I have seen some refrences to the fact that we are in a "Golden Age" for bourbon. I wonder if this is true. I believe that there is a curb and that we are actually on the downward slide. Let us consider some historical perspective. About 150 years ago bourbon began to improve with the advance of technology allowing better control of the manufacture of spirits. The bourbon was made with lower entry proofs and smaller barrels and had a lot of flavor that bourbons today does not have. I admit some of these flavors might not appeal to us today, but then again I say who can really say if nobody is making the whiskey the old fashioned way anymore so there is no comparison standard. Prohibition changed the industry creating standards for manufacture that made the industry look more like what we have today. Barrels got bigger. The change would have been subtle and maybe not noticed by most people and it saved money. Entry proofs started edging the way up. The accountants have started to get involved in the manufacturing process and marketing people started telling everybody what "they should like" (exception is Linn who has very strong opinions of what he likes, damn the marketing people). As we go into the 21st century almost all of the distillers are using 125 proof as entry proof. This leaves less flavor from the grains so recipe becomes less important. Marketing people are changing the packaging taking a product that once was proudly sold as "8 Year Old" and making it "No. 8" with no age statement. The product is changing in subtle ways hoping nobody will notice and for the vast majority of the people, they won't notice.
I say if we are in a "Golden Age" it is of marketing. The distillers art golden age was the 1950's and 60's. I would rather have some Old Fitzgerald made in the 1950's that is 5 years old than I would the current 12 year old product. Others have talked about the "Pre-Beam Old Grand Dad". This was a time when modern methods improved control but the Master Distiller was still in control of the manufacture of bourbon. I wish Pappy Van Winkle was still in business today. His motto of "Always Fine Bourbon" should be a standard for the industry. At the Heritage seminar at the Bourbon Festival about 5 years ago someone asked Ova Haney who would be the Master Distillers of the future and his reply was "The F*!@'n accountants". I fear he may be right. What do you think?
Re: Golden Age?
Mike, I believe we are actually heading toward a Golden Age. If there was a golden age of bourbon in the past, we are about to witness the Mother of all Bourbonic Encores.
This is a very exciting time to discover bourbon -- we got pot stills working their inefficient, but magical tricks at Labrot & Graham. We got distillers experimenting with "finishing" casks (cognac, sherry) to impart exciting new flavors to bourbon. We got folks willing to try something NEW. We got Elmer! And Julian! And Jimmy! Heck, we EVEN got...EVEN (Kulsveen)!
We got Buffalo Trace winning Distillery of the Year honors for America. And Evan Williams Vintage Single Barrels winning annual awards. And Woodford Reserve. And Russell's Reserve, Eagle Rare 17...and an 18 yr. old rye! And we got Elijah Craig and Johnny Drum to enjoy for under $20 a bottle! Many restaurants charge more for appetisers these days.
Marketing has improved -- but it has a long way to go. Broadening the flavor base of our bourbons can give the marketing guys something new to pitch. I may not like a mesquite flavored Texas whiskey -- but I applaud the guy with the courage to try something different. Tradition is a good thing but it shouldn't stifle creativity. I don't believe accountants will keep Master Distillers from exploring new flavoring techniques or production methods -- in fact, I think they will encourage new paths to growth and profit.
One final thought -- The Association of Canadian Distillers says Americans consume more Canadian whiskey than Irish and bourbon COMBINED. This is incomprehensible to me. The marketing guys better get busy. Our beloved bourbon deserves better than runner up to Canadian blahs..er, blends.
Sit tight, Mike -- the best is YET to come.
Re: Golden Age?
Mike, I was going to answer your post with some encouraging thoughts about the state of bourbon today, but Omar's answer hits every point I would have brought up right down the line. The only thing he didn't mention that I would have is Heaven Hill's decision to de-tune the state-of-the-art automation at Bernheim so as to put the human element back into it. If anything, this looks like the Platinum Age for American whiskey, and for every reason Omar wrote.
About the only thing I would add is this...
On the forum, we rarely speak of Jim Beam White Label, or Ancient Age, or Old Grand Dad. When we wax nostalgic over brands of yore, Hill & Hill isn't among them; nor is Green River. What we talk about, what we're excited about, is Knob Creek, Buffalo Trace, Russell's Reserve, Elija Craig. All these wonderful products have been developed recently. Sure, Old Grand Dad and Old Fitzgerald were undoubtedly better in the '50s than they are today, but they were the best you could get then; those are just ordinary brands now, and we have new stars to show off the pride of the distillers.
Re: Golden Age?
Mike you present a dark picture indeed. Let's examine the testimony in your favor. As far as the present day Old Fitzgerald goes I'll submit that you know better than I, but I'd still like to do a blind taste test of your 50's BIB OF vs. todays VSOF. Lets make it a threesome and invite Mashbill's bottle of Very Very Old Fitz to the party. Bill are you game? Let's see who wins and why. Chuck calls VVOF +pure ambrosia".
Glenn the Aussie (where the 'ell did 'e get off to?) stated over and over again the Old Grand-Dad didn't taste as good as it used to.
Todays Old Taylor is just Jim Beam in a different bottle. A far cry from it's former glory days.
Old grand regonial brands like Michter's and Virginia Gentelman are either no more or are mere reflections of a better time and place.
This evidence is in your favor Mike, but there is other evidence.
The single barrel brands starting with Blanton's and Elmer T. Lee to include such standouts as Kentucky Spirit, Wathen's, Rock Hill Farms, Evan Williams, Henry McKenna, Elijah Craig,and Eagle Rare.
Are these *all* just the efforts of marketers and *F%$#king accountants here? Or have real master distillers, real whiskeymen, done an honest days work here and distilled bourbons to be proud of?
How about Russell's Reserve? or Knob Creek? or Booker's? or Woodford Reserve? or Elijah Craig? Are these all just "run of the mill bourbons"? Nothing Special?
While there are some sad passages of time on your side of the argument there are exciting new births and a bright new future for bourbon.
In econonomics for every bottom there is a top. You have simply called one top, an historic one, and Chuck is calling a current excercise in bourbonic excellence.
Mike you're a historian and you see things as glorys from the past. Chuck is many things but he is for us here at straightbourbon a reporter of current events. You see yesterday. Chuck sees today. I see the future, and the future is bright with wonderment and gladness.
Let us not argue where the gold is. Let us instead fill our glasses with bourbonic joy from whatever year you prefer and enjoy the good things coming our way tomorrow.
Have Shotglass. Will Travel.
Re: Golden Age?
You are always the optimist. I said we are on the downward curve, not rock bottom. I agree while we have people like Jimmy Russell and others who stick to their guns we will enjoy some fine bourbons. As for all of the bourbons people are mentioning I should remind you that a vast majority of them were made 10 or 15 years ago. What about the bourbons being made today? More and more are becoming the same as the accountants push for the maximum entry level. This makes recipe less important because you lose flavor from the grain. And remember, it has not been that long ago that all of Wild Turkey was 101 proof and 8 years old. I don't think it was Jimmy who chose to change this fact. I have other reasons to be the pessimist but I do not want to talk about them on the open forum at this time. Let us say that there are hold outs, but how long will they last? Even Brown-Forman forced Lincoln into using a higher entry proof than he would have liked to have used at L&G, so mark my words, the accountants are winning.
Re: Golden Age?
The accountants might be right, in that you have to stay profitable to be able to do anything in terms of growing the business.
Do you ever wonder why you wash your car with drinking water? In other words, does it make sense to process all water to drinking water standards when only a small percentage of it will be drunk?
Why make a mass-market bourbon (or anything else) better than it has to be? If there is demand for low proof-of-entry bourbons, they will be made. If there isn't, why make them? I have no trouble defending that philosophy. At the same time, I believe you should always be leading your customer toward something better.
I probably would say that this period in which we are living has the potential to be a Golden Age of American Whiskey because the industry is finally pretty stable after a century of turmoil. Whiskey companies, like any good companies, want to sell to any potential customer, but to develop new products and new markets, you need your core business to be stable and profitable so you have the time and resources you need to develop the new stuff. If this period of stability lasts and the companies reinvest their profits for growth, it could be a Golden Age.
Re: Golden Age
again, well said. My profession of marketing gets beaten up in this forum from time to time. The fact is, producers must produce what consumers will drink. Granted marketers have made god-awful Captain Morgan's one of the most popular spirits on the planet. But I can still get a very fine Guatemalan rum which anyone in their right mind should never mix with anything. With profitability of mass products comes the opportunity to experiment in directions such as single barrel products.
Given the current direction, distillers are willing to try niche products. We have a very good selection of bourbon right now. This is due to the fact that there is a mass market but also other segments, like us, that will buy from the very best barrels. The people in this forum could not keep a major spirits producer in business. Yet we provide incentive for them to produce some very fine products.
I don't know if this is a Golden Age or not, Mike, but I believe it is better than it was a few years ago when brown goods were on serious decline and there was little incentive to produce any specialty brown products. Since I did not live a century ago I cannot make any comparison. If I'm really lucky I'll live a full century and can see if the next 50 years gives us more interesting variety than, say, the post-WWII years. Meanwhile I'll just thank Julian and Elmer T. Lee and Gary, and others for producing some fine products. And by the way Bill Samuels (Sr. and Jr.) did a fine job of leading people via marketing, as Chuck suggests, to a different, more niche product. Then Fortune Brands' Jim Beam products gave us small batch, etc. I like the trend.
Re: Golden Age
Have you ever been to a rum distillery?
I lived in Puerto Rico as a boy, and we once visited the Don Q distillery. The sugar cane is piled in great heaps outside, and begins to mold and ferment in situ. I like rum quite a bit, but find it difficult to separate that God-awful odor from the flavor.
Re: Golden Age?
My bottle is only a Very Old Fitzgerald, but I'll be glad to share it with my staightbourbon friends at this year's Bourbon Fest.
Re: Golden Age?
surely this is wrong!...
"We got distillers experimenting with "finishing" casks (cognac, sherry) to impart exciting new flavors to bourbon."
you can not 'finish' bourbon in the way that they finish scotch whisky. Would such a product be called something else. Brown-Froman finish Early Times in used barrels, and call it kentucky whisky.