Two Years is Good, Ten Years is Great! August 2019 Flight
This month's flight was all about the age. While bourbon technically doesn't have to be aged to be called bourbon (it just has to have spent SOME amount of time in a new oak barrel), it will never be considered remarkable bourbon if it hasn't been altered by the oak in which it rests, however temporarily. Early in its history, this quality of it was discovered by distributors upriver from the port of New Orleans but downriver of the source of a large amount of shipments in the Ohio River valley. It was discovered that all these barrels of whiskey floating their way down the river over a long enough period of time had a distinct color and flavor not typically found in the traditional white corn spirit. Enterprising individuals began to take advantage of this, buying large quantities along the way, storing them even longer, and then selling them later in New Orleans for a significant markup to those that have become aware of this powerful aging phenomenon. Eventually, labeling laws would begin to protect those that put in the time from those that only SAID they put in the time. You can't legally put "Straight Bourbon" on the label without the whiskey having been aged at least two years. Anything labeled as bourbon that is aged less than four years is required to have an age statement on it that must reflect the youngest component of the bottle. And if you have aged your bourbon for four or more years it can be labeled as "bottled-in-bond".
So, with all the legalities and status-leveling around aging, is older always better? Does bourbon always get better with age? We dig into this with this month's flight: 10 Years or More! Aging whiskey is an investment. The longer your whiskey is aged, the longer it sits before profits are made, and the larger your inventory must be to keep a continuous distillery going. Therefore, age often comes at a price, both for the distiller and for the consumer. Sometimes, as we'll see, it is justified all around. And sometimes...well, sometimes you might just be better off bottling after a couple trips around the sun.
Let's dig into this month's flight to see which is which!
We start with Eagle Rare. At around $30 a bottle, this is an extremely affordable 10 year! It was one of the last small-batch bourbons released before the bourbon boom hit. At first, it was a secret to those in the know - "psst, this is a cheap but good 10 year bourbon." Once the secret was out, though, it became difficult to find. The story of this release starts in 1975 with Charles L. Beam. He put this out as a 10 year with the 4 Roses family, and he did so at 101 proof (a move rumored to be chosen to directly compete with Wild Turkey). In 1989 the brand was sold to Sazerac, at which point it was changed to a 90 proof offering. It then remained unchanged until 2005, when it enjoyed a 10 year run as a single barrel. With the bourbon boom upon the industry in 2015 and a hand-bottling process, keeping the barrels straight became too complicated. It was changed back to a small batch at that point and has remained this way since, adding the distinction of being part of the "Antique" Collection. With the Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #1 (same as Buffalo Trace, Benchmark, and Old Stag) of 10% rye, 5% barley, and 85% corn, it is easy to see that age is indeed a worthy investment here - just one taste against a standard Buffalo Trace will make you a believer. It might not have been rare upon its initial release, but it now lives up to the name. Needless to say, you should grab a bottle any time you happen upon one.
Next up: Whistlepig 15-Year. This was created by Dave Pickerell, an undisputed legend in the industry (known by some as the "Johnny Appleseed" of craft distilling). Dave grew up in a small house in Dayton, OH, a town with a large factory worker population. His dad would take them on family car rides each week, and Dave was always fascinated with the factories, bombarding his father with questions about them. His dad would tell him he needed to talk to the chemical engineer at a plant to learn about it, and this is just what he did. From these experiences, he knew he wanted to be a chemical engineer. But he knew it wouldn't be cheap. So he decided to try out for as many sports as he could to find out where he would be good enough to get a scholarship. Eventually he landed on Track, and with it earned a full ride to West Point, where he earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering. Following the obligatory five years of service that came with West Point he was propositioned about becoming a professor. Interested, he began the process of getting his Masters, in which he specialized in Distillation and Thermodynamics (ah, we're finally getting somewhere!). After 6 years of professorship, however, he was interested in some industry experience. He turned to his friend Dr. Plank, who had a friend in need at Brown-Forman (who currently own Jack Daniel's, Old Forester, Woodford Reserve, and Early Times). Dr. Plank's friend had agreed to a job that he was having a hard time fulfilling, and Dave jumped in to help. By "jumped in to help", I mean became the corporate VP and master distiller for Maker's Mark. This is where he learned the industry and spent the next 14 years, overseeing a sales expansion of 175,000 cases a year to almost a million!
Near the end of this period he had fallen in love with rye (which is a bit of a departure from the wheated bourbon of Maker's), and he began to research it. He went to every distillery making rye and took copious notes. What he had sniffed out right before it came to bear was the cocktail resurgence that started around 2006. Even though they say a 100% rye whiskey is uncontrollable, he took what he learned and sourced the exact kind of rye he felt he needed - which he found in Canada. And once he found it, he distilled it and aged it. And he specifically did so in barrels made from the white oak trees on his property, along with a hearty #4 char. The end result of this was the spicy 100% rye whiskey, 92 proof, with a clove or earthy taste to it embodied in Whistlepig 15-year.
And now, a left turn to Bird Dog 10-Year. I can't really give you a beautiful, lengthy back-story on this one, as it is a sourced whiskey. It is all purchased from Kentucky, at least. There is a general practice in the industry in which distillers sell off a certain amount of their inventory for sourced brands. This practice helps pad out their profits, so it serves as a win-win for everyone. Well, almost everyone. It might not always be a win for consumers, who might be less aware of the sourcing as they are the eye and imagination capturing marketing of various brands. This particular brand is primarily sourced from Heaven Hill, with some from Buffalo Trace, as well. The juice is all purchased through a brokerage firm, which doesn't have the same kinds of instincts as a Dave Pickerell jotting down notebooks worth of observations from countless hours of field research. It serves as a good lesson in carefully reading the labels to infer sourcing vs. direct distilling as well as the concept that age isn't necessarily a guarantee of quality. This has a bit of a bread and butter flavor to it with no real substance on the front of the palate, even though the nose does promise some excitement. It's 90 proof, but even at a higher alcohol content it's hard to imagine it providing anything as impressive as something like Eagle Rare.
So aging isn't everything, it seems. But it can often be quite significant. Case in point - Russell's Reserve. This has no age statement but is aged a minimum of 10 years. It is also 110 proof, so it also brings some strength to the table regardless of flavor. Although, I can assure you, the flavor is there in spades. This contains 13% rye and has a #4 (alligator) char to the barrels (like the Whistlepig). That 13% rye works very hard here, providing a good spice that hits strong on the back of your tongue and then gives way to a nice dry finish. The year is 1865, and the Ripy Brothers named the land of their distillery Wild Turkey Hill. It then closed down during Prohibition and did not reopen until 1940. Some of the bourbon produced at this distillery was taken on a hunting expedition with a NY group that at the time sold groceries and whiskey. After trying the bourbon on that trip, one of the members of that group kept asking for some of that "Wild Turkey Bourbon". The name stuck. In 1954 Jimmy Russell came on board, and by the 1970's he was known for his juice. Finally in 1991, he was ready to put his own brand out, and it was an instant hit. When his son Eddie was inducted into the Whiskey Hall of Fame, they became the only Father/Son inductees. He's known as the Buddha of Bourbon and the Master Distiller of Master Distillers. He's also the one that came up with the "give 'em the bird" ad campaign, which was discontinued in 2011 (but made a one-time comeback when they convinced President Obama to "give us the bird"). Until the next bourbon we tasted, this was my favorite of the flight.
So what was this bourbon that topped my favorite list? Enter Michter's Single Barrel 10-Year. This one contains 11% rye, 10% malted barley, 79% corn, and a #3 char on the barrel. Somehow I got some plum notes with this one, along with a juicy, full taste. I'll give you the history lesson, but first...mmmm...yeah, just had to spend a couple more moments with this fantastic bourbon!
So there's a year - 1753 - on all Michter's labels. 1753?! Back then Maryland and Pennsylvania were the source of most of the US rye. In this area, a Dutch family started using this rye to produce whiskey, giving Michter's the link to date their brand back to original Dutch immigrants. But then came Prohibition, the great dividing line in U.S. whiskey production. Between the end of Prohibition and 1975, this distillery was bought and sold at least 8 times. The last of these purchases was by a group who decided to promote the distillery as a tourism destination, a historical landmark. This was one of the first distilleries to be promoted in this way - whiskey tourism. Unfortunately this didn't save it from going out of business in 1989.
Valentine's Day, 1990, was the day the love (and money) officially ran out. With debts too high to repay, they simply walked away from the distillery and all the equipment. They walked away from a rickhouse containing 40,000 barrels. A month later the county took over ownership. Their inventory tally came to approximately 20,000 barrels. If my math is right, that was the happiest month the citizens of that county ever experienced! The county was not in the whiskey business and therefore sold the rest of the stock off as ethanol. Fast forward to 1997 when Chatham Import Company is buying up distilleries and came across the historical documents. The Michter's name, having no further owners, was just sitting there ripe for the taking. They bought the rights to the name and began producing in Kentucky. So, with none of the original Pennsylvania distillery associated with the name at this point, nor the original blend, there is essentially nothing in the current Michter's that came from the original (aside from the name, of course).
BUT don't let that deter you from seriously considering an investment in this excellent 10-year should you find yourself face-to-label with it in a liquor store some day. After all, most whiskey legends are tremendous marketing stretches. What makes one yarn better than another might very well be your appreciation of the brown in the bottle. This is ultimately another success story of good sourcing and good aging, as most of this is technically sourced but with the caveat of being locally sourced. One thing I've learned in my time with the Society is that for every bit of disappointment I experience in seeing the marketing behind the magic, I tend to experience a surprising appreciation for something for which I might otherwise tend to expect mediocrity. It's one of the purest joys of the club - getting to know beauty from blah without breaking the bank.
Last, but most certainly not least, we have the Wild Turkey Master's Keep Decades, a 104 proof that makes Wild Turkey 101 tastes watered down! Remember how Michter's had just taken it's spot as my favorite of the flight? Well, I hadn't had this one yet. It has a bit of caramel and perhaps a bit of orange to the nose. And the taste? There's oak for sure, but is that also...Werther's Original candy?! Yeah, that's a great flavor! It's 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% barley and aged 10-20 years. More on that last bit in a second. So, this gets into the story of Eddie Russell, Jimmy's son. He came into the business in 1981 and got involved everywhere he could. It took him 20 years to work up to "Manager of Barrel House Maturation". At this point, Jimmy asks Eddie what he should do for something special. To which Eddie answered with Russell's Single Barrel. In 2010 Eddie was added to the Hall of Fame, and in 2015 he finally became CO-Master Distiller (you didn't think Jimmy would step down just so his son could assume his position, did you?). For Eddie's Master's Keep, he was given free reign to choose which barrels would be included (which is why it can be aged anywhere from 10 to 20 years). It was supposed to be a 2016 release, but that was the year Matthew McConaughey was brought on as Spokesperson. So the release was pushed back to 2017 to capitalize on this new celebrity endorsement. Ah, marketing. But in this case, I think a strong argument can be made that all the hype is worth the sip!
And that's it for the August flight. There was a lot more history this time around, so hopefully you enjoy some of the stories surrounding the bottles just as much as what's contained within.