Production

Is bourbon coming of age?

Is there a perfect age for American whiskey – and are different age expressions driving the market or in danger of harming it?
By Dominic Roskrow
The world of bourbon faces a major dilemma – how does it reverse years of decline and make such a proud drink acceptable again but do so without sacrificing the very qualities that make the product so special in the first place?Not easy. The emphasis on tradition and heritage are what sets the category apart, but they present a potential stumbling block, being as they are just a short jump away from words such as ‘old fashioned’ and ‘dated.’With total sales half what they were some 50 years ago when Bill Samuels VI started making a different sort of bourbon, the sector has been crying out for something to kick-start a renewed interest in whiskey.And there is growing evidence that it has found it. Small quantities of individual bourbons, some aged for longer than bourbon has been traditionally and some bearing an age statement, are proving to be more than a passing fad.And with some stylish bottle design bourbon makers have shown that they can move some of the product off the bottom shelf and in to the premium whiskey category. More than that, as the American market learns more about Scotch malts and understands the concept of ageing, so the discerning drinker is starting to appreciate what they have in their own backyard.But it’s a steady as you go approach for the producers of Kentucky. They are acutely aware of the risks involved in producing special bottles. After all, if a number of customers pay top drawer prices for something that is old and the bourbon is bitter and dominated by wood, the whole sector will end up suffering. The first lesson is a simple one: older doesn’t necessarily mean better, and anyone jumping in to the market at that particular deep end deserves to get burned.So how old is the perfect bourbon? The first point to note that the climate of Kentucky – long hot summers, deep cold winters -mean that temperature variances in the maturation warehouses are far more extreme than those experienced in Scotland. This makes maturation faster than one would expect in Scotch. And the fact that bourbon can only be made using new and fire-charred barrels mean that the flavour profiles are both more dramatic and discernible from the off.As a broad generalisation, bourbon would seem to age twice as fast as Scotch. Perfectly acceptable three to four year old bourbon would, roughly speaking, be the equivalent of a standard seven year old. Six years – the age of Maker’s Mark – would be on a par with premium 12 year olds – and anything around eight to 10 years old would pair up with a grandiose 18 year old.But of course it’s not that simple. And for the makers of bourbon here lies the heart of an issue that might well define how bourbon moves forward in the future. Different views exist and they are expressed forcefully. You won’t find much common ground between the folk at Maker’s Mark, which markets one product that happens to be six years old, and those at Heaven Hill, which has a range of bourbons.Maker’s Mark’s vice president of production, David Pickerell, doesn’t dismiss out of hand the notion that bourbon older than six years can work. He just argues that it is not right for his product. It doesn’t taste good younger, he says, and there is a steep decline when it’s older.Larry Kass at Heaven Hill takes a radically different view. While he accepts that each bourbon must be treated on its merits, his general rule of thumb is that there is considerable leeway for older bourbons within the sector.“As the second largest holder of bourbons in the world, we are absolutely convinced that different bourbons reach their peak at different ages,” he says.“We have many visitors who come to us straight from a competitor’s tour, stating ‘distillery X just told us that bourbon is only good at years of age… any less than Y it is too hot, and more than y, it is too woody’.“Of course distillery x only happens to bottle only one bourbon, which happens to be y years of age. This is self-serving marketing nonsense in its most blatant form.“We produce literally dozens of bourbon labels, at many different ages and proofs. From four years old up to 23 years, and virtually everything in-between – all from one or two mashbills.“We have won lots of awards – so if one is to believe the world’s leading spirit critics, and indeed the distillers themselves, different bourbons reach their peak at different ages. The new make spirit. The barrel characteristics, the location of the rickhouse, the location of the barrel within the rickhouse – all these factors have their say in determining that peak, and these by definition vary. Certainly this logic has not been lost on the Scotch whisky industry.”Jack Kavanagh at Barton Brands leans to this view, too, but has some sympathy with David Pickerell’s view, too, arguing that it makes sense to stay with one expression if it’s right for that brand.“Bourbon reaches its taste peak at different ages for a number of reasons,” he says. “Our focus is on selecting the best warehouses and the best places within those warehouses. Quality during maturation is determined not only by positioning within the warehouse, but also the warehouse’s orientation to the sun and the prevailing winds to provide natural air circulation that ultimately allows the barrel to take breaths of liquor deep into the wood.“For us that process takes eight years, or in fact eight years and one summer.” Jim Beam’s Small Batch Bourbon Collection is borne out of the same sort of thinking.“We believe that true bourbon must be aged naturally,” says the company, “at the mercy of Kentucky’s climate that is typically very humid in the summer and frosty but not arctic in the winter.“By allowing bourbon to age naturally the end result will be better because it’s less manipulated. The Small Batch Bourbon Collection is carefully aged between six and nine years. We believe longer than nine years and it runs the risk of being too woody.”So are age statements where relevant good for the bourbon category as whole? Again, there are mixed views.“We are committed to offering a wide range of choice in bourbon so of course we feel it is helpful,” says Larry Kass at Heaven Hill.“I think 50 years worth of learning from the Scotch whisky industry also lends credence to this belief.“As much as we are convinced that there is no magic age for bourbon we are even more opposed to foisting this belief upon our consumers. Theirs should be the pleasures of discovery, not the adherence to an artificial, arbitrary standard.” Jack Kavanagh at Barton Brands broadly agrees.“Different age statements will continue to educate and differentiate those distilleries willing to take the extra time needed to ensure the quality of their product,” he says.“This should be used as a guide for new consumers to base their taste profile and to show the consumer which distiller is willing to make the necessary quality commitment.Woodford Reserve’s master distiller Chris Morris takes issue with this, and says that the brand’s reputation for quality should stand up even without a number on the label.“We think having an age statement on a bourbon does a disservice to the category,” he says.“The use of corn, rye, new charred barrels and maturation in an aggressive climate means that the bourbon will mature faster than a whiskey made with a milder grain recipe and matured in a used cask.“These are major differences that cannot be easily explained to the malt and blend connoisseurs of the world – so to use the language of ‘age’ as a common reference point for quality is not a valid exercise.”Does that mean that in actual fact the trend towards premium products could actually end up harming bourbon? Not necessarily, says Morris, provided on a true flavour difference or production technique.Brown-Forman’s Wayne Rose agrees with his colleague.“The bourbon category today is much different from what it was even 10 years ago and it will be different 10 years from now,” he says.“It’s expanding and consumers are enjoying bourbons in ways we didn’t even think of 10 years ago. Look at single malt Scotches; Glenmorangie understood emerging consumer interests in that category and added new depth and dimension to it by spearheading the wood
finish range concept. Perhaps the bourbon category is now ripe for its own innovation...”It’s started to happen. Wild Turkey, for instance, has recently appeared as a 10 year old finished in Oloroso sherry casks. Jack Kavanagh says that such moves can only be good for the sector.“Just look at what the trend has done for the single malt segment of Scotch whisky,” he says. “Introducing new expressions of bourbon can provide the consumer with the feeling of ‘this is exactly what I was looking for’. It’s different strokes for different folks.”Larry Kass says it’s all about quality. “As long as the new expressions are of high quality, the only real danger is over-saturating the shelves.“But continued growth of the overall category, and particularly continued strong growth in the super-premium sector, seems to suggest that the saturation point is still far away.”All in all, then, bourbon seems to be going through a good patch. Will it continue? The overall view is yes, providing that innovation continues to meet the demands of the consumer.“Every bourbon company or brand should do what is right for them, within the equities of the brand,” says Wayne Rose. “What is key is remaining relevant to consumers, whether you do it with new products or updated marketing of your core brand. In fact it’s already happening. Jack Kavanagh agrees.“The premium sector has been coming for a long time, as any distiller will tell you. The honey barrels are there and the public should be entitled to the great privilege that we have had through the years. The trend will grow because our consumers demand it.”