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BobA
01-26-2006, 14:10
As one who has gotten into this only the last couple of years, I always read with interest comments about the bourbons of a couple of decades or so ago. It seems that many here who enjoyed them then usually consider them the superior of their current bottlings. I'm thinking particularly of the ND era OGDs, Old Overholt, the 8 yr. WT, etc. But aren't any bourbons better now than years ago? Lots of other things are; when I was a kid, you almost expected a blow-out on a long trip, but I've not even heard of one in years. OK, we're not talking tires here, but is any whisky better now? Or have the bean counters completely triumphed over the craftsmen?

I realize there are probably some side issues here. In recent years, it seems that there is more use of "premium" labels (true?), and I guess, even with bean counters at work, we should expect the bourbon selected for today's Booker's to be better than most of the volume put into JB White 30 years ago. So maybe I have (at least) two questions. Is any continuing label better now than in years past? And is any distiller putting out its best product now, under any labeling?

Having pretty much missed out on these older bottles I read about, it would be nice to hear that at least for something out there today, these are the good old days.

Bob

TNbourbon
01-26-2006, 14:21
Well, I'll be interested in the answer to this by some of the long-timers, too. Personally -- and I've been fortunate enough to sample quite a number of older bottles -- I can't think of one.
Now, there are many great bourbons being bottled today that weren't available in the past. But, it's been my experience that when talking about a specific label or bottling that's been around 20, 30, 40 or more years, older is better.

barturtle
01-26-2006, 16:14
I think what you may be leaning towards, is that while the whiskey they are making today might be just as good as what they were producing long ago, but while that may be so, the standard labels have suffered due to the culling of the barrels for the premium labels.

Before when they happened to misplace some stock or not sell to expectations they would usually use that (now)older whiskey in the standard labels, now that stock is diverted to specialty labels(not that any distillery that I can think of has much extra these days). So while the regular bottling suffer due to this, we have some wonderful bottlings that didn't exist before.

On top of that many distilleries are producing more brands than they did in the past, often (but not always) using the same distillation and sorting for flavor. By taking barrels from a certain portion of the warehouse that is "known" to produce the characteristics that one label requires, they loose that portion of the profile in another bottling.

So while it may be true that the bottling of yesteryear when compared to their modern production may have suffered, the range of whiskey that is available now is much broader and its more likely to find the one that will be the perfect whiskey for one particular individual.

JeffRenner
01-26-2006, 16:51
Well, I'll be interested in the answer to this by some of the long-timers, too. Personally -- and I've been fortunate enough to sample quite a number of older bottles -- I can't think of one.
Now, there are many great bourbons being bottled today that weren't available in the past. But, it's been my experience that when talking about a specific label or bottling that's been around 20, 30, 40 or more years, older is better.
I've not had many oldies, but one sticks in my mind - a 13 yo Old Overholt BiB bottled in 1933. I think the secret may be the oak - at least that was my impression from this wonderful whiskey. I wonder if new oak is perhaps not as tight-grained and hard. It has been suggested here that this is from global warming, but I don't think that this is a recent enough phenomonen.

But I do think that the oak is a part of the picture.

Jeff

[I am going to repost this and hope it isn't a duplicate. I posted it and it disappeared.]

Joeluka
01-26-2006, 19:51
I just recently came across a stash of older bourbons from my wife grandparents bunker. In fact I came across a 1968 & 1971 OGD , 2-1966 WT 8yo's, 1972 WT 8yr, & 1975 WT 8yo. There was a VVOF 12yo fall '57-fall69 on the haul as well but I opened up the '68 OGD & '66 WT so far. I found the bourbon to be so much better than the current standard bottle. I did a blind tasting to see if I could pick which was which. I did. I'm 33 and I only had all the current bottles to go by till I found these beautys and now that I've tried both I can only say that the bourbon was better back then, but I'm only comparing current OGD and WT 101 lables to their older expressions.

Joe

Virus_Of_Life
01-26-2006, 22:17
I think what you may be leaning towards, is that while the whiskey they are making today might be just as good as what they were producing long ago, but while that may be so, the standard labels have suffered due to the culling of the barrels for the premium labels.

Before when they happened to misplace some stock or not sell to expectations they would usually use that (now)older whiskey in the standard labels, now that stock is diverted to specialty labels(not that any distillery that I can think of has much extra these days). So while the regular bottling suffer due to this, we have some wonderful bottlings that didn't exist before.

On top of that many distilleries are producing more brands than they did in the past, often (but not always) using the same distillation and sorting for flavor. By taking barrels from a certain portion of the warehouse that is "known" to produce the characteristics that one label requires, they loose that portion of the profile in another bottling.

So while it may be true that the bottling of yesteryear when compared to their modern production may have suffered, the range of whiskey that is available now is much broader and its more likely to find the one that will be the perfect whiskey for one particular individual.

I am no expert, but what you said does seem to make a lot of sense.

One thing that I always try to remind myself when thinking of "the greatness of yesteryear" is that you can't go back. Trust me; although I am ‘only’ 30, I love to reminisce about the good ole days. Whether it was 4 years ago when I was married in Portland with two great dogs that I’ll never forget, or 20 years ago in Kansas visiting aunts, uncles, grandpa and grandma and oh her wonderfully fresh baked cinnamon rolls, I always remember the great times. But when it comes to something like this that you just can’t get anymore, kind of like baseball before the steroids, you just have to accept, appreciate and savor what you can get. The greatness of the past helps you to appreciate the greatness of the future when it arrives. But if you have never had those bourbons of the past you just have to use these that are around now and compare them to the future pours because I am pretty sure 50 years from now we’ll be saying the same thing about those and these.

My only other thought on this subject is that I wonder if 30, 50 or 70 years ago there was a 141 proof bourbon that was as good as George T Stagg? I just opened my new bottle, fall 2005 I believe it is, and just as with spring 2005 I am blown away that I can sit here and sip on it unpolluted and not be phased by the strength whatsoever… Amazing! Beautiful and Lovely!

ProofPositive
01-26-2006, 22:48
I think the secret may be the oak - at least that was my impression from this wonderful whiskey. I wonder if new oak is perhaps not as tight-grained and hard. It has been suggested here that this is from global warming, but I don't think that this is a recent enough phenomonen.
But I do think that the oak is a part of the picture.
Jeff

The original post & questions posed are very interesting....and, I am eager to hear reacton from the long-timers as well. After reading Jeff's post though, I think he may have something here. The oak may not be the total reason for the difference between yesterday & today , but IMHO it may very well play a very important part nonetheless. My hypothesis is formed by personal experience with wood available today and that of year's ago. Having built 2 homes in my lifetime, I have talked with plenty of contractors and have a friend who was in the woodworking business for 35 years. Just about every one of them have told me that the wood used today to build homes, furniture and many other items is not near as hard or strong as in years past. This has occured due to the ever-growing demand upon the forest industry to produce more wood and produce it faster. Over time, the demand created a strain to the point that scientists were brought in to discover ways to grow trees faster. They have been successful - more & faster grown trees....but, not harder or stronger. With faster growth has come weaker wood and less tight grains. So, to meet demand with adequate supply, a price has to be paid and that price is the wood we find today not being as good in terms of hardness, strength & durability as in years past.

An old home builder/contractor friend of mine says you need look no further than at the relatively cheap & common yellow pine available now anywhere like Home Depot for small & large construction projects. He showed me a piece of a pine 2x4 from 30 years ago and compared it to one of today. The difference in hardness, strength and grain were very evident. Also, when have you ever seen a straight, unwarped pine board such as a 2x4 at a local store like Home Depot? If such is true of pine, I am sure the same has happened with oak....and, oak has always been much more desireable than pine. Years ago, a large portion of furniture made in this country came from walnut. However, walnut trees were almost wiped out from the harvesting by the furniture industry. At present, there is no furniture made from walnut - at least, not in the U.S. It is just too scarce and too expensive. All the walnut furniture you find out there right now is all there will ever be. This is one of the reasons old furniture from England & France continues to be so popular and desireable by many folks in the U.S. today. Much of it was made from European walnut trees. Just take a look around today and tell me how many walnut trees you see. They are just about gone from the landscape. The vacuum created by the disappearance & scarcity of walnut was filled by oak - a tree/wood that was always very plentiful in America. The barrels used today may very well contain oak from faster-grown (some might call it mass-produced) trees whereas those of years ago were from produced by nature only on God's timetable not schedules created in a laboratory.

Now, some will probably scoff & discount this hypothesis altogether....but, I think Jeff has hit upon something here that cannot be overlooked or underestimated. I would be very interested to know from where the white oak originates for today's whiskey barrels and how old the white oak trees are when harvested....and how long the wood is allowed to 'season' or dry before being put to use.
--Wayne

Gillman
01-27-2006, 00:59
Excellent thoughts here, thanks. In tasting whiskeys even from only about 25 years ago (e.g., National Distillers Old Taylor and Old Grandad) there seems an extra complexity in the bourbon which in part at least may derive from the aging wood of the time. It is almost a "cured wood" effect, not in the sense of the wood being burned or toasted, but of its being "seasoned" more than today. This may result from wood having being allowed to season outdoors at the time whereas some distillery wood is dried artificially today, or being seasoned outdoors longer then than today. Or it may result from the woods of yore being harder and containing more natural flavors from being older on average when harvested than today. In Jim Beam's range of whiskeys today and some of Heaven Hill's I get often a kind of simple, "fresh wood" taste (even when the barrel char is evident), which may derive from some of these factors although the way Beam (for its part) houses and palletizes its barrels today may have something to do with it.

I think most oak wood used today in barrelmaking is from the Ozarks. A lot may depend on that oak and maybe today where older trees are still available you can still get a kind of "sappy" (wrong word I know, but still..), richer bourbon as we used to get "back when". Mike Veach often points out that bourbon flavor in the 1950's differed due to generally lower distilling-out proofs and entry levels (e.g. barrel entry limit then was 110 proof, now it is 125 and there is evidence the wood goodies (term of Chuck Cowdery) dissolve better in water than alcohol so that a barrel of 125 proof liquor has less extract than 110 liquor). When you add to these factors the crucial effect of aging in what seems to be different wood today, no wonder bourbon is said by many to be better then than now. However the counter-weight to this is the proliferation of quality brands that did not exist a generation ago. Elmer T. Lee is an example and there are many others (EC 18 years old). A hallmark of these is their relatively long age - so the answer is, again as Mike Veach has noted, to get something equal to the complex flavours even of 4 and 5 year old whiskey of circa 1950 you have to age it much longer today but often will still get a very good product. Still, nothing available today really tastes like ND Old Grandad and I put the difference down to the "fruitier", more "cured" flavors of that era than today's, which can be attributed to wood differences but also the other factors noted (and I still wonder about batch cooking temperatures from olden days to now, even 50 years ago..).

Gary

Gillman
01-27-2006, 01:17
On the point about (as Carly Simon famously sang) "these are the good old days", of course that is true and there are many great bourbons available today that have their own stamp. But as those lucky enough on the board to find or taste old whiskeys know, it is evident from sampling side by side some bottles of the same brand, differentiated by being made, say, 30 years year apart (never mind something bottled in 1933) that the oldies often seem better. I found this even with Jim Beam White Label bottled in 1980 vs. today's. However even here the good days are today and I'll tell you why I say that. Microdistilling will bring back some of the old-time tastes, as microbrewing did for beer. Woodstone Creek, a winery and craft distillery in Cincinnati, is currently aging bourbon that I believe on release will rival many bourbons that were great in their heyday 30 years ago and more. This operation is using pot-stilling and other small-scale methods (almost inevitably I think by virtue of being a small operation). Once these and other craft bourbons and ryes appear I think we will get back to some of the tastes of yore even allowing for the wood differences recently discussed. Also, we have a plethora of quality, long-aged bourbons available today that did not exist say in the 1950's. These are still indeed the good old days, even now. :)

Gary

JeffRenner
01-27-2006, 06:30
Woodstone Creek, a winery and craft distillery in Cincinnati, is currently aging bourbon that I believe on release will rival many bourbons that were great in their heyday 30 years ago and more.
I wonder how I've missed this! Cincinnati is my hometown (although I haven't lived there for 40+ years), and I get down there every few months to visit my mother (and to go across the river to Kentucky to buy whiskey). Woodstone Creek is only a block from Listermann's Mfg. http://www.listermann.com/, a fine homebrewing equipment manufacturer and homebrew retail shop. I get there about once a year. Now I have another reason to visit my mother. She'll be pleased.

I notice from their web page that Woodstone creed doesn't offer tours. I'll have to talk to Dan Listermann and see if he can't get me an introduction and tour.

Thanks for the alert.

Jeff

(BTW, regards Carly Simon - we saw her last month in concert here in Ann Arbor - first concert tour in ten years, and only five (I think) cities. What a great performer.)

NorCalBoozer
01-27-2006, 10:25
This ended up being way longer than I had anticipated, so first I will give you the short version of why I think, overall, the bourbon produced pre 1980 was better than post 1980….and that reason is that there were more person work hours put into each bottle.

My theory on this comes from an overall shift in the economic structure of American production systems. There was an inverse shift between labor and technology in the 1970's-80s. Up until then, labor was very cheap and technology was very expensive in regards to production.

I am talking in general terms as I am sure you could find specific examples where this is not the case, or where a single invention made a drastic change, but as a whole this occurred and labor always remained cheap.

Now in regards to the birth and evolution of bourbon, I have to suspect that the amount of human labor was great and the amount of technology was small. Over the last 100 years that slowly shifted as technology became cheaper and more efficient in regards to ROI (return on investment).

Less hands (worker hours) end up touching each bottle of bourbon that is produced today all the way from the production of the grains to the filling of the bottle and boxing. Along with that you do have efficiencies or changes that are created along with technology, such as higher barreling proof, mass production of ingredients, etc, etc.

I think that bourbon was, overall, better back then, because more humans interacted with the bourbon and were able to use more human intelligence during the whole process. Yes, computers and technology can make things faster and cheaper and exactly duplicated, but with that you lose the human ingenuity and understanding.

I suspect that more human interaction also could mean that more mistakes could be made and that you might get more “bad” bourbon. I basically think of it as there being a higher standard deviation back then, mechanization and computerization shrunk that deviation to make production more predictable, thus efficient and economically beneficial.

Today we have this new category of high end, super premium bourbon. It didn’t really exist back then.

A question I would ask is “What makes this super premium category better today?” What makes Stagg better? Is it just the same BT stock put in a barrel for 16 years? I doubt it.

It must be that extra human worker hours and experience are put into it, in the sense of finding and maturing these barrels and understanding that this barrel at 4 years old is going to make a great Stagg in another 12 years. Don’t those barrels get extra human work hours put into them?

Is mom’s apple pie better just because mom made it? Or is it because Mom has a specific human intelligence that is able to, on the fly, understand that the recipe is missing just a dash of cinnamon or salt, regardless of what the recipe says? Or that it needs just an extra 2 minutes of cook time?

Take the evolution of the beer micro brewing industry. Up until then beer was basically mass produced. Then people figured out they could make better beer on their own if they invested more worker hours and better ingredients in the product. *boom* it exploded and grew from grassroots. Then the bigger distillers saw that although the margins were less per unit, the overall market had grown big enough to support them jumping into it.

I get a sense that is what is kind of happening with bourbon as high end explodes and these craft micro distillers start popping up and people start messing with rebarrelling. The problem is that it takes years and years to produce product so it will happen much slower that microbrew. I think we are going to have better bourbons over the next 10 years because producers are going to start putting more worker hours into each bottle.

Computers and technology don’t have taste buds or noses. Not to say there are not people checking things in the current production systems, but there are less employees overall and thus less human interaction and worker hours going into each bottle.

This shift of labor vs. technology has factored into many industries and we do get great bourbons today, no doubt, but to ask which system is better for the connoisseur, well, I like the good ‘ol personal touch.

Gillman
01-27-2006, 12:04
This is an interesting post with a number of stimulating ideas.

Yet I ask myself, why is it that, say, Buffalo Trace produces such good bourbon? They are a very large plant, no doubt as mechanised as any of them if not more so, yet they produce very characterful bourbon according to many, even by historical standards. A smaller plant such as Maker's Mark, even when individually owned, never really achieved what Trace has in terms of highly flavored, balanced palates (e.g., Rock Hill Farms, or Elmer T. Lee).

Gary