Federally enforced laws define bourbon. Regulations maintain a standard for the industry. As more consumers get wind of this standard and the spirit’s integrity, the more popular it becomes. In this day, when limitless options is the way of life, the more popular it becomes, the more people wonder what else they can try that’s similar, different, more. Distillers step up to push the envelope. People try the new. There is nostalgia for the original.
And there you have the mobius strip of the American whiskey industry. In the past few years, more and more whiskey products have appeared on shelves – both from craft distillers and the titans. Simultaneously, companies report increased sales of their flagship brands. Nevertheless, with the abundance of new products that stray from tradition, it’s rational to suspect that companies need to be innovative just to stay in the game. But “innovation” means many things to many people.
“Bourbon has evolved since it was first distilled and barrelled, and the Master’s Collection is a natural part of the evolution of bourbon,” said Chris Morris, master distiller for Brown Forman, producer of Woodford Reserve. “Believe me you don’t want to drink the bourbon that was made in Harrodsburg, the very first settlement in Kentucky. Now, of course, there are stipulations that make bourbon legally a bourbon, but creating a ‘newer version’ is almost like going back to the olden days before there were rules. When you have a good product, your job is to make it consistent so the consumer will be satisfied. You don’t change the core product, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do variations. Even though something has been around for a while, there might be a better version.”
To that end, Woodford has just released its fifth “Master’s Collection” bourbon: Maple Wood Finish, which clocks in at 94.4 proof. There were 18,000 bottles of that expression, that’s all, and batches went out to seven export markets. While the wood is the experimental element, but past releases have tinkered with mash bill. In 2005, the Master’s Collection debuted with Four Grain. A formula of corn and malted barley with both rye and wheat was distilled in their traditional copper pot stills.
Years before that, however, the folks at Buffalo Trace Distillery were stockpiling barrels for their Experimental Collection. The first release was unveiled in 2006, but experimentation started in 1993 with various wood agings.
“We’ve experimented with different things since,” said master distiller Harlen Wheatley, who took on the role in 2005.
“Now here we are with 1500 barrels of experiments. We make a little every year of different recipes, different woods, different techniques.” The highly coveted Experimental Collection releases have sparked so much interest that “people call us and want to try new tastes and experiences,” said Wheatley. Thus, they have a veritable data base of potential experiments to be tested. But as he sees it, new products work best when they’re complementary to established whiskeys.
“Innovation can go too far,” he warned. “Our philosophy is a long term look, but if you’re a starting company and making a name for yourself, I can see starting with that, but at some point you need to dig in your claws and create something people can get every day. If all you ever do is come out with one-time shots, you’d have a hard time. That’s not innovation, it’s trying to survive.”
Nevertheless, nascent craft distillers have been among the most aggressive innovators. There were 13 distilleries under construction in March alone. Dave Pickerel, Maker’s Mark master distiller for 14 years, now runs a consulting company for startup distilleries. It’s tough to match his understanding of the scope of activity in the craft realm.
“The big guys are wired to tradition,” he said. “The gut level innovation in America happening on the craft end. They’re wired to weird stuff and playing. And entrepreneurship. Nobody gets into the business if they’re not entrepreneurial.”
He speaks of distillers taking traditional beer recipes and preparing them single malt-style. Others use hops. And there are more types of malts available now than ever.
“One thing driving idiosyncratic whiskeys is that small distillers cannot cash flow with vodka anymore. They have to be able to differentiate, or have nothing (unlike vodka),” he said, noting that the vodka market has peaked. Creativity is essential. “Maybe this year or next year, products identified as ‘moonshine’ will outsell rye. One reason is that in short supply, and nothing can do about it until 2014.” As he sees it, it’s the category where the little guys can go head-to-head with the big guys.
But the big guys are committed to staying apace in ways both conservative and radical.
“Innovation is big source of future growth. In the past there was a sense you shouldn’t tinker too much with bourbon,” said Byron Hoover, VP of Global Whiskey for Beam Global. Alluding to the black cherry infused bourbon that has seeing double digit growth since its 2009 launch, he said, “We do have a right to innovate on what people consider a traditional category. Vodka and rum have all kinds of flavour.”
He noted that since many still balk at bourbon, variations on the traditional can make it more accessible and recruit new consumers. And for loyal fans, innovation offers a “new, richer, deeper more premium experience,” in other words: a way to trade up. Thus, the introduction of the higher proof Knob Creek Single Barrel and the popular Maker’s 46, the standard whiskey that’s been a constant for 52 years aged a few more months in second-fill barrels containing seared staves. It was largely a response to requests from bartenders looking for something new, he said.
Heaven Hill has long had offbeat offerings, like Bernheim Wheat, a straight whiskey, and corn whiskey. Larry Kass, Heaven Hill’s Director of Corporate Communications, said they’re “working both those sides of identity.” Beyond that, operating within the confines of bourbon’s definition, they’ve been “aggressive in laying down different types of experiments, different regiments to try produce and age whiskey in innovative ways. Whether that means varying the types of wood that aging bourbon in beyond required, looking at different char levels or using different grain types. The main purpose is developing new products and to continue to keep products in pipeline for Parker’s Heritage, the annual limited edition release. In 2009, the product was made by blending barrels from each of the past five decades. In 2008, they unveiled a 27-year-old bourbon. “That’s a long time to age, and it had an awful lot detractors. That was an experiment in pushing aging.”
But amid microdistillers boosting their visibility, rest assured purists who tirelessly, proudly carry the torch of tradition remain.
“We have a whiskey category that’s not just blossoming in the US, but in the world,” said Jim Rutledge, master distiller for Four Roses, which introduces a limited edition small batch at Kentucky Bourbon Festival each year. Four Roses might be viewed as innovative in its own right, as the bourbons stray from industry norm because for years there have been different mashbill recipes and more than one proprietary yeast, which “achieves consistency from bottling run to bottling run,” explained Rutledge. “We were able to do something nobody else does because everything is different by formula design. We didn’t plan on that. It’s a bonus to our efforts to achieve consistency.” But these are merely technical intricacies.
“I believe in the integrity of bourbon as bourbon. There has been proposed legislation to change the strict requirements that define a straight bourbon whiskey. The art involved would disappear. It would destroy the integrity. Some of the legislation is generated by craft camp. I have no problem with them, but don’t change what we do.”