View Full Version : Are Top Shelf Bourbon's Robbing the Lower Shelfs?
It seems to be accepted that top shelf blends and single barrel bottlings are both proliferating in numbers and growing in sales. This is great for most of us. But my question is this....with all these great "honey barrels" being selected for the specialty bottlings, are the lower and mid-shelf bourbons' quality suffering as a result? IOW, if many of these "honey barrels" would have historicaly wound up in the high volume products, removing them from the blend has to be detrimental to their quality. How far can you take making more premium bottlings without the lower shelf items suffering quality problems?
Personally I don't have enough reference points to determine if the lower to mid shelf products are getting worse. I have seen some comments here and elsewhere that suggests that is what is going on. But with brands changing hands, being distilled at different locations over time, etc., it would be hard to say for sure why "XYZ" isn't as good today as it used to be.
Other spirit producers around the world have said that the production of top tier products is somewhat limited in order to maintian consistent quality in their higher volume bottlings (ie, cognac). Are we getting near that point in bourbonia?
all of us have experienced an evolution in our tastes, where one bourbon just doesn't taste as good as it used to or we find a new appreciation for a bourbon we thought we knew and didn't like.....that said, I have thought that for the last year or so that something is going on with Old Forester...it just doesn't have the "depth" and finish that it used to...have all the barrels of Woodford Reserve taken from it made the difference? Any opinions. by the way the price of OF has risen here lately....gee, anything to do with the new and expensive ad campaign they have going?? Don't get me wrong, I like OF, but not as much as I used to...is it just my own changing tastes??
Personally I agree with this assessment. A recent buy was Forester's Bonded Bourbon ($17.00 U.S.) and it was worth the money certainly but did not impress me overly. It seemed one-dimensional and a bit "raw" at 4 years old.
I have found the current Woodford better but not by a large margin considering too its premium price.
Everything is relative, I find Evan Williams a better buy than Forester or Forester Bonded because (again IMO) it delivers richer taste for less money.
Interesting enough question, but I have to think that what the tasters are looking for to use in a single barrel bourbon is not necessarily the best bourbon, but a top quality one that needs no blending and yet can be reproduced again and again. If I was tasting and found one truly exceptional barrel, I wouldn't want to use that one knowing that it may never be duplicated because the next bottling would disappoint those who had tasted the remarkable one. We all know that some years products are better than others due to the nature of the product, but I would think that in the best interests of a brand name, being as consistant as possible would be much more profitable in the long run. Now that I think about it, if I did find that one exceptional barrel, though, I might want to save it for a special one time bottling and market it as such.
I still have not encountered a disappointing bottle of Old Forester. Maybe I am just lucky, but I haven't.
It might just be the evolving taste phenomenon you've already touched on, but I find myself tasting fewer differences between Old Forester 86 and Woodford Reserve. My guess is that Brown-Forman has exhausted the true 'honey' barrels, and due to their marketing success is having to tap into the regular OF stock.
Again, it's pure speculation, but that's certainly how it tastes to me lately.
I got my last bottle of WR on sale for $19.99 (a bargain I guess!?), but even at that price I doubt I'll replace it.
I really don't know if all the high end bourbons are killing the quality of the bottom of the line bourbons, but how many of us drink the 'base model' bourbons? I don't see too much discussion about jim beam white here... And in my limited experience, most people that drink stuff like jim beam white do it just because of the 'brand name', because it fits an image they want to portray or because of 'percieved quality' from advertisements they may have seen... I know i got a bit off topic, but i don't feel bad at all that our higher end bourbons may be affecting the taste of the lower end names that get the 'leftover' barrels, i don't think that the majority of the people drinking would know any better either way... And i would also imagine that if there weren't so many people buying the low end bourbons, there would be less barreled in the future... less barrels overall would equal less honey barrels, which would mean less high end bottlings (or lower quality due to less barrels to pick from)...
I wonder if there are any distilleries working on ways to tip the odds in their favor for more 'honey barrels'... It's my understanding (maybe i am wrong) that sometimes for some unknown reason 2 barrels next to each other will end up tasting different...
I would think that the differences could be in the wood used for the barrel staves and the degree of char on them. I'm sure that the pores in the wood are less than uniform and can make a difference in how deep the bourbon seeps in the warm months and while charring is an artform unto itself, it surely is not completely uniform. Of course this is all IMHO.
I wonder if there are any distilleries working on ways to tip the odds in their favor for more 'honey barrels'...
That's Maker's Mark's claim to fame (other than the pretty red wax). They rotate their barrels so they all experience similar conditions. (However from what I've been told, their methods aren't 100% effective either, as they have barrels they won't sell as MM!)
sometimes for some unknown reason 2 barrels next to each other will end up tasting different...
My understanding is that it's largely a 'crapshoot'. Obviously, every barrel that goes into the rickhouse is designed by the master distiller to be the best possible bourbon it can be, but even with similar conditions they don't all perform.
I've been told Gary, by a reliable source, that even tough Makers Mark claims to rotate barrels they do not. It's an old practice that just is not that feasible anymore...
I agree that most of us are not directly concerened with the quality of the Jim Beam Whites of the world. But indirectly, if their decline in quality is detectable by their customers, they'll start drinking something else which is bad for bourbonia. Like you said, poor economics means fewer barrels produced which means fewer "honey barrels" available.
My last question was more along the lines of whether some distilleries have enough "honey barrels" to support further growth of top end products without affecting both top and bottom shelf quality. Some comments here suggest they are having problems.
It would not surprise me if they are having problems and if there is a decline in product quality in the years to come. Success is a double-edged sword. Look at the scotch whisky industry. Sales of single malt whisky have increased beyond supply. In an attempt to capitalize on these increased sales, many Scottish distilleries have been bottling whisky which--to the palates of many single malt drinkers--is inferior to what was bottled in years past. In recent years, some single malts have temporarily disappeared from store shelves as producers waited for stock to mature. In a more recent (and now infamous) case, one producer began bottling one of its best selling single malts as a vatted malt.
Just as many scotch distillers underestimated the future popularity of single malt whisky, so, too--I would venture to guess--many bourbon producers underestimated the increasing demand for premium bourbons. I have read a number of comments on these boards about how recent bottlings of some premium bourbons don't quite measure up to the quality of previous bottlings of the same product.
My suggestion would be to stock up now on your favorites.
Makers Mark claims to rotate barrels they do not.
Unbelievable! Gosh, between that and the whole Woodford Reserve marketing scam, it's a wonder anybody believes what the distilleries claim any more!? Sheesh!
Getting back to the topic though, I always thought the whole barrel-rotation thing was more trouble than it was worth anyway. How different is the result to mix the different barrels together versus homogenizing the aging process!? When you think in terms of each 'batch' as a whole, it seems VERY impractical.
I have read a number of comments on these boards about how recent bottlings of some premium bourbons don't quite measure up to the quality of previous bottlings of the same product.
My suggestion would be to stock up now on your favorites.
I agree 100%. There is a finite number of maturing, barreled bourbon stock. As sales of top end products grow, barrels that might not have made the cut as "honey barrels" in prior years are now brought into the blend to meet demand. This has to affect quality from top to bottom. Of course, a distiller could make the tough choice to not meet demand, but maintain quality by bottling only those barrels that meet the master distillers standards for each brand. It appears the number of bottles released under BT's Antique Collection have been flat over the recent years when they could have sold more. If the distillers don't have enough mature "honey barrels" to support their entire product line, I hope they choose to not bottle certain items for a period of time to allow their stocks to grow and mature. But I can already hear the marketing and accounting depts screaming.
And what's the downside from stocking up now? Hopefully my better half won't mind me taking over the pantry. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/laugh.gif
It would not surprise me if they are having problems and if there is a decline in product quality in the years to come.
My big long-term worry has been about the oak supply/quality. Bettye Jo talked quite a bit in a previous thread about how the oak used now is from younger trees which don't tend to behave the way the old-timers did.
Add that to increased demand for high-end product, and things get pretty stretched.
"whole Woodford Reserve marketing scam,"
Must have missed that scam, can you elaborate?
I have noticed that OF 100 tastes a bit different from a year ago
"whole Woodford Reserve marketing scam,"
Must have missed that scam, can you elaborate?
Brown-Forman has led people to believe (directly or indirectly) that the whiskey on the shelves is from their "Woodford Reserve" Distillery. It is not...it is bottled from select barrels of Old Forester stock. I imagine the tour guides would be a little more forthcoming nowadays if pressed on the issue, but there was a time when they would NOT volunteer that little tidbit.
In fact, according to what I've read here on SB.com, the pot still whiskey isn't fit to drink (yet). Also, there isn't enough output from those stills to meet demand. In a sense, they're a victim of their own good marketing.
My understanding is that while Maker's no longer rotates all of its aging stock, it does rotate those that are in the most vulnerable locations, either for under- or over-aging. Like much of what Maker's puts out, their claims are a little misleading, but not outright fabrications.
It is my understanding that the current Woodford Reserve contains some Shively whiskey and some Versailles whiskey, and the Shively whiskey is whiskey distilled at Shively but aged at Versailles. They have not yet put a product on the market consisting of entirely Versailles, i.e., pot still, whiskey.
Starting about 25 years ago and continuing until about 10 years ago, we had something you might call "the golden age of cheap bourbon." Because of the rapid decline in bourbon sales and the peculiarity of a product whose production levels have to be projected several years in advance, there was a serious glut of older whiskey. This didn't affect Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam or even Heaven Hill very much, but it was a problem for a lot of the smaller distillers and they dealt with it by putting old whiskey in their bottom shelf products, just to get it out of inventory and sell it for something. At that time, for example, I had it on inside authority that Kentucky Tavern, a standard bourbon with no age statement on its label (meaning you expect it to be 4 years) was actually 10 year old whiskey. Hiram Walker's Ten High was also a very good whiskey at that time due to Barton's need to use up some older stock.
This problem got back into balance about ten years ago and bottom shelf bourbons went back to being the young, raw products they had always been.
As for the growth in top shelf "robbing" the bottom shelf, it's not a problem. Although top shelf products have been growing and are extremely popular with producers because they are highly profitable, they are still very low volume compared to the popular priced brands. Jim Beam spills more bourbon, volume-wise, than all of the super-premiums combined.
A little bit about the term "honey barrel."
It is simply a euphemism for a very good barrel of whiskey in every respect. What makes a particular barrel exceptional? It's the barrel itself and the nature of the wood from which it's made -- what goodies it contains -- but also the warehouse location and other factors even more nebulous and mysterious. Even though all the distillate coming out of the still is supposed to be the same, there are subtle differences that occur along the way. Same with the water that's added. Sometimes a little magic happens and all of those factors come together perfectly to cause a particular barrel to taste exceptionally good.
It's not like Independent Stave is producing something called a "honey barrel." In fact, if they had a way to stimulate more sugar content, either in the growing or the processing of the oak, I'm sure they would do it.
The good news for us, and the change from past practice, is that the distillers are actually looking for those very special barrels because they now have a market for the whiskey therein. This is a good thing and a trend that is moving in the right direction and you (the people of Straight Bourbon) are an important force in making it happen.
In a more recent (and now infamous) case, one producer began bottling one of its best selling single malts as a vatted malt.
An analogy: In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, car sales statistics for 2003 were detailed.
GM had a 25% increase in Saab (pretty nice cars - I bought one, myself) sales over a year ago. But, that increase amounted to only about 10,000 cars.
At the same time, they had a 3% (I think) decrease in domestic car sales. But that represented hundreds of thousands of cars. I think Chevrolet had about an 11% decrease.
I am sure they would gladly give up all of their Saab sales to get even a 1% increase in domestic cars.
I believe that is the one. It has caused quite a stir amongst my scotch-loving friends.
Chuck...can I take it on reasonable authority that the availabilty of "honey barrels" to make the many premium bottlings exceeds projected demand? Based on comments here, it sounds like Woodford Reserve is already having problems and is pulling from stock, that in times past, would have gone into OF. Without hard production and sales figures from the industry, its hard to really know. By comparison, wineries provide case production of their various wines....if you see case production double for a premium bottling, you have to ask the question "did they have to reach a little bit down the quality rung?" in order to increase production of their best stuff. I'm hopeful there are lots of more good things to come from the distillers.
As a general proposition, there is more than enough very good bourbon available to satisfy current and projected demand. One might, as has occurred, encounter a shortage in whiskey of a particular age, say 15 year old, but I think the industry would be thrilled if premium bourbon consumption increased to the point where supply was strained.
This actually has become a problem in the single malt business, as companies have had trouble satisfying demand for certain long-aged products. It is not now a problem in the bourbon business.
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