What's the hottest category in the entire spirits industry? Unless you've been living in a dry county for the past decade, you know the answer is Bourbon. With unprecedented growth, a constant stream of new expressions, experiments that stretch the envelope of what the sweet but structured spirit can be and even headlines about the theft of highly coveted bottles, Bourbon sizzles with excitement.
Bourbon is nothing if not versatile. It straddles many worlds from the connoisseur to the everyday drinker. It can be sipped straight, served with one rock or a few, and is the centerpiece of many classic cocktails, including the Manhattan, Mint Julep and Old Fashioned. Consumers just can't get enough.
Its revival is an astounding development if you look back upon its history. On top of the drinks game 50 years ago, Bourbon steadily lost ground to lighter spirits until it ceded its crown in the 1970s. Not until the early '90s were signs of life detected with a smattering of single-barrel and small-batch releases that revived a pulse at the high end of the category. Growth remained slow until the early 2000s when it came in steadily growing chunks that reached 4 percent a year in 2013 (according to Impact International, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication) when sales hit $1 billion. Where once there were surpluses languishing in warehouses, there are now persistent fears of shortages and some products are already on permanent allocation. And this shortage comes despite the fact that some 5.7 million casks of amber Bourbon are aging in Kentucky (which accounts for 95 percent of Bourbon volume), the most since 1975 and well over 1 1/4 barrels for every state resident.
"It's a definite sea change," says Ewan Morgan, national director of masters of whisky for Diageo, a predominantly Scotch-producing company that's becoming increasingly involved with Bourbon. "You just have to walk into any good liquor store and look at a snapshot of what the whiskey aisle was five years ago versus what it is today. It would have been predominantly Scotch and now it is 50-50, and in some cases even more Bourbon than Scotch."
This change has resulted in shortages. Like fine cigars, Bourbon can't be rushed, but takes years to refine. "This boom," says John Hayes, chief marketing officer for Brown-Forman, the parent company of Woodford and Old Forester Bourbon whiskeys, "has taken us all by surprise."
It isn't only sales volume that is surprising, but the breadth of new product. A category defined by famously stringent codes has shown tremendous imagination for innovation, with finishes in barrels once used for Cognac, Sauternes and other spirits, experiments with different types of secondary grains and more.
Perhaps the one sure common denominator among Bourbons is that it makes, across the board, an excellent partner for a cigar. Chalk that up to a sweet corn base and a frontier bite that team up to draw latent flavors out of a cigar and make consistently interesting pairings. While some cigar and Bourbon partnerships are more successful than others, rarely are they bad.
Today there's a lot to learn about the variables in Bourbon, even while the formula seems set in stone: Bourbon is made from a beer fermented from a grain recipe (mash bill) that must contain at least 51 percent corn. Distilled no higher than 160 proof, or 80 percent alcohol, it must rest in new, charred-oak barrels for at least two years, typically more than four. (Barrels can't be reused for Bourbon, but are sold off.) No coloring or flavoring is allowed—nothing can be added but water.
If that seems restrictive consider Buffalo Trace. Since 1999 the producer has been conducting its Single Oak Project. The original concept was to find the best wood for aging. They picked 96 oak trees based on growing location and ring density. Separate barrels were constructed from the top and bottom of the trees. "But then we started piling on," says Kris Comstock, the Bourbon brand manager. More variables were added: seasoning time for the staves, the depth of char, the mash bill of the whiskey, the proof when it entered the barrels and such aging conditions as heat and humidity. One hundred and ninety two separate Bourbons were sold with the request that drinkers would rate them for taste.
Ultimately one barrel—No. 80—was elected the winner.
"We ultimately wanted to learn what combination of all those variables created the best flavor profile," says Comstock. "That's what we get jazzed about." The specifications of the No. 80 are now something they plan to recreate in an eight-year-old Bourbon to be dubbed Single Oak and released in 2025. While you wait, consider that Comstock says that barrel No. 80 variables are a close match to the standard Buffalo Trace.
While other distillers' experiments are as wide ranging, each strives to set itself apart from the rest. Given the importance of wood to any whiskey's flavor, it is not surprising that innovation in that area is a major direction. After supplying Scotch makers with wood for years (the vast majority of Scotch ages in American barrels), they are swiping a method invented in Scotland: cask finishing.
The concept is to perform the majority of aging in one cask and then transfer the spirit to another for a short time as a finishing touch. In the world of Scotch, that typically means the spirit spends years in a former Bourbon barrel before a short bath to gain flavor from a wine cask; e.g. Sherry, Port or Sauternes. The Bourbon approach is essentially the same, except that the first maturation must be done in a new, charred oak barrel to conform to regulations before making the switch to another barrel. Jim Beam first used the technique for its Distillers Masterpiece, finished in Cognac vessels some 16 years ago. That was followed by a Port finish and, three years back, by a Pedro Ximénez Sherry version. Others have followed suit. Parker Beam did a Cognac finish as part of his Parker's Heritage Collection at Heaven Hill. The late Lincoln Henderson created a Port-finished Bourbon and a rum-finished rye for Angel's Envy. Now a Jefferson's Bourbon is being offered with a finish in casks used for Groth Cabernet Sauvignon wine from Napa Valley.
A unique take on extra aging comes out of Woodford Reserve, a distillery that is already coloring outside the lines a little by distilling in a trio of copper pot stills instead of the usual column still. Master distiller Chris Morris uses finishing barrels that have never held other liquid. The first Woodford Masters Collection Bourbon was finished in maple barrels purpose-built for the whiskey. The follow up was something called Double Oaked, which entailed a turn in a standard charred barrel and then another dip in barrels that were deeply toasted, but lightly charred for more delicate notes. To make matters more complicated Morris did an encore called Four Wood, using standard barrels, as well as Sherry, maple and Port casks.
Pitfalls lurk in such successes, according to Hayes, of Brown-Forman. "It is not easy to make. You have to be a little careful on the supply chain aspects of this," he says, even though Brown-Forman has the luxury of running its own cooperages. Suddenly barrels need to be supplied on a regular basis even though there may be shortages.
Hand in glove with the type of wood used to age the Bourbon is the amount of time the spirit spends in casks. And longevity is the one notion that is likely to impress even newcomers to whiskey—sometimes even more than taste. But long age can be confusing when applied to Bourbon. While in the Scotch world being long in the cask more closely implies quality, age in Bourbon has not been explored as much. The reasoning is the effect climate has on a spirit. Scotland's temperatures are cooler with narrower fluctuations. Kentucky, where the great majority of Bourbon is made, has scorching summers that drive the whiskey into the staves, only to retreat back in the cold winter. Estimates say that Bourbon matures about three times as quickly as Scotch.
While the term "Old" is bandied about on Bourbon brand names, the reality had been that most were barely teenagers. It was the 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle that made long-term aging a reality for Bourbon. Even though accepted wisdom said two decades was too old, owner Julian Van Winkle managed it by procuring casks that had been hidden in cooler spots in the warehouse, allowing them to become more nuanced without being overly tannic. The reaction has clearly been glowing.
The two-decade mark has now been surpassed by a handful of other whiskeys including the 21-year-old Jefferson's Presidential Select, 21- and 23-year-old Elijah Craigs and 20- and 25-year Michter's. All these whiskeys come in very short supply. The reason is that few assumed a quarter of a century ago that much market would exist today for such an expensive proposition. Hence serendipity often plays a part. Barrels are mistakenly too richly aged for what can be blended into a standard product, so they end up being marketed on their own. Occasionally, old age is the product of planning. Wild Turkey's recently released Master's Keep came about because of something that was noticed while shifting inventory. Casks were moved from the traditional wood warehouses (known as rickhouses) of Wild Turkey to an off-site concrete facility. The lower temperatures in the concrete building slowed the aging process and master distiller Eddie Russell noted an interesting taste differential during sampling. He then skillfully managed the potential to create a 17-year-old, the company's oldest release ever sold in the United States.
There is one class of Bourbon for which such long ages are not an option, even if casks could be correctly managed. That is the craft, or microdistillery, movement. The young companies that have occupied the category in the decade or so since it began haven't had the luxury to build up storehouses of old whiskey. Maturation can, however, be helped along. Since interaction with wood causes whiskey to develop, the process can be hastened by increasing the surface area of wood to the volume of spirit.
That's how Tuthilltown Spirits, with its Hudson Baby Bourbon, became the darling of craft whiskey in short order. By using casks of three- and 14-gallon capacity, the whiskey inside takes on its distinctive flavor in as little as two years. The result is kind of a fresh-tasting whiskey with herbal notes, but not the same nuance as older Bourbon. And if you hear vague traces of a rock 'n' roll beat as you sip away, it could be because the founder Ralph Erenzo plays music through big bass speakers in the aging room in hopes that the vibrations will step up the process. It's a subtle version of the effect that waves have on casks as they travel by ship around the world. That effect—the whiskey tastes better at the end of the voyage than the beginning—was one of the ways that the world woke up to the advantages of aging some 300 years ago.
Hillrock Distillery, Tuthilltown's Hudson River valley neighbor in the craft whiskey space, uses an old world approach to maturation: It taps the solera method used in Iberia for Sherry, Port and brandy. Small casks are stacked atop each other and portions from higher levels are periodically moved to the level below. The casks are then refilled with new whiskey, or whiskey from the next highest level. The whiskey that reaches the lowest level is then transferred to a Sherry cask for finishing.
Wyoming Whiskey, another Bourbon microdistiller, took a more traditionalist tack, hiring as its original master distiller Steve McNally, a veteran of Maker's Mark. The company now ages its whiskey a full five years. However, partner David DeFazio says it debuted at three years old. "Candidly, that was too early," he says. "There's no substitute for time."
Without long pedigrees, craft distillers find other ways to distinguish their products. Many use grains from nearby farms (Tuthilltown) or grow their own (Hillrock). Small distilleries can also follow a regimen that bigger ones eschew, e.g., using grains that are organic, heirloom or not genetically modified (Wyoming Whiskey). Odd ratios are another option, Colorado's Tin Cup hits the corn minimum at 51 percent, and Hudson Baby Bourbon goes the max at 100 percent.
While Bourbon mash bills tend to conform to a corn/rye/barley recipe, only corn is specified by law. Secondary grains can be virtually anything. Maker's Mark's use of soft winter wheat instead of spicy rye was relatively rare but not unique when it established itself as the first superpremium Bourbon in the 1950s. Jim Beam is in the midst of rolling out a series that includes some very different mash bills under the aegis of its Signature Craft label. They include brown rice, rolled oat, soft red wheat, triticale (a hybrid of rye and wheat) and six-row barley. Breaking new ground occasionally has hurdles. Fred Noe, the seventh-generation Beam family master distiller, remembers that the oats experiment made the mash expand to overrun the fermentation tanks. But while this would seem an ideal time to push the boundaries of Bourbon experimentation, the boom retards such flights of distilling fancy. "Time on the still is so valuable now, we can't experiment as much," Noe explains. "The stills are being used for the popular products, the Jim Beam, the Knob Creek, the Booker's."
Some innovation is fortuitous. The storied Stitzel-Weller distillery near Louisville, opened in 1935 by Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle and his partners, has for years been a fascination for Bourbon lovers. After Pappy died, his son Julian Jr. sold the distillery and it passed through a number of different hands. It was mothballed and later became the property of Diageo, together with its stored Bourbon. In the meantime, the grandson, Julian III, sourced some of his illustrious Van Winkle Family Reserve from the warehouses. Now, Diageo, which also owns Bulleit Bourbon and George Dickel Tennessee Whisky, has decided to release some of its whiskey, ranging in age from 15 to 26 years, under the name Orphan Barrel Whiskey Co. "This project was born of frustration more than anything else," says Diageo's Morgan. "People who were working in the warehouse at Stitzel-Weller were telling us about all this amazing old liquid lying around that they had no idea what to do with."
Another Bourbon development has been the rebirth of a category: the venerable whiskey standard called bottled-in-bond. Brands like Jim Beam, Old Grand-Dad, Old Forester and Old Taylor have recently relaunched or relabeled bonded Bourbons to bring attention to the important niche. In the late 1800s, ersatz Bourbon adulterated with flavors and coloring plagued the industry. To squelch this, the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 gave tax incentives to producers who bottled their Bourbon in bond, meaning the product was made in a single distillery in a single calendar year, aged at least four years and bottled at no less than 100 proof. The emphasis on bonded Bourbon ebbed, but it remains an indication of quality. If you are choosing between the same whiskey at 80 or 100 proof, for example, the less-diluted latter is almost unfailingly better.
The impetus for Jim Beam to emphasize the bonded category came from mixologists who were recreating old cocktail recipes that called for bonded Bourbon. "It was really simple," Noe says, "because all you did was go back and redo something you'd done before. Plus you don't have to create a demand if somebody's already hollering for it."
Elevated proof is something that is happening all over the whiskey world. Noe's own Knob Creek is already 100 proof and Booker's, named for his father, comes in at a varying cask strength (no water added) well over 120 proof. Angel's Envy also has a cask strength version of its Port-finished Bourbon, and Maker's Mark, which considered lowering the proof of its standard release only a couple of years ago, came out with its own cask-strength version last year.
Bourbon also has its controversies. In 2013, 195 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 20-Year-Old were stolen from the Buffalo Trace distillery. At the very least the story made jaws drop at the revelation that this whiskey—the Cabbage Patch Kid of Bourbon—could fetch $1,000 on the secondary market (it's not the most expensive Bourbon, that honor belongs to Michter's Celebration at $3,500, at retail). In April an investigation revealed that the inside job was part of a conspiracy that included thefts of whole barrels from different companies.
The kerfuffle in the craft world has been the "discovery" that many new brands are made not by microdistillers, but by major distilleries, and repackaged under another label. Often these non-distilling producers pursue the strategy as a stopgap measure. They've made an enormous financial layout and want something to sell while they wait years for their whiskey to age. Of course, those who aren't forthcoming about the gambit face whiskey shaming by increasingly geeky Bourbon fans. The revelation might qualify as scandal if this hadn't been a standard practice throughout the industry since branding Bourbon began in the 19th century. Long is the list of famous brands that were started by a skillful packager who obtained whiskey from one or more distillers, put it in a pretty bottle and tagged on an evocative name and an alluring backstory.
More worrisome is the specter of shortages. The fear is that the industry isn't aging enough stock to keep up with the thirst of the future. When high-end brands go on permanent allocation, it fuels the scare. On the other hand, on the low end of the market, where Bourbon has always been an excellent bang-for-the-buck proposition, great 1.75 liter choices like Evan Williams Black at less than 20 bucks never seem to disappear.
Thankfully, the industry is ever expanding its capacity to ensure favorite brands will be available. In fact, Komstock reports that Buffalo Trace just laid down a new batch of Van Winkle Family Reserve that will be bottled in 23 years. He's not sure how heartening that news will be to fans, however: "No one wants to hear: ‘Mark your calendar for 2038.'"