Bourbon, rye and Tennessee Whiskey are leading a golden age of American brown spirits.
There used to be a standard scene in film noir and Western movies that had a hard-bitten private eye or a cowboy dusty from the trail walking into a bar and ordering a Bourbon or a rye or maybe simply whiskey. The barkeep would pour a shot of something or slide an unlabeled bottle over with an empty glass. Our hero would gulp it down in one slug, and the subtext was that American whiskey was the rough stuff for tough guys and it didn’t much matter which they ordered.
Try that approach in New York City’s Rye House today, and it would give the bartender pause. Not only would he have to explain that he has 54 Bourbons on the menu, classified by such taste subsets as tobacco, leather and chocolate, but there are also 25 ryes, a handful of Tennessee Whiskeys and a whole passel of craft whiskeys, all made in America.
And demand for such spirits couldn’t be hotter. Just as some cigars were impossible finds during the cigar boom, whiskey makers big and small have struggled to meet the consumer thirst for their products, leading to shortages and the occasional drastic measure.
In February, Maker’s Mark, already remarkable in having grown 8.5 percent a year since 1980, had experienced such a growth spurt (13 percent) over the previous 18 months that the distiller announced it would reduce its alcohol strength from 90 proof to 84 in order to stretch its supply. The once tiny brand had already doubled its distillery size in 2002 and had added Sunday hours to its production schedule, but nevertheless found itself selling on requisition in some markets, especially over the holidays. No sooner had Maker’s announced its dilution plans than a public outcry arose. Protests were so vehement that the company reversed its plans even before the low-proof version (which it was convinced tasted exactly the same) was ever fully rolled out.
This wasn’t the first time American whiskey lovers have faced such a dearth. A few years ago, Knob Creek availability was slowed for a number of months while its parent company, Jim Beam, waited for enough whiskey to reach the stated nine years of age to fill orders. And specialty whiskeys such as A.H. Hirsh Bourbon, Old Potrero Single Malt Rye and Old Rip Van Winkle are always in short supply.
“We can’t supply the whole world,” says Kris Comstock, whiskey brand manager of Buffalo Trace distillery, speaking of his rye. “We can’t even supply Kentucky.” The whiskey supply problem is easy to understand if you recognize that it can’t be just turned on as if from a spigot. It takes years to mature in oak barrels, and that means producers must predict a market that doesn’t exist during the planning stages. “Eight years ago nobody imagined the demand we have today,” says Rob Samuels, who became COO when his father, William Samuels Jr., stepped down as CEO in 2011.
Demand, of course, drives the explosion. Sales have been steadily expanding, with American straight whiskeys increasing more than 25 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to Impact Databank, a publication of Cigar Aficionado publisher M. Shanken Communications that tracks sales of spirits. Case sales went from 13.3 million to 16.7 million for Bourbon. Rye whiskey, which had been but a blip in overall statistics, more than doubled in the last two years, growing from 125,000 cases to 275,000. Flavored American whiskeys, a category that almost didn’t exist five years ago, is now selling at the rate of 1.3 million cases a year, with no end to growth in sight. At the same time, most other whiskeys have at best stood stagnant, while the general market turned to lighter choices like vodka.
In a growth pattern that has been coming into being since the 1980s, connoisseur brown spirits have been expanding in styles and tastes. Visit any well-outfitted liquor store and you’ll find a cascade of choices that include hyper-aged whiskeys, a slew of specialty wood treatments, single-barrel and cask-strength entries, and more.
“It’s a very exciting time for U.S. whiskey,” says Lincoln Henderson, the former master distiller of the whiskey giant Brown-Forman, which makes Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve and Old Forester, and now the creator of the specialty whiskey Angel’s Envy. His perspective on the business is nearly as long as they come: almost 50 years. He came in the era before the 1970s when “Bourbon was king,” but points to the last five to 10 years as a golden age. “People see it as a world-class spirit.”
“How can you not be bullish on North American whiskey when it is driving half of the growth in the spirits category?” says Steve Rust, president of Diageo North America’s Catalyst Division, adding that the company is taking advantage with such line extensions as Bulleit rye.
Only a few years ago it would have been hard to imagine that the market would be rising at all. When Trey Zoeller, the owner of Jefferson’s Bourbon and a descendent of an 18th-century Kentucky moonshiner says, “Bourbon suffered a very tarnished past,” he’s not apologizing for his family’s involvement in what was once a noble profession. He’s referring rather to the state of the whiskey in the late 20th century, a time at which he says it was undervalued and underpriced. Consumption had been consistently petering off when in 1984, Elmer T. Lee, master distiller at what is now Buffalo Trace, introduced Blanton’s, the first single-barrel Bourbon. Although it was a virtual drop in the whiskey barrel, it would shake up a long dormant category. Lee, who went on to be a very active distiller emeritus, died in July at the age of 93.
Single-malt Scotch, the unblended product of a solitary distillery, had been growing in volume and reputation since it was first imported to the U.S. in the 1960s. Lee’s premise had a similar-sounding name, but was in a sense far more exclusive. It was built on the idea that certain barrels among the thousands aging mature better than others. For standard releases, they get poured in with the general population where the goal is to meld a whiskey that tastes exactly the same, time after time. With Blanton’s, named for a former master distiller, the idea was to cherry pick great barrels and let them stand on their own. You couldn’t guarantee that the flavor would be precisely consistent, but every bottle could be something extraordinary.
While not a cascade of interest, enough people took notice (especially in Japan, where ironically our national spirit was getting the recognition denied it at home) that whiskey makers followed suit. In 1992, Booker Noe, grandson of Jim Beam, created Booker’s, an uncut, unfiltered Bourbon that comes at hair-curling strength, often north of 125 proof. “Dad made it the way he drank it,” says Booker’s son Fred, now the seventh generation Beam family distiller, “ ‘before they filtered out the goodies,’ as he’d say.” Most whiskey the world over is chill-filtered to keep it from clouding up when it gets cold. Furthermore, it comes out of the barrel typically at a much higher proof, and then gets water added to reach bottle strength, which can be as low as 80 proof. Both unfiltered and uncut are now practices that are in vogue among serious whiskies of all kinds.
Fred Noe explains that Booker’s also comes from a process of picking the best casks in a rickhouse, or what are sometimes called honey barrels. The mantle has since been passed to him and he mines the same places as his father to find them: the middle floors of north/south facing warehouses.
Booker’s anchors a group known as the Small Batch Bourbon Collection. It includes Knob Creek, which Fred now oversees as well, and he has added single-barrel and rye whiskey examples of the brand. He also created a novel expression called Devil’s Cut when he recalled at a gathering to discuss new ideas that people sometimes would sweat out whiskey that had soaked into the barrel staves. (Today, Maker’s Mark, which is now owned by the same company as Beam, is reportedly exploring that same method to try to boost production in the face of shortages.)
Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell, who after 59 years in the business is one of the enduring legends of the whiskey world, also jumped into the fray, creating Rare Breed (at barrel-proof) and a single-barrel example (Kentucky Spirit). He’s remained prolific in his output of new expressions, formulating with his son and heir-apparent, Eddie, Russell’s Reserve and Wild Turkey 81 (each label comes in a Bourbon and a rye version). And there’s no reason to expect such creativity to cease. “When it becomes a job,” he quips, “then I’ll retire.”
At Heaven Hill, Parker Beam, a cousin of the Noes, responded with—among a great many other things—his Evan Williams Single Barrel. What distinguishes it is that it is also a vintage whiskey—the product of a single season. But rather than reflecting a year’s crop like vintage wine might, Beam says he creates a picture of the 10 summers in which it aged. Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon goes further: each issue of the limited-edition whiskey represents a single day’s distillation.
Four Roses, which had been limited to overseas distribution for years, started selling in the U.S., showcasing its novel mix of whiskeys made from slicing and dicing different mashbills with various yeast strains. Bulleit is known for pushing the envelope on rye content in a Bourbon.
Bourbon makers have also taken a page from their Scots brethren, using wood finishing (extra aging in a different type of cask) to increase interest. Jim Beam has a Sherry and Heaven Hill has had a Cognac wood finish and Angel’s Envy gets a maturity extension in Port vessels.
The type of still can be another important variable, one upon which the Woodford Reserve taste is based. In its antique facility Brown-Forman makes whiskey in a succession of three different copper pot stills, a technology that was all but forsaken in Kentucky in the nineteenth century.
The one whiskey company that didn’t rush to add a specialized expression was Maker’s Mark, but in its defense the company had started the revolution in high-end Bourbon back in 1959 with the introduction of an industry anomaly: a super-premium Bourbon. Maker’s uses soft wheat instead of spicy corn in its grain recipe. (By law Bourbon must have at least 51 percent corn, the other grains are typically rye and barley, but substitutions are allowed. A handful of other wheated Bourbons—e.g. W.L. Weller, probably the original, Rebel Yell and Old Fitzgerald are available.)
Rather than rely on the whims of nature, each Maker’s barrel is moved around in its lifetime to take advantage of microclimates that exist in a warehouse. The feeling was always that they made each barrel as best they could. But after “being harassed” for years by loyal customers who wanted elevated versions, Bill Samuels Jr. says he finally responded when he was faced with a personal nightmare that his tombstone would read, “He didn’t change it.” His response was Maker’s 46, which is made with standard Maker’s, but given an extra 11 weeks of aging in which French oak staves are placed in the cask. The results are remarkable.
Experimental whiskeys are now more the rule than the exception. Buffalo Trace makes a particular point of it, with a continuing range of variations. Its Single Oak Project is the spirits lover’s version of nerd-vana. In search of what brand manager Kris Comstock calls the “Holy Grail of Bourbon,” the company had casks made from 96 especially chosen trees (one cask from the top, one from the bottom) and is asking customers to weigh in as it slowly releases the product of the 192 barrels in hopes that feedback will illuminate the perfect way to make Bourbon.
Woodford Reserve has its Masters Collection, which has included ryes (which it normally doesn’t make), whiskey aged in four wood types and even the rare sweet mash whiskey.
Perhaps the strangest innovation of all has been Jefferson’s Ocean, Aged at Sea. Barrels of whiskey were strapped to the deck of a Russian trawler, which sailed the bounding main for three and a half years. Zoeller came up with the idea—which he compares to putting a paint can in a shaker—recalling that many people had awakened to the possibilities of aging after shipping spirits in a cask for long periods. The Jefferson version turned almost black, but it traveled well.
Then again American whiskey has really never been static. Its history is based on constant rounds of changes, some planned out, some serendipitous. Bourbon, for instance, is an American native spirit simply because the corn that defines its grain content wasn’t available to European distillers. Supposedly, the signature practice of using new charred oak barrels for aging came about by accident. This wrinkle has long been attributed to Elijah Craig, who as the story goes accidently set fire to a barrel, but achieved something sublime when he used it anyway. It makes an interesting tale, since Craig was also a Baptist minister, but is likely make-believe. Another frontier distiller, Evan Williams, has also been given credit. Conveniently their names are each used on Bourbon brands today.
Other improvements were more scientific. In an atmosphere of little quality control and no regulation—whiskey was typically sold by the barrel or by filling jars and jugs brought to the source—Dr. James Crow set out to tame the wild spirit. In 1823, the Scottish physician moved to Kentucky where he applied scientific method to whiskey making. Notably, he worked at the Old Oscar Pepper distillery, now the home of Woodford Reserve. Among many other things, he is credited with discovering that if a portion of the spent mash from one run of whiskey is introduced to the next, its acids retard bacterial growth and make for better consistency. Today, the process is called the sour mash method and is used in virtually all Bourbon and other American whiskeys. The inventor’s name is also remembered in the illustrious Old Crow brand.
Later in the century whiskey men who branded their products, such as E.H. Taylor Jr. and George Garvin Brown, founder of the company that now owns Jack Daniel’s, fought to create standards in the face of the rampant practice of coloring and flavoring unaged spirits to resemble whiskey. With their help we have certain benchmarks such as bottled-in-bond (guaranteed to be at least 100 proof, made in one distillery in one season and aged for a minimum four years) and straight whiskeys.
The preeminence of our country’s brown spirits can in part be laid to the stringent regulations that govern that second category. Straight whiskey has a legal definition that defines a level of purity not otherwise demanded. To make a straight whiskey you start by distilling fermented grains to a maximum 160 proof, put the result into charred oak barrels—always new—at no more than 130 proof, and age for at least two years. (If the whiskey doesn’t mature for at least four years, it must say so on its label.) After that, the only foreign substance that may be added is water. None of the food coloring, flavoring or neutral spirits that inform other whisk(e)y may join in.
Straight whiskey is the term that also defines what is one of today’s hottest categories among both whiskey aficionados and the mixology crowd: American rye whiskey. While it was largely forgotten until lately, rye was actually the first whiskey made on these shores. It was natural for the first colonialist distillers to turn to rye for their whiskey. It was a grain they were experienced with in the Old World and it grew well in the eastern locales where they first settled. Maryland and Pennsylvania in particular became hotbeds for rye whiskey production and remained that way into the early twentieth century.
Prior to Prohibition, rye was the most popular type of American whiskey. It developed a reputation as a refined spirit of the East, while Bourbon was the quaff of the frontier. When city slickers took to mixing, rye’s urbanity also made it the prototype base for many seminal cocktails—the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Sazerac. With a flavor profile that reflects its grain content (at least 51 percent rye, typically joined by corn and barley), its spiciness marries well with the sweetness of many mixers.
Dozens of ryes were once made in the East and two general styles—Maryland and Monongahela—stood out. The former was less spicy, characterized by the 60 percent rye formula that was recreated at George Washington’s Mount Vernon distillery, which was recently refurbished. The latter was the style of western Pennsylvania and more informed (80 percent and more) by rye. By the 1990s, only a handful of rye examples remained and consolidation of the industry meant they were all made in Kentucky Bourbon distilleries. None were very old or very rye forward.
What had whipsawed American straight rye whiskey were Prohibition and a developing taste for Canadian whisky. That spirit was easily smuggled across our northern border and was even sometimes called rye. It seemed a natural substitute, but wasn’t. The characteristically smooth Canadian whisky is a blend—and not a straight whiskey—and typically contains very little rye. And it doesn’t have the same effect as straight rye in classic mixed drinks. The champions of the ongoing cocktail revival discovered this when they resurrected old recipes and started a demand for more straight rye whiskey.
Soon brands like Old Overholt, Rittenhouse and the Jim Beam and Wild Turkey labels, all laudable whiskeys with approachable price tags, were joined by a swell of new ryes. The emergent ryes tended to push the edges of the envelope. Old Potrero, distilled by the maker of San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Beer, used pot stills and a 100 percent rye recipe. Sazerac’s 18-year-old and the 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve began exploring the aging possibilities. Soon Rittenhouse was offering Very Rare at 21 years, then 23 and finally 25. Michter’s, named for a Pennsylvania distillery, but now sourced elsewhere, also has a quarter-century rye. Mainstream brands have followed suit, introducing ryes of greater age; e.g. Beam’s Knob Creek rye and Wild Turkey’s Russell’s Reserve.