View Full Version : Today's Bourbon vs. Years Past
Does the current availability of aged, small-batch bourbons mean that what we are drinking today is better than what was available in past years (decades)? Maybe the really good stuff of the past was reserved for local consumption?
You pose a tough question there Henry. I know that such bottlings as Knob Creek; Woodford Reserve, Kentucky Spirit, and Blanton's are far superior to anything that has been available to me in the past. However we just don't know what Old Crow tasted like when U.S. Grant was drinking it, or what Old Grand Dad tasted like when the Hayden's were making it, or what Old Taylor tasted like when E.H. Taylor was making it. Surely they had 'honey barrels' for personal consumption and for friends and family.
The best answer you would probably be able to get would be to ask the old bourbon men still alive like Elmer T. Lee; Booker Noe, & Ova Haney.
Are you coming to Bardstown for the festival?
Have Shotglass. Will Travel.
I have tasted bourbons made 100 years ago and they were not significantly better, nor very different, from bourbons made today. Mike Veach has done even more of this (it was his stash) so maybe he has a different opinion.
Going back more than 100 years, you get into the era when quality control was very poor and quality varied a lot from batch to batch. Presumably, the best stuff was as good as the best stuff today, but the worst was unimaginably awful.
When there were many more distilleries there was more variety, at least in theory, but not necessarily so you would notice. I have posed this question to Sam Cecil and other old timers and they tell me there wasn't that much range of difference.
I think the key to making a really great bourbon is to start with a really good bourbon and then get very lucky, in terms of the blessings bestowed by the aging Gods. When you have sophisticated palates sampling from a large inventory of well made whiskey, you will get some great stuff. I think the fact that people are willing to pay some large prices now for special bourbons means that is happening, perhaps like never before. Where perhaps you could taste something really special in the past only if you were E.H. Taylor's house guest, now you can buy it at the store.
Ultimately, you probably can believe whatever you choose and I prefer to think these are the good old days.
--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)
Historically bourbons before prohibition were distilled at a lower proof and have more flavor from the grains than bourbons of today (with the exception maybe of Wild Turkey which is distilled at the lowest proof that I know about). You also have to remember that they did not have hybrid grains like we have today so the corn was not as sweet as today's corn (ever had any of the "Flint" corn? try it someday and you will know what I mean.) There are other changes in technology that have made a difference in the taste of bourbon, mostly for the good. I once saw a newspaper advertisement where the distiller was claiming that if you missed that scorched flavor from an old fashoined pot still then drink his bourbon because he still had that flavor in his bourbon. I can not imagine anyone enjoying that taste but hey who am I to say?
My experience with old bourbons (meaning bourbons bottled along time ago and not aged bourbons) is that they are "heavier" in flavor with more grain characteristics. Bourbons of that peroid did not have to be aged in new barrels and some of them had characteristics of used barrels in the flavor. I was told by Mike Wright, the quality control person at U.D. that they also tested chemically the same as whiskey in used barrels so I know the flavor characteristics were on target.This included a slightly minty flavor in the nose and pallet. Of course most of these bourbons were very old bourbons aged during prohibition so there were strong barrel flavors as well. Some bourbons aged better than others but this is true even today.
As a whole there is a difference between bourbon of old and today's bourbon but I think the changes are for the good.
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