Archive for the ‘Bourbon’ Category

Happy anniversary, Jimmy Russell

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Author - Lew Bryson

Jimmy Russell: 60 years at Wild Turkey

Jimmy Russell: 60 years at Wild Turkey

I was in Kentucky on Tuesday for the grand opening of the new Wild Turkey visitor center. At least, that was the big billing for the day to the press, and Kentucky Governor Beshear was there for the event, as was the head of Campari North America, Jean Jacques Dubau. It was cocktails and toasts all around as we stood in the glass-wrapped structure, high on the bluff over the Kentucky River; the view was tremendous, the whiskey exceptional, and the engagingly open rickhouse-like interior of the center, all raw, unpainted wood and steel supports, was a reflection of the honesty of the product being celebrated. It’s the crowning touch of $100 million worth of expansion and improvements that Campari has made at Wild Turkey, and that kind of investment is noteworthy.

But the real reason I was there, and the real reason people like Fred Noe (Beam), Al Young (Four Roses), Mark Coffman (Alltech’s distiller), Greg Davis (Maker’s Mark), Craig Beam and yes, even Parker Beam (Heaven Hill) were there, was something more momentous. We were celebrating Jimmy Russell’s 60 years with Wild Turkey; a little early, maybe, since he started at Wild Turkey on September 10, 1954…but that just means we’ll get to do it again in five months.

Al Young, Mark Coffman, Craig and Parker Beam, Jimmy, Gov. Beshear, Eddie Russell, Fred Noe, and Greg Davis: some real bourbon firepower

Al Young, Mark Coffman, Craig and Parker Beam, Jimmy, Gov. Beshear, Eddie Russell, Fred Noe, and Greg Davis: some real bourbon firepower

If there was any doubt about how important Jimmy has been to the long-term success of Wild Turkey, the billboard over the river at the west end of the Rt. 62 bridge should dismiss it. “Welcome to the house that Jimmy built.” We toured the new distillery, and Jimmy pointed out the reassuring sameness. The still is built just the same — five feet wide, 52 feet high — as the old one (which is on display in the visitor center with the hatches open so visitors can get a rare look inside a column still), the fermenters are bigger and more numerous (there are twenty 30,000 gallon wells) but still open, the barrels are still air-dried white oak burnt to a #4 ”alligator” char, and the yeast is still grown up fresh from the same strain that was being used in 1954.

The house that Jimmy built

The house that Jimmy built; the new distillery.

So what exactly was it that Jimmy did, if everything is the same? That’s the point: he kept it that way. It wasn’t always easy, and it certainly wasn’t always popular when bourbon sales were sinking badly through the 1980s. But Pernod Ricard went with his solidly stated advice, and it has turned out to be right, much like the oft-quoted advice of Dickel’s first distiller, Ralph Dupps: “Don’t change a damn thing.”

Now, there have been some changes at Wild Turkey, and not just building a big new visitor’s center to replace the old 2-bedroom house that used to serve that function! The entry proof is a little bit higher than it used to be; some are going in as high as 57.5%, though most are going in at 55%, where they used to be down around 52.5%. Eddie Russell (he’s been there for 33 years himself, of course) said he had to get the proof up a bit; he wasn’t getting a high enough proof out of the barrel often enough to make the higher proof Rare Breed and Single Barrel bottlings.

That’s another change: up through the early 1980s, the flagship 101 bottling was the only bourbon they made, along with the rye and the liqueur (which is now bottled as American Honey). More bottlings were added, including the 80 proof bourbon…which is now gone. “Jimmy and I didn’t even drink the 80,” Eddie said. It was 4 ½ years old, the new 81 is about 6 ½ years old (Jimmy likes to add a half year, “an extra season,” to every barrel). The 101 is 7 ½ years old, and the Rare Breed is a mingling of whiskeys between 6 and 10 years old.

IMG_20140415_151622788Which brings us to the new whiskey we got to taste: the Diamond Anniversary, a 91 proof bourbon that’s a mingling of 13 to 16 year old whiskeys. That’s pretty well-aged for Wild Turkey! It was definitely Wild Turkey — hot honey sweetness, a bit smoky, and strongly smooth — but with much more wood character — drying spiciness — than I’ve ever encountered in a Wild Turkey bottling. There’s not a lot of it, and at $125, I believe it’s the most expensive bottling they’ve ever done, but it’s like nothing else you’ve ever had from this distillery.

Did I like it? We tried it at a tasting in the distillery (there’s a small gallery right by the yeast room) along with five other whiskeys, and I not only finished the Diamond, I figured there was nothing to be lost by asking for more. Ask and ye shall receive, it turned out, and I finished that one, too!

It was a pleasure to be there to wish Jimmy the full congratulations he deserves for his long, illustrious run at Wild Turkey. He’s not slowing down, either; Eddie’s feeling the pressure to not retire before Jimmy, and he admits that may be quite a while yet. After all, it’s getting busy. That was one of the biggest changes Jimmy noted from when he started. “We were making around 60 to 70 barrels a day when I came,” he said. “We had four storage buildings, we had about 70,000 barrels in storage. Now we’re making 560 barrels a day, we have 27 warehouses, and we have over half a million barrels in storage right now.” He seems to figure, why stop now?

As Jimmy said, several times during the day, and again during his acceptance of the key to the town of Lawrenceburg and an honorary plaque from the Governor, “It’s been a blessing for me.” He honestly seems to be the luckiest kind of person, someone’s who’s enjoyed their job so much that he’s never worked a day in his life. Happy anniversary, Jimmy.

Burning Down the Rumor Mill

Friday, April 18th, 2014

By Fred Minnick

Author - Fred MinnickCovering bourbon is a lot like covering sports. In my brief time as a sports reporter, I dealt with rumors and dishonest coaches who specialized in saying nothing. Well, bourbon fans love a good rumor, and distillers can be skillful spin doctors, hiding in supposed confidentiality clauses, and overselling history vs. what’s in the bottle. But as a writer, I can’t deal in rumors. I have to take the distillers at their word until they’re proven wrong.

With that said, the Internet, especially social media, loves a good bourbon rumor. I’ve examined some of the prevalent rumors found on barstools, forums, and social media; let’s have a look at the facts behind them.

2013FourRoses125AnniSmallBatchBourbonFour Roses – Out of the Honey Barrels?

By now, you know that Four Roses’ 2012 and 2013 Limited Edition Small Batches have dominated the awards circuit. But there’s been a nasty rumor floating about that the older bourbon in these small batches will soon be gone. What does master distiller Jim Rutledge have to say about that?

“It is true the exceptional lot of 18 year old OBSV recipe that has been used in some of our recent Limited Releases has been exhausted,” Rutledge says. “However, because of the unique single story rack warehouses used by Four Roses distillery, we do not have special, or limited, warehouse locations in which ‘honey’ barrels are found. Exceptional distillation lots are found in all 20 warehouses, and even without the referenced honey barrels I anticipate the 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch will be another excellent bourbon.”

Very_Old_Barton_KSBW_6_Year_80prf_750ml_GlassVery Old Barton—Where’s the Age Statement?

For those who love the price:quality ratio of “value bourbons,” 6 year old Very Old Barton was one of our last hidden treasures. The age statement has disappeared from the bottle. What gives?

“The 80 proof VOB lost the age statement years ago. For the 86, 90, and 100 proof, many bourbon distillers are moving away from age-declared products because delivering a consistent taste profile is more important than the age statement,” says Kris Comstock, bourbon marketing director for Sazerac, which owns a slew of bourbon brands. “In the case of VOB, sometimes that means 6 years old, sometimes 7, sometimes 5. With no age statement, VOB can better avoid product shortages. Sitting around waiting for a barrel to turn 6 years old when the bourbon tastes fine at 5 years and 10 months is silly. Consumers have told us over and over that a consistent taste is more important than an age statement and certainly more important than them running out of supplies. That being said, VOB will continue to be 6 year old whiskey for the foreseeable future; the same great bourbon.” 

Is it Pappy? (Or is it Weller?)

You could start a media company (and keep it busy!) just by covering the rumors on Pappy Van Winkle. One of the more popular Pappy rumors is that Weller bourbons are now being used for Pappy, because they have the same wheated grain bills. That’s not true, Comstock says. “Each brand has its own sales forecast out until 2047 and its own reserved inventory,” he says. “Weller and Van Winkle share the same wheated recipe, but the barrels are aged in different warehouse locations and for different periods of time.”

Speaking of Weller…is the 12 year old Being Discontinued?

Buffalo Trace President and CEO Mark Brown told me Weller 12 is not going anywhere. But there’s no denying that it is hard to find these days. If you want to find it for 2014, here’s a hint: It will be released in August or September.

AncAge10yrBrbnWhisk750mlHow About Ancient Ancient Age?

Ancient Ancient Age—the beloved ‘Triple A’—is another value bourbon that you just can’t find anymore. Does it have a future? “We have no plans to discontinue AAA 10 Star, as demand is strong,” Comstock says. “Unfortunately, demand for AAA 10 Year has dwindled to the point where it is no longer commercially practical to bottle.” Okay, who stopped drinking it?

Old Grand-Dad 114: Put Out to Pasture?

You can probably find someone who’ll tell you that Old Grand-Dad 114 is on the way out, too, but that’s just a rumor. The folks that own Old Grand-Dad, Jim Beam, tell me the OGD 114 is doing exceptionally well and is staying put for the foreseeable future. In fact, the 114 is up 30% (dollar value) in the last year.

Elijah_Craig_12Elijah Craig 12 year old – Is The Age Statement Being Dropped?

With age statements dropping like flies, anything with an age statement is subject to this rumor. Heaven Hill spokesperson Larry Kass says Elijah Craig 12 year old is not losing its bright red numerals. “I’m not sure where this comes from (maybe the fact that for space reasons we had to move the 12 year old mention to the back label of the Barrel Proof?), but one of the reasons EC 12 is on hiatus from our full barrel program is to keep stocks for the regular case goods,” Kass says.

Heaven Hill Green Label—Going Away?

Is Heaven Hill Green Label on its way out? This rumor hasn’t even hit the social media circuit yet; I picked it up sitting on a barstool. Kass says Heaven Hill Green Label is not being discontinued and contiues in most markets as a no age statement 80 proof whiskey, and in a couple markets as a no age statement 90 proofer. But the national Heaven Hill Green Label will become the no age statement 80 proof, while the Kentucky market will continue to enjoy the 6 year old Heaven Hill Green Label at 90 proof.

Elijah Craig Barrel Strength – Please Tell Us It’s Coming Back!

Last year, the Elijah Craig Barrel Strength swept America’s bourbon-loving palates at incredible value. Some thought it was too good to be true. Rest assured, bourbon lovers, Elijah Craig Barrel Strength will return. In fact, a February release of a 132.4 proof quietly hit shelves. Another release arrives May 1, but proof is not yet determined. The suggested price is $45.

Very Special Old FitzgeraldOld Fitzgerald line – What is the future?

With Larceny essentially becoming the focal point for Heaven Hill’s wheated bourbon, will the distillery be completely discontinuing or trying to sell its other wheated bourbon, Old Fitzgerald? “No, we will keep selling Old Fitz Prime 80 proof, Old Fitz Bottled-in-Bond and Very Special Old Fitz 12 year old in current markets,” Kass says. “We are eliminating the Old Fitz 1849 SKU, but that was a very small number of cases.”

Maker’s Mark – A New Product

Wait, what? Maker’s Mark is coming out with something new? (Talk about burying the lede!) This rumor started back before the Suntory deal, but Maker’s Mark has kept quiet on the whiskey. Maker’s Mark officials have alluded to the fact a new product is on its way, but have yet to divulge more than that. Perhaps a single barrel? A higher proof older version of Maker’s Mark? That’s just all speculation, of course; let’s start our own rumors.

Bourbon Tax Credit Passed

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickAs Tennessee legislators are in the middle of a used barrel fight, Kentucky lawmakers are taking concrete steps to improve the commonwealth’s cherished bourbon whiskey industry.

On March 31, Kentucky passed House Bill 445, which allowed distillers a corporate income tax credit for the ad valorem barrel taxes paid on aging whiskey. According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, distilleries pay $13 million a year in barrel taxes.

Although ad valorem taxes—“according to value,” usually a tax on real estate or property—on Kentucky distilled spirits have existed off and on since 1906, the current system has been in place since 1990, when the General Assembly raised the rate from $0.001 to the current rate of $0.005. This 24-year-old legislation also allowed county and cities to tax the aging spirits, creating significant taxation liability without the ability to write off these contributions on their corporate income taxes.

Thus, HB 445 is an historic piece of legislation for the bourbon industry. But the distillers will not receive the tax credit if they do not reinvest the money, says Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association.

“There’s a list of capital improvements that can be utilized for the credit. All our members agreed to that,” Gregory says. “We wanted to show the legislature that we’re serious about using this money to strengthen our industry, create jobs, and compete on an international scale. I think that’s important. The state Revenue Cabinet also is required to report to the legislature’s Interim Joint Appropriations & Revenue Committee each year on who has taken the credit, how much and what capital improvements for which it was used.”

Since Kentucky distillers are the only alcohol manufacturer in the world required to pay aging barrel taxes, Gregory says, this new law will at least allow distillers to better compete in the global marketplace with non-tax-burdened brands. It will allow them to reinvest that money in their Kentucky operations, create jobs and spur production, Gregory says, and allow the Bluegrass State to better compete with other states for new craft distilleries.

“Distilleries will still pay these taxes, so both the local communities and state will receive their money,” he says. “It will simply allow a tax credit on the distillers’ corporate income tax. We strongly believe that the reinvestment credit will actually create more than it will cost. Bourbon is a great investment for the Commonwealth. We have one of the state’s highest job spinoff factors; surprisingly, higher than other signature industries like tobacco, coal, and horses. For every distilling job, three more are created down the line.”

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, speaks with reporters in the Kentucky Senate.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, speaks with reporters in the Kentucky Senate.

But no matter how much the KDA, its distillery members, or non-KDA member Buffalo Trace Distillery’s lobbyists—who all actively pursued this legislation for seven years—campaigned for change, a Kentucky legislator needed to take action. That man was Kentucky Senate president Robert Stivers (R-Manchester, a dry district), and I spoke with the president the day after the bill passed.

Tell us about the ad valorem tax credit. Why was it important?

Years go, a particular legislator wanted to add more funding to his local school system, so he got the legislature to pass an ad valorem tax on barrels in the warehouses aging. It’s how they funded their school systems and has gotten to the point that the school systems have developed their budgets on this. You couldn’t repeal [the local tax] because the schools would lose their money. What we’ve done is create a credit at the state level. [Distillers] get a dollar for dollar credit on their state corporate tax liability and are supposed to reinvest part of that into their operations. It’s what they’ve been wanting for years.

For all these years, distillers have not been able to write these taxes off. Was that fair?

Their bourbon was sitting there unusable for six to eight years and they’re paying taxes on it. That’s the only product like that you have. It wasn’t fair.

I’ve been told you’ve been working on this bill behind the scenes for a while.

When I got into leadership five years ago, I started looking at it. I thought it was an unfair tax and saw an opportunity in this session, so I took advantage of it. People in the House have been saying for they’re for it; I just gave them an opportunity to prove they were for the tax credit.

In private meetings, Senators and House members indicated they wanted to give distillers a barrel tax credit?

They would say they were supporting this, but you never saw anybody doing anything about it. Actions speak louder than words.

Were there any organizations or distilleries that helped make this happen?

The KDA and the distilleries, but I saw this opportunity and I took it.

How did you put this in motion?

As an amendment to a House Bill that the House Leadership really wanted. They basically saw the amendment and said we’re willing to talk. It passed with large numbers in senate.

Would this have passed if bourbon were not so popular?

I think you’re onto something. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail has become so popular and accepted. Bourbon is a true signature industry in Kentucky. It creates employment, peripheral jobs, and there’s also the image of Kentucky bourbon.

What is next? Are there other bills for bourbon?

We’ve are working on an option for state parks to go wet. But right now, the bourbon industry is on solid footing from a legislative standpoint.

I can’t let you off the hook without asking: What’s your favorite bourbon?

I have a lot of Woodford Reserve, but I also like to drink a little Maker’s Mark every now and then.

Whisky Advocate Award: American Whiskey of the Year

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch, 51.5%, $85

This is the second year in a row for Four Roses to receive this honor, and it’s well-deserved. To be honest, I didn’t think Four Roses could ever Four Roses 2013 Limited Edit Small Batch_125th_Frontimprove on last year’s limited edition small batch release—let alone the very next year—but they did.

With five different yeast strains and two different mashbills at their disposal, they certainly have the potential to make great bourbon with a variety of flavor profiles. And with the esteemed master distiller Jim Rutledge overseeing things, I’m never surprised when I taste a great Four Roses bourbon.

This particular release, however, is the finest bourbon I’ve ever tasted from Four Roses. It’s a marriage of 18 year old bourbon and two different 13 year old bourbons, each with a different combination of yeast strains and mashbills.

It’s mature, yet very elegant whiskey, with a silky texture that’s so easy to embrace with a splash of water. It exudes balanced notes of honeyed vanilla, soft caramel, a basket of complex orchard fruit, blackberry, papaya, and a dusting of cocoa and nutmeg. The finish is pleasing and very smooth. It’s sophisticated and stylish, with well-defined flavors. A true classic! Four Roses celebrates their 125th anniversary of distilling in style. —John Hansell

We will announce the Canadian Whisky of the Year tomorrow.

Whisky Books for the Holidays, Part 1

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

We know the holidays are coming…er, are here, and we’re sorry this is a bit late for Hanukkah, but we wanted to get you some advice on whisky books. Here’s the first set, from Fred Minnick; more to come.Fred Minnick

When my literary agent and I were shopping Whiskey Women, the most common rejection we received was, “Whiskey is a niche audience and doesn’t interest the masses.” That’s why many whiskey writers have been forced to self publish and American whiskey enthusiasts have had to rely on dated texts—mainstream American publishers never took whiskey books seriously.

My, oh, my, times are changing. Publishers are bringing new books to light that are good for the future of whiskey. This holiday season whiskey books are on many gift lists, and there are two new ones I highly recommend for the American whiskey fan in your life.

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye by Clay RisenAWBRCover

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to The Nation’s Favorite Spirit by Clay Risen, an editor for the New York Times, is the first true whiskey guide dedicated to only American whiskey. Other whiskey guides have explored rye and bourbon whiskey, but they also covered Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies. Risen sticks to American distillations.

Risen delicately walks readers into whiskey’s past, present and future without getting on too much of soapbox. But, he sends a few jabs to distillers and bottlers, revealing where products are actually distilled and questioning odd product marketing.

With the “Old Whiskey River” brand Risen informs us Willie Nelson commissioned the whiskey, but adds a parenthetical “whatever that means.” For Bulleit bourbon, Risen uncovers the worst kept secret in modern whiskey history: the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, makes Bulleit Bourbon.

Risen’s words are meant for whiskey lovers, as he dissects every brand’s hi  story and scores products on an NR (not recommended) to four-star scale. He conveniently left out flavored whiskeys and gave NRs to mostly craft whiskeys, including four Hudson whiskeys. Risen’s palate certainly skews to older bourbon, granting four stars to Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, Michter’s 20 year old, and Jefferson’s 18 year old bourbons.

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye is an American whiskey treasure worthy of four stars in Risen’s scoring format. One downside to this book is Risen likely made Pappy Van Winkle even more desired. When describing Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, Risen says, “bourbon doesn’t get better.” Retailers didn’t need that!

 

Kentucky Bourbon Country by Susan ReiglerReigler, BOURBON Cover 300dip

With the growth of the Bourbon Trail and the whiskey’s mainstream media coverage, Kentucky’s bourbon experience looks to join California’s Napa Valley as a spot for adult beverage travel. But unlike Napa, Bourbon Country has lacked a truly informative guide to help folks navigate the commonwealth’s distilleries. Until now.

Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide by Susan Reigler, with photographs by Pam Spaulding, leapfrogs Internet travel sites and gives a comprehensive travel guide that digs deep into each Kentucky region.

Reigler gives a terroir look to Kentucky bourbon, breaking the book into the commonwealth’s major bourbon regions: Louisville, Frankfort and Midway, Lexington, Lawrenceburg, and Bardstown. In each section, Reigler offers the area’s bourbon history, from a brief mention of the Henry Clay distillery in the Lexington area to Frenchman Leopold Labrot’s shareholding status with the Frankfort/Midway region’s Labrot & Graham distillery, now the Woodford Reserve distillery.

As a Kentuckian, I’m thrilled with how Reigler explores not only bourbon, but takes you inside several relatively unknown destinations, such as Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Lawrenceburg, a hidden gem in this state that’s often overlooked by travel writers; the Perryville Battlefield, a Civil War park where 7,500 were killed or wounded; and along the beautiful horse farms and race tracks that complement Kentucky’s bourbon heritage.

Reigler also gives cogent driving advice that GPS programmers should listen to and great boarding recommendations. Beyond the detail of most travel guides, Kentucky Bourbon Country was most certainly written by a Kentuckian.

Both Reigler’s and Risen’s books show great promise for the whiskey book world. Just remember to read responsibly and with fine bourbon in hand.

Buffalo Trace’s Experimental Funhouse: Warehouse X

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Lew BrysonPhotos by Fred Minnick

Buffalo Trace is well-known as an innovator. They’ve won awards for it, they’ve seen plenty of ink (and pixels) for it, and they even sell the results of this innovation as their Experimental Collection; selected barrels from a reported 1,500+ variations aging in various warehouses. Distillery president Mark Brown has likened the multi-decade experimental project to a car company’s Formula 1 racing program: technical innovation to improve the general process and product.

But up until now, the experiments have focused on recipe (different grains and proportions), barrel (type of oak, size, seasoning, entry proof, and the whole Single Oak project), and things that are easily changed one or two or five barrels at a time. The E.H. Taylor microdistillery is able to feed that kind of experimentation with very small batches of different distillate. But now things move into a new arena with the christening of Warehouse X, a building expressly designed to test the effects of environment on aging. (Buffalo Trace has always designated their warehouses with single letters; the sequencing of “X” for this experimental warehouse was happily fortuitous.)

The idea for Warehouse X started years ago, literally with a sketch on the back of a napkin, a conversation between Mark Brown and former warehouse manager Ronnie Eddins. “If it hadn’t been for Ronnie Eddins,” Brown said in tribute, “there wouldn’t have been the energy for the Experimental Collection. I was intrigued by his ideas for warehouse experimentation. All the research on aging has been done to get rid of it. What about getting more out of it? Why not a glass roof, bigger windows, or smaller ones?”

North side of Warehouse X

North side of Warehouse X

But warehouses aren’t cheap, not even small experimental warehouses, so the idea slumbered for years, until a tornado tore off the back of Warehouse C in 2006. For six months, until repairs could be made, the barrels aged in the open; no wall, no roof. The whiskey was eventually bottled as E.H. Taylor “Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon.” It was, as Brown admits, a bit of a stunt, some fun.

“But the whiskey was great!” he hooted. “The whole debate on warehouse experimentation resurfaced.” Master distiller Harlen Wheatley got a $250,000 budget to design and build a small warehouse with four different bays and a “patio.”

It turned out to cost more like a million dollars when everything was said and done. One bay will age whiskey in total darkness, one will cycle in temperature (on varying schedules), one will be subject to changes in humidity (“Humidity’s a mystery,” Brown said), and the fourth will be affected by changes in airflow. The patio will try to replicate the effects of the tornado; open-air aging.

Brown thinks sunlight on the barrels may be the key, though the thought worries him, in a humorous way. “We’ll look like a bunch of chimpanzees if all we needed to age the perfect bourbon was a field full of barrels and a guard tower,” he said with a grin…a wry grin.

Of course, the question is…”the key” to what? When Buffalo Trace embarked on this project some years ago (officially; Ronnie Eddins had been running it off the books for years!), there was talk of the “holy grail,” the “perfect bourbon.” Like bourbon, we’re all older, more mature, and more mellow now (and maybe a bit woody, too), and talk of the “perfect bourbon” makes us edgy. Who’s to say what is the perfect bourbon?

Indeed, Brown agreed, and easily acknowledged that different people have clearly different ideas about it. The purpose of the experimental program is to learn what will create different character in bourbons so that the process can be more readily controlled and optimized for flavor, and sometimes very different flavor. After we’d seen the warehouse, we sat down to taste whiskeys that had been aged in Mongolian oak (incredibly smooth and fruity at only 5 years old, but at about $1,000 a barrel, don’t expect a lot of it), four and six grain bourbons, and a shockingly different — peppery, sweet mint, explosively spicy — 1 year old whiskey that Brown and Wheatley mostly grinned about without saying much, other than that it was “bourbon.”

It was clear that this project is not about changing Buffalo Trace, or Elmer T. Lee, or the Antique Collection. “We’ve thought a lot about the project on a technical level,” Brown said. “We didn’t think about retailing it.” However, he did say that there are some Experimental Collection projects that will go commercial, and allowed that the portfolio had room for “one more brand.”

Brown also emphasized that while innovation looked to the future, the distillery’s recent recognition as a National Historical Landmark (there were new banners up all over the grounds) looks to the past. The process of approval brought out even more about the site’s history, which goes back over 200 years (older than most Scotch whisky distilleries).

Mark Brown and Harlen Wheatley

Mark Brown and Harlen Wheatley

“This is a crusade for us,” he said. “We feel we have a custodial role; we have to get this distillery intact to the next generation.” Despite some low points, Buffalo Trace has survived, and as we walked around the distillery, it’s clear that it is thriving, stronger than ever. There are plans for expansion, something I never would have guessed would be needed when I first toured here in the 1990s.

But innovation, like the Experimental Collection and Warehouse X, begets success, especially when linked to the independence that’s characterized Buffalo Trace. Don’t expect the desire to investigate the art of bourbon manufacture and aging to change here any time soon.

 

More From Inside MGP

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

My article, “LDI: The Mystery Distillery,” was published in the Winter 2011 issue of Whisky Advocate. It was a hard story to write because no one involved with the former Seagram-owned plant in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, would talk about it. Not aauthor-cowdery word, on the record or off.

A few facts about the place were known, but by 2011 it wasn’t even possible to determine exactly who owned it. Available public records simply showed the owner as Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, LLC.

Between when the story was written and when it went to press, LDI was sold. In the nick of time, we were able to update the piece to report the sale. “In late October,” we wrote, “MGP Ingredients Inc., a major food grade ethanol (i.e., vodka) producer, announced that it is buying LDI for $15 million.”

What we did not know then was that the new ownership would be as open as the previous had been secretive. We recently spoke with Dave Dykstra, MGP vice president for sales and marketing; and Don Coffey, vice president for research and development, about the company’s plans for the Indiana plant.

David Dykstra

David Dykstra

Dykstra began by explaining the facility’s historical footprint as the maker of Seagram’s Gin (now owned by Pernod-Ricard) and Seagram’s Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey (now owned by Diageo). Both brands are in the value segment and though large, both have been moribund recently. Now they are growing again.

In addition to that business, MGP believes there is a need for a bulk producer that won’t compete with brand companies, globally. This applies to their whole product mix: vodka, gin, and whiskey.

“We see a huge need for it,” says Dykstra. “Most companies like dealing with us because we’re not their competitor.” They have grown the business in the 18 months since they bought it, picking up many new customers.

Although MGP is best known as a grain neutral spirits producer, the Lawrenceburg acquisition marks their return to the whiskey business. McCormick, a historic distillery in Weston, Missouri, was owned by MGP from the 1950s until 1999. MGP also made whiskey at its distillery in Pekin, Illinois, until 1993.

With its new whiskey program, MGP is aiming for 50% to 60% of its whiskey business to come from contract distilling (in which the customer buys the whiskey when it is distilled and pays an annual fee for maturation), with the rest coming from bulk or ‘spot’ sales (in which the customer buys and takes immediate delivery of aged whiskey).

“Our focus is on the European and Asian markets for growth,” says Dykstra. “And we’re focusing on the private label business.”

One early change they made was expanding their whiskey offerings. They now make five bourbon recipes, three rye recipes, and one each for corn, wheat, and malt. No other major American distillery makes that many different recipes…and they are working on more.

Coffey explained that, with so many different mash bills in play, they have decided to use one yeast for all whiskey products.

Don Coffey

Don Coffey

“We’re freezing that as a variable,” says Coffey. But when it comes to maturation, variety is once again the rule. “We used seven different barrels for the new mash bills,” says Coffey, “different toasts and chars, to create different sub-species of bourbon and other whiskeys.” The idea is that producers will be able to buy distinctive whiskeys from MGP, whiskeys that are uniquely their own.

“We have eight novel bourbons going now, with four more cued up,” says Coffey. “The standard is the 21% rye recipe, but we will offer a variety of small grains: oats, quinoa, whatever the customer wants. We’ll study how the small grain changes the bourbon’s character, as compared to the standard.”

Since mixtures of one or more straight bourbons are still considered straight bourbon, not a blend, the possibilities are endless.

MGP intends to be most innovative and consistent supplier of distilled spirits.

“What customers value from us are consistency and reliability, the ability to replicate success,” says Coffey. ”We want to be the customer’s research and development team.” It is their intention to supply liquid, not packaged products, as they have no bottling facility. It was sold separately to Proximo Spirits. Many of MGP’s customers are bottler-rectifiers and they don’t want to compete with their customers.

Going forward, they expect to upgrade many of the distillery’s systems and will expand capacity as needed. They’ve sold most of the aged inventory made under the former owners but the warehouses are filling up again.

As a large, fulltime, non-brand producer that values creativity and innovation, MGP of Indiana adds a welcome new dimension to the American whiskey landscape.

Whisky Advocate’s Winter Issue Top 10 Buying Guide Reviews

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Here it is: a sneak preview of Whisky Advocate‘s winter 2013 issue’s Buying Guide. Revealed here are the top 10 rated whiskies. We begin the list with #10 and conclude with the #1 highest-rated whisky of the issue.

Forty Creek Heart_of_Gold_bottle#10: Forty Creek Heart of Gold, 43%, C$70

Each fall, whisky lovers in Canada and Texas anticipate John Hall’s new limited edition whisky. This year’s sits squarely in the golden heart of classic Canadian rye. Tingling gingery pepper is bathed in ultra-creamy butterscotch, woody maple syrup, black tea, and barley sugar. Prune juice and ripe dark fruits dissolve into dried apricots and zesty hints of citrus. Then floral rye notes turn dusty, with gentle wisps of willow smoke. Complex, full-bodied, and slowly evolving, so let it breathe.—Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 93

Handy Sazerac2

#9: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, 64.2%, $70

The youthful, testosterone-laden member of the Antique Collection family. Bold and spicy with cinnamon and clove, but softened and balanced by thick toffee, vanilla, and honeyed orchard fruit. Lush and mouth-coating. An exercise in extremes: bold, muscular spice, along with soothing sweeter notes. While its older sibling, Sazerac 18 year old, expresses a classic “older rye” low-risk profile, Handy pushes the envelope in many directions.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#8: Eagle Rare 17 year old (bottled Spring 2013), 45%, $70

Often overlooked in this portfolio because it isn’t barrel proof. The last few years of this bourbon have been wonderful. This year is no exception, with a bit more spice. Notes of nutty toffee, caramel, creamy vanilla, and pot still rum, with interwoven hints of oak resin, dried spice, tobacco, and honeyed fruit. Hint of barrel char and anise for intrigue. Delicious! (And actually 19 years old, even though it bears the traditional 17 year age statement.)—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94
Elijah Craig 21 Year Old
#7: Elijah Craig 21 year old Single Barrel (No. 42), 45%, $140

Surprisingly reserved on the oak spice; it tastes like a bourbon half its age. Soothing in nature, with layers of sweetness (honey, vanilla cream, caramel, nougat), lively complex fruit (coconut, pineapple, ripe peach, honeydew melon), and gentle cinnamon. Soft, creamy finish. A whiskey that has aged very gracefully. Delicious! (This is a single barrel; every barrel is unique.)—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94SazeracRye18year2

#6: Sazerac 18 year old (bottled Fall 2013), 45%, $70

Still lively for 18 years old, with no hint of interfering oak. The age has softened the rye spice, making it an easy entry into the premium rye category. The balance here is beautiful, with rounded spice (mint, cinnamon, licorice root) on a bed of soft vanilla and caramel. Gently, dry finish. Very sophisticated for a rye. It remains my benchmark for extra-matured rye whiskeys, which are becoming exceedingly scarce.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#5: William Larue Weller, 68.1%, $70

The traditionally gentle demeanor of this wheated bourbon is jazzed up with some lovely complex spice (mostly coming from the oak). Sweet notes of maple syrup, silky caramel, blackberry jam, and blueberry are peppered with notes of allspice spiked with cinnamon and vanilla. Soft leather on the finish. Great balance. A lovely whiskey!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
GeorgeTStagg2
#4: George T. Stagg, 64.1%, $70

Less alcohol than past Staggs, even at 128.2° proof. This whiskey has always been one of the best in the portfolio, and its reputation is intact. Sweeter and fuller in body than recent releases, and not as masculine, making it easier to drink. (Don’t worry; it’s still a big Stagg, but with a smaller “rack.”) Vanilla taffy, nougat, dates, polished oak, roasted nuts, leather, and tobacco: it’s all there.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#3:  Yoichi 1988 single cask, 62%, €185

Though aged in virgin American oak, it’s distillery character that’s in charge here; a fully expressive Yoichi. Rich, mysterious, layered, mixing rich fruit compote with scented coastal smoke (ozone, tar, soot) alongside masses of vetiver and cigar humidor. The palate is oily and immense, with fluxing layers of sweet fruit, oily peat, salt, and ink; camphor, flax seed, and in among the smoke, apple mint. Long, insanely complex, and jaw-droppingly good. This will go down as a classic.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96Redbreast 21 Year Old

#2: Redbreast 21 year old, 46%, $180

Wow! After the wonderful 12 year old cask strength, Redbreast does it again. This is a different beast altogether, but it is a stunner. This is Roger Waters doing The Wall: over the top, unsubtle, and totally entertaining. There’s lots going on: fermenting apples, juicy oils, spice, and dark cherry and berry fruits zip and fizz over the palate, the wood influence is sublime. I’m comfortably numb.—Dominic Roskrow

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

125th_Front_SMBLE#1: Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch, 51.5%, $85

A marriage of 13 and 18 year old bourbons. A mature yet very elegant whiskey, with a silky texture and so easy to embrace with a splash of water. Balanced notes of honeyed vanilla, soft caramel, a basket of complex orchard fruit, blackberry, papaya, and a dusting of cocoa and nutmeg; smooth finish. Sophisticated, stylish, with well-defined flavors. A classic!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 97

 

2013: The Year of Great Premium Bourbon

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

author-hansellWhiskey prices keep climbing, and none of us are happy about it. It’s a simple matter of economics: supply vs. demand. The entire world has discovered the joy of whiskey and there isn’t enough to go around.

But if we can set aside the price issue for a moment and look at the quality of the product on the market, it’s quite apparent to me that 2013 will go down as a great year for premium and super-premium bourbon, and other American whiskeys, like rye and Tennessee. Let’s take a look at what’s been released this year.

The premium whiskeys we expect to be great every year are great again this year

Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection (George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Eagle Rare 17 yr., Parker's_ALS_Promise of Hope_Bottle ShotSazerac 18 yr., and Thomas H. Handy) delivers an amazingly consistent combination of quality and variety.

Then there’s the new Parker’s Heritage Collection “Promise of Hope” bottling. While the Antique Collection might get all the attention, Parker’s new release is just great, honest, no frills bourbon that I could drink every day and never tire of it.

On top of this, we have another stunning Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch for 2013. After we gave the 2012 Limited Edition Whisky Advocate’s “American Whiskey of the Year” honors, I thought that there was no way Jim Rutledge and the team at Four Roses could ever match that one. But they did with the 2013 Small Batch release! And the Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Single Barrel offering is no slouch either.

Even the “hit and miss” annual releases are great this year

2013 saw two different Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection releases, six bottles in total—four different wheated bourbonsOldForBDay2013 that experimented with barrel entry proof and two 15 year old bourbons that varied the barrel stave seasoning times. All four wheated bourbons, while tasting quite different, were very good to excellent. The 15 year old bourbon with the extended 13 month stave drying time blew me away with enriched sweet, creamy notes that balanced the dried oak spice that comes with 15 years of aging, without the harsh tannins often found in bourbon that old.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon release for 2013 was the best in many years. And my Elijah Craig 21 year old Single Barrel rocked! (Mine was from Barrel No. 42 if you’re keeping track. I did taste whiskey from other barrels and they were still good, but not quite of the stature of No. 42.)

George Dickel gets into the act too!
Dickel Hand Selected Barrel 9
After wishing for years that George Dickel would put out some great super-premium Tennessee whiskeys, they finally did. I was thrilled to see them introduce to retailers the new single cask “hand selected barrel” offerings at both 9 and 14 years of age—and higher proof! I particularly enjoyed the 9 year old samples I tasted. There’s so much untapped potential there at Dickel. Let’s start tapping it.

The new stuff is also exciting

Angel’s Envy Rye was like a breath of fresh air, combining rye spice with the rummy notes gained from being finished off in rum barrels. Beam came out with a new Distiller’s Masterpiece finished in PX casks and two new “Signature Craft” releases; one a standard 12 year old, the other finished with Spanish brandy. Wild Turkey Forgiven married bourbon with rye whiskeys. Okay, so maybe some of this new stuff isn’t of the caliber of the other whiskeys I mentioned above, but it was the icing on the cake of a really great year.

Sure, there’s still some ho-hum whiskeys

The Stagg Jr. I reviewed was a bit harsh and aggressive on the finish, and I could take or leave the two new Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Limited Edition Malt releases. Still, these were the exceptions to what otherwise was an outstanding year for premium and super-premium American whiskey.

All this, and not one mention of Pappy…

Four Bourbons To Buy This Fall

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

John HansellAll of these will be sold in the U.S. I’ve tried them all. These are all new and will be released over the next month or so. They are the best I’ve tasted this year (so far). In alphabetical order:

Elijah Craig Single Barrel 21 year old ($140)

My barrel sample (Barrel No. 42) tastes very close in flavor profile and quality to the Elijah Craig 20 year old single barrel (Barrel No. 3735) that was our “American Whiskey of the Year” in 2011. Those of you who were fortunate enough to get a bottle of that (sold only at Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center) know what I’m talking about.

Four Roses “Limited Edition Small Batch” (2013 release) ($90-100)

Very close in personality and quality as last year’s 2012 limited edition release, our “American Whiskey of the Year” for 2012. Enough said!

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (2013 release) 12 year old ($55)

The best tasting (and best balanced) OFBB release in many years.

Parker’s Heritage Collection “Promise of Hope” 10 year old ($90)

A single barrel bottling, but with no barrel number identified. Reminds me somewhat of the roundness, great flavor profile, and drinkability of the PHC Golden Anniversary release. And it’s for a good cause. Heaven Hill will donate $20 of every bottle sold to the ALS Association’s Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund. A bourbon that will make you feel good for many reasons.