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View Full Version : What Is New In Bourbon Culture Post-1995?



Gillman
11-25-2007, 04:34
I'd propose a discussion of what is new in the bourbon world in approximately the last 10 years, in other words, what characterises the bourbon scene today that did not exist in previous generations.

This is the era coinciding with the start of SB, the spread of consumer whisky magazines, the release of books such as Jim Murray's Whisky Bible, the holding of fairs and exhibitions for consumers to taste and rate whisky, and the release of barrel strength bourbons and expressions marketed in general as super-premium (some of this existed earlier but not like today).

I'd list the new phenomena as follows:

- in general a culture of connoisseurship exists - some always appreciated fine bourbon but they were scattered and there was no unity to their efforts

- the concept of the barrel strength bourbon seems truly new, there may have been one or two examples in the 1930's-1980's but they were very rare, and thus a practice has been revived not seen since whisky was sold from the barrel in the 1800's

- the related idea to drink bourbon (albeit carefully and in small amounts!) at barrel strength is truly new I think. This was never done before, bourbon always was diluted by addition of ice or water except for the few who might have drunk bonded whisky neat.

- the idea to use bourbon in certain foods such as bourbon balls and some cooking (bourbon meat balls, in soups and so forth). Isolated or regional examples existed before but the practice is gaining ground.

- the existence of forums and discussion groups (SB being the leader by far) where bourbons can be discussed, rated and argued over and through which information is disseminated.

- the release of bourbons finished in barrels which formerly held another spirit or a wine.

- the beginning - so far very small - of craft bourbon producers, thus bringing things to where they started a very long time ago.

I would say all these are features of the new bourbon culture.

Any thoughts?

Gary

OscarV
11-25-2007, 04:40
I suppose you can add price to that list.
Pre-1995 I would have never thought I'd pay a hundred dollars or more for a bottle of bourbon.

squire
11-25-2007, 05:12
Gary, yes, those are salient observations. I would only add we no longer live in a drinking culture. In my parents generation coctail parties were the norm and people would drink and drive in a way that is unthinkable today.

Now we drink less but better so a new market has emerged where the masters like Elmer Lee and Parker Beam can bottle their best efforts knowing they will be sold, consumed and commented on by knowledgeable aficionados. We will pay the price and they will continue to try and outdo each other.

I'm not too keen on the experiments on major themes now going on such as using wine barrels to 'finish' a Bourbon. Guys like James Crow, Albert Blanton and Pappy Van Winkle worked out the details of how to make a fine whiskey a century or more ago and those are the footsteps to follow.

Regards,
Squire

Gillman
11-25-2007, 08:11
Thanks, gents. As to heightened price, we need to take the good with the bad (but fortunately excellent inexpensive bourbon endures), and as to bourbons finished in barrels that held wines or other spirits, it is possibly the ditto. Experimentation brings risks and rewards.

Gary

polyamnesia
11-25-2007, 09:40
if i remember right, even though the 'vatting' idea has been around (a response i received not long ago regarding the concept/practice), it has now become more widespread in this NBCulture, right?

...and...in repsonse to what you call the culture of connoisseurship ....not that this is a major insight, but personally, and oddly(!), my concept of whiskey being drunk neat was inserted into my consciousness (and seeped down into my subconscious) when i read an advertisement about GEORGE DICKEL...the fact that it was called 'sipping' whisk(e)y made me rethink the practice of enjoying the experience. to me, drinking it straight (back inthe early 80s) meant just slogging it down. so, i remember, i bought a bottle of the Dickel and didn't mix a bit of it! i was still young...and i don't remember how good it was. at least i don't remember how BAD it was...but i felt more 'dignified' drinking it that way...:rolleyes:

now i HAD first sipped Old Bushmills and didn't even think of mixing it. but again, i didn't think of american whiskey or the irish spirit as really related.

but the point is that, yep, GDickel's suggestion of SIPPING gave me an appreciation for the potentiality of drinking whiskey/bourbon in a more elevated way.

of course, later, i discovered some REALLY good sipping choices.

jburlowski
11-25-2007, 10:13
As you have termed it, the "culture of connoisseurship" in bourbon is a reflection of a broader trend among American consumer--- a move to higher price, (perceived) higher value brand-name goods (e.g., Starbucks, Nike, etc.)


Bourbon has been somewhat late to the game but has followed other spirits (most notebly, Vodka) in using more unique / expensive-appearing packaging and advertising that focuses more on the "experiential" aspects over the actual product attributes.

Gillman
11-25-2007, 12:07
I agree fully on all counts.

Vatting can be added to this list of new consumer approaches to bourbon - and rebarreling.

Gary

NorCalBoozer
11-25-2007, 18:39
I would also add that due to the "culture of connoisseurship", the knowledge and excitement of bourbon has led to a pretty active culture of bottle scavenging for old dusty bottles.

These bottles before held little value as they sat on shelves sometimes for decades. Now they are highly prized and generally are worth much more than the prices currently paid.

ratcheer
11-26-2007, 17:38
A negative trend that I lament is the slow, but continual reduction of proof of formerly higher proof bottlings. This may be related to price increases, but I would still prefer to pay an actual price increase than to see a favored bottling go from, e.g., 90 to 86 to 80.

Tim

fussychicken
11-26-2007, 21:34
I would say all these are features of the new bourbon culture.

Any thoughts?

All excellent observations and all very true. The big question for me is WHY?!? Where did all these bourbon enthusiasts come from? I myself don't even really know how I got into this. Why was I intrigued? Why are others intrigued?

The only sort of limited insight I might be able to give is that bourbon isn't so special when looking at the spirits market in general. It appears that all spirits are doing well these days. So the question then becomes why are all sprirts doing well? Some might say it is simply market cycles, and I'm sure that is part of it.

But why this culture of connoisseurship? This appears to be a new part to the cycle. Why are we trying to describe bourbon like wine guys talk about wine? Julian Van Winkle Sr sure as hell didn't use words like palate back in the day to talk about bourbon. What was the reason for the massive bourbon growth in the 70s which caused the glut in the 80s? Why is it different this time?

Surely part of this must also come from our modern consumerist culture. Many strive so hard to be an "individual" but are only able to do so through the products they buy. Does this extra choice exist only because we are trying to be different or better from one another?

Gillman
11-27-2007, 04:28
Well, this is a complex question. Part of it is that bourbon has flown on the coatails of Scots malt whisky, e.g., Michael Jackson wrote about both in a similar way in his 1988 World Guide To Whisky. In turn, he wrote about scotch and initially beer in a way parallel to how the wine writers, early wine clubs and wine brokers thought and wrote about wine. Jackson cited Hugh Johnson (noted English wine author) as an influence.

The U.S. East Coast and other affluent centres always had fine wine importers and wine clubs, dating back to the 1930's and probably even earlier. How these thought about wine can be gleaned from some of those great Time Life cookery books of the 1960's, coteries of well-off people sampled fine vintages and (indeed) encouraged the California wine industry: they talked about wine just like people do here about fine whiskey.

What has happened is that an aristocratic habit (whether applying its funds and skills to wine, tapestry, art, cars, furniture, etc.) has become widespread through the effects of consumer culture. More disposable funds and leisure time have allowed people to investigate areas formerly restricted to a privilged few. Economic progress in liberal (capitalist) economies has allowed this.

Now, behind that, is I agree an intention to express individuality. But here we enter the domain of psychology and human motivation, an area most interesting but not peculiar to the appreciation of fine spirits or other consumables.

Gary

OscarV
11-27-2007, 05:37
This may sound off-the-wall, but one reason I think spirits in general took a swing up in being consumed is the drug testing by employers that began in the late '80's and early '90's.
Like they say liquor is quicker.

I agree with fussychicken's opinion about the modern consumer culture.
I also think that it is sad that a person can only express his individualism by the consumer products they buy.
But their is a difference when one buys an expensive car to make a statement to others and enjoys a pour of fine bourbon for himself.

Maybe you can compare it to a lover of art. Weather it be painter, writer, musicsian, etc.
Art to me is something that moves your soul.
There have been times when after a taste of an exceptional bourbon I have said this man,(the master distiller) is an artist.

Maybe we are still connected to our ancestors, whatever it was that drove them to create spirits still drives us today.
And whatever that was, it is authentic and I think that is what people want today, something real.

gothbat
11-27-2007, 15:24
Why are we trying to describe bourbon like wine guys talk about wine? Julian Van Winkle Sr sure as hell didn't use words like palate back in the day to talk about bourbon.

Parker Beam said almost the exact same thing at the tasting I attended during Whiskyfest NYC. As they read Jim Murray's notes from the Whiskey Bible about what we were tasting he commented several times about how him nor his father tasted and smelled anything other than good bourbon when they sampled. Saying you like to drink/taste whiskey straight seems to carry a stigma with certain people, even those that drink other types of alcohol so I guess that maybe, in some cases, this is a move to change the perception of the bourbon drinker by attempting to put them on the same level as a wine connoisseur even though it's an entirely different class of drink (imo). When I first read tasting notes I thought to myself, "I thought they only did this with wine...". Is describing bourbon like this really a new thing though? Having only been drinking bourbon for a few years the first time I ever read any notes like that was in the Whiskey Bible a few years back but for all I know this could have been already going on for a really long time. Whatever the case, it's fun.


This may sound off-the-wall, but one reason I think spirits in general took a swing up in being consumed is the drug testing by employers that began in the late '80's and early '90's.

Agreed.

TNbourbon
11-27-2007, 15:45
...Julian Van Winkle sure as hell didn't use words like palate back in the day to talk about bourbon...

Frankly, there weren't many wine critics -- American, anyway -- who used words like 'palate' back in Pappy's day, either. There weren't all that many American wine critics, period. Today's wine critics, however, have made its use common and understandable -- and, thus, we use it, too. Not that big a deal.

barturtle
11-27-2007, 20:36
Frankly, there weren't many wine critics -- American, anyway -- who used words like 'palate' back in Pappy's day, either. There weren't all that many American wine critics, period. Today's wine critics, however, have made its use common and understandable -- and, thus, we use it, too. Not that big a deal.


I pulled out my oldest wine and whiskey book, Grossman's Guide, 4th Edition 1958, just to see if "palate" was in the bourbon section, nope, but it was used in the scotch section.:lol: I know Chuck hates this book, however it is the oldest book I have that deals with this subject.

Gillman
11-28-2007, 01:10
Check, for wine literature and wine writing references in the period, Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion To Wine.

I have a small collection of books from the mid-1900's where writers, English and U.S., write about wine from a connoisseurship or consumer angle.

Generally, they used metaphors somewhat different from those used today. They might have compared wine to music, or women, or art (one passage I recall compared one wine to Impressionist art and another to Piet Mondrian for its "precision") but also used terms like "velvet", "light", "mailed fist", and so forth which we might still use today. The style generally seemed flowery. It was parodied in the famous line (Thurber's I think), "I found its presumption amusing".

Wine writing evolved into the serial adjective style still prevalent, and writing about beer and spirits followed.

I first found the term "palate" in Michael Jackson's World Guide To Beer from the late 1970's but I am sure it was used for many kinds of drink for decades before that.

Wine culture was like it is today but the whole thing was much smaller and tended to have overtones of snobism and pretension, I think it has been placed on a much saner basis today where if anything the debunking trend is gaining - the success of fine wine outside France has helped push this. Still, there were debunkers in the 1950's too, Raymond Postgate, an English writer, was one, e.g., he wrote that in general many wines are kept too long, something Robert Parker believes today.

Certainly the major dailies did not have wine columns like one sees today - they had classical music and arts columns, often of great sophistication, that on the other hand have largely disappeared, but that is a different story (chronicled with his usual acuity by arts critic Terry Teachout in the current issue of Commentary).

Gary

Tracy Hightower
11-28-2007, 02:59
I by no means claim to know much about distilled spirits and have certainly learned a lot in a short time from most of you guys whom I refer to as experts. I know more than I did yesterday and will probably know more tomorrow than I do today thanks to you fellow SB.com members.

I admit that I do not even drink very much and could not properly describe a fine Bourbon if my life depended on it.

Having said all of that. I have always been fascinated with wines and liquors and the craftsmanship that goes into producing them. The whole gambit from the rich history of the distilleries, the people behind the products, the pride in their products and the enthusiasm of gentleman (and ladies) such as those of you on this forum who put forth the time and effort to educate yourselves and others about a product you all hold so dear. I find it all so very interesting.

Modern technology has led to the creation of forums such as this that can be used to educate or entertain others or ourselves on just about any subject we desire to learn about.

In my opinion, it is forums like this that have made our world so much smaller and intimate to where we can share our interest with anyone, anywhere and meet and discuss our interests with people from all walks of life and in places that were once just a place on a map.

I have found that not only can you discuss these interests with anyone but on occasion we are able to get the benefit of interacting with recognized experts in any given field of interest such a Julian Van Winkle who I have seen graciously take the time to enlighten and educate those on this forum. I have seen this coming together of experts and laymen happen on numerous forums that hold some of my other interests.

The technology that has made this world smaller has also led thousands if not millions of people worldwide to make the effort to meet with others in person to share our interests in person and to trade stories collectables and ideas with those that we have "met" online. It is forums like these that have allowed us all to have "friends" that we have met as well as "friends" that we have never met but are friends non the less.

It has allowed us to form close relationships and bonds that have seemingly no social, economic or racial barriers. There are similarly no geographical barriers either as you can discuss a subject with someone across town as easily as you can someone on the other side of the globe.

Last, but not least I have found that forums like this tend to bring out the best in us and regardless of the subject matter I have found that most on-line "societies" such as this are polite societies. Even though there are moderators on any given forums we all seem to take a responsibility for our community or society and self-police such communities and assist the moderators without being asked or appointed to such duties. That in itself shows how much pride we all take in our interests and our various on-line communities.

Mr. Gillman, although you mentioned forums and discussion groups in your original post, I think that it is such forums and discussion groups that have had the most impact and change on not just the Bourbon Industry but just about any other industry or interest you can think of.

Thanks for listening to my opinions.

Gillman
11-28-2007, 04:47
Thanks for these comments. The Internet has had an enormous influence in permitting the diffusion of interest and knowledge in so many areas and certainly for wines and spirits and this extends indeed to occasional discussions and meetings between industry members and enthusiasts.

As for us here, we are here because of Jim Butler who founded Straightbourbon.com and funds its operation. Jim is a true pioneer of the bourbon renaissance.

I wanted also to say about tasting vocabulary that it is true those in the industry often describe or view bourbon somewhat differently than non-industry people. This is inevitable since every industry has its customs, practices, vocabulary. People in the industry know what is good because they deal with the subject hands-on, they learned by specialised training and experience and thus might adopt a somewhat different approach than non-specialists such as consumer writers. I know in the Scotch industry a flavor wheel was used for many years (probably still is) to describe the flavors of Scotch whiskies or the range of flavors. Some of its terms coincide with those used by the whisky writers, some do not. In bourbon, in the 1960's, old-time distiller Charlie Thomasson wrote that good bourbon should smell like a ripe apple and he said a fault in bourbon was a "punky" taste which was a degraded wood taste (from improper storage). I have read consumer writers who used or might use the comparison of ripe or other fruits but never have I read one who used the term "punky" because it was an insider's expression, at least in some circles when Thomasson was working.

My point being, it is normal that the terms used by a specialised industry to describe bourbon quality - and even where none are used - will vary from what outsiders will use. It is the same in any area of endeavour - the musician Frank Zappa famously criticised rock criticism but that did not stop its development (and the best of it is an accepted genre today) because with all its faults it enabled non-specialists to understand something about music.

That said, I think there has been a tendency for the spirits and consumer worlds to merge somewhat they way they talk about spirits. The hang tags and labels of some recent bourbon offerings suggest this. On the other hand some here speak of "top notes", "organoleptic qualities", "aldehyde-like" and so forth.

Gary

squire
11-28-2007, 06:05
It was a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine. A fellow is pouring for his guests and says, "Its a naive, domestic burgundy but I think you'll be amused by its presumption".

Regards,
Squire

Gillman
11-28-2007, 06:17
Thanks for that, a classic line!

Gary

bobbyc
11-28-2007, 10:02
- the concept of the barrel strength bourbon seems truly new, there may have been one or two examples in the 1930's-1980's but they were very rare, and thus a practice has been revived not seen since whisky was sold from the barrel in the 1800's

- the related idea to drink bourbon (albeit carefully and in small amounts!) at barrel strength is truly new I think. This was never done before, bourbon always was diluted by addition of ice or water except for the few who might have drunk bonded whisky neat.
I would offer that among a small group of individuals, drinking barrel proofs and having access, albeit pilfered from warehouse stocks, has been enjoyed in the past.

We are fortunate that the sale of those gained approval of the front office.

Gillman
11-28-2007, 10:50
Indeed, and I meant the general consuming public only.

Gary

Gillman
11-28-2007, 11:00
Since I know there are a number of rock fans here, I can't resist passing on by way of digression the quotation I was referring to from the late great guitarist and musician Frank Zappa:

"Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read".

This was written in the early morn' of the rock and roll era, one whose dusk or night we now inhabit IMHO, and I would say in the high noon of the era some fine rock criticism was written, but Frank's point can be taken still in a broad sense.

Of course, Zappa also once observed that art consists in making something from nothing and selling it, so perhaps he was being a bit contradictory. :)

Gary

jburlowski
11-28-2007, 14:48
One of the things that strikes me as amusing is the concept of "older is (necessarily) better". This is an extension of the "culture of connoisseurship". Also probably a reflection of the the Scotch marketplace as well; where ultra-old bottlings seem to automatically command the highest prices.

Same thing goes for "single barrel" and before that, "small batch" (whatever the hell that means) bottlings. Somehow these are perceived as naturally better than their more pedestrian counterparts.

Gillman
11-28-2007, 14:52
That's right, and it's not necessarily a creditable aspect of the new bourbon culture except in the sense of offering people options, more choice in other words.

Gary

jburlowski
11-28-2007, 14:57
I remember asking on the HH tour, "At what age does the bourbon become (generally) undrinkable?" The guide guide quickly responded. "Never, it just gets better and better..."

Well, when the age of the bourbon surpasses mine (don't ask), I'm quitting and switching to prune juice....

TBoner
12-02-2007, 11:34
An interesting discussion of tasting notes and vocabulary. I think there's a component of the tasting notes culture that is based on connoisseurship, but I also think in a way tasting notes are true to the spirit of the Walker Percy quote in my signature line. If a given bourbon sparks a taste memory or invokes a smell or feeling from childhood, if it momentarily transports the drinker to a different time or place, then pure connoisseurship is not the only goal or result of consumption...

I would add to the excellent ideas discussed already a renewed interest in classic cocktails. The arisal of a cocktail revival of sorts at high-end bars, particularly in San Francisco and New York, must be at least partially credited with rye's return to prominence. Conversely, the renewed interest in American whiskey history has reminded us of great drinks now relegated to the fringes of bar culture (or lost altogether): not just the Manhattan and the Sazerac, but also the Seelbach, rock and rye, and other classic cocktails/cordials/drinks that make use of American whiskey. Interest in the history of bourbon and rye has helped the contemporary cocktailian discover these forgotten concoctions.