Production

Success Comes With Age

US whiskey experiences unprecedented popularity
By Fred Minnick
In the past year, the industry has reported receiving more than one million visitors at Kentucky distilleries. To put this into perspective, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail didn't even exist until 1996 and only Maker's Mark really offered a visitors experience before then.

On the sales front, Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and Rye increased 7.8 per cent in overall sales, according to a recent Distilled Spirits Industry Council report, with a large chunk going to the export markets. As trade tariffs are lifted and producers concentrate on foreign lands, exports will grow. The top export markets were United Kingdom ($226.1 million USD), Canada ($194.7 million USD), Germany ($128.5 million USD), Australia ($126.1 million USD), Japan ($108.3 million USD) and France ($84.1 million USD).

Last year, the Kentucky Distillers Association reported a 40 year barrel high with 5,669,682 million charred oak casks ageing in Bluegrass warehouses, the highest number since 1975. That's when the 5.8 million barrels were in Kentucky. But white spirits, inflation and poor business decisions knocked Bourbon off its pedestal, and it fell to the bottom shelf.

From 1980 to 2000, Bourbon sales were on life support, but passion, good whiskey and the consumer's organic pull brought Bourbon back. And now, here we are: It's so damn popular we can no longer find once everyday Bourbons such as Weller 12 Years Old; and we must wait in long lines to grab a bottle of Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch; and we must spend 55 per cent more money than we used to. Want Pappy Van Winkle? Well, you're welcome to call a liquor store, get laughed at, put your name in a hat, and pray that your name gets called so you can buy a bottle. Of course, if you want a bottle bad enough, you can get online, buy a bottle from Craigslist and exchange cash in a dark parking lot.

Yeah, that's where we are. I think most of us Bourbon loving geeks are frustrated with the lack of available premium brands sitting on liquor shelves. Yet we realise we're victims of popularity, and we live with it.

But some whiskey lovers have a line and are beginning to leave particular brands over the changing of the whiskey. We first saw this in 2013, when Maker's Mark reduced its proof from 90 to 84. People went bonkers and Maker's Mark reverted the proof.

There was a less passionate protest over the dropping of age statement on Very Old Barton and Jim Beam Black, and a few people noticed Old Granddad lowering its proof a few years ago.

Now Heaven Hill have discontinued the age statement of its popular 12 Years Old Elijah Craig. Moving forward, Elijah Craig is comprised of 8 and 12 Years Old barrels. Heaven Hill says there's not enough 12 Years Old Bourbon to grow the Elijah Craig brand and still supply future 18 Years Old and 21 Years Old versions. Elijah Craig Small Batch is a 70,000 nine unit case product, and the company believes it would decrease 30 per cent in case volume at the current rate when factoring holding stocks for 18 Years Old Elijah Craig. "We are trying to protect flavour profile of brand. We will have dumps closer to 11 to 12 Years Old barrels," says Master Distiller Denny Potter. "We've been handcuffed a little bit because we can't distribute like we want to. I feel this brand has been under appreciated because it's not as visible as others."

But people really loved Elijah Craig 12 Years Old, as it was, especially me. It was the best value of all Bourbons. Not one of the best. It was the best. The fact is, the businessman in me gets it. Age statements constrain stocks and limit profitability. As a consumer, though, an age statement absolutely helps me select Bourbon. Age is just a number, sure, and not a measure of quality, but it gives me something to compare one product to another.

Just remember distillers, the consumers who brought you back from the abyss - we like age statements. In fact, some frustrated Bourbon drinkers are already leaving the category for Calvados, Armagnac, rum, and Cognac, which increased US sales 16 per cent last year. So do what you may with age statements. But do so at your own risk.