View Full Version : Continuing the "What is Bourbon" Debate
I am going to attempt to move the "What Is Bourbon?" debate over here from the "In Praise of Evan Williams 1990" topic where it started.
First, I went back and read the Regans' article in the most recent Malt Advocate.
Second, I thought about what John said and I think he's right. The key difference here is that Jim Beam is Jim Beam/Fortune Brands and Inovatec Corp. is, well, nobody.
Third, a question for John: Where did you get the information that McKendric can't call its product bourbon? The Regans don't say that explicitly. The name of the product as they reported it is McKendric Western Style Whiskey, but nowhere does it say they couldn't call it bourbon if they wanted to.
If I were making a whiskey that didn't really taste like what most people expect from bourbon, I probably wouldn't want to call it bourbon.
There is no real magic to the word "bourbon." That, at least, is a proposition in which Brown-Forman has invested millions (promoting Kentucky Whisky and Tennessee Whiskey). Jim Beam, on the other hand, has invested similar millions in the opposite proposition, that the word "bourbon" is a stamp of quality. As we informed drinkers know, it isn't. "Bourbon" is a set of specifications which, when met, entitle the producer to use that label. It is no assurance of quality. At best, it is an assurance of authenticity.
While we're wishing for the law to do something it doesn't, I wish it made the producers tell us more about where the whiskey comes from, how it was made, etc. I understand why Julian won't tell us where his whiskey is made, but I wish he would, simply because I would like to know.
--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)
I have one main regret about Regean's de-regulation of the industry in the early 1980's and that is the bottled in bond stamp was done away with and that stamp was a wealth of information. It gave the year and the season the whiskey was made and the year and the season it was bottled. Label information was changed as well and the DSP# is no longer required. That would tell you where the whiskey was made. Great for business but bad for us consumers.
Thanks, Chuck, for moving the thread to it's own topic. You asked, "...John: Where did you get the information that McKendric can't call its product bourbon? The Regans don't say that explicitly. The name of the product as they reported it is McKendric Western Style Whiskey, but nowhere does it say they couldn't call it bourbon if they wanted to."
I *don't* know that they can't say it. That was only a presumption. But Gary/Mardee did say that Inovatec spent nine months getting the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to approve the mesquite flavoring process. The marketers like to call it a "mellowing process" as an allusion to the "Lincoln Process" which defines Tennessee whiskey. But that method involves massive filtration (a ten-foot filter that takes the whiskey weeks to pass through), which is introduced BEFORE barrel aging. The "Mesquite Mellowing Process" is applied AFTER aging and also after the standard charcoal cold-filtering. My guess is that, unlike Reagor Motlow, the Inovatec folks weren't going through all that trouble with getting BATF approval because they wanted to establish "Western Style Whiskey" as a different kind of whiskey a la Jack Daniel's.
I've seen the product (I wasn't planning on spending nearly forty bucks to try it) and I've read the labeling, and I feel it was designed strictly as a marketing gimmick rather than a serious alternative expression of the master distillers' art. (Don't laugh; that just the way Distiller's Masterpiece is billed). I had (and still do) the admittedly personal and prejudicial feeling that they would have leapt upon the opportunity to have called it "Bourbon" had they been allowed to do so.
You also said, "If I were making a whiskey that didn't really taste like what most people expect from bourbon, I probably wouldn't want to call it bourbon."
I agree with you completely. However, I believe that simply means that you have a certain level of personal integrity that one of the brands being mentioned *MAY* not have (although, as you pointed out, we really can't say for certain) and that the other obviously appears *NOT* to have :-)
And then you said, "...the word "bourbon" is a stamp of quality. As we informed drinkers know, it isn't. "Bourbon" is a set of specifications which, when met, entitle the producer to use that label. It is no assurance of quality. At best, it is an assurance of authenticity. "
And that brings us to why I brought it up in the first place. My point was that it is, indeed, just such an assurance of quality. Where I erred in making that clear is that I used the generic term "bourbon", when what I meant (and described) was, "Straight Bourbon" (which also happens to be the name of this forum, incidentally). It's the legal definition of "Straight Bourbon" that ensures a level a quality far above what one could get away with marketing under the simple name "whiskey". You can make some really awful stuff and call it "whiskey". Scary stuff. Dangerous stuff. But it's really not possible to comply with the "Straight Bourbon" laws and produce such a product. The worst you're going to come up with is something that doesn't taste as good as other bourbons. You can make gin or rum that will blind you. Or worse. Now *THAT's* what I call "bad liquor".
Of course, you can also add flavoring and coloring to tequila, to brandy, to scotch, in order to cover up really bad flavors. Why, I've even heard that some Scotch makers are dumping their product into old cognac casks and then boasting about how that alters the flavor! The very idea!! I'll bet you wouldn't catch any reputable Bourbon distiller doing that...
You have hit upon one of the most interesting parts of marketing. A marketer may use what one can say which sometimes provides an air of distinction or superiority. You do not have to have a "better" product to say: "there is none finer." Just have a reasonable consumer test that shows people like your product as much as any others.
But the legality of bourbon and certainly of 'straght bourbon' does provide a reasonable limit.
It is often not a matter of saying everything you can but of saying something important. Important in the sense that consumers feel this product is "special."
I feel compelled to point out that there is no bourbon but straight bourbon. Meeting the requirements of "straight whiskey" is a prerequisite for meeting the requirements of bourbon whiskey.
The fact that your $40 walked right past the McKendric probably says it all. I don't think we are in danger of becoming awash in flavored bourbons, but you never can tell. We should probably hope that bourbon stays popular enough for people to keep making it, but not so popular that people have an incentive to seriously screw with it.
On the other hand, I would like to see people experiment more in the category of American Whiskey. For example, I think it would be great if an American distiller would make an all malt whiskey. You couldn't call it bourbon, though, and that may be one of the reasons it hasn't been done. More is the pity.
--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)
Chuck said "On the other hand, I would like to see people experiment more in the category of American Whiskey. For example, I think it would be great if an American distiller would make an all malt whiskey. You couldn't call it bourbon, though, and that may be one of the reasons it hasn't been done. More is the pity."
Here's where I think *<u>you've</u>* hit it right on the head. American Whiskey does indeed have a bum reputation because it gets all the stuff perceived as "not good enough". Your idea would be wonderful. So would an 18-year-old prime whiskey aged in charred new oak and finished in used cognac casks. Now if only a respected distillery like Beam were to have gone that route and be followed by others, it would have lent some much needed credence and distinction to the American Whiskey designation (instead of removing a degree of it from the Straight Bourbon designation).
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