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  1. #1
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    Scotchification of Bourbon?

    I have a whale of a time going through older posts. I found a thread from 2001 on whether bourbon is becoming "scotchified". Opinion was offered by some that bourbon is becoming too aged, too expensive, and put in bottles that don't look like traditional bourbon bottles. A number of people in the debate are no longer on the board. Many still are such as Chuck Cowdery, Julian, Ratcheer (Tim Cuthbertson) and Greg Kitzmiller.

    Here we are almost 4 years later. Do people think, including those who participated in the original discussion, that bourbon is being scotchified? If so, is this operating to the detriment of bourbon whiskey?

    Gary

  2. #2
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    Re: Scotchification of Bourbon?

    I guess the whole discussion would depend on what you consider becoming "scotchified." If, by that term, you mean that bourbon is now (finally) being appreciated as a world-class spirit, and has high-end variants which command a healthy price, then I'd say yes.

    If, by that term, you mean bourbon is defying its heritage, becoming too old just for the sake of the label, being misbottled when put in classy decanters, I'd say no.

    Very little (aside from perhaps the Distiller's Masterpiece experiments) has been done to taint good ol' bourbon. I just can't see how you can make the argument otherwise.

  3. #3
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    Re: Scotchification of Bourbon?

    I've only been drinking bourbon for about a year, and only been a member of this board for a few months. I did read the old Scotchification thread when I was first digging through old posts, although I'll be damned if I can remember a whole lot about it other than the general gist of it.

    Coming from a young, married Yankee's point of view, I have to say that if not for the Beam small batch collection, I probably would not have begun my explorations into bourbon. At this point, thanks to you folks, I enjoy many non "small-batch" bourbons (Weller, Old Forester, etc). I would not have taken the plunge if not for Knob Creek, Booker's and *gasp* Maker's Mark.

    I think it's a good thing that there are some premium, nicely packaged, attractive bourbons out there, that attract new people to America's spirit. I can't say that I feel that Bourbon has become "scotchified", although I can understand how one could view it that way.

    I did almost blow a gasket at my wife's brother over the Thanksgiving holiday, though. Talk amongst the men turned to whiskey, and my father-in-law started touting the benefits of Canadian whisky (inexpensive, smooth, etc.). I then mentioned that I greatly enjoy bourbon. My brother-in-law looked at me and said "I only drink single-malt scotch. Bourbon is just too much of a redneck drink for me." It's sad that he drinks something for the image, and not the taste. If he had said "I drink single malt scotch because I prefer the taste", that's understandable. Nobody can argue with someone else's tastes. But to hear him say that he doesn't drink bourbon because he thinks it's too "low class" for him just made my blood boil.

    He's fairly elitist in general, and he carries that over even into his whisky drinking. Oh well, more bourbon for me. But I came *THIS* close to giving him a good smack in the head. This was one of my first experiences with a "malt snob"; there are plenty of people that enjoy a particular spirit and don't feel the need to beat you over the head with it... it's too bad that my brother-in-law had to perpetuate the stereotype of scotch drinkers, because I have plenty of other friends who enjoy scotch, and are not snobs about it.

  4. #4
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    Re: Scotchification of Bourbon?

    My sense from the original debate (which was very lively!) is that scotchification was meant in the sense of some bourbon becoming too expensive, packaged too elaborately and yet not as good as the products it is "replacing". I think a person who took this view might say that Woodford Reserve is not an improvement on Old Forester, that Elmer T. Lee is not an improvement on Ancient Ancient Age as it was in the 1980's, that Ridgemont Reserve is not an improvement on VOB, and so on.

    Personally, I think some of this is true. I think Ridgemont Reserve (or rather its predecessor Ridgewood Reserve) is not as good as VOB but costs more and comes in a nice but needlessly heavy bottle. However I like Woodford Reserve better than Old Forester and I like Elmer T. Lee a lot!

    Will an attempt to mimic in bourbon what has been done with single malt scotch (which worries some devotees of scotch too by the way - the maltification of scotch, you might call it) result in some great products exiting the market or being lessened because the best whiskey will go into much higher-priced brands? Will, also, too much old whiskey be marketed with a fancy image and price? This has not happened to VOB by the way and hopefully it never will. Generally, there is still lots of choice out there at different price points. But I wonder if the market may generally be moving to a high end vs. low end polarity rather than selling well-priced products at the highest grade. Some here have noted that in their opinion, whiskeys such as Old Grandad, Maker's Mark, AAA, Old Taylor, Old Crow, and others are not as good as 30 years ago.

    Gary

  5. #5

    Re: Scotchification of Bourbon?

    I don't think it's possible for bourbon to become 'Scotchified' in any real sense.
    Marketing wise, while no one can deny the issue of 'premium' bourbons and the creation of that market niche -- wherein many Scotches also reside -- I can't imagine bourbon distillers deciding that if they abandon the VOBs, Rebel Yells, AAAs, OFs and other 'value' brands, they'll have a significant remaining clientele. On the other hand, where would the Scotch distillers be if they had to rely on mass-produced $8-$15 products?
    As a practical production matter, the drinks are just too different to become more than indirect competitors, I think. The differences in grain, wood aging, taste profiles, regulatory allowances -- well, these are just two separate products and markets. As we can see when the Jim Murrays and the like try to judge both, a bias for one becomes plain. I think that's true for the more casual drinker, too -- you're either a bourbon drinker or a Scotch drinker. Sure, it's possible to enjoy examples of each, but I don't think I've run across too many people who prefer them equally.
    So, I don't think it's possible for bourbon to become 'Scotchified' without ceasing to be bourbon.

  6. #6
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    Re: Scotchification of Bourbon?

    Tim's reply sparked some thinking...one major difference between bourbon and scotch is that bourbon is bottled on a "bell-curve"...meaning all the barrels start off life the same, but they end up becoming very different. Unless the distilleries lower their standards, only a certain percentage can become the high-end stuff. (I'm ignoring the Maker's Mark distillery model, as they have no high-end...or, as they'd like you to think it's *ALL* high-end).

    Anyway, some barrels end up getting sold to become generic blends and bottom-shelf-dwellers. The bulk ends up in midshelf brands, and the honey barrels become premiums.

    So unless quality control changes, you can't just arbitrarily eliminate low or midshelf brands from your arsenal.

    Scotch, as I understand it, has 3 destinies: it can be blended (or vatted), it can be sold as single-malt, or it can be kept as a long-term rarity. There is less of a "bell-curve", and potentially you can sell all of your malt as any of the three without too much effort. The ages can vary, of course, but there is more flexibility in where the malt goes. Ie. if blends become the rage, blend the malt. If the world goes on a single-malt craze, no problem.

  7. #7
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    Re: Scotchification of Bourbon?

    Well, there are choices to make in the make-up of that mid-range that has to go to market. You can choose to pitch the average age lower than in an earlier time, for example (keeping the older stuff for the super-premium bottling). You can stop marketing the youngest whiskey and wait 'til your margins on the premium category will reward the wait (taking a risk on consumer preference of course). The bottom line is, does Jim Beam White Label taste as good as it did 30 years ago? Does Grandad, Taylor, Maker's? Some would say no, and if so, does that mean that their better current whiskey has gone into higher-margin brands? In the case of Maker's, they only have one brand and maybe the taste seems less than what it was 30 years ago to answer rising demand from a plant that is only so big, this is hard to say. Speaking just of MM, while I enjoy it, it seems not as good as I recall in the 1980's, I think Mike Veach feels the same way, for example.

    Gary

  8. #8
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    Re: Scotchification of Bourbon?

    Okay, now I see where you're going with this. You're wondering if high-end (or "Scotchified" brands) skimming the premium "honey" barrels off the top has hurt the mid and lower-shelf brands...right?

    Well, I think there's a whole lot more going on than just that. I've always theorized the wood quality (and age of trees) used for cooperage has gone down, reducing the quality of what it's holding. Also, as Chuck (I believe) has pointed out before, the earlier explosion/trendiness of the clear spirits inherently raised the age across the board of ALL bourbons. Yesterday's midshelf probably surpasses today's decanters, just due to oversupply and good aging.

    Actually, I'd be more inclined to think exactly the OPPOSITE of what you're speculating: I believe the quality of what's going into the premium bottles has gone down, simply due to lack of good supply. I believe the distilleries are now being forced to rob the MIDSHELF to satisfy our lust for TOPSHELF. I had a bottle of WR that was nothing but dressed up Old Forester.

    Actually, the MM distillery model would seem to disprove your own theory, wouldn't it? I mean, they're certainly not skimming any barrels off the top, and the quality seems less.


  9. #9

    Re: Scotchification of Bourbon?

    The bottom line is, does Jim Beam White Label taste as good as it did 30 years ago? Does Grandad, Taylor, Maker's? Some would say no, and if so, does that mean that their better current whiskey has gone into higher-margin brands?
    Well, I guess maybe I've misunderstood what's meant by "Scotchification" -- assuming we were talking about the product, not the marketing. Is bourbon being marketed like Scotch? I don't know -- I'm afraid I'm pretty immune to marketing other than as a spectator. But, I really don't care either. If one wants to make an analogy, marketing-wise, between single-barrel or small-batch bourbon and single-malt Scotch -- well, okay, but I don't really care that much.
    Whether Jim Beam tastes the same today as 30 years ago is interesting but, even if it doesn't, that doesn't make it Scotch. If skimming off premium barrels of bourbon is the cause of that -- well, again, that's interesting, and might be similar to Scotch marketing -- but, to me, it isn't "Scotchification" any more than the now-abandoned General Motors Saturn 'experiment' which took place here locally turned GM into a Japanese car company because it aimed to emulate Japanese auto-building techniques.



  10. #10
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    Re: Scotchification of Bourbon?

    Scotchification, as the earlier posters meant it (I believe), is marketing more older bourbons - even making them the (higher price) norm - just as costly older age expressions have become common currency in malt whisky merchandising today. Giving, that is, a cachet of age and quality (e.g. through fancy packaging) to a product which, whether it benefits or no in the scotch world, arguably benefits neither the product nor consumer in bourbon. Part of this (if it is occurring - I am posing the question) raises, as Gary says, the question of skimming from the quality mid-shelf to feed the top. His example of this not occurring with WR which he says tastes like OF (many would disagree) may be unassailable, but one can point to many examples of expensive bourbons sold at older ages, which, if they (the brands) did not exist, presumably would go into the regular labels. E.g. if there was no Knob Creek or the other small batch products of Jim Beam would these barrels not be used in the production of Jim Beam (white and black label)? It is not an issue if the white and black label are as good as they always were, but is that so? It IS so with VOB, but will that always be the case if Ridgemont takes off?

    Regarding MM, perhaps that was not a good example because it has no super-premium product - MM is the sole, premium (I would argue at best) product. So let's set MM aside.

    Let me put this another way: recently someone in a tasting group I participate in at the office cracked open a Chivas Regal. We all agreed that it seemed pallid and not what it was in its heyday. One person said, well, look at the 100's of aged single malts out there, no wonder this tastes so ordinary, the malts that would have gone in to the blends (in this case, the mid-shelf in blended scotch) are being marketed at high prices in elegant packages. I am not saying this is really happening now in bourbon, but wondering whether we are headed that way and if the bulk of bourbon buyers will not get (again in the mid-shelf) as good a product as they got before.

    Gary


 

 

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