskey in their standard issue product. One factor in this was industry consolidation. One distillery might acquire another primarily for the purpose of acquiring a desirable brand, or just for the purpose of eliminating a competitor, but would acquire a lot of whiskey in the process.

Many of these companies were on the block because they had overproduced and under-depleted, so the acquiring company wound up with a lot more whiskey than was necessary to supply the acquired brands, and for obvious reasons didn't want to use that whiskey in their own brands (at least not their major ones).

Some of the acquired whiskey was long-aged, but not on purpose.

One difference between then and now is that much of this whiskey was extra-aged strictly because no one wanted it, so it wasn't really being monitored. Even those of us who like extra-aged whiskey usually agree that every barrel of American whiskey does not keep getting better indefinitely. Now whiskey that is aging well might be set aside for an extra-aged product. Then, the best thing that could be done with some of that whiskey was to blend it away.

I recall that some of it even went literally into blends.

No doubt we lost some very good whiskey in those days but also were spared some real crap.

What's interesting is that no one even attempted to come out with an extra-aged product until Julian and Even did it many years later, and Julian was really the first to market it to an American audience. Of course, in that era the bourbon companies were diversifying as fast as they could and the quickest way to end your career would have been to suggest that they launch a new bourbon.

Still today, the extra-aged expressions are not huge sellers, but they do sell enough to merit production and distribution. I wonder what percentage of sales is going to people like us, who like the flavor, and what percentage is going to people who buy age and price, just because they think something old and expensive must be the best?
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Unread postby Strayed » Mon Jan 10, 2005 10:32 pm

cowdery wrote:Still today, the extra-aged expressions are not huge sellers, but they do sell enough to merit production and distribution

They also sell enough to run out. One other concept that Julian has introduced to whiskey enthusiasts (by necessity, unfortunately) is the idea that there's only so much and when it's gone there isn't going to be any more.

So while the industry has spent generations carefully crafting an aura of stability and eternal changelessness ("Drink 'Old Snorkle', the whiskey made the way your grandfather liked it"), we are now beginning to see distilleries like Buffalo Trace and Brown-Forman boasting batches that are not only small but also finite. There's only one Spring 2003 OFBB, and no other whiskey (not even another OFBB) has the same profile. Ditto for Geo. Stagg or Sazerac Rye. Compare that with the same company's definitive single barrel, Blanton's, whose customers tend to expect each bottle (from each single barrel) to taste dependably nearly identical from year to year.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Tue Jan 11, 2005 10:26 am

Here are some things to consider about extra aged bourbon. Bourbon has a long tradition nad some of that includes extra aged product, but only a small part. The reason for this was taxes. Until the 1950's the bonding period was 8 years. After that time the taxes had to be paid and if the whiskey was aged longer than that, the distiller had to accept the loss of revenue on the tax paid whiskey the angels drank. That is why Weller Antique was considered old at only 7 years old when it first came out. The result is that bourbon was traditionally made to be bottled by the time it was 8 years old.

In the 1950's this changed because Schenley over produced because they were afraid the Korean War would shut down production just like the Second World War had done. They found they had a great amount of whiskey that was going to have to be tax paid by the end of the decade unless they changed things, so they lobbied to get the bonding period changed to 20 years and succeded. They then started advertising Old Charter as the bourbon that did not watch the clock and became an 8yo product, followed by a 10yo product and then a Classic 12 yo product. At the same time Old Fitzgerald was coming out with extra aged versions of the Bonded Old Fitzgerald.

The decline of bourbon sales created an excess of product with other distillers and other companies started selling older products as well by the 1980's. To say Julian and Evan created the market for extra aged product would be wrong, but they definitely prooved it could become a profitable niche for those who did it right. I would say Louis Rosenstiel from Schenley created the market when he worked so hard to get the bonding period extended to 20 years. Without that most products would simply be 8 year old products.

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Unread postby bunghole » Tue Jan 11, 2005 11:42 am

Professor Veach, I do agree! I think taxes has everything to do with everything about every business, and it's ability to grow and prosper or wither and die.

If the Commonwealth of Kentucky were to forego it's taxes during a bonding period you would see a resurgance of Bottled-In-Bond bourbons like you had never dreamed possible.

This in my estimation would be a very good thing. Col. E.H. Taylor,Jr. could run for Govenor and win. Just because he has been dead to some many years now should be no cause for alarm. No sex scandles, and he always listens without interuption. What a guy!

Vote for the Bonded Party! As everyone knows DSP = Disproportionately Smart Person!

:arrow: Bond. imabond. 8)
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Unread postby cowdery » Tue Jan 11, 2005 1:33 pm

Thanks, Mike, for giving us the longer view.

It's interesting that twelve years became a kind of absolute ceiling in that era, whereas that has been merely the starting point for the Van Winkles and others of the current era. It's also interesting that Old Charter, with its very low percentage of flavor grains, doesn't seem very heavily aged even at 12 years. I like the OC Classic 12 but almost never think of it in the context of extra-aged bourbons.

UD's Rare Bourbons, with which Mike was involved, introduced the concept of a product with a limited life. Unfortunately, the line itself had a limited life, brought low by the merger that created Diageo. They only launched two products: Henry Clay Bourbon (16-years-old) and Joseph Finch Bourbon (15-years-old). Only about 2,400 bottles of each were produced.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Tue Jan 11, 2005 3:31 pm

Chuck,
In Charter's case, I think you are looking at the old question of Brick warehouses versus ironclad warehouses. I don't think you get the extremes of heat and temperature in the brick, that you get in the ironclad, thus it ages slower. A 12 yo Charter in brick warehouses is probably the equivelent of 9 or 10 years in an ironclad. This is assuming both types are unheated like the Bernheim warehouses.

Pappy Van Winkle had some 10, 12 and 15 yo Old Fitzgerald bottlings, so I don't think you can completely credit Julian, but perhaps the Van Winkle Family as a whole, for the extra aged products of today. Julian did take that extra step to 20 yo bourbon and a step beyond to 23 yo.

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