View Full Version : Defining Distillation Down

09-27-2007, 20:59
I was a coin collector from about age 8 (when my late Aunt Florence gave me a 1934-D silver dollar) till about the age of 38 (now some dozen years ago -- I gave it up when I could no longer afford the U.S. coins I didn't already own.). "Proof" coins were the ultimate collectible, pressed from highly-polished, limited-use dies.
"Proof" has also meant much to the historical bourbon trade -- "full proof" was/is 100-proof, and often distributed as "Bottled in Bond".
Until, it seems, now. Wild Turkey's new "Russell's Reserve" rye is 90-proof. We all know that reductions in proof have saturated the industry in the past decade.
I'm glad that the distilleries are making more money from the whiskey they're distilling, as it means they will keep distilling. What remains to be seen is whether or not I have much interest in continuing to buy the populist-directed, lower-proof bottlings being sold for the same dollars higher-proof whiskeys used to command. I can't tell you the last current bottling I bought at retail -- in other words, today's distilleries have lost me as a customer. (This, by the way, explains my current reticence here -- I'm no longer currently involved.)
If I want to buy water, Aquafina is ubiquitous. At, by the way, about the same price as low-proof spirits.

09-27-2007, 21:30
Like you, I vote with my wallet. Of the whiskeys I have purchased in the last year, more than half have been 100 proof or above. Given a choice, in a line that offers different proofs, I always pick the highest one.

Happily, bottling proof is something producers can change in a heartbeat. It doesn't take years of planning. They're responsive to consumer demand as they see it. If that changes, they'll change. In the "modern era," different proofs have always been part of the landscape. "Extra" proof (more than 80) is part of most premium American whiskey profiles.

Historically, the number of proof reductions in the past decade has been relatively small. Typically, mass proof reductions have occurred when the excise tax has gone up and the last time that happened was in 1991. It would be impossible now for a large brand or segment of the industry to cut proof because most are now at 80.

In the current market, all of the producers have identified a "sweet spot" for the successful nouveau bourbon: $20-$30 a bottle, non-traditional packaging, proof around 92-94, age 6 to 8 years (whether stated or not). Pernod is positioning RR as a line extension brand family for that market segment, differentiated from the standard Wild Turkey and Wild Turkey rye by, among other things, proof.

I go into all this because I just don't see the RR proof reduction as part of a broader trend toward cheapening product and thus increasing profitability through proof cuts. I think it was part of fine-tuning the product's positioning which happened to include a lower proof. The proof cuts are, basically, done. The threat today is to aging and age statements.

09-28-2007, 10:33
Chuck, thanks for your insight on this subject.

While I have enjoyed bourbon for a number of years, the depth of my knowledge and experience with the variety of bourbons out there is more recent. But just in my short tenure as an enthusiast, I've see age statements drop off some good brands. I'm not sure if that's a bad thing or not but I like the age statement on my bourbons. I like knowing the age of the bourbon that I'm drinking but if the bourbon I'm drinking is good and it doesn't have an age statement, it's probably not important in the grand scheme of things. To me though, it's more of a personal preference; knowing the age of the bourbon I'm drinking means something to me and gives that bourbon an edge over other bourbons when purchasing.

09-28-2007, 18:37
I have bought a bottle of every brand of 100 proof of higher bourbon that I have ever found. I like the higher proof brands mainly because I can drink them at regular strength if I choose or cut them back if that is what I'm in the mood for. About the lowest proof I will go is 86 although I have a few 80 proof bottles. I also look for bottles with age statements. I'm not that fond of brands without a stated age!


10-01-2007, 12:26

I went on a rant related to one angle of this (the loss of age statements and proof) in a thread about Beam black a couple of weeks back.

Like you, I make almost no purchases of current product. Occasionally, I buy BT or KC, a couple of current ryes, but by and large, I buy S-W, ND, or pre-proof and age loss WT or Beam products. I like bourbon and Scotch because they are artisanal products made today in much the same way they were a hundred years ago. Except that's not true anymore... Look, I know the stuff rolling off the line now is better than pre-Prohibition whiskey, but it would be nice to taste it at full proof without having to pay upwards of $30 a pop ($30 is at this point a bargain, actually, in some ways). And it would be nice to taste something well-aged without taking out a second mortgage. And it would be nice if there were some honesty in acknowledging that the 7 operational distilleries in KY are, by and large, subsidiaries of multinational corporations with no true investment in history, community, or the art of distilling.

Consequently, when I buy current product, I buy almost exclusively 100-proof plus. But it's a small part I play in the larger scope of things. 100-proof is overwhelming for people to think about (until they taste it), let alone purchase. And your description of populist-driven changes is spot on. It's too bad, really.

But even though I'm less connected to the current bourbon-buying community, I'm very connected to the bourbon-drinking community, given the love of dusty bottles that permeates the board. So let's start posting some tasting notes, loads of tasting notes, on ND and pre-1988 Beam and S-W and UDV Old Charter and WTRR (the real one), and let's continue building the community of the bourbon faithful, dedicated to bonded whiskeys and low distillation proofs and high bottling proofs...and above all else, to whiskey that tastes good, damnit. Get the word out, generate some dissatisfaction, and drive the market the other way. We know this board can have an impact. So...tonight I'll put up some tasting notes on Beam black label when it was a 90-proofer.

10-01-2007, 20:00
I think I made an inaccurate statement somewhere about this, and it's relevant to Tim's post. In terms of current production, all of the American whiskey being produced today comes from nine companies, operating 14 distilleries. Of the micro-distilleries, I'm including only Anchor because Old Potrero is widely distributed. I'm also including A. Smith Bowman (owned by Sazerac) as a distillery, even though all they do is redistill spirit made at BT, but at least they do operate a still.

The companies are Anchor, Barton, Beam Global, Brown-Forman, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Diageo, Heaven Hill and Wild Turkey. Beam and BF have three distilleries each and BT has two. I don't count multiple distillation systems at the same site as separate distilleries. Some of those "companies" are subsidiaries of larger companies (e.g., Wild Turkey = Pernod Ricard) and all of them are multi-national.

While I like dusties as much as the next guy, especially SW, you're kidding yourself if you think any dusty you can find is more artisanal than any current production. But you can get benefits in some cases like lower distillation proof, lower entry proof and older trees being used for barrels, and those things are significant. As for long aging, that probably has never been as common in the history of American whiskey as it is today. As for proof, I too avoid 80 proof products, but there still are a lot of products in all price ranges at 100 proof and above, even more at 90 proof and above, although admittedly in some parts of the country they can be hard to find, especially in low-priced expressions. A great example, where you can find it, is JTS Brown BIB. It's Heaven Hill whiskey, the stuff currently on sale is from DSP-31 (the fire-destroyed plant in Bardstown), and it's less than $10 a bottle.

10-01-2007, 20:39
Fair enough, Chuck. Sorry I was off on my numbers (though I was getting at the small number of distillers more than distilleries, your point remains the same). And you're right: Beam Global has been a large company for some time. On the other hand, I think it's fair to say that a Beam black from the early 1980s was made by a different company with a different aim than the same product now. Before the buyout of National and at the beginning of a decline in sales, I think the smaller, less successful company couldn't put its product line on autopilot and survive the way Beam does now (no significant new products introduced in nearly 20 years!?). Artisanal may have been a bad choice of words, but certainly smaller subsidiaries of the large corporation were in operation 20-odd years ago.

And long aging intentionally may not have been as common in the past, but there were some long-aged products on the market (including Old Charter 12, which has been around for some time and is now vanishing). But I'm not necessarily after long aging. I just want to know how old the stuff is, where it came from, etc. I like 7-yr-old whiskey, 4-yr-old whiskey, 18-year-old whiskey...what I don't like is 7-yr-old whiskey becoming 4-yr-old or younger...or being yanked altogether.

Of course, the bottom line is taste. And here's where I have mixed feelings. Is there any Beam product (not to pick on them, but I've sampled more ND and Beam than anything else) as good as one of its previous incarnations? No. Not Old Crow, OGD, OT, JBW, JBB, JB Rye. I have tasted older versions of all of these that were clearly aged in better barrels, distilled to lower proofs, bottled at higher proofs, or made to totally different recipes and specifications, and have rarely had a bad dusty of any of them. OTOH, the Small Batch bourbons are all very good, and better than much of standard Beam in the 1970s-80s. They are also $25-$45 apiece. Of course, there are plenty of dusty dogs out there (Bourbon Supreme, Daniel Stewart, etc: a dog is a dog is a dog). Dusties aren't better per se. But on the whole, the advantages of mid-shelf and top-shelf dusty bottles (aside from their being cheaper than some lower-to-mid-shelf bottlings today) are undeniable.

As for inexpensive bonded, high-proof, or well-aged product, I can get Tom Moore BIB, HH BIB, Weller 107, Old Ezra 101, OGD BIB and 114, BT, WT Rye, and Old Forester 100 (and, for a limited time, OC 12) for under $20 with regularity. In a way, this is an embarassment of riches. But OF lost its bonded statement, OGD is not what it was (as a ND or Beam product), and it seems there is a gradual loss of quality in the mid-shelf pours as the top shelf takes over. Am I spoiled? Without question. But when things are taken away, people will (and should) grumble. What are we losing to gain Stagg, OFBB, et al?

10-01-2007, 21:13
We're not really very far apart, Tim. Your points are well taken.

Was OF ever BIB? I think not, since GG Brown was opposed to BIB's "singularity" requirements on principle. He was, however, fairly alone on that point and as recently as the early 60s, most bourbons were BIB and even after they started to cut proof, they did it as line extensions, keeping the BIB expressions too. I remember the little liquor store across the street from me when I moved to Kentucky in 1978 (the store is still there, by the way) was loaded with BIB bourbons.

10-02-2007, 07:19
...Was OF ever BIB? I think not, since GG Brown was opposed to BIB's "singularity" requirements on principle...

Sure it was, though perhaps not in Brown's time. There was a BIB version until c. 2002, when it adopted a simple '100 Proof' label. The 'Signature' version is just a year or so old.
I have several of the Bottled In Bond, dimpled bottles from the early-, mid-'90s, which I am loathe to open because they are very good whiskey and getting near impossible to replace.

10-02-2007, 08:13
I read what Chuck said as meaning in Brown's time (and presumably until the 1930's at least) OF was never BIB. I think Brown was going after complexity and consistency, and the success of his brand testified to his strategy.

However, I assume that with the marketing magic the term bonded acquired after the 1890's and in particular from the 1930's, OF did ensure ultimately that its product was bonded.

Ironically, I must say one of the least satisfactory bourbons I ever had was a dimpled bonded OF from the 1990's. It was raw, hot, just very average. Of course, some bondeds are great because that season produces something which turned out that way, but not that one! The idea to mingle (if in fact that is what Signature is now, I am not sure) made sense to Brown and I am convinced of its merits from my own experiments.

This is not to say I do not value bonded whiskey highly, I do. However I believe it should only be sold when really good, otherwise save it for mingling.


10-02-2007, 11:38
Thanks, Tim, that's exactly what I was wondering about.

As for the current Signature, it does mingle whiskeys from different years to achieve its taste profile, which differs from the 86 and is, I believe, also slightly (though very slightly) different from the profile of the old 100 proof.

That GG Brown opposed the "singularity" requirements of BIB makes sense, as he was all about consistency. Ironically, OF Birthday Bourbon, created in his honor, is from a single distillation.

10-03-2007, 12:04
Thanks, Tim, that's exactly what I was wondering about.

As for the current Signature, it does mingle whiskeys from different years to achieve its taste profile, which differs from the 86 and is, I believe, also slightly (though very slightly) different from the profile of the old 100 proof.

That GG Brown opposed the "singularity" requirements of BIB makes sense, as he was all about consistency. Ironically, OF Birthday Bourbon, created in his honor, is from a single distillation.

It is also ironic that OF Birthday Bourbon is not consistent....at least in its taste profile.

10-03-2007, 14:30
It is also ironic that OF Birthday Bourbon is not consistent....at least in its taste profile.

It's NOT supposed to be. Each year they strive to find a "different" profile for that whiskey. So far they've done a respectable job.
Joe :usflag: