Monday, October 28, 2013

Was Older Whisk(e)y Better?

Alright, buckle up because this is basically a battle of whisk(e)y nerds. And I say that lovingly, because I am one. Wholeheartedly. It would take a whisk(e)y nerd to even approach this topic, really.

Lately the topic of old whisk(e)y has been bandied about the blogging / freelance sphere and it's caused quite a stir. I first saw it in Joshua Feldman/Coopered Tot's review of 1960-70s Johnnie Walker Red Label. I found it to be not only a solid review (he does those, unlike my lazy arse) but an interesting peek into what was. Today, Billy Abbott of Billy's Booze Blog (more famously known for his dastardly delicious designations of whiskey on The Whisky Exchange) wrote about the topic of declining whiskey quality. It was bandied about in discussions on the topic when Oliver Klimek's response to the topic (from three years ago) showed up as well. It was quite the rabbit-hole to travel down and it had some interesting tidbits of opinion and such; so much to the point that it motivated me to unsheathe the ascerbic, self-defacing fingers from their cozy naps and put them to keyboard.

That means that I wanted to weigh in too.

The opinion camps are as such: Billy (I will now refer to him henceforth as cowfish) believes in consumer fault, Josh believes in producer fault, and Oliver...well..he just thinks everything's changed, I think. What do I think? Well...

I think whisk(e)y has changed. In some aspects, for the worse. Mainly blends but, thanks to people like Compass Box, we're working on that. In other aspects, for the better. It breaks down into three categories of change: economic, social, and manufacture. While all intertwined, I'll try to separate them out. Forgive me if I get the timeline wrong, it's rough in my mind so feel free to correct me. Let's jump in.


This part starts off with a historical conundrum that I'd have to phone in a few favors to get an answer to. Maybe someone can fill me in, I dunno. All I DO know is that roughly during the mid 1950s until the late 80s...everybody wanted lighter spirits. Across the board. It started with lighter whisk(e)y, not just scotch. Sure, as Josh points out, there were ads for lighter blends to appease a growing palate, like this one:

(Shamelessly stolen from Josh's Pinterest, forgive me. Check it out, its thirst-inspiring)

But there was a major trend toward other spirits as well, especially in the 60s. Vodka, popularized by Moscow Mules, Kangaroos, and Pink Squirrels, blanco tequila in Margaritas, gin in Martinis, Collins, etc. Irish whiskey took a step away from its higher content of pure pot still in favor of more aged grain whiskey from the Coffey still.We were on a crash course of light flavors. I don't know why. I'm GUESSING it has something to do with their mix-ability in the new wave of cocktails crashing into the states but that's just a shot in the dark. This fairly well continued into the 70s when there was the whisky glut and distilleries started tanking left and right, companies consolidated (both corporate structure as well as stock). The 80s were fairly quiet. And then the 90s came...and people started buying single malts. And whisk(e)y of all kinds (blends included) started taking off again. Which leads us into...


The most fiscally beneficial word to every distiller is the word "light". It's very easy to take away flavor in a finished product and it often results in MORE finished product to sell at the same price. It's awesome. If you want a lighter make it a "mixto" tequila, which means 51% 100% Blue Weber Agave spirit and the rest whatever neutral grain spirit (hereto referred to as NGS) you can get cheaply. Bam. A barrel of costly tequila becomes two barrels of tequila. Woohoo for everybody. This, in the scotch world, means leaning heavily on grain whisky. Grain whisky, on its own, is actually a delicious product. I'm sure in the early days, when light scotch was required, they were using respectably aged grain whiskey. By law, it only has to be 3 years but I'm sure that's not the age they were using. And when the whisky glut happened, they had loads of it and they can't really sell it. Sure, they could trade it for other blending stock but why not hold on to it? But the problem isn't when there's a glut, it's when there's a dearth. 

Single malt scotch demand after weathering a glut is the best problem you can have. You have a massive amount of blending stock to make a minimal aged spirit and a ready market. If you've got old stuff, make it 8-10 year. Or 12 year. You have WAREHOUSES full of the stuff that no one wanted for 10 years that had been slumbering away and now people are willing to pay double the amount of money for a bottle of single malt as a bottle of blended. Go for it. The capital can be used to lay down more. They want OLDER expressions? Awesome, we got them too. What do they want next, older stuff?

Wait...they want blended again? Lots of blended?

This is the "oh shit moment" for a company, a "shit bricks" moment for warehouse managers, and an "I hate everything ever" moment for the master blender. You've been dumping stock you didn't think you needed into, say a minimum of 10 year old, single malt whisky which you were more than happy to do because it meant they could fire the stills up again. But when they want single malt and sales of blended are starting to increase dramatically again and they're clambering not for the light scotch of yesteryear but for something with a little more oomph...well...stocks of the good stuff will deplete quickly. They probably had enough stock lying around to fill the immediate need until a new crop of whisky was suitable for blending again...but the new stuff won't be as old. They might have been blending 10, 12, 15 year scotch into blends to begin with when sales were low but when the next batch is ready in the's maybe going to be 9, 10, 11 years. And the next batch might be 8, 9, 10 years. And so on and so forth until they can catch up for the demand for BOTH single malt AND blended. And the grain whisky will suffer the same fate as well only they'll probably cutting the time down on that even further . The legal requirement is 2 years. If they just need blending filler...why go much further? And this flurried pace leads to...


This is part and parcel money saving as much as it is efficiency. When you need to pump out lots of whisk(e)y to meet demand and it has the benefit of saving you money in the long run, awesome. Floor maltings were never really efficient so Saladin boxes were used. It cost a lot of money, was slower, and required more manhours to produce the same batch. And even then, the malted barley produced wasn't as consistent. The barley itself was swapped out from Golden Promise to Optic because you didn't have to send away as many trucks full of barley at the intake testing lab because they had mold or pests or disease. Steam jacketed/bath stills were not only safer (not as much workers comp!) but were more efficient in Btu output. Stainless steel washbacks didn't need as much maintenance and upkeep as pine so let's ditch them too. And we can probably reuse that cask one more time for the grain whisky.

But that all lead to changes and that's just a small sample. Floor malted barley has different stresses than Saladin box barley, causing different chemical/biological reactions within the germinating barley that can result in different flavors. Often times (as is the case with Optic) flavor is sacrificed for plant survivability during genetic tinkering (I'm also looking at you, tomatoes). Direct fire would cause hot spots on the still, effectively caramelizing the wash and inciting Maillard reactions of the sugars that would cause different flavors in the still. Hell, in a direct fire still it could have had hot-spots hot enough to catalyze reactions of long-chain fatty acids into esters that wouldn't happen when the whole still is just at boiling point. And reusing barrels that are on their third go-around...well...don't get me started on that.

Basically, what I'm trying to say here is that there were several facets that resulted in changes in the whisk(e)y industry (I'm sure by this point you're well aware I'm focusing on scotch but it does hold true in some respects for American whiskey). I think that these changes are a chain reaction of social and economical reasons that I can't fault anyone for. I can't honestly say its the consumer, even today, because they've never had the old whisky that Josh had. The new, higher grain, younger single malt blends are what they were introduced to, THAT'S what they know scotch is. Some blends fared worse than others during the glut and they've been holding on by continuing to adjust their grain to malt ratios to keep competitive. I DO think that if the consumer base, on a whole, knew what blended USED to taste like, they'd begin demanding it. And I think that time is coming. With the boom of premium and ultra-premium spirits, consumers that have even a cursory knowledge of whisky, if introduced to quality blended whiskies (I'm looking at you, Compass Box) will begin asking for it. And we just might be in a position to offer it.

All that being said, I think today's Johnnie Walker Black is delicious.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Purloined Pappy

Dear distilling industry,

Congratulations, we've done it. Through tireless hours of effort, propaganda, and branding, we have achieved something only the greatest of mankind can accomplish.

We have created a MONSTER.

I'm not talking about a blasphemous beverage of mind-boggling flavor profile (although Malibu Red is very close). Rather, I am talking about a waltzing juggernaut of soul-sucking depravity that can turn the best of humans into the worst. I'm talking about Pappy Van Winkle.

In case you didn't know...

Some of the most sought-after Kentucky bourbon in the nation is now the subject of a whodunnit.
Roughly 65 cases of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon were stolen in what looks to be an inside job from a secure area at Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Frankfort facility, according to Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton.
Melton said the theft was reported Tuesday and appears to have occurred over the past couple months. Detectives are investigating but have no suspects.
The thief or thieves made off with about $26,000 of the limited stock, which Melton said consists of about $25,350 in 3-bottle cases of 20-year-old Pappy and about $675 in nine cases of 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve rye. (courtesy of The Courier-Journal)

I'm not entirely sure what to say about this situation, really. I can't tell what the worst facet is. To start, there's the fact that $26,000 in whiskey was stolen. That's sad. There's also the fact that the estimated price works out to roughly $151 a bottle. That's heart-breaking. Or maybe the fact that it's clearly an inside job and that someone took the time to plan and orchestrate an inside robbery...for bourbon. That's a TRAVESTY.

To be fair, I can see their standpoint for stealing all that Pappy. While the article generously gives an estimated price per Pappy 20 year old as "$130 a bottle", it's more along the lines of the $200+ range. Because you can't get it. People sell empty bottles on Ebay for almost $100 just so you can either pass off cheaper bourbon as Pappy or...nefariously become an independent bottler. And the people that drink it...well...they're admirable people. The chef market has been hitting it hard. Anthony Bourdain constantly plies Eric Ripert with bottles of it on his various shows. I'm fairly sure Alton Brown's bowtie is just a Pappy flask. So you can see why it's celebrated. People with pretty good taste are willing to buy it.

But is this a good thing? Well, for the Van Winkle family...I guess it is. People want their stuff, even though they're getting mighty close to swapping out the Stitzel-Weller produced bourbon for Buffalo Trace bourbon at this point. Buffalo Trace is probably pretty happy as well (grand theft alcohol aside). But is it good for the industry?

Honestly, at this point I had to stop writing this and really think about it. It took me a few days of mulling it over to decide where I stand on it and here it is: it's bad...for the consumer. To have a product so in demand that no matter how many barrels are allocated it WILL sell out at a hefty premium (no wholesale discounts here) is a good thing for Buffalo Trace/Van Winkle family. It's cold hard cash. I doubt that even when the full switch to Buffalo Trace made/aged juice comes that people will stop buying it. It is more than a bourbon now. It is an industry myth. But for the consumer, this is a big step in a terrible direction. First off, be prepared to see bootlegs. If you can sell a 20 or a 23 year old bourbon for $600 a bottle, people WILL bootleg it. They will buy old Pappy bottles, fill them with whatever, and reseal it. Can't do much about that aside from flag the bottles on Ebay but even then there's a "legit" use of personal deception (i.e. people who care more about the status than the contents). And this brings about another point that is a sore contention with me. It's gonna start being...collected.

I hate collecting whisk(e)y. It's prevalent in the scotch industry but not so much in the bourbon industry...but this is the first step in that direction. I'm of the opinion that it was made to be consumed. I UNDERSTAND how it is a viable investment, I do. I just don't agree with it. It's like buying cigars as an investment or fancy cars as an investment. It's a luxury product, get some luxury from it. That and the fact that each bottle represents a small slice of history, of what was going on 15, 20, 23 years ago. When I did my stint at the bottling room in Tuthilltown this feeling continued to pervade my thoughts. As I labeled, signed, and numbered each bottle I realized that each of those wee little bottles was the culmination of not just time and effort...but atmosphere. Some of those bottles were bathed in the dulcet tones of Ozzy Osbourne. They suffered through iteration after iteration of "The Regular Show" quotes. They represented a snapshot of a day, that brief glimpse of the mundane that is taken for granted. Don't lose that. That's terrible. Storing away those little moments to never be shared, to never see the light of day again...I find it reprehensible. In the best of allegory sense (if you've read Harry Potter), every bottle is a tiny little Pensieve that can be revisited and savored. Or forgotten on a shelf like a share of stock.

Another thing that bothers me is that there is an increasing divide between accessibility of whiskey to the consumer. Bourbon, in its truest roots, is moonshine refined. The south was predominantly filled with Scotch and Irish settlers after the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791. In order to not pay taxes...they just left the colonies and headed into the wilds. Over time, the spirit grew to become the corn based beauty we know today. It is humble in its origins and its manufacture is even more humble. It is a combination of multiple grains, most of which are government subsidized. So, at it's crux, it should be affordable. But this increasing separation of "ulta-premium" is worrying. The most affordable ultra premium for your standard consumer is the Buffalo Trace Antique collection and even that's $80 a pop (but so worth it). It also worries me about what they'll be TRYING to push the ultra-premium category. My guess is extended aging and that is not something I'm comfortable with. Buffalo Trace does a fine job because their dedication to barrel monitoring is astoundingly rigorous (even if their application of scientific theory leaves me wanting). But what of everyone else? Will people be soon paying for nigh-undrinkable barrel squeezings at $200 a bottle just to let it sit on a shelf?

Finally, there's this:

"It's the pinnacle of bourbon," gushed Fischer. "If you're around a bottle, it's a special occasion." Melton said officials are in the early stages of the investigation, and will be on the lookout for any bottles popping up on the black market.

But the thief might not be in any rush, Fischer said.

"If you keep bourbon in the right conditions, it will be good forever."

"You have to wonder what's going to happen to the 195 stolen bottles," said Kit Codik, CEO of the all-things cocktail website "It's like when a van Gogh goes missing: Where does that rare piece of art end up? I have no idea." (courtesy of CNN)

I will give it that it could be construed as a piece of art, yes. I find that distilling is about 25% art, 75% science. But is this the top of the top? Is this where we stop? Is this REALLY the pinnacle of what bourbon can do? I don't think so. I hope not. As someone who is thoroughly enthralled in R&D, I PRAY it isn't. We have so far to go. Bourbon is a fledgeling spirit in terms of the world and we're just starting to stretch our legs. I dunno WHERE we're going to go with it (more on this later, trust me)...but we have room to grow. A lot of room. So I disagree that it's the "pinnacle" of bourbon. To call Pappy the pinnacle of bourbon means we're only on the decline. Don't cap us so soon. We can, and will, keep pushing limits and boundaries to make better, tastier product.

All this being said...I still want a bottle.