As the adage goes, people drink in good economic times and bad. It seems especially true for the American whiskey category, which according to Beverage Information Group grew an impressive 3.0% to 15.7 million 9-liter cases in 2011. Prosperity will eventually return, but the question remains, will American whiskeys continue to successfully compete with other spirits on the world stage?
“We’re excited about the growth potential for the American whiskey category,” says Chris Bauder, GM of U.S. Whiskies at Beam Global. “Consumers continue looking to expand their spirits repertoire, and with all of the bourbon innovations we are seeing, they are discovering the fantastic quality, versatility and different tastes available within the category. There is a level of pride among the category’s pioneers, including Bill Samuels and Fred Noe, in the fact that their products stand up to Scotch and Irish whiskies in the minds of consumers and that this uniquely American spirit is getting unprecedented demand from whiskey drinkers across the world.”
Gable Erenzo, ambassador for the craft producer Hudson Whiskey and Tuthilltown Spirits Distillers, takes a more global view. “We’re absolutely bullish about the growth potential of American whiskeys. Though there is significant competition in the category and increasingly more craft producers are vying for the same niche market share, there remains a huge piece of the pie to be shared here in the U.S. The rapidly maturing Asian and South American markets are creating huge potential for American whiskey. Some brands will make it, others will not, but American whiskey is here to stay, and there is a big world out there thirsty for what we produce.”
Producers continue to launch new expressions, the latest of which, for example, is Larceny, from Heaven Hill Distilleries. Larceny is a small batch bourbon distilled using a mash bill containing winter wheat instead of rye, which produces a softer, fruitier whiskey. Master distiller Craig Beam selects 100 or fewer barrels aged 6 to 12 years in the distillery’s open rick warehouses. The whiskey is bottled at 92 proof and retails for $24.99 per 750 ml.
Curious about what’s behind the steady growth of American whiskeys, we polled our experts and came up with the five major trends that are behind the uptick in our indigenous whiskeys.
Double Barreled and Wood Finished
A growing trend within the category is transferring traditionally aged bourbon from charred American oak barrels into a different variety of oak — such as French oak or maple wood — or one that was used previously to mature wine or a different type of spirit — be it cognac, sherry or port, chardonnay, etc. Whiskeys derive most of the flavor and all of their color from being aged in wood. Finishing a whiskey in a different type of wood is an artisanal twist that greatly affects the flavor of the finished product.
A recent example is Angel’s Envy Bourbon from Louisville Distilling Company and master distiller Lincoln Henderson, former master distiller at Woodford Reserve. The bourbon begins with a mash bill of corn and rye and is aged between 4 and 6 years in charred American oak barrels. It is then transferred to hand-selected port casks for an additional 3 to 6 months.
Jim Beam’s Bauder thinks that as the bourbon boom continues we’ll continue to see more distillers employ this type of production processes. “Wood finishes should certainly keep things interesting for whiskey drinkers. We are especially proud of two of our latest and most successful launches — Maker’s 46, for which we rest fully matured Maker’s Mark in a second barrel outfitted with additional French oak staves, and Devil’s Cut, which is created using a proprietary process to extract liquid from within the barrel wood, producing a bold, intense whiskey. Both of these bourbon innovations have helped us offer new, one-of-a-kind options to our fans. We expect to continue blazing trails through innovation in the future.”
To create Devil’s Cut, empty barrels of extra-aged Jim Beam Bourbon are filled with water to pull out the trapped bourbon and flavors from the wood. The barrel-extracted whiskey is later added back to the 6-year bourbon to produce the 90-proof Devil’s Cut.
For Maker’s 46, after pot-distilled Maker’s Mark has been aged to maturity, it is dumped and seared French oak staves are affixed to the inside of the barrel. The staves are seared just enough such that their caramel and vanilla flavors are released and only a small amount of tannin, which adds bitterness, comes out of the wood. Afterwards the bourbon is returned to the barrels and allowed to age for another 2-3 months. It’s bottled at 94 proof.
Dan Garrison, proprietor, Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, TX, is also a fan of wood finishing bourbons. “I have tried the double barreled bourbons from Woodford Reserve and master distiller Chris Morris. The Woodford Reserve Double Barreled bourbon is excellent and I love the experimental wood science that Chris Morris used in developing it. Understanding the nuances that different toast and char levels have on caramelizing the sugars in the wood is the key. We are currently developing our own Double Barreled expression, incorporating our knowledge of this science and the effects of the Texas climate, and will know in a few years whether it is something we want to release as a limited edition.
The handmade pot-distilled Prichard’s Double Barrel Bourbon is made in limited quantities from a mash bill of white corn and rye. After distillation, it is matured in small, new charred oak barrels for upwards of 9 years, after which it’s reduced to 90 proof with spring water and put back into a different new charred barrel for an additional 3 to 5 years. It’s an expensive process exclusive to the Prichard’s.
Few things pique consumer interest more than scarcity. It is certainly true for aged spirits. Distillation runs produce finite quantities of whiskey. As that whiskey ages, some barrels will reach their maturity faster than others. Every rick house has places where barrels attain peak maturity quickly. Distillers are then faced with the decision whether to move those barrels to a different area of the warehouse, or bottle them as a limited-edition offering. The allure for aficionados is when that lot of whiskey has been sold, it is gone and will not be replicated. It’s the category’s version of “here today, gone tomorrow.”
An excellent illustration is the recently released limited edition Elijah Craig 20-Year-Old Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from Heaven Hill Distilleries. In order to manage stock levels in the warehouses, Heaven Hill temporarily suspended bottling of the 18-Year-Old Elijah Craig Single Barrel that it has offered for a number of years. The new bottling will retail for approximately $130 for the 750 ml size, but less than 80 specially selected barrels will be dumped, yielding fewer than 1,300 bottles. “Limited-edition releases are fantastic for the category, allowing consumers to explore the depth of the category and experience where the category is heading,” contends Trey Zoeller, founder and master blender of the Jefferson’s portfolio of bourbons. “We’re releasing our Jefferson’s Ocean Aged Bourbon right now, with only 250 bottles available nationally. It’s a very limited offering, but it has already excited consumers and garnered substantial buzz because it’s something different to explore in the world of bourbon.”
Buffalo Trace’s master distiller Harlen Wheatley has created a set of limited release, 375 ml bottlings called the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 2012. Among the roster of never before seen whiskeys are two matured in large, 135 gallon French oak barrels—one for 19 years and the other for 23 years. Both barrels were filled with Buffalo Trace rye bourbon mash recipe #2, aged on the ground floor of Warehouse K, chill filtered and bottled at 90 proof.
Erenzo of Tuthilltown Spirits Distillers believes limited-edition releases are beneficial and afford brands added stature and media coverage. “As long as these limited editions are truly something unique and worthy of the title, I think this is a good way to keep vitality in brands. In our case, some special barrel finishes or interesting grain blends that differentiate it from our main line compelled us to share them with our consumers.”
The release of Old Foster Birthday Bourbon has become an annual event for aficianados. George Garvin Brown opened his Louisville distillery in 1870. His birthday is commemorated each year with a limited release, vintage-dated bourbon. Today, the descendants of Old Forester’s founder still oversee the making of the entire range, including the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. The 2011 vintage is 98 proof and aged for 12 years.
The Flavors of America
The resurgence of American cocktails has everything to do with delivering bright, brilliant flavors, so it’s little wonder that American distillers have begun creating whiskeys and whiskey-based liqueurs with new and enticing flavor profiles. The results have been extremely well received.
“Introduced in 2009, Red Stag has helped spark a surge for new, innovative whiskies infused with flavor, which is a whole new whiskey category that we hadn’t seen before,” says Bauder at Beam. “In addition to being unexpected, it brought new consumers to whiskey who previously had not considered brown spirits, and we are proud to have been the first to acknowledge and address this trend. In addition to Red Stag Black Cherry, we’re excited to see how our new Red Stag expressions – Red Stag Honey Tea and Red Stag Spiced – are succeeding in the category.” The original Red Stag Black Cherry sold an impressive 251,000 9-liter cases in 2011.
Since blazing a trail in this new category, there have been a number of flavored whiskies and whiskey liqueurs hit the market. Bauder expects to see further innovation and for the category to continue to grow aggressively.
Other trendsetting flavored releases over the past year or two include the following:
• Evan Williams Honey Reserve Kentucky Liqueur. Crafted by Heaven Hill in Bardstown Kentucky, the liqueur is a blend of extra-aged Evan Williams Bourbon and pure honey. The 70-proof liqueur is light-bodied, balanced and loaded with the lingering flavors of vanilla, spice and toasted oak. The liqueur carries an average retail price of $14.99 for the 750ml bottle. In 2011, the brand launched two new liqueurs — cherry-infused Evan Williams Cherry Reserve and the cinnamon-infused Evan Williams Cinnamon Reserve. Both are 70 proof. • Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey Liqueur. This satiny smooth elixir is a blend of famed Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 and a special honey liqueur made at the distillery in Lynchburg, TN. The liqueur, 70 proof, has a satiny textured body and a palate laced with maple, butterscotch and tasty, whiskey-induced flavors.
• Prichard’s Sweet Lucy Bourbon Liqueur. Handcrafted at the Prichard Distillery in Kelso TN, Sweet Lucy is sweet, feisty and delicious. The liqueur, 70-proof, is made by infusing the distillery’s 9-year-old Double Barreled Bourbon with apricots and oranges. Equally appealing is Prichard’s Sweet Georgia Belle, which is a sweetened infusion of their pot-distilled rum, peaches and mangos.
• Wild Turkey American Honey Liqueur. The golden-hued liqueur is a blend of Wild Turkey Bourbon and honey. It has all of the bakery-like flavors of bourbon without any of the whiskey’s fiery edge. The 71-proof liqueur is ideally served chilled after-dinner or mixed in a cocktail.
Growth of Straight Rye Whiskies
Straight Rye Whiskeys share a common heritage as uniquely American products with enticing aromas and brilliantly flavored palates, both of which they possess in generous supply. They have a long and storied history in the U.S. and prior to Prohibition, it was our nation’s whiskey of choice. Following World War II, however, sales of rye whiskeys went into a protracted slump, a decline that reflected the steady rise in popularity of soft blended whiskies and light mixable spirits. By the 1970s, rye whiskeys had all but disappeared from American bars. Fortunately that trend has reversed and the bold, exuberant flavors of American ryes have again attracted a wide following. They are whiskeys with broad shoulders and a lot of personality, a character no doubt molded from our collective national self-image. Fueling its revival is the ongoing cocktail renaissance and the rise of the mixologist. As the earliest rendition of American whiskey, rye was almost exclusively used as the foundation of 19th century cocktails that called for whiskey.
“Rye whiskeys are a category unto themselves,” says master distiller Dave Scheurich of The Tennessee Spirits Company, makers of recently released Breakout American Rye Whiskey. “Bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys are corn based by law which gives the whiskeys a decidedly sweet character. Those whiskeys use rye as the second grain to provide spice notes. Rye whiskeys are obviously made from a majority of rye grains and have a completely different flavor profile from their bourbon cousins. They are much more complex, spicier and earthier than the corn-based whiskeys. Because of this unique combination rye is considered an excellent mixing whiskey for cocktails like Old Fashions and Manhattans.” Introduced in 2012, Wild Turkey 81 Rye is distilled in a 40-foot high column still with a mash bill composed principally of premium rye. The whiskeys used in its blend are aged in wood-rack warehouses for a minimum of 4-5 years in deeply charred (a #4 alligator char), white oak barrels from the Ozarks. Prior to bottling, it is reduced to 81 proof with spring water.
Bauder of Jim Beam reports they have certainly seen growth and excitement around the rye whiskey segment. “According to Nielsen, for the past 52 weeks, the category is up 64% in terms of value. Consumers and bartenders are attracted to rye for its mixability, it’s spicy but approachable profile, its historical significance, and its versatility in classic cocktails.”
Beam has long produced some of the best-selling rye whiskies, including Jim Beam — the world’s leading rye whiskey, as well as Old Overholt and (ri)1. This year the company also launched Knob Creek Rye.”
Famed Buffalo Trace Distillery has two remarkable ryes in their portfolio. Superpremium Sazerac Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey is a limited production, pot-distilled whiskey barrel-aged a minimum of 18 years and bottled at an accessible 90 proof. Premium Sazerac Rye is aged for 6 years and also bottled at 90 proof.
Among the several craft-distilled ryes is WhistlePig 100/100 Rye, produced at WhistlePig, the country’s first single estate distillery located in Shoreham, VT. The whisky is so-called because it is a 100% straight rye and bottled at 100 proof. It is hand-bottled at the distillery and available in limited quantity. Master distiller Dave Pickerell—formerly of Maker’s Mark—is also responsible for WhistlePig TripleOne, which is aged 11 years, bottled at 111 proof.
Extended Aged American Whiskies
There is a point of diminishing returns with every barrel of aging whiskey, which means that leaving whiskey in a barrel longer doesn’t necessarily means that it will continue to improve. It’s a delicate process that is as much science as it is art. The climate is a variable. The warmer the climate the faster whiskey matures in oak. Where a barrel is stored in a rick house is also a factor. Suffice to say, aging whiskey to its absolute prime is challenging.
That said, there are increasingly more whiskeys on the market being aged 18 years or older. Likely the first name in extended aging is the venerable Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve from the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery of Lawrenceberg, KY. This rare limited edition is aged 23 years. The barrels were carefully selected from the heart of the warehouse. Only the most careful and expensive distilling method and aging techniques can be used to create a handcrafted whiskey of this caliber.
“Managing a program like that is extremely difficult,” says distiller Dave Scheurich. “Among the challenges are projecting supply/demand needs so far out into the future, predicting the loss through evaporation—dubbed the Angel’s Share—and managing the barrels in the warehouse so that the whiskey doesn’t get too much interaction with the barrel, which would drive the whiskey toward being too tannic, smoky and woody.”
Single Barrel Bottlings
There is something compelling about a single barrel bourbon. As the name implies, the whiskey is drawn from a single barrel and when that individual cask is emptied, that’s it. A whiskey in a neighboring cask may be similar, but its taste profile won’t be an exact match. A typical barrel of whiskey yields around 230-250 (750 ml) bottles. In short, the whiskey is a slice of life never to be duplicated.
Introduced in 1984, Blanton’s was the first single barrel bourbon on the market and is likely the best known. The Kentucky straight bourbon is distilled and aged at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. While Blanton’s makes no age declaration on its label, it is aged approximately 10 to 12 years and bottled at 93 proof.
As is the case with all single barrel whiskeys, each bottling is a singular experience never to be repeated. Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey is filled one barrel at a time from those selected by the master distiller. Each label is marked with the rick and barrel number, as well as the date of bottling. The 94-proof whiskey has a deep copper color, semisweet bouquet and the rich, distinctive flavor that has made Jack Daniel’s an iconic brand.
“Sometimes we find barrels that are just too good to blend,” says Tuthilltown Spirits’ Gable Erenzo. “For us, these are the casks we set aside for a single barrel edition. In larger format distilleries, I still like this expression because each individual barrel will offer slight nuances. For me, those nuances are what make whiskey so interesting. Same grain, same process, same wood, same distillers...slight differences. That’s the beauty of these types of spirits, in my opinion.” Founded in 1795, Jim Beam launched its first single barrel expression last year. According to Bauder, the distillery waited until it had the perfect whiskey to bottle as a single barrel. “Our first such offering is Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. Aged 9 years, the bourbon is carefully hand-selected and bottled barrel-by-barrel at 120 proof in order to offer fans even more of the signature big, full flavor that they love about Knob Creek.”
Made in Lawrenceburg, KY, the limited edition 2012 Four Roses Single Barrel is aged for a minimum of 12 years and bottled at barrel strength at 109.4 proof. Master Distiller Jim Rutledge hand selected the barrels for this expression and only (750ml) 4,000 bottles are being produced.
American whiskey is constantly reinventing itself and is on track to grab an increasingly larger share of the popular limelight. They are loaded with big complex flavors and have about the most captivating aroma of any whiskey. Their mixability, affordability and easy to appreciate character seem to be what consumers are looking for.