The Bourbon Future, Part I

“Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation… if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so farfetched, that everybody would laugh him to scorn. So if what I say now seems to be very reasonable, then I’ll fail completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have you any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.”

Arthur C. Clarke, BBC Horizon, 1964

One of the things that really caught my eye this week was a post on the Friends of the Trace facebook group asking the question if the brand ambassadors of Buffalo Trace Distillery had become our own worst enemies in promoting the wonderful whiskies from Buffalo Trace, given the shortages and secondary market flippers. That somehow by sharing one of life’s great pleasures, good bourbon, we have now made it impossible to get good bourbon for ourselves.

I often read on numerous bourbon groups about upstart NDP releases whose producers say they found these magical barrels in an old distillery and bottled them for the consumer’s drinking pleasure at exorbitant prices getting ragged because what is in them is awful and too young, and perhaps rightly so.

Others complain of the loss of age statements on bourbon and the decreasing quality of what is in the marketplace because demand has completely outstripped supply. Good bourbon is impossible to get because it gets hoarded and flipped, and true bourbon devotees are left with the dregs. It is as if we have hit peak bourbon and its only going to go downhill from here. When someone posts in a bourbon Facebook group about a lesser known bourbon that is really good, it is met with a joking “sssshhh” comment, because this bourbon may very well go the way of W.L. Weller, a bourbon I used to mix with coke that now fetches high prices on the secondary market. I see numerous commenters say “all the good bourbon is gone and it is never coming back.”

A truly sad state of affairs.

This sad state of affairs really started with prohibition, which put numerous wonderful distilleries out of business, and left what was once a well supplied, or well lubricated, bourbon market with very few choices. Post-prohibition, bourbon production resumed but in the meantime America became enthralled with other spirits and wine such that bourbon consumption declined, until the 1970’s and 80’s, when it declined so bad that Steitzel Weller went out of business. Yes, the Van Winkle people went broke.

While all of that is hard to imagine now, this is the way it was.

But then, an ingenious distiller in a Japanese owned distillery in Kentucky began offering the first single barrel bourbon, Blanton’s. It grew so popular that bourbon giant Jim Beam, whose master distiller Booker Noe eschewed single barrel bourbons, designed the small batch collection, of Booker’s, Knob Creek, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden’s. So in the early nineties bourbon began its comeback, and in the mid-1990’s an upstart liquor distributor in New Orleans bought that Japanese owned distillery that made Blanton’s and Buffalo Trace was born, along with the numerous brands they make, including the Van Winkle Bourbons. The premiumization of bourbon began, and with it a huge selection of wonderful bourbons that were easy to get and even easier to enjoy.

America once again warmed up to its native spirit, bourbon. However, she woke up with a vengeance. Demand quickly outstripped supply, to the point when so many people wanted to get in on the sell side of the bourbon market that they would buy barrels of anything they could get from anyone that had any bourbon, and mark it as premium and charge exorbitant prices. Age stated bourbon lost their age statements. Upstart distillers making their own stuff but dumping it on the marketplace too quickly and charging premium prices for lackluster whiskey.

This is where we are today. This is where bourbon hoarding comes from; the fear of missing out that makes certain bourbons impossible to get; and secondary market flippers who snatch up bottles to make exorbitant and often illegal profits. Many folks today don’t see this getting any better.

But, for a moment, I am going to share with you, in Arthur C. Clarke fashion, my view of the bourbon future. And, as Clarke said, “The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic.” I think the future of bourbon will be absolutely fantastic.

In the future, the bourbon market will be well lubricated, er supplied, to the point that bourbon producers will be competing for bourbon consumers’ attention. They will hold local tasting events and even send samples in the mail. Age statements will become ubiquitous and non-age stated whiskey will go completely by the wayside. Every single bottle of bourbon will have a statement of the years, weeks, and days this particular bourbon spent in the barrel, and full disclosure of the mashbill used. This will in fact not be an option but will be required by law because of consumer demand, and U.S. regulation of the bourbon market will mirror France’s regulation of the champagne and wine markets, rather than the haphazard regulation we have today. The consumer will drive the market, and they will know exactly what they are getting when they buy a bottle, or a case, or a barrel. They will be able to find out where the corn, rye, wheat, and barley that went into their whiskey came from, and it will all be non-GMO and certain producers websites will brag on the terroir (aka the dirt) of the grains from which their whiskey came, much like a bottle of champagne or fine French wine does today.

And yet, the market will become entirely deregulated from the standpoint of availability of bourbon, much like it is in the European Union. Anyone, anywhere in the U.S., will be able to have whatever bourbon they want delivered to their doorstep; depending on location, this make take days but in some cases it will only take hours. Wealthy customers will be able to order entire barrels of bourbon they want, bottled with their own customized labels on them. People will order barrels of bourbon for weddings, retirement parties, and so on. Drinking buddies will easily place an order for a barrel of bourbon to their liking while drinking together and have those bottles in four to six weeks.

The scheme of manufacturers, distributors, and retailers having to be separate and distinct entities will go entirely by the wayside. Consumers will have direct contact with the manufacturers, distributors who act as middlemen will be bankrupted like buggy whip manufacturers in the age of automobiles. The success or failure of retailers, both bars and liquor stores, will depend on their abilities to help the consumer find what the consumer wants; whether they can act as consultants, stewards and sommeliers of bourbon, effectively, and not merely on the fact that they can score a liquor license. Their value will hinge entirely on expertise, much as the wine market it now.

My brother in law will no longer text me about finding a whiskey he tried on vacation but he can’t find locally. He will be able to order a bottle of that obscure whiskey on his phone, no problem.

How will this future come about? Yes, the big producers, Sazerac, Brown-Forman, Heaven Hill, Diageo, and the like are all increasing production. But, I would posit, that the expansions they are making will be not near enough to bring about the future that I envision.

Perhaps my predictions are far fetched; perhaps I should be laughed to scorn as Arthur C. Clarke said.

However, those big producers are going to have competition. And that competition is what will bring my vision of the bourbon future into reality.

Imagine, for a second, that a successful liquor retailer in a large urban area who really knows good bourbon decides, well, if a distributor like Sazerac can get into the whiskey production business, what can’t I? He cashes out of the large liquor store by selling the store to his employees in an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Program) transaction and takes the money and builds a distillery in the parking of the liquor store he formerly owned.

In five years he releases cask strength and bottled in bond bourbons that are top drawer, delicious, affordable, and you can order them for home delivery over the internet. He distilled it, aged it, and bottled it. Nothing sourced from somewhere else. Nothing aged in used barrels of various types to give it various flavors. Just delicious, Straight, Bourbon whiskey with an age statement, that holds its own as far as flavor in the marketplace, and anyone who wants it can get it.

This, or something like this, will be the catalyst for my other predictions about the bourbon future.

Still seem far fetched? Are you laughing me to scorn?

Hello Bourbon Future. The catalyst of my bourbon future predications has already happened. It happened five years ago. Hello New Riff.

The owner of Party Source in the greater Cincinnati area but on the Kentucky side of the river, Ken Lewis, did that ESOP transaction in 2014 and built a distillery in the parking lot of his old liquor store in Bellevue, Kentucky. According to my buddy Hudson Funk who has been to the distillery you can’t tell where Cincinnati ends and Bellevue starts.

So, what do we have here? We have a barrel proof, non-chill filtered bourbon, age stated at at least a four year years old. The mashbill is disclosed on the website at 65% corn, 30% rye, and 5% malted barley.

My particular bottle, which my friend Ken Brown picked up for me in Illinois when he was up there, is 112.5 proof, from barrel no. 15-2301, which produced 217 bottles; all handwritten on the label. But you don’t have to have a friend going to Illinois or the other few states where this whiskey is distributed. You can go to Seelbach’s and just have one shipped to you. Either the cask strength, that I have, or the bottled in bond, or the rye, or some of their other products. Just hop on your phone and order it.

Color is a beautiful amber with some slight red flecks; very impressive for a four year old whiskey. Lovely oily long legs on this. On the nose, quality grains come to the fore in the form of corn syrup, baking spice, with the rye giving off some herbal tea notes. There is a little bit of Caribbean vanilla in the background of the nose. On the palate, the mouthfeel is medium bodied but syrupy in the right way, stout vanilla, heavy rye spice, caramel corn, and cinnamon lead to a very nice lingering finish that decrescendoes quite nicely.

There is absolutely zero yeast funk. This is all grain and barrel driven like Buffalo Trace bourbons are. Very traditional bourbon, except, there is this faint hint of delightful smoke, like you would taste on a great single malt scotch, like say, Lagavulin or Oban. Unlike most bourbons where some malted barely is thrown in the mashbill for the fermentation enzymes, I am pretty sure the malted barley they are using adds to the flavor. I have no idea what exactly they are doing there but they are doing something.

This is absolutely delicious whiskey, and the absolute best “craft” whiskey I have ever tasted. Unsourced, and distilled, barreled and aged by the producer, and is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, to a delightful result.

During our post-Monday night Football gathering at my friend Tom Spencer’s house where Ken showed up with my purchases from Binny’s in Illinois, this was definitely a hit. We are sampling drams of five different whiskies. When I brought this bottle out for this review tonight, about a third was gone. It was definitely a favorite in the crowd including some former bartenders who know their spirits.

This, $60 bottle of barrel proof goodness, with the bottled in bond version at $40, is a game changer in the bourbon world. It points to a truly brighter future for those that appreciate good bourbon.

In the next installments of The Bourbon Future series, I will talk about some of the various predictions I have made in light of what is going on in the market right now, while reviewing bourbons that reflect these market shifts. My only hope is that I do not become that guy in Arthur C. Clarke’s words, becoming too conservative about the future that I miss the mark completely and am completely underwhelming in my predictions about the bourbon future. These future posts will be more in the spirit of saying I am not a madman in predicting the future of bourbon. Just a little bit crazy.

I am either one or the other, a madman or a little bit crazy. Only time will tell. Much like time judges bourbon in a barrel.

But, as many in the bourbon world complain about the state of the bourbon market today, I pause over this glass of New Riff bourbon, and can only say,

Hello Future.

One thought on “The Bourbon Future, Part I

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