The Bourbon Future Part III: Contract Distilling

This is Part III of the Whiskey Jar’s Series, The Bourbon Future. In Part I, I made a bunch of grandiose predictions about the future of Bourbon. In Part II, I discussed the grain to glass movement and the increase in disclosure about what goes into bourbon, which is bringing increased competition into the bourbon marketplace.

One of the predictions I made in Part I was:

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

Increased competition will ultimately lead to a well supplied bourbon market. In Parts I and II we focused mostly on craft distillers and their contributions to diversity in the bourbon market. But, in this piece, I want to focus on bourbon producers that aren’t distilling, but are aging their own whiskey distilled elsewhere. This has been common practice in the scotch whisky world, with such venerable brands as Cadenhead’s and Gordon & McPhail, who purchase scotch from various distilleries, age it in their own warehouses, and then release these whiskies after aging. I actually prefer some Gordon & McPhail releases to releases from those distilleries, particularly their eight year old Old Pulteney.

In the United States, we have seen an uptick in producers who have other distillers use a custom mashbill designed by the producer, and barrel the whiskey for them, and then the producer takes the barrels to their own warehouses. Some of them are producing wonderful stuff.

Luxco is the prime example of this practice. They have their own warehouses in Louisville, but have their whiskey distilled at Heaven Hill’s New Bernheim distillery. Rebel Yell and Ezra Brooks are two of their brands that are distributed nationwide. Old Ezra 7 year old is a fantastic bourbon. I lot of folks like Blood Oath, although I think it is overpriced for what it is. Bower Hill, another non-distiller producer, has their mashbill distilled at Heaven Hill and then ages their bourbon with Luxco. So, you can even contract distill and age your own bourbon.

Robb Gibb recently wrote an excellent article on Pinhook, who has contract distilled their bourbon at MGP in Indiana but is aging it at Castle & Key Distillery in Kentucky, in warehouses built by Col. E.H. Taylor himself. They are releasing batches of this whiskey distilled in 2015 each year, with each release getting progressively older (thank you, Captain obvious.)

Another player in the contract distilling area if the Charles Medley Distillery. They are contract distilling with Heaven Hill using the Medley/Wathen’s mashbill and then aging their Bourbon in Owensboro, Kentucky. I recently had a buddy of mine pick me up a Wathen’s Barrel Proof at Binny’s in Illinois.

Weighing in at 117.55 proof and non-chill filtered, it is at least 4 years old because of the straight bourbon designation. The color on it is a medium amber, showing its fairly young age.

The nose is very old school and grain forward. Buttered corn, corn shuck, a little vanilla. Medley uses an extremely low rye mashbill – 77% corn, 10% rye, and 13% malted barley. On the palate, the buttered corn gets some caramel, with a smidgen of rye spice and then a good bit of baking spice at the end. It’s an interesting mashup – caramel corn fritters with cinnamon. The finish seems to go on forever, and spice and bitter notes emerge on the end of the finish. Mouthfeel is nice and medium bodied for such a young whiskey.

The taste profile, to me, is very old school low rye mashbill bourbon. It reminds me of bourbons I used to drink in my younger days, but I do have to say I can’t put my finger on which ones. So, I would say the profile while being old school is definitely unique at the same time.

It could certainly stand a few more years in the barrel, but it is nevertheless very good. It’s very corny and grassy, which is probably not everyone’s cup of tea. But it is definitely worth trying, and I can certainly see why this bourbon has its devotees.

But one thing is for sure – this bourbon does not taste anything like the bourbons in the current Heaven Hill lineup, where it was distilled. Different mashbill, different yeast, different warehouses, and you have something very different than what a non-distiller producer would put out if they just picked barrels for bottling at another distillery.

As to my underlying point about the Bourbon Future, contract distilling is one of the main drivers of diversity in the bourbon marketplace. It allows producers to create unique products without having to invest in facilities to ferment and distill and yet invest in barrels and warehouses to produce good bourbons. When you can find a way around some of the most capital intensive parts of bourbon making and yet making something unique, that’s a good thing for the future of bourbon.

Yet, I had to get a buddy of mine who went to Illinois to get one of these. While we have some Wathen’s/Medley products in Louisiana, I had yet to find a Wathen’s Barrel Proof. I realize not everyone has a buddy headed to a different state who can pick them up some of the unique and different bourbons entering the market place. Indeed, some releases from the major producers don’t hit every state. Availability of bourbons around the country is extremely far from uniform. In the next installment of the Bourbon Future series, I am going to talk about a game changer as far as availability of bourbon that I predicted in Part I. In the future, you will pretty much be able to get any bourbon you want, no matter where you live.

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