View Full Version : Scotchification of Bourbon?
I have a whale of a time going through older posts. I found a thread from 2001 on whether bourbon is becoming "scotchified". Opinion was offered by some that bourbon is becoming too aged, too expensive, and put in bottles that don't look like traditional bourbon bottles. A number of people in the debate are no longer on the board. Many still are such as Chuck Cowdery, Julian, Ratcheer (Tim Cuthbertson) and Greg Kitzmiller.
Here we are almost 4 years later. Do people think, including those who participated in the original discussion, that bourbon is being scotchified? If so, is this operating to the detriment of bourbon whiskey?
I guess the whole discussion would depend on what you consider becoming "scotchified." If, by that term, you mean that bourbon is now (finally) being appreciated as a world-class spirit, and has high-end variants which command a healthy price, then I'd say yes.
If, by that term, you mean bourbon is defying its heritage, becoming too old just for the sake of the label, being misbottled when put in classy decanters, I'd say no.
Very little (aside from perhaps the Distiller's Masterpiece experiments) has been done to taint good ol' bourbon. I just can't see how you can make the argument otherwise.
I've only been drinking bourbon for about a year, and only been a member of this board for a few months. I did read the old Scotchification thread when I was first digging through old posts, although I'll be damned if I can remember a whole lot about it other than the general gist of it.
Coming from a young, married Yankee's point of view, I have to say that if not for the Beam small batch collection, I probably would not have begun my explorations into bourbon. At this point, thanks to you folks, I enjoy many non "small-batch" bourbons (Weller, Old Forester, etc). I would not have taken the plunge if not for Knob Creek, Booker's and *gasp* Maker's Mark.
I think it's a good thing that there are some premium, nicely packaged, attractive bourbons out there, that attract new people to America's spirit. I can't say that I feel that Bourbon has become "scotchified", although I can understand how one could view it that way.
I did almost blow a gasket at my wife's brother over the Thanksgiving holiday, though. Talk amongst the men turned to whiskey, and my father-in-law started touting the benefits of Canadian whisky (inexpensive, smooth, etc.). I then mentioned that I greatly enjoy bourbon. My brother-in-law looked at me and said "I only drink single-malt scotch. Bourbon is just too much of a redneck drink for me." It's sad that he drinks something for the image, and not the taste. If he had said "I drink single malt scotch because I prefer the taste", that's understandable. Nobody can argue with someone else's tastes. But to hear him say that he doesn't drink bourbon because he thinks it's too "low class" for him just made my blood boil.
He's fairly elitist in general, and he carries that over even into his whisky drinking. Oh well, more bourbon for me. But I came *THIS* close to giving him a good smack in the head. This was one of my first experiences with a "malt snob"; there are plenty of people that enjoy a particular spirit and don't feel the need to beat you over the head with it... it's too bad that my brother-in-law had to perpetuate the stereotype of scotch drinkers, because I have plenty of other friends who enjoy scotch, and are not snobs about it.
My sense from the original debate (which was very lively!) is that scotchification was meant in the sense of some bourbon becoming too expensive, packaged too elaborately and yet not as good as the products it is "replacing". I think a person who took this view might say that Woodford Reserve is not an improvement on Old Forester, that Elmer T. Lee is not an improvement on Ancient Ancient Age as it was in the 1980's, that Ridgemont Reserve is not an improvement on VOB, and so on.
Personally, I think some of this is true. I think Ridgemont Reserve (or rather its predecessor Ridgewood Reserve) is not as good as VOB but costs more and comes in a nice but needlessly heavy bottle. However I like Woodford Reserve better than Old Forester and I like Elmer T. Lee a lot!
Will an attempt to mimic in bourbon what has been done with single malt scotch (which worries some devotees of scotch too by the way - the maltification of scotch, you might call it) result in some great products exiting the market or being lessened because the best whiskey will go into much higher-priced brands? Will, also, too much old whiskey be marketed with a fancy image and price? This has not happened to VOB by the way and hopefully it never will. Generally, there is still lots of choice out there at different price points. But I wonder if the market may generally be moving to a high end vs. low end polarity rather than selling well-priced products at the highest grade. Some here have noted that in their opinion, whiskeys such as Old Grandad, Maker's Mark, AAA, Old Taylor, Old Crow, and others are not as good as 30 years ago.
I don't think it's possible for bourbon to become 'Scotchified' in any real sense.
Marketing wise, while no one can deny the issue of 'premium' bourbons and the creation of that market niche -- wherein many Scotches also reside -- I can't imagine bourbon distillers deciding that if they abandon the VOBs, Rebel Yells, AAAs, OFs and other 'value' brands, they'll have a significant remaining clientele. On the other hand, where would the Scotch distillers be if they had to rely on mass-produced $8-$15 products?
As a practical production matter, the drinks are just too different to become more than indirect competitors, I think. The differences in grain, wood aging, taste profiles, regulatory allowances -- well, these are just two separate products and markets. As we can see when the Jim Murrays and the like try to judge both, a bias for one becomes plain. I think that's true for the more casual drinker, too -- you're either a bourbon drinker or a Scotch drinker. Sure, it's possible to enjoy examples of each, but I don't think I've run across too many people who prefer them equally.
So, I don't think it's possible for bourbon to become 'Scotchified' without ceasing to be bourbon.
Tim's reply sparked some thinking...one major difference between bourbon and scotch is that bourbon is bottled on a "bell-curve"...meaning all the barrels start off life the same, but they end up becoming very different. Unless the distilleries lower their standards, only a certain percentage can become the high-end stuff. (I'm ignoring the Maker's Mark distillery model, as they have no high-end...or, as they'd like you to think it's *ALL* high-end). http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/skep.gif
Anyway, some barrels end up getting sold to become generic blends and bottom-shelf-dwellers. The bulk ends up in midshelf brands, and the honey barrels become premiums.
So unless quality control changes, you can't just arbitrarily eliminate low or midshelf brands from your arsenal.
Scotch, as I understand it, has 3 destinies: it can be blended (or vatted), it can be sold as single-malt, or it can be kept as a long-term rarity. There is less of a "bell-curve", and potentially you can sell all of your malt as any of the three without too much effort. The ages can vary, of course, but there is more flexibility in where the malt goes. Ie. if blends become the rage, blend the malt. If the world goes on a single-malt craze, no problem.
Well, there are choices to make in the make-up of that mid-range that has to go to market. You can choose to pitch the average age lower than in an earlier time, for example (keeping the older stuff for the super-premium bottling). You can stop marketing the youngest whiskey and wait 'til your margins on the premium category will reward the wait (taking a risk on consumer preference of course). The bottom line is, does Jim Beam White Label taste as good as it did 30 years ago? Does Grandad, Taylor, Maker's? Some would say no, and if so, does that mean that their better current whiskey has gone into higher-margin brands? In the case of Maker's, they only have one brand and maybe the taste seems less than what it was 30 years ago to answer rising demand from a plant that is only so big, this is hard to say. Speaking just of MM, while I enjoy it, it seems not as good as I recall in the 1980's, I think Mike Veach feels the same way, for example.
Okay, now I see where you're going with this. You're wondering if high-end (or "Scotchified" brands) skimming the premium "honey" barrels off the top has hurt the mid and lower-shelf brands...right?
Well, I think there's a whole lot more going on than just that. I've always theorized the wood quality (and age of trees) used for cooperage has gone down, reducing the quality of what it's holding. Also, as Chuck (I believe) has pointed out before, the earlier explosion/trendiness of the clear spirits inherently raised the age across the board of ALL bourbons. Yesterday's midshelf probably surpasses today's decanters, just due to oversupply and good aging.
Actually, I'd be more inclined to think exactly the OPPOSITE of what you're speculating: I believe the quality of what's going into the premium bottles has gone down, simply due to lack of good supply. I believe the distilleries are now being forced to rob the MIDSHELF to satisfy our lust for TOPSHELF. I had a bottle of WR that was nothing but dressed up Old Forester.
Actually, the MM distillery model would seem to disprove your own theory, wouldn't it? I mean, they're certainly not skimming any barrels off the top, and the quality seems less.
The bottom line is, does Jim Beam White Label taste as good as it did 30 years ago? Does Grandad, Taylor, Maker's? Some would say no, and if so, does that mean that their better current whiskey has gone into higher-margin brands?
Well, I guess maybe I've misunderstood what's meant by "Scotchification" -- assuming we were talking about the product, not the marketing. Is bourbon being marketed like Scotch? I don't know -- I'm afraid I'm pretty immune to marketing other than as a spectator. But, I really don't care either. If one wants to make an analogy, marketing-wise, between single-barrel or small-batch bourbon and single-malt Scotch -- well, okay, but I don't really care that much.
Whether Jim Beam tastes the same today as 30 years ago is interesting but, even if it doesn't, that doesn't make it Scotch. If skimming off premium barrels of bourbon is the cause of that -- well, again, that's interesting, and might be similar to Scotch marketing -- but, to me, it isn't "Scotchification" any more than the now-abandoned General Motors Saturn 'experiment' which took place here locally turned GM into a Japanese car company because it aimed to emulate Japanese auto-building techniques.
Scotchification, as the earlier posters meant it (I believe), is marketing more older bourbons - even making them the (higher price) norm - just as costly older age expressions have become common currency in malt whisky merchandising today. Giving, that is, a cachet of age and quality (e.g. through fancy packaging) to a product which, whether it benefits or no in the scotch world, arguably benefits neither the product nor consumer in bourbon. Part of this (if it is occurring - I am posing the question) raises, as Gary says, the question of skimming from the quality mid-shelf to feed the top. His example of this not occurring with WR which he says tastes like OF (many would disagree) may be unassailable, but one can point to many examples of expensive bourbons sold at older ages, which, if they (the brands) did not exist, presumably would go into the regular labels. E.g. if there was no Knob Creek or the other small batch products of Jim Beam would these barrels not be used in the production of Jim Beam (white and black label)? It is not an issue if the white and black label are as good as they always were, but is that so? It IS so with VOB, but will that always be the case if Ridgemont takes off?
Regarding MM, perhaps that was not a good example because it has no super-premium product - MM is the sole, premium (I would argue at best) product. So let's set MM aside.
Let me put this another way: recently someone in a tasting group I participate in at the office cracked open a Chivas Regal. We all agreed that it seemed pallid and not what it was in its heyday. One person said, well, look at the 100's of aged single malts out there, no wonder this tastes so ordinary, the malts that would have gone in to the blends (in this case, the mid-shelf in blended scotch) are being marketed at high prices in elegant packages. I am not saying this is really happening now in bourbon, but wondering whether we are headed that way and if the bulk of bourbon buyers will not get (again in the mid-shelf) as good a product as they got before.
By the way I take Gary's point that other factors may affect the long-term decline of flavor in some brands - things like wood quality for barrels, steel vs. cypress vessels, distillation proof, etc. Age of the product used in the mingling is however an important aspect, more so, I would say, than these others because using bourbons of different ages for mingling can "make up" to a degree for these other changes. Not completely, but to a large extent - all producers say the key element is what happens in aging, that it provides 80% (or whatever) of the flavor, etc. Wood quality is important though, I agree (which may explain that "fresh wood" taste some bourbons have, even older ones, I find this in Knob Creek).
E.g. if there was no Knob Creek or the other small batch products of Jim Beam would these barrels not be used in the production of Jim Beam (white and black label)?
Your point is well taken Gary, and that model may work for some producers but not for Beam. They barrel to product, that is when it comes off the still they know and mark the barrels to be Jim Beam Black, Knob Creek, Bookers etc. There are a lot of different take off proofs and changes in temperatures among the different brands. Given Jim Beam White may not be as good as 30 years ago, but the fact that Knob Creek exists has nothing to do with it.
I just don't see it happening. I mean, look at Buffalo Trace. Their midshelf is spectacular (and I would argue better than most other distilleries' premiums). Their midshelf offering doesn't taste like it's being robbed by BT's single-barrels and premiums, in fact I believe it's 'raised the bar' in terms of bourbon quality. (Supply, however, seems to be a definite issue, as availability is limited, but that's due to limited output.)
Would more of the honey barrels get mixed into the midshelf if the premiums weren't a drain on supply? Undoubtedly. But I still think that issue is a drop in the bucket compared to the other factors.
But surely Beam always had older whiskey on hand, Bobby? Those decanters they used to sell were marked (some of them) 155 months, 180 months but those were not nationally marketed brands, they were variants of Beam whiskey. They had at the time overstock so they sold a lot of good stuff in a decanter format where a lot of people were buying the container, not the whiskey! And what didn't go into the decanters surely went into the regular (bottled) Beam line up, they couldn't keep that gold forever.
Buffalo Trace itself is a new-style, premium brand. The regular brand was Ancient Age and Ancient Ancient Age - and Triple A cost even at its peak barely more than Ancient Age. Triple A is not bad but it was better, in my opinion, 10 years ago.
You are correct they once did have an inventory of longer aged Bourbons. One wonders if any is still carried or if they manage to rid themselves of all of it. The turn from brown liquors to white was in such a time as to make one wonder if it didn't have a little to do with bringing out the Small Batch collection. In other words it was shortly after the white liquors gained popularity, and Bourbon saw it's market share drop for the first time in decades, the inventory was aging all along.
Let's not forget the role of the Master Distiller in this discussion. (Excuse me but I read all the remarks below this one and figured this the place to fit my observance.) While some say that the premiums rob the middle shelfs, let's not forget that it is common practice for the master distiller to blend together barrels of much older whiskey with the younger to fit the profile they are looking for. So even if all the honey barrels were kept for the prior-to-premium offerings, they would also probably be keeping some of the lesser barrels used for bottom shelf bourbons to offset the honeys to fit the profile.
Gary Gillman's question is provocative; are the premium whiskies taking away from the mid shelf whiskies. But I've got about the same experience as wrbriggs in terms of exploring bourbon for about a year. So I can't talk about what bourbon tasted like 20 or 30 years ago. So I'll just make some scattered comments on what's been said.
1) As far as packaging goes it would be nice if whiskies like Blanton's did away with the nice packaging in exchange for a lower price.
2) Based on what I have read, and what I have been told by those in the Scotch industry, there is a real sense in which Scotch has been "bourbonized." (I realize I'm off topic here.) The growth of the big companies owning both Scotch and bourbon distilleries has resulted in the greater use of bourbon barrells for aging Scotch. This has resulted in the increase of vanilla flavor in Scotch.
3) Chivas Regal may have gone down in quality, but it's going up in the next 4 to 5 years. A large company was sued for not disclosing its large stocks of malt to another company that had purchased one of the bigger companies distilleries. As a result of the suit tons of high quality malt has to be disposed of, and it's going to be put into Chivas Regal. (The Malt Advocate has covered the suit. The Chivas Regal story comes from a Signatory lecturer.)
4) I believe that there's an explanation for the decline in MM. But I'm not going to comment on that until I check my sources. Maybe I can get back to this tomorrow.
Interesting points, as those posted by the other respondents. As people have pointed out Scotchification can mean different things. One meaning is the way products are promoted (the kinds of ads and packages used - I have no problem with that unless it will put up the price of the product unduly). Another meaning is whether the palate of bourbon is starting to approach that of scotch - clearly the answer is no. The question by those who posed it originally was whether fancy packaging and its higher cost and a focus on premium (or one might say super-premium) products would affect quality at the mid-price level.
Regarding Maker's, it is my choice when going out and the selection otherwise is restricted (usually to Jim Beam White Label or JD). My sense is the way they make it hasn't changed, this is what a recent article said in Whisky Magazine, e.g., noting MM distills out at a low abv for the industry. I think though they release the whiskey as soon as it reaches the minimum age/profile they are looking for. Maybe 20-30 years ago they let it rest a bit longer before putting it out, even 6 months to a year might make a difference. MM seemed to have more of a softer, brandy-like taste back then although I realise taste impressions over such a long period are not always reliable. Certainly it is a good quality product and a bridge to more characterful products for those who want to go there.
By the way as evidence of scotchification NOT occurring I mention Heaven Hill which puts out very high quality at great prices, the EWSB series is just one example. A great company and model for the industry.
Ha, ha! I remember this somewhat heated debate althought I donīt think that I participated in it. Limiting the field of discussion to the visual side I always thought it was more a case of Cognacification rather than Scotchification.
Single malt Scotch bottles usually display a decidedly discreet and non-posh appearance (the most common type being the oblong variety). Why, even the ultra premium products of Glenfarclas (see the 25 & 30yo bottlings) do not look more spectacular than your average beer bottle.
I started a thread under this heading entitled "Are top shelf bourbons robbing the bottom shelfs?" last January and there were a lot of comments. Chuck stated that the top shelf sales are very low related to the mid and bottom shelf sales and aren't robbing them of quality barrels. We consumers got a little spoiled on the mid and bottom shelfs because there was an oversupply of aged bourbon in the 80's and a lot of it ended up in low priced offerings. Today those lower shelfs contain the young, raw whiskey it was intended too. Chuck also believes there is plenty of top shelf inventory to supply projected demand.
Hedmans, actually I think you had one post in that original discussion. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif By elegant packaging, I mean long descriptions of the product in faux antique script, or on paper made to look faded/old but which isn't, heavy decanter-style bottles, related advertising which trades on status and tradition, and so forth. Many single malts and the better blends go in for this, and some bourbons have done it too. Not all have done, of course. I just saw Randy's post and I do recall that earlier discussion about top and middle shelf, which is an aspect (not the only one) of the scotchification discussion. There was an intangible quality to the original thread on scotchification which maybe I can summarise as, "don't make bourbon too fancy or you'll ruin it". http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif
Personally, I believe if there was no market for the small batch products, the best older and honey barrel whiskeys (and there is always some on hand) would go into the middle shelf products and they might be better as a result. I don't know for sure, but I think this makes sense. Not for every producer and every brand, but overall I think this is so even if the amount of top-shelf going in was relatively small. I gave examples earlier of some brands that seem lesser today where this factor may be at work (Old Grandad 86 proof comes to mind, and I sometimes wonder about the regular Wild Turkey which seems less flavorful than I remember it in the 1970's).
Well, I have to admit that I didnīt take Scotch blends into account - admittedly, there are some overdone stuff in that particular field. I still think that Cognac is guilty of more excess, though.
I still have to have disagree about single malt bottles. To me, they appear almost too restrained in their design, considering their reputation. See, for instance, enclosed picture of the 21yo Springbank. To me (and many other i believe) the quintessential premium single malt Scotch. Compare this to Blantonīs or Bookerīs (or even Makerīs Mark!) and I think youīll have to agree that it is positively discreet in comparison.
Oh certainly there are many like the one you pictured, but there are many examples of elaborate malts packaging too, e.g. Balvenie, Glenrothes, some Macallan's (its advertising too is often very stylish), etc. I did though also have the top-class blends in mind, e.g. Johnnie Walker Gold and Blue Labels.
One meaning is the way products are promoted (the kinds of ads and packages used - I have no problem with that unless it will put up the price of the product unduly).
I think that Scotch is promoted a lot more to certain segments of our society. Take for example the American golfer (considered by many as an elitist sport). I subscribe to GOLF magazine and have found myself in the past scouring the pages for bourbon ads. The only one I've ever seen is for Knob Creek. It's loaded with ads for Scotches.
I even read an article on educating golfers on drinking whiskey and it was all Scotches there too. Good basic information on what you are most likely to find at the 19th hole of your private links but not a word about bourbon. I think that writer needs to play a few rounds on bluegrass instead of Bermuda and then enjoy the local spirit so he can tell the whole whiskey story to his readers.
Of course, the Scottish did invent golf, so there is that connection . . .
Interesting points, as those posted by the other respondents.
But I forgot one. You mentioned the expense of whiskey. I've been reading in the news last week about the steep decline in the value of the dollar relative to other currencies. So I was wondering if Scotch prices would soon be rising. If so, then bourbon would be even more of a value.
But then I had this thought. If the value of the dollar goes down, then the Europeans and Japanese will be able to buy more imported bourbon. And if an increased demand pinches supply, then the price of bourbon could go up here in the U.S.
4) I believe that there's an explanation for the decline in MM. But I'm not going to comment on that until I check my sources. Maybe I can get back to this tomorrow.
I've only had a few sips of MM. I thought it was bland; too bland to spend money on. Then I read someone here say it was spicey. So I'm looking forward to giving it another try.
But I'm concerned about some things I read in the third quarter issue of The Malt Advocate. Part 1 of the Bourbon Roundtable was published there. People in the industry believe that 70 to 80 % of the flavor of bourbon comes from the wood. But on p. 52 Bill Samuels says that MM tries to go for only 50% of the flavor coming from the wood. On p. 49 Bill says: "What we've found is that the design of our whiskey, bringing softness and gentleness in, it's making a market amoung young, professional females."
Okay, he doesn't really explicitly say that MM is designed for women whiskey drinkers. Maybe it's a coincidence. Maybe MM is designed to create a different spicey flavor for everybody, but certain female drinkers just happen to like it. But what's troubling is that I've read that the American brewers made a lighter beer in an attempt to double their market by making a drink that appealed to women. The result was disastrous until the microbrewery revolution. So with that historical background in mind, MM worries me.
By the way, isn't MM also a wheated bourbon? MM seems committed to lightness.
As far as Maker's goes, it's like this, Try it, Move on.
They have a nice tour if you're in Kentucky, Did that, didn't dip my own bottle.
File it away and when you go out if your choices are limited it may be your "go to"Bourbon.
As far as the female thing goes, Brown-Forman is doing research for flavoured drinks that appeal to the ladies.
For some reason I know people who brandish Makers as if it were a badge or something, recently given the choice of Makers and a few other bourbons I picked Very Old Barton, 86 proof. Surprized the host for certain! http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/toast.gif
Maker's has the cachet but I would have chosen VOB 86 in preference too, Bobby.
When Bill Samuels says the wood is 50% I think he means, not that aging overall doesn't contribute about 80% of bourbon characteristics, but that he doesn't want too much of a charred taste. The whiskey when ready for sale even "unwooded" still is different from the white dog it once was. Oxygen has interracted with chemical compounds in the whiskey, softening them down, turning them into fragrant esters, for example. Samuels, if you read what greenbob quoted carefully, is not saying he has lightened his whiskey, he is saying MM has found new markets amongst women for example (who likely were never part of MM's original marketing plan simply because women were not significant spirits drinkers at the time, or not of bourbon anyway). Whisky Magazine gave a good run down recently of MM production methods and everything seemingly points to their sticking with tradition. If there is one area where they possibly are departing from, I would guess it is in aging: maybe they are sending the whiskey out a little younger than 20 years ago but still meeting their minimum age/profile requirements. I think that is not so much to appeal to any particular market segment but simply to supply rising demand from a plant that is only so big. I have no issues with MM continuing as it is but would love to see, say, a 7 year old version (the current one is aged 4-5 years, I believe). I would add an older one to the range as a specialty item for the discerning consumer.
I don't have any MM on hand, no particular reason, just doesn't occur to me to pick up any while at the store. It is an unoffensive brand with a name for quality. A scotch drinking friend presented me with a bottle for Christmas one year saying he understood I liked Bourbon and wanted to give me "a really good one".
I much prefer the 7yr 90 proof Weller which is about as close a direct comparison as I can make. I would like to see what Maker's could do with an 8-10 yr 100 proof expression.
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