I still have a little bit of 2002 Stagg left and was savoring it the other night. I noticed how much it expresses the wood in all its dimensions, not surprising for a 15-year-old bourbon. It's like drinking a lumberyard.
It occurs to me that this is a taste, with variations of course, that you get from most of the 10+ year old bourbons. What is interesting is that this set of flavors, which so many of us prize, was long considered undesirable by whiskey makers.
When Booker's was first released, part of the hype was Booker saying that he felt bourbons peaked at 6 to 8 years old. I call it "hype" because that's the statement you would expect to accompany a 6 to 8 year old whiskey, but I know that was Booker's true opinion and the opinion of many other master distillers. The balance they were looking for was some of the grain and yeast flavors you get from younger bourbons, along with the char and oak flavors you get from longer aging. After about eight years, they felt, the wood flavors become dominant and that's not a good thing.
The point of this little meditation is that consumers, through their willingness to buy older whiskies that do, in fact, express the wood more powerfully than other flavors, have changed not necessarily the prejudices of the master distillers, but the willingness of their employers to offer such products for sale.
It's still possible, at least in my opinion, for a whiskey to have too much wood, regardless of the age at which that happens. This is especially true when the sooty flavors predominate. I don't like a whiskey that tastes like a campfire.
I think the Van Winkle products, by offering wheated bourbons at 10+ years, showed how the combination of the base whiskey flavors and the wood can be transformed into the deep, rich flavors of bittersweet chocolate, old leather and pipe tobacco. It's the long years in wood that are doing it, but you don't really taste wood as such. Now, with products like Stagg, we're experiencing that transformation in a rye-based bourbon too.
Another factor more difficult to consider is proof of distillation and proof of entry. The Stitzel-Weller bourbons were distilled out at 130 and entered at 112. Today most bourbons (with a few expections, Wild Turkey most notably) are distilled out at close to the maximum of 160 and entered at close to the maximum of 125. How will this express itself with long aging? Probably with even more emphasis on the wood's contributions and less on the flavors of the underlying spirit.
What we are getting is not a shift in tastes, away from the balanced mid-range (6 to 10 year) whiskies toward the older ones, but an overall broadening of the available and acceptable spectrum, which is a good thing for American whiskey overall.