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Giving Up Craft Bourbon?

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Bobje

My opinion is that if you’re a craft distillery and can’t beat the quality of Wild Turkey 101 at $20 a fifth, you might want to go into another line of work. Unfortunately, that’s an awfully high bar at an awfully reasonable price.

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tanstaafl2
19 hours ago, Bobje said:

My opinion is that if you’re a craft distillery and can’t beat the quality of Wild Turkey 101 at $20 a fifth, you might want to go into another line of work. Unfortunately, that’s an awfully high bar at an awfully reasonable price.

I think the really small guys can create a niche for themselves with some innovative variations in spirits and targeting of a local audience but if they are just trying to make a bourbon to compete with the big boys then it is as you say a tough course to steer and I think few will be able to grow to a level of national recognition.

 

Larger "Craft" distillers that are building big from the start and have a model to supplement the sourced whiskey business might have a better chance and may eventually get targeted for purchase from a bigger company. But even the "good ones" (Smooth Ambler seems to be one of the better examples) seem to be struggling to get their own make to a level of quality they are happy with (and come anywhere close to competing with the major brands) even with a substantial distillery, 4-5+ years of age, full size barrels and a lot of experience. It appears that it is a very tough hill to climb!

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Bobje

Great point, tanstaafl. Going head to head guarantees a loss, so carving a niche of funky, unique, quirky or unusual makes sense. Corsair, for example.

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FacePlant
20 hours ago, tanstaafl2 said:

I think the really small guys can create a niche for themselves with some innovative variations in spirits and targeting of a local audience but if they are just trying to make a bourbon to compete with the big boys then it is as you say a tough course to steer and I think few will be able to grow to a level of national recognition.

 

Larger "Craft" distillers that are building big from the start and have a model to supplement the sourced whiskey business might have a better chance and may eventually get targeted for purchase from a bigger company. But even the "good ones" (Smooth Ambler seems to be one of the better examples) seem to be struggling to get their own make to a level of quality they are happy with (and come anywhere close to competing with the major brands) even with a substantial distillery, 4-5+ years of age, full size barrels and a lot of experience. It appears that it is a very tough hill to climb!

You make an excellent point. I have wondered how some of these NDPs that are now in the start-up or ramp-up phase of production will achieve the high standards that they set for themselves when they were allowed to thief the rickhouse and cherry pick barrels for a premium (both in the price they paid and the quality they achieved). It will be a huge task to start from scratch and 7-10+ yrs. down the road bottle and label bourbon as good as some current offering from SA, or BelleM, or even some Luxco brands (yes I'm thinking of RY10). Since most of the majors are now promising to cut them off entirely in the next few years, it's possible they'll end up with sub-par whiskey, slow sales, and really nothing to sell---the entire co. I mean.

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ethangsmith

Around here, we've got some small guys making good stuff, and also some absolutely awful stuff. What seems to affect the quality of the product is a direct correlation of how "Creative" they try to get what what they're doing. Here's my take on it- Whiskey has been around for hundreds of years. What we have today is a product that's been honed and perfected over these years. We've arrived at the grain selection, distillation processes, and aging that all the major distillers around the world use because it produces a known good product- better than if anything was changed in that process. When we start to de-engineer the process, things can go bad quickly. When distillers start playing with grain, barrel size, barrel types, and distilling process, you can really run off the rails really quickly. When experimentation and tweaking to the process is done in a controlled manner, great things can happen. Let's take Dad's Hat as an example of what's gone right- Herman and John researched and experimented for years at a university before launching their product. They knew what they wanted- a traditional Pennsylvania Monongahela-style rye whiskey. Working with known processes and mashbills, and tweaking the process to get exactly the profile the wanted, they went into production. Nothing off the wall or strange is done. No strange combinations of grains. No odd processes. No strange barrels. And their product shows it. Now that the straight version of their rye is out, we get an even better idea of what they're doing and where the product is headed. It's unlike any other rye on the market, and it's a well made product. The "big guys" will not produce a rye like this! On the flip side of this coin, you've got crafty boys out there blending strange grains, poor distilling practices, and odd barrels together and creating undrinkable swill. I've had a few bottles. I won't name them here. But I believe craft distillers are capable of making great products. I've had them. But I also believe that over the next years, you'll see the good ones survive and the ones that produce undrinkable "creative" stuff close. There's going to be an adjustment for sure. There's not enough room in the market for all of them! And when you make crap, and everyone buys one bottle out of curiosity and never goes back to buy another, your future is pretty bleak.....

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Jazzhead

Craft distillers have several potential niches they are starting to fill very nicely.    Some craft ryes are already as good or better as the mainstream rye products of the big boys.   Dad's Hat,  as mentioned above, is an example.   I've been impressed recently with Ragtime Rye,  from New York Distilling.   Most of the mainstream distillers either don't do rye or use mashbills that just barely qualify for the label.   MGP has, of course,  supplied its 95-percent rye mashbill distillate to bottlers, many with craft pretensions,  for years now - and has sparked a revolution in what folks consider a good rye.   And  true craft distillers have picked up on the idea,  and many use rye mashbills that contain 80% and up of the spicy grain.   And young rye has its fans as well -  young bourbon may be tough to drink, but young rye provides that shot of pumpernickel that adapts well to cocktails.  

 

Even without resorting to gimmicks like smoked woods and wine barrel finishes, there are other product niches as well that are fertile ground for crafts, including American single malt and four-grain whiskeys.   Koval's four-grain whiskey is certainly worth a try - it uses some oats in the mashbill, as does Manatawny Still Works'  Keystone Whiskey.   I'm currently enjoying  -  and can easily recommend - Ransom's Rye-Barley-Wheat Whiskey which consists of unmalted rye, malted rye, malted barley, unmalted barley,  crystal malt and malted wheat.      

 

And the large KY distillers aren't filling the market for straight wheat whiskeys (there's Bernheim and what else?),  but the craft distillers are.   Dry Fly is now producing a straight,  and Westchester Wheat is one of my recent and missed dead soldiers.

 

Yeah,  the big boys still make the best bourbon,  but there's room for craft.   And don't look now,  but craft bourbons that can compete on all levels aren't far away.   

Edited by Jazzhead
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wadewood
On 10/21/2017 at 1:40 PM, Government Beard said:

If a craft distiller believes they can sell their 4 year old craft bourbon for over $100 bones oh well. Like the old saying goes "a fool and his money..." sort of thing.

Peerless thinks it can get $100+ plus for whiskey half that age and plenty of fools are out there.

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Fishin49er
9 minutes ago, wadewood said:

Peerless thinks it can get $100+ plus for whiskey half that age and plenty of fools are out there.

I've been seeing this one around town and can't believe it. The liquor store worker pointed out the awards it has won. I don't care what it has won, I'm not paying $130 for two year old rye. 

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smokinjoe
18 minutes ago, Fishin49er said:

I've been seeing this one around town and can't believe it. The liquor store worker pointed out the awards it has won. I don't care what it has won, I'm not paying $130 for two year old rye. 

The overwhelming amount of this “craft” swill isn’t worth $13, let alone $130...

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Government Beard
6 hours ago, wadewood said:

Peerless thinks it can get $100+ plus for whiskey half that age and plenty of fools are out there.

Exactly. Comical at this point 

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Uncle_Duke

I don't know, maybe I am a bit of a bourbon snob.  I like my bourbon to come from Kentucky.

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musekatcher
On 2/19/2018 at 5:36 PM, Fishin49er said:

I've been seeing this one around town and can't believe it. The liquor store worker pointed out the awards it has won. I don't care what it has won, I'm not paying $130 for two year old rye. 

 

A major faux pas?  Sort of a badge of shame, to show up with 2 yr old rye, and actually payed three figures for single figure whiskey?  yikes...

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Lenient
Posted (edited)

A month ago I checked out a multi-alcohol distillery in Paso Robles, CA--the distillery was behind a winery there. For the most part the offerings were expensive, though the $65 bourbon (which we did come away with) was good. But maybe not a favorite. We bought the bourbon and a bottle of bourbon barrel rested gin (a very nice unique gin) in the hopes that down the line they are able to reduce prices. If not, I don't think I'd go back, even for some of their unique stuff. 

 

On the other hand I visited a new small bourbon distillery in Lexington, KY and while I'm not much of a fan of the bourbon, the small half size bottle wasn't too much--and they even sold bourbon cakes!

 

I know the guy doing the Kentucky distillery had it as a side thing so perhaps that explains the lower price. 

Edited by Lenient

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alstevens

I'm yet to find a craft bourbon that tastes as good as any of the bottled in bondeds from the major distilleries in KY.

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MyBrainOnWhiskey
Posted (edited)

Craft Beer: I love it!  

 

Craft Bourbon: Not so much.  

 

I can't say I've had one craft bourbon that made me want to stop buying Booker's, Blanton's, ER10, WTRR, FRSB, KC Single Barrel...

Edited by MyBrainOnWhiskey

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StarSurfer55

I have to agree that the craft distilleries are hit and miss.  Many start out with Moonshine but use the same or similar recipes for their vodkas or Gins.

 

I was at Dark Corners Distillery in Greenville, SC last year and did one of their tastings.  They were out of their straight whiskey so I tried one of their flavored products.  The Whiskey Girl Peach had a strong peach flavor and I bought a bottle as a mixer.  I use it in place of Southern Comfort in a couple of cocktails for a different twist.

 

The biggest issue was the limited knowledge of the staff.  I was poured a drink of their vodka which the host proudly proclaimed was made directly from sugar cane juice.  I asked him what as the difference between their vodka and Cachaca and got a blank stare in return.  After tasting it, it was the same as Cachaca.  I lost interest in their presentation at that point.

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Lenient
2 hours ago, StarSurfer55 said:

I have to agree that the craft distilleries are hit and miss.  Many start out with Moonshine but use the same or similar recipes for their vodkas or Gins.

 

I was at Dark Corners Distillery in Greenville, SC last year and did one of their tastings.  They were out of their straight whiskey so I tried one of their flavored products.  The Whiskey Girl Peach had a strong peach flavor and I bought a bottle as a mixer.  I use it in place of Southern Comfort in a couple of cocktails for a different twist.

 

The biggest issue was the limited knowledge of the staff.  I was poured a drink of their vodka which the host proudly proclaimed was made directly from sugar cane juice.  I asked him what as the difference between their vodka and Cachaca and got a blank stare in return.  After tasting it, it was the same as Cachaca.  I lost interest in their presentation at that point.

Peach flavoring can be wonderful for a refreshing cocktail involving bourbon when it's bright and warm out. 

 

Yikes, I don't know much but I know it's RUM that comes from cane! 

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StarSurfer55

I agree.  The Whiskey Girl Peach makes for a great Summer cocktail with a Southern twist. 

 

In regards to cane, you can do two things with cane juice.  First you can cook it down and make molasses.  You can then use the molasses to make rum.  This is the traditional process for Rum.

 

You can also ferment the juice directly to make Cachaca (Brazil) or Rhum Agricola (Martinique or other French speaking Caribbean  Islands).  If you see rum spelled with an H, then it is from a French speaking area.

 

I am from the Deep South so I grew up with Cane Syrup rather than Maple Syrup.  Cane has a unique taste profile that I associate with my youth.

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VAGentleman
5 hours ago, Lenient said:

Peach flavoring can be wonderful for a refreshing cocktail involving bourbon when it's bright and warm out. 

 

Yikes, I don't know much but I know it's RUM that comes from cane! 

Vodka can be made from cane if it is distilled to 190 proof or above

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Lenient
1 hour ago, VAGentleman said:

Vodka can be made from cane if it is distilled to 190 proof or above

Well I can nibble my hat...I had no idea vodka could be made from just about anything (looked it up)--apples, rice, quinoa, cane, in addition to wheat and potatoes. 

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StarSurfer55

The problem that I have is that once you get away from the traditional grains and potatoes that vodkas can retain some flavors that I don’t associate with vodka.  The Dark Corners vodka still retained the cane flavors and tasted like a light Cachaca.  Green Door Distillery in Kalamazoo, Michigan uses corn for their vodka and you can still taste the corn notes in the final product.  Okay as mixers but not a Vodka that I want to use in a drink that wants a classic vodka.

 

Admittedly, I am not a vodka drinker for the most part.  I always want to taste the spirit in my drinks so that I can gauge how much I have drank.  A few bad experiences with vodka in my misspent youth.

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kcgumbohead

Giving up on craft? I think its a few years premature to make a properly informed decision. Economies of scale are NOT in their favor but as the years tick by and the distillate comes of age there are some promising prospects out there. The crafties that have truly done their homework and have a clear vision of their place in the market stand a good chance of gaining my business, all this of course only if the product proves that it CAN compete with the big guns, meaning it better be DELICIOUS!! Resurrecting techniques and/or heritage grains the large distilleries have forsaken in favor of higher yield may very well result in an impressive product once properly matured. There is sufficient stock nearing readiness in the the next handful of years so I can' t think of a worse time to bail on this segment of the market.

Around the corner may be gems that will light up the "what are you drinking now" threads. I don't expect legions of superstars, but a handful of committed small distillers issuing legacy whiskey recipes with tried and true legacy ingredients/heritage grains made via tried and true legacy techniques? Yes I'm interested.

I also expect a huge thinning of the herd, there's going to be a sh*tload of copper selling for pennies on the dollar in the coming years

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Jazz June

To add a few thoughts I have in this area:

 

Are the major distillers not the craftsmen that the little guys are setting out to be? I think that is the disconnect. In the beer world, the majors were primarily focused on a few mass produced brands that were sold through marketing and distribution more than flavor. So there was plenty of space for craft brewers to come along and make a convincing argument that their product was better and justified a higher price. I don't see that to be the case with American whiskey.

 

There are certainly some signs of change over the years that could be construed as "corporate" over quality - dropping age statements, lowering proof, or even to go farther back raising barrel entry proof. But for the most part, quality has been retained (I know some would argue that dusties from decades past were better and certainly glut era products that were much older than their statements are not being matched in modern day versions, but I think the overall point stands).

 

In addition to maintaining the quality of the inputs and the processes, the big distillers are still headed by many of the same families as they have been for decades. They have a very legitimate argument that their knowledge of distilling has been honed over generations. Because of the aging required, experimentation is hard with whiskey. It's very hard to buy that these little guys with no experience can all of a sudden put out a better product than the Beams, Russells, etc. Also, at least some of the majors also experiment themselves. I have tremendous respect for all of the experimentation Buffalo Trace is doing. It's difficult to think that those efforts are profit motivated. They could focus on just pumping out large quantities of Weller Special Reserve, Buffalo Trace, and Sazerac rye and ignore experimentation, but they have not. They put money and effort in continuing to improve their knowledge, their ingredients, and ultimately their products.

 

A final point, in what has probably already become too long of a post, is that the majors have to some extent not gone crazy with price increases when they might be able to get away with it. I say somewhat because of course there is the secondary pricing on LEs, the Bookers fiasco, the removal of Heaven Hill products only for them to be reintroduced at significantly higher prices, and other examples of the majors trying to cash in. But at the same time, very solid products like WT 101, Buffalo Trace, and Elijah Craig SmB remain very affordable (yes, their prices have ticked up some). As said above, its hard to imagine a craft distiller competing with these very solid products when they are priced in the $25-30 range.

 

I want to support the little guys and the local guys, but it doesn't take paying $50 for a bottle of 3 year old bourbon that tastes worse than Jim Beam White many times before you get soured on the craft guys. Some of the products like Peerless shock me. It's almost galling that they would ask that much money for that young of a whiskey. They may get that price in the short term, but I'm not sure it's worth the long term damage to their reputation with knowledgeable customers. Nonetheless, I hope some of the craft guys are able to make the jump and prove many of us wrong.

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Harry in WashDC
On 8/12/2018 at 3:00 PM, Jazz June said:

To add a few thoughts I have in this area:

 

Are the major distillers not the craftsmen that the little guys are setting out to be? I think that is the disconnect. In the beer world, the majors were primarily focused on a few mass produced brands that were sold through marketing and distribution more than flavor. So there was plenty of space for craft brewers to come along and make a convincing argument that their product was better and justified a higher price. I don't see that to be the case with American whiskey.

 

There are certainly some signs of change over the years that could be construed as "corporate" over quality - dropping age statements, lowering proof, or even to go farther back raising barrel entry proof. But for the most part, quality has been retained (I know some would argue that dusties from decades past were better and certainly glut era products that were much older than their statements are not being matched in modern day versions, but I think the overall point stands).

 

In addition to maintaining the quality of the inputs and the processes, the big distillers are still headed by many of the same families as they have been for decades. They have a very legitimate argument that their knowledge of distilling has been honed over generations. Because of the aging required, experimentation is hard with whiskey. It's very hard to buy that these little guys with no experience can all of a sudden put out a better product than the Beams, Russells, etc. Also, at least some of the majors also experiment themselves. I have tremendous respect for all of the experimentation Buffalo Trace is doing. It's difficult to think that those efforts are profit motivated. They could focus on just pumping out large quantities of Weller Special Reserve, Buffalo Trace, and Sazerac rye and ignore experimentation, but they have not. They put money and effort in continuing to improve their knowledge, their ingredients, and ultimately their products.

 

A final point, in what has probably already become too long of a post, is that the majors have to some extent not gone crazy with price increases when they might be able to get away with it. I say somewhat because of course there is the secondary pricing on LEs, the Bookers fiasco, the removal of Heaven Hill products only for them to be reintroduced at significantly higher prices, and other examples of the majors trying to cash in. But at the same time, very solid products like WT 101, Buffalo Trace, and Elijah Craig SmB remain very affordable (yes, their prices have ticked up some). As said above, its hard to imagine a craft distiller competing with these very solid products when they are priced in the $25-30 range.

 

I want to support the little guys and the local guys, but it doesn't take paying $50 for a bottle of 3 year old bourbon that tastes worse than Jim Beam White many times before you get soured on the craft guys. Some of the products like Peerless shock me. It's almost galling that they would ask that much money for that young of a whiskey. They may get that price in the short term, but I'm not sure it's worth the long term damage to their reputation with knowledgeable customers. Nonetheless, I hope some of the craft guys are able to make the jump and prove many of us wrong.

 

 

A FEW!!!!  MOTHER DUCK!  I better read this a couple times before responding.

 

[pause]

 

WONDERFUL summary.  Thanks, I could NOT have said all this so well.  RE: your last couple of sentences.  I think a couple of micros might be close if only because they are doing things that the majors do not.  Balcones (burnt popcorn) comes to mind as does Smooth Ambler (special wheateds).  Finger Lakes Distilling also does some "mainline" style whiskey.  But then, . . .

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