In 1999, American bourbon production was at an all-time low. The popularity of whiskey in the 50's and 60's eventually waned, and the 70's and 80's saw sales continually tapering off. Brand consolidation took hold in the late 90's, as shrinking distilleries sought to recoup what they could and larger operations found opportunities in producing well-known brand names in larger, more efficient facilities. This consolidation led to new interest from export markets. Kirin purchased Four Roses in 2002, for example. And in this case, they then discontinued the blended offering in favor of the Four Roses Straight Kentucky Whiskey. Which leads us into another factor of the coming boom - the creation of the small batch and specialty releases.
Following the release of George T. Stagg's Blanton's Single Barrel in the mid-80's, other distilleries began producing small batch varieties hoping to revitalize the market. It didn't work immediately, but it did set the stage for what was to come. So now we have a large number of brands in the hands of a relatively small number of big distilleries with international distribution channels. And it is through the Asian and European markets that the interest in these special brands starts picking up.
Enter marketing. Whiskey seems to have always been it's finest when marketing and distilling act in concert. The mid-2000's ushered in a period ripe for marketing a distinctly American tradition with roots in early frontier days. Brands like Bulleit (which at this time was also owned by Kirin) crafted their bottles to appeal to this lore. And the craft aspect of the single barrels and small batches further supported the historical American artisan vibe.
And finally, the entertainment industry steps in to set off the powder-keg with shows like Mad Men, making bourbon sipping look irresistibly cool! Celebrities begin endorsing various "top-shelf" whiskeys, including several pronouncements from folks like Anthony Bourdain of how impossible it is to top the majesty of Pappy van Winkle. And now, in the early 2010's, these bottles that have been languishing on store shelves for so long start disappearing with astonishing speed! The hipster "craft" culture accelerates the drive to find these coveted bottles of precious Americana, and distilleries are suddenly forced into overdrive trying to keep up with the demand they didn't see coming. For anything aged in the 10 year range, this means stock drops rapidly. In order to deal with this new issue, allocation becomes a regular process - using distribution sales volumes to determine amounts allowed of certain releases. And with allocation comes coveted spots on allocation purchasing lists for consumers.
Just to give you an idea how fast this all happened, according to the Distilled Spirits Council's Economic & Strategic Analysis Department, and translated from 9-liter case volume reports to 53-gallon barrel numbers, from 2002 to 2010, the annual whiskey sales rose from 591,000 barrels to 695,000 barrels (about 13,000 barrels added per year). From 2010 to 2015, that number grew to 916,500 barrels (over 44,000 additional barrels per year)! Which meant that bottle of Pappy that sat for years on a shelf collecting dust suddenly became worth thousands of dollars on the second-hand market! So this month, we celebrate the magic of ALLOCATED WHISKEY with the following:
E.H. Taylor Single Barrel
Elmer T. Lee
1792 Full Proof
Eagle Rare originally debuted as part of the Four Roses family in 1975, basically becoming the first new bourbon of the old regime. Seagram’s Master Distiller, Charles L Beam, made a lot of contributions to the industry in his 22 year tenure, but Four Roses was his most notable and earned him a spot in the bourbon hall of fame.
When Eagle Rare was first created, this 101-proof ten-year-old Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey was made in multiple barrels and designed as a high proof bourbon. Over the years it evolved into a 90 proof “single barrel.” Although it is not a TRUE single barrel since the first and last bottle of each run are topped off with the juice from the next barrel, it is as close as you can get without meeting the requirements. Eagle Rare was among the last new bourbon brands introduced prior to the current era of 'small-batch bourbons'. Over the years it has been distilled, bottled and/or marketed by a number of companies.
The Sazerac Company, an American family owned producer and importer based in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the parent company of five distilleries, acquired Eagle Rare from Seagram in March 1989. Sazerac's Kentucky distillery was then known as the George T. Stagg Distillery. Today the distillery is known as the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Check the Resources section of this site for a deeper breakdown on the history of the Sazerac Company and all it's acquisitions.
The original 101-proof ten-year-old non-single-barrel bourbon has been discontinued as of March 2005. You can get Eagle Rare in two varieties: 10-year and 17-year batches. Obviously, the 17-year is much easier on the palate since it is aged longer, but the relatively young 10-year still hits the spot. The 10-year even won a double gold at a European competition over the 17 year that only won a silver in the same category. It was a hidden gem for a long time, as those in the know realized you could find a great 10-year bourbon for around $30. Unfortunately, the supply fell below the demand and landed it on allocation in many parts of the country. If you do find yourself face-to-label with Eagle Rare 10 in the wild on a shelf, you now know it is well worth the very attractive price tag.
When drinking this bourbon, you’ll notice hints of toffee, orange, and honey, making for a very smooth, rich spirit. Overall, however, the most prominent taste is cocoa and oak, which combine to make an almost candied almond flavor. As far as the finish goes, this bourbon goes down with a bit of a tingle but has a refreshingly light and dry aftertaste.
Elmer T. Lee
Being less ubiquitous than Eagle Rare, this one has earned it's place in the allocation vault. This is a 90 proof bourbon produced with the Buffalo Trace #2 mash bill, which is their "high rye" mix, containing 12-15% rye. It's aged around 12 years. Compared with the Eagle Rare, you'll notice a spicier nose, perhaps with some clove or baking spice characteristics. It also lingers longer in the front of your mouth, making for a bolder experience.
Elmer T. Lee was the first master distiller at Buffalo Trace and was responsible for Blanton's, which is often considered, as mentioned earlier, the "first" single barrel bourbon to market. The Blanton's shares a mash bill with the likes of Ancient Age and Hancock Reserve.
Elmer came out of the Army during World War II with an engineering degree. He applied to the distillery, and Colonel Blanton told him they were not hiring. Following a tip from another employee, he showed up the next week anyway and just started working - and it worked! He started as a maintenance engineer, worked his way to a plant engineer, and then eventually became their first master distiller. When he finally created his single barrel bourbon, he named it after his first boss, who had told him they weren't hiring all those years ago: Colonel Blanton.
Elmer T. Lee is another bourbon like Eagle Rare that was in the $35 club before it found itself on allocated lists. It is therefore another one that can be great bang for the buck if you can find it.
Colonel E. H. Taylor
Colonel E. H. Taylor founded the Old Fashioned Copper Distillery (often abbreviated O.F.C.) in 1870 in Lexington, KY after doing intense year-long research in Scotland in 1866. This eventually became the Buffalo Trace distillery. Interestingly this wasn't his only tie to legendary whiskey history, as he also owned the bank that bought the James C. Crow "Old Crow" distillery. James Crow was a Scottish immigrant well respected for his distillation prowess. Like James Crow, Colonel Taylor was known as a skilled distiller, and his technology is still utilized today in the Buffalo Trace distillery, the most important of Sazarac's 9 distilleries.
This time period just prior to the founding of the O.F.C. was also pivotal for another company we keep coming back to this month - Sazarac. In New Orleans in the 1850's there existed a Sazarac Coffee House. It was here that the first cocktails were made. It was originally called the Merchant's Exchange Coffee House until the owner, Sewell T. Taylor, sold it to begin importing spirits, of which one of note was called Sazarac-de-Forge et Fils. The new owner, Aaron Bird, changed the name to the Sazarac. In addition to coffee, they say he created a cocktail utilizing the cognac Taylor imported as well as some local apothecary bitters (specifically from Antoine Peychaud - who is now credited with actually creating the cocktail), appropriately called "The Sazarac Cocktail". Over time, and with circumstances putting cognac supply out of favor over more local rye whiskey, the cocktail became a whiskey concoction very similar to the Old Fashioned. In 1869, the Coffee House was purchased by Thomas H. Handy, and he also began acquiring brands of liquor. He named this new acquisition-based company after the Coffee House, and Sazarac was born. Which all comes back to Sazarac purchasing the O.F.C., now called Buffalo Trace, and crafting this single barrel bourbon in his honor.
One last interesting factoid about E. H. Taylor before we move on to Hancock Reserve: the legendary master distiller responsible for Maker's Mark and Whistlepig, Dave Pickerell, was Colonel Taylor's grandson. Interesting connections like these pop up with surprising frequency throughout the rich history of an industry that thrives on legends.
Named after Hancock Lee, one of the founders of Leesburg, Kentucky, this is one that has found itself only very recently on allocated lists; which means you still have a decent chance of finding it in the wild on occasion. It's an 88.9 proof - strangely specific - with the Buffalo Trace high rye mash bill shared with Elmer T. Lee and aged for 3-4 years. It is considered by some to be the black sheep of the Sazarac line, and it doesn't even show up on their website. It could also be argued it isn't the flavor that put it on allocated lists, as it's sweet nose gives way to a thin body that briefly greets the front of the palette before quickly dissipating. If you do get a chance at an allocated list and find this among one of your options, you might be better served with one that has spent a little longer on the list and in Ebay bidding wars.
1792 Full Proof
Notice that it does not say "barrel proof". This has been produced as a blend to the target proof of 125 since 2016. 1792 is another Sazarac acquisition (do you see a pattern here?) added to their portfolio in 2009. This previously belonged to Constellation Brands as part of their Value Spirits line (under the name Barton's) but was divested when they began to focus more intently on improving its wine standing. Constellation is another company to watch in terms of investments, as it now owns Robert Mondavi Corp, Svedka Vodka, the US distribution of Modello and Corona, Anheuser-Busch's glass production plant, medical marijuana investments, and, getting back to whiskey, High West distillery. The spirits division containing 1792 was purchased cheap, but Sazarac has managed to turn this into a quality brand.
This particular release, the fourth for the 1792 brand, has some fruit on the nose and some creme brulee in the flavor profile. Overall there is some wonderful sweetness in this whiskey, and it's easy to see how it earned a list of accolades that includes a Gold Medal in the L.A. Wine & Spirits Competition in 2017, a Whiskey Magazine Gold in 2017, multiple silver medals in 2018 and 2019, a Double-Gold in San Francisco in 2019 and a couple more Golds in L.A., and Jim Murray's World Whiskey of the Year in 2020. Unfortunately for us, that painted a giant target on every bottle and quickly landed it in allocation vaults. If you can get some of this, you know you're taking home a winner.
Weller 107 - The Antique
Finally we find ourselves with a Weller. This is Buffalo Trace's wheated mash bill, with 12-15% wheat rather than the rye of #2. The Stitzel-Weller Company, partially founded by W. L. Weller & Sons Distribution, was one that operated during Prohibition selling pharmaceutical spirits. After Prohibition ended Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr. helped build the distillery that stands today under the Bulleit sign on the Kentuck Bourbon Trail. When the current bourbon boom hit, the Pappy Van Winkle was the main focus for collectors, but it was all made around the Weller recipe. Therefore this 7-year, while without the smoothing age of Pappy, is still a great whiskey and not long ago could still be had for $25. The higher proof of the 107 provides a chance for more of the oak to stand out, balancing out the floral nose and citrus flavors with the caramel and spice of the barrel. The 12-year is quite heavy on these oak aspects, and this 7-year dials it back on purpose to create this lighter bourbon with a nice dryness in the center of the palette.
That's it for our January 2020 flight! What's the most interesting for me to see was that being hard to get doesn't necessarily have to mean it is expensive when you find it. Sometimes availability is driven down just through enough people finding out about a great whiskey at a great price. And sometimes we just want to tell the Jim Murrays of the world to cool it for a bit when they find a diamond in the rough, so we can get our hands on it for just a couple more years before the gold rush starts. Just kidding Jim - you're doing great work!
We'll see you all in February for a BLIND FLIGHT!