Basil Hayden’s – It’s so smooth

Basil Hayden’s is part of the original Beam Small Batch Collection which also includes Baker’s, Booker’s, and Knob Creek.  Beam uses 2 different bourbon mashbills, a low rye and a high rye bourbon. The low rye produces most of their whiskies and the high rye produces only 2 – Old Grand-Dad and Basil Hayden’s. Basil Hayden’s, with its high price point and over the top bottle packaging, shouts to the consumer that it is a premium bourbon.  As a matter of fact when friends who don’t really know bourbon, that want to surprise me with a bottle as a gift, often choose Basil Hayden’s. Gifted bourbon is always good and there is nothing wrong with this selection. It’s a pleasant pour, but at a low 80 proof it just does not excite me. For 1/3 less in price one can purchase Old Grand-Dad 114, which remains one of the best values in bourbon today.  A few years back there were rumors that Beam was planning on discontinuing OGD 114. I purchased a case and tucked it away in the back of a closet. Thankfully those rumors proved to be false as OGD 114 is still readily available. But I still sleep better knowing that the case sits there, just in case.

In 2014 Basil Hayden’s was 8-year age stated whiskey.  Now the top label of current Basil Hayden’s states ‘Artfully Aged’, which is marketing speak for we removed the age statement.  They dropped the age statement claiming that this will allow our distiller to maintain the same profile by artfully blending younger and older whiskeys.  A year later I did a group blind tasting, including both the 8-year version as well as the NAS version. Blind tasters were asked which they liked better.  The results were evenly split, which indicated Beam did a good job maintaining that profile.

Beam Suntory just recently introduced a 80 proof 10-year age stated Basil Hayden’s KY Straight Bourbon Whiskey with a suggested retail of $60.  The standard version here in Texas goes for about $32. Has the standard version maintained the profile of the old 8-year bourbon as Beam indicated that it would?  Or has younger whiskey been gradually introduced into the mix? Is a 2-year bump in age worth almost double the price? Or is the price that high just because the 10-year version will be a ‘limited’ quantity release?  I’ll stick with the OGD 114 and be very happy.

It has become a trend for brands to drop age statements and then, a few years later, reintroduce very similar whiskey with a much higher price.  Wash, lather, rinse, repeat.

Whiskey tater reason 76.  You have an irrational fear on missing out by thinking this ‘limited’ special release or that single barrel pick is the ONE.

Saving Taters from Themselves – the Bourbon 30 Ban

Recently the admins of several major sites where secondary sales of spirits occur made a joint decision to ban all products from 1 distillery.  And before I continue, no I will not name or get you into any of these sites and yes, it is illegal for individuals without a license to sell or trade spirits.  That said these sites exist and hundreds of transactions occur every day. The distillery was Bourbon 30 Craft Spirits.

Bourbon 30 Craft Spirits was started by Jeff Mattingly.  They specialize in ‘the art of barrel finishing’ and ‘direct purchase of their barrel crafted spirits’.  Pictures of their website show a small still on site, but I’m not sure how much they distill themselves. From sources, their primary business is a NDP, Non-Distilling Producer.  They have sourced barrels from various producers and allow customers to procure a private barrel selection or even a blend of barrels as well as different ‘finishes’. There is nothing at all wrong with that concept.   And this ban does nothing to stop his business from continuing their normal everyday operations.

Bourbon 30 first started bottling single barrels in 2014 but it was not until 2017 that the hype for them in the bourbon community began.  Ed Bley, who was the spirits buyer for a large liquor store well known in KY, had developed a strong following for his barrel picks done for this store. He picked over 200 barrels for this store.  Ed, who in my opinion has a great whiskey palate, worked with Bourbon 30 to create a marriage of whiskies from barrels procured from Bourbon 30. The first version was popular enough that a second version was also done in 2018.  This time lines were out the door with waits to procure a bottle. It did not take long for the fresh flippers, those who buy to immediately resell, to start listing these bottles on secondary sites. I asked Ed on his thoughts on his picks being flipped on the secondary market.  

He stated “When I began picking whiskey barrels it was a passion I can’t describe. I love the thrill of the chase. It wasn’t about profit, because I made very very little money working for a liquor store. It was about sharing a passion with my friends. Today I’m saddened. I’m sad that Jeff has to deal with this, I’m sad that as a secondary market that we’ve turned into a pack mentality as a group. What we don’t realize is that we have built up an industry together. Today we are working together to tear it down.  Wade was nice enough to ask my opinion on my bottles not being able to be sold on the secondary market. My answer is I’m sad that we even have to ask that question, when my entire goal has been to share my passion with you. At some point some greedy individuals decided they deserved to make a lot of money off of the hard work of others. This is when it went from being a positive to a negative.”

These secondary sites allow a national reach for a product that was conceived to be sold in 1 local market.  Demand from a national base exceeds local supply and the price adjust up to accommodate. Those in KY think they have struck gold; and they have – tater gold. I’m convinced taters have this fear about missing out.  Any single barrel that starts to get some positive blog posts or mention in one of the gazillion podcasts out there can instantly start a tater frenzy.

I have tasted 3 whiskies from Bourbon 30 including one called Bald Monk.  I don’t really do reviews of spirits on my site because I like what I like, and you like what you like.  Sometimes those might align but often not. The 3 whiskies I tried from Bourbon 30 all were to me average whiskies.  I would put them on the scale of standard products from big producers like Wild Turkey 101, Elijah Craig, Eagle Rare or Buffalo Trace.  The 3 whiskies I tried from Bourbon 30 all retailed over $100, which already puts it in my category of a big stretch.

One of the nicest thing that has come from these secondary sites is some bottles are sold with proceeds going to charity.  Some of these Bourbon 30 picks sold for charity with over $1000 raised per bottle. Unfortunately, I think this created a market impression that Bourbon 30 must have old Stitzel Weller stocks laying around.   This lead to Bourbon 30 doing more limited release barrel picks that taters were lining up for overnight, primarily so they could immediately sell on the secondary markets. I have always believed a sale can only take place when you have both a willing buyer and a willing seller.  However, one thing that can happen in any market is market manipulation. A seller ‘sells’ a bottle to his friend, but it is a fake sale to create a market established price. The Bourbon 30 bottles reached a point the admins of these groups feared this was happening, thus the ban.  Based on my opinion of the Bourbon 30 products I’ve sampled, I think they are saving taters from themselves. If they ever opened this bottle, they would realize have foolish they were to pay the going rate.

Most of what MGPi have available to sell to NDP’s is very young whiskey or its older stocks are mostly light whiskey or whiskey that has been aged in used barrels.  2 recently released Bourbon 30 whiskies that led to the ban were ‘Butterface’ and ‘Everything Butterface’. Each of these were labeled Bourbon Whiskey. My source confirmed both contained a percentage of Light Whiskey.  The Bald Monk that Bourbon 30 bottled says on the label that it is ‘Straight Blended Whiskey’. To be labeled this the product must contain a mixture only Straight Whiskies. It can’t have any finishing, nor oak staves added to the blend.  It can’t have any light whiskey added to the mix. Bourbon 30 has violated federal labeling codes.  I’m not sure if they did so intentionally or because lack of knowledge of the federal labeling code.  I reached out to Jeff Mattingly for comment, but he declined to answer.

There are many rumors out there about the Frankenstein whiskies Bourbon 30 created in trash cans.  I’m not here to comment on their process but will say consumers need to be able to trust producers when it comes to labels complying with federal code.  Straight Blended Whiskey sounds much better than Blended Whiskey finished with added oak staves, but you must label whiskies truthfully.

I’ll let Ed finish with this statement “We look a lot better raising glasses than torches. Let’s get back to drinking and less selling please.”

All Tennessee Whiskies are Bourbon? What about Jack Daniel’s?

“All Tennessee Whiskies are Bourbons”.   I saw this statement made the other day in one of the Facebook Bourbon info groups and would like to address this.  When a US produced spirit is labeled Whiskey, it means it meets the standards for federal code class type 140 – Whisky. Note the TTB always uses Whisky but Whisky/Whiskey spellings are interchangeable.  Class type 140 is a very broad whiskey definition. Requirements for Class type 140 are the spirit must be made from grain, distilled below 190 proof, and bottled at not less than 80 proof. Following federal codes for whisky, it must have contact with an oak container, be it new or used, charred or not.  Up to 2.5 % coloring/flavoring/blending materials may be added without disclosure. If a spirit is produced completely in one state then that producer may put the state in front of the product type on the label. Therefore, a distillery in TN could produce TN Whiskey that was distilled to 189 proof, aged in used barrels and have 2.5% flavorings added to it.  This would be TN Whiskey, but it is a far cry from Bourbon. So, the statement of “All Tennessee Whiskies are Bourbons” is false.

Confusing matters, somewhat, is the fact Tennessee passed its own law defining TN Whiskey in 2013.  While TN law does not override federal code, it does establish their own standard. It mostly follows the federal code definition of Bourbon but adds “Filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging” as a step.  It also gives a legally dubious exception for this step that only applies to one distillery in TN. However, nothing in the TN code prevents the use of 2.5% flavorings. So even under this TN law, one could make TN whiskey that has 2.5% flavorings that would still not meet the legal definition of Bourbon.

This brings us to the never ending online debate of “Is Jack Daniels a Bourbon?”  Jack Daniels is labeled as TN Whiskey. It meets all the enacted TN whiskey laws and JD claims they add no flavorings or coloring.  The step of filtering through maple charcoal prior to aging is referred to as the Lincoln County process. Those who say JD is not a bourbon usually point to the Lincoln County process as the step that prevents it as being such.  The other camp points out nothing in the federal code prevents Bourbon from employing charcoal filtering. In fact, many bourbons state on the label that they are charcoal filtered. In general, charcoal filtering removes compounds and does not them add them.  I fall into the camp that since nothing is being added JD could be called Bourbon if they so elected. I rarely see asked but I have often pondered if JD could be called Straight Bourbon? It’s aged 4 years so it meets the age requirement but then it gets a little more complicated.

There is a section in federal code that discusses when formulas are needed for spirits that have been changed through a process that alters their character, composition or class type.  Straight Bourbon never requires a formula. 27 CFR 5.27 (c) any filtering or stabilizing process which results in a product which does not possess the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to that class or type of distilled spirits; and, in the case of straight whisky, results in the removal of more than 15 percent of the fixed acids, volatile acids, esters, soluble solids, or higher alcohols, or more than 25 percent of the soluble color.  Does the Lincoln County process, which is a filtering process used by JD, remove more than 15% of these?  If the answer is yes, then JD is not Straight Bourbon. Since JD elects not to call their whiskey Bourbon or Straight Bourbon we may never know the answer to this.

Update – Jeff Selgren said I should credit him as the person that stated incorrectly that “All Tennessee Whiskey is Bourbon”, so Jeff so referenced.  

OWA/W12 – How long does it take whiskies to marry together?

Have you ever made a batch of the Old Weller Antique/Weller 12 mix?  If so, how long does it need in the bottle to marry together for the best results?  Is it instant? Do you wonder about these things or is it just the whiskey geek in me?  I was of the opinion that if you take 2 different bourbons, put them in a bottle and give them a good shake, they would be as mixed together as possible.  While visiting various distilleries and listening to folks much more knowledgeable I kept hearing it takes time for whiskies to come together, or marry.

If you noticed I called it OWA/W12 mix and not the much more common social media term of “Poor Man’s Pappy.”  This is because I know the gentleman that devised this mix, Gary Gillman. Gary was actively involved in the forums of StraightBourbon.com and was routinely vatting different whiskeys.  So much so that we referred to his process as Gillmanization. When Weller Centennial was discontinued around 2008, Gary developed this mix to be a replacement for Centennial and not as a substitute for Pappy.  I also try to refrain from using the word blend and instead use vatting, marrying or mix. Blended US whiskies with their use of GNS, aka Vodka, as well as coloring/flavorings have a poor, deservedly so, reputation.  

I decided to put this to a test.  This was done a few years back before I started blogging.  I mixed up one batch using the typical 60% OWA and 40% W12 which I let marry in a bottle for 30 days.  The other batch used the same ratio but was mixed together with a good bottle shake right before the test.  I used the same blind triangle test as I did in the “Did my bourbon change in the bottle?” tests. Testers would taste 3 samples; 2 from the bottle that was freshly mixed and 1 from the bottle married for 30 days, or vice versa.  Either way, one of the 3 samples is the odd sample and if change is perceptible enough then it would be identifiable. I did not ask which tasted better, I only asked if they could identify the odd sample.  We had about 6 people at this whiskey get together and they all tried this test. A few repeated the test with new blind samples so that I had a total of 10 tests.  9 out 10 testers identified the odd sample. Beyond that most also correctly identified which was the aged for 30-day sample. One tester did this twice by just nosing samples.  My conclusion is that the time in the bottle the whiskey marries together will noticeably change the taste.

I’m not sure what the optimal amount of time involved would be to properly marry.  Is it 2 weeks or 2 months? So I asked an industry expert, Nancy L. Fraley, for her opinion.   Nancy has worked with many distilleries on blending and whiskey maturation. While I asked her about this OWA/W12 mix, should gave me a much more elaborate answer ranging from a producer production scale to relating that to our small consumer project.  Here is Nancy’s full answer:

“From a production standpoint, I was trained and have seen from experience that after barrels are harvested and dumped, the longer they are allowed to marry in stainless steel tanks (and always of a passivated grade of either 316L or 2205), the better the mixture will be. Whenever I marry casks, doing a minimum of 1 month, although 3 to 6 months or longer in stainless is what I always prefer whenever possible, assuming the production schedule allows that and the tank space is available.

Depending upon the product I’m working on, if I can allow a blend to marry in exhausted casks rather than using a passivated grade of stainless steel, that is even better because it is an “organic” oxidation vessel, with gentle ingress and egress of oxygen, which allows the fatty acids, esters, aldehydes, organic acids, etc. to marry and recover from the mixing more quickly. Exhausted casks are perfect for this sort of thing, because when you have finished a product, you are not looking for new tannins or other oak extractive products, and the exhausted barrel acts as a sort of “lung”. I’ve used exhausted casks anywhere from 1 month to several years for marriage. But if you are using exhausted casks as oxidation vessels for whiskey marriage, then it is also important that you have the right maturation conditions, with proper temperature and humidity requirements for what you’re trying to accomplish.

After a finished whiskey is bottled, I always prefer that the newly bottled whiskey have a chance to “rest” before going out into the world to distributor’s warehouses, retail stores, or in connoisseur’s liquor cabinets. The bottling process is quite aggressive and can literally “shock” a spirit, so if you don’t allow at least the minimum amount of time for the bottles to rest, it will be very noticeable to the consumer. For this, whenever possible, I like to allow anywhere from 2 weeks to 1 month.

Now, on the consumer side of things, for connoisseurs who have taken an interest in blending 2 or more whiskeys at home and then putting them back in a bottle in order to experiment with new taste profiles, you might have noticed that when you first mix the whiskeys together and then taste it fairly soon after the mixing, it will usually be somewhat aggressive, hot, and angular. You might even notice that this effect is amplified the faster you mix the liquids together, whereas if you go more slowly when mixing the liquids, it will be less aggressive. It will also taste more aggressive if you vigorously mix the liquids together once in the bottle.

Why is this? Well, first of all, you have to be very gentle with alcohol, whether you are mixing barrels in a production setting or mixing different whiskeys together as a connoisseur. When you first mix different alcohols together, the molecular bonds are disjointed and interrupted, and thus, the mix will taste somewhat “spiky” and angular. You might not be very pleased with your initial attempt at mixing when you first taste it. But it takes time for the fatty acids, alcohol molecules, and other congeneric content to bond properly. And also, you have to remember that even when you allow a new mix to marry in a bottle, there is in effect some sort of “maturation” going on. Legally, of course, you cannot have “maturation” this way, but there are indeed chemical changes which are occurring in the presence of oxygen that take time to create.

As a general rule, I find that at least 1 month is necessary for this process to occur in a glass bottle. If you experiment with this at home, I would recommend making up a batch of 2 or more whiskeys that you mix that is large enough to take a taste of it every week to observe the changes. The first time you taste, do it immediately after you have blended your components together and take copious tasting notes. Keep the remainder of your sample in a dark, cool place. A week after you make the blend, taste it again and take notes. Do this every week for at least a month, and two months if possible.

Over time, you might notice that the blend starts to “relax,” become less angular each time you taste, until it eventually becomes rounder and softer on the palate. Notice whether or not new flavors and aromas develop. For example, you might notice some citrus notes developing, whereas those notes were not present in any of the component whiskeys. Occasionally, you might find that your home blend develops to a point, but then goes “flat” or dead, where it doesn’t seem very interesting anymore. In that case, try making minor adjustments to it, such as adding maybe no more than 5 mL of another whiskey component that might have more spice, sweetness, fruitiness, etc. You can always add more, but it is best to make these adjustments a little at a time and watch how they start to affect the mix before adding more.”

Value Proposition of Higher Proof US Whiskies

Whiskey geeks love higher proof whiskies.  We tend to like sipping whiskey neat at higher proof and the flexibility to add our own water to our desired proof.  In the heat of Houston summers, I often drink bourbon with a few ice cubes. Higher proof bourbon can hold up to ice without becoming too diluted.  In recent years the US distilleries and NDP’s have responded with expanded offerings at higher proof.

These higher proof offerings often come at significantly higher prices. The reality is you are paying a premium for something that simply has less water added to it.  It’s generally the same whiskey just bottled at a different proof. Knowing that, it becomes a math calculation to determine the premium you are paying for a more concentrated version.  It’s true that these versions often come in more fancy packaging. Some are not necessarily bottled at barrel proof, but perhaps at a marketing term of ‘Full Proof’ or just at a higher proof.  This is often done so they can have 1 label that covers all the possible proofs that will come out of any barrel or batch of barrels. Considering that I get my own water for virtually free, I decided to break some bottles down for price comparison.  This shows how much premium these higher proof bourbons carry. The chart below is based on pricing in my local market Houston for 750ml bottles; pricing varies some by region.

Barrel Proof premium rev 1

link to above – Barrel Proof spreadsheet

I’m sure I’ll get some feedback of my pairings. I’m not saying these are exact but I am saying they are close.  Is Stagg Jr really a barrel proof version of Buffalo Trace? They are the same mashbill and around the same age with just a difference in proof.  WP Boss Hog V is a 13 year MGPi Rye finished in secondary casks. WP Old World is 1 year off at 12 years and is MGPi Rye finished in secondary casks at a lower proof.  Blanton’s SFTB is EU’s current pricing converted to USD, but you still have to get it to the States.

As you can see the range is from an extremely reasonable zero % increase to a whopping 399% increase.  Overall we are paying significantly more for higher proof US whiskies. Are they worth this extra cost?  That always comes down to an individual’s personal preference. For me, I’m going to start drinking more OGD 114 and I need to go purchase some WT Rare Breed.

Next in this series I’ll look at how much premium producers are charging for finishing whiskey for a short period in secondary casks.

Proof Calculations computed using this calculator – https://homedistiller.org/distill/dilute/calc

Whiskey Show Advice & Etiquette

If you are a whiskey geek like me then you have probably attended whiskey shows like The Whiskey Extravaganza, Whiskies of the Worlds or numerous other events like these.  Producers at these shows pour various small samples of their whiskies. As a consumer it’s a great way to try new whiskies and get to know the brands a little more. For whiskey companies it’s a great way to introduce new whiskies to consumers as well as explain what make their brand unique.

One of my pet peeves is the tater that decides to have a 30-minute conversation with the brand rep while trying every single whiskey in the portfolio with a long line that stands behind him.  The proper etiquette is try 1 maybe 2 pours depending on the line and keep conversation reasonable but brief. Typically, the show’s lines tend to become shorter as the event progresses. So, if you want to have a longer more in-depth conversation stop back by later.  This advice also applies to the brand reps. You don’t need to start with “Our distillery began distilling 230 years ago” and continue with the complete history. I know it’s your job to educate customers on your brand, but develop a concise discussion that will cover the essential facts.  If a customer skips a table because the line is long both the consumer and vendor lose.

If you live in a major market like I do in Houston, these shows are frequent events.  Some are good and some are just a money grab, one and done type of shows. I suggest searching reviews on past events as well as looking at what companies will be pouring.  Respected shows will publish this list on their website. A danger sign that a show will not be very good is if the list is not made available to the public prior to the event.

I spoke with Kristopher Hart whose company runs a well-produced local whiskey event in Houston, Houston Whiskey Social, about managing lines.  Kristopher said “My goal has always been to shape the event in a way to prevent any build ups at the table to allow conversation to happen. We encourage a 10-14 person per Vendor ratio. So, if we have 70 vendors then we have 700-1000 people”.

Also keep in my mind it’s not a race or a competition to try the most.  Generally, if you tried every sample at one of these shows, you are not going to remember any of them.  Please use the dump buckets. Good shows will place these on every table or have them conveniently located.  Yes, that might be a great whiskey in your glass, but after you sampled it, it’s not being disrespectful to dump the rest.

Don’t be afraid to try new whiskies from producers you are not familiar with.  Yes, I love that sample of The Balvenie 21 PortWood, but if it is a whiskey you are very familiar with perhaps skip it and find something new to try.  I tend to try mostly new to me whiskies and from that I find a favorite that I will later purchase a bottle of.

Maker’s Mark answers label question

On the label of Maker’s Mark bourbon you will find “Maker’s Mark is America’s only handmade bourbon whisky – never mass produced”.   Looking through the COLA database, this statement goes back for at least 14 years.  I visited my local store and it was on every bottle I saw in both 750ml and 1.75liter.

Maker's Mary Never massed produced

I have visited close to 100 distilleries located all over the world.  Some have been very technologically advanced with computer screens and automation performing some of the work while others have been at the opposite end with every valve hand turned by a person.  I would say every distillery I have visited could make a valid claim of being handmade. At some point in the process hands are involved. For instance barrels are all rolled by hand. You will not find any definition of handmade in the TTB’s CFRs.  Maker’s Mark hand dips all of their bottles. So, I have no issue with Maker’s use of handmade on the label. They also claim never mass produced. Again, there is no legal definition for mass produced in the CFRs, so it is just a marketing statement.

What I found perplexing was their use of the word ‘only’.  With the boom of new craft distilleries in the US in the last 10 years certainly there are plenty of whisky distilleries operating on a smaller scale than Maker’s Mark with more hands-on involvement.  Frankly I was flabbergasted they would dare to make this statement.

When I started writing this blog post, the first thing I did was reach out Maker’s Mark to see if they would like to comment on this.  I received a response back the very next day. Here is the message:

“As the category has evolved, we have made updates to the label, including removing the word ‘only.’  Sometimes inventory takes a while to clear off the shelves, so it’s entirely possible that you’ve seen or even purchased bottles recently that still have this language (as noted in your picture). However, new bottles coming out of the Maker’s Mark Distillery today no longer include the word ‘only’.

I was expecting to post a hard take on this issue and see if it would convince them to change.  Looks like they outdid me; good for them for making this change. At least Bourbon geeks in the future will be able to quickly glance at a Maker’s Mark bottle and proclaim that’s a pre or post 2018 label change bottle.


Let me know in comments if you see a bottle with a label that reflects this new change.  Update – Confirmed sighting of new label as of November 2018.