Did my bourbon change in the bottle?

I often see posted in bourbon social media sites people comment that the initial first taste from a new bottle of bourbon was not good but after letting it ‘open up’ a few weeks later it was completely different and so much better.  Bourbon ages for years in permeable oak barrels, so this theory that it changes after opening a bottle made little sense to me. What I have always suspected is that this difference is due to changes in your palate. Your palate, or how you perceive taste, changes constantly.   

I wanted to test this and it’s an easy enough test to perform by purchasing 2 identical bottles of bourbon.  Open one up and drink from it.  Keep the other one sealed.  At some point in time later, have a drink from both bottles side by side and see if there is a difference.  I did this myself a few times and could never tell any difference, but I’m only one person, so it was a very limited dataset for proof. In 2017 I decided to test this with a larger group.   I also introduced a triangle test to this.  Testers would taste 3 samples; 2 from the previous opened bottle and 1 sample from the just opened, or vice versa.  Either way, one of the 3 samples is the odd sample and if change was perceptible enough then it should be identified.  This test is objective in that it is designed to test if any change has occurred.  It does not test if that change is better or worse which is much more subjective.

My first test of this was with Old Weller Antique which is 107 proof.  The timeframe from the bottle being opened to test was 37 days.  The result was that there was no discernible difference.  I posted more details on this here OWA change test

I shared that result in several bourbon groups.  Many were convinced that my study was flawed.  They commented that a wheated bourbon would not change much, or my timeframe was too short or it needs to be a barrel proof bourbon.  I listened and setup up another round of testing.  This time it was with bottles of a barrel proof Four Roses Single barrel pick.  Picked by a bar in Houston named Little Dipper.    One bottle I opened and took small pours of about every other day until the bottle was half empty.  The time frame was increased to 52 days.

Little dipper bottles a

We had 12 testers.  4 said they could not tell any differences.  6 testers thought they perceived a difference but their pick was 1 of 2 identical samples in the triangle test.  2 testers correctly identified the odd sample.  Since odds of random guessing would be 4 correct answers in this test, the conclusion is no discernable difference found.

Stay tuned as I have another test and that timeframe will be 1 year.  The results will be posted around June.  I suspect this one will have a noticeable change, but I won’t know for sure until tested.  As far as short term, under a month or two, I will call this myth busted.

 

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Basics American Whiskey Types

The TTB with its Beverage Alcohol Manual, BAM, defines 35 different types of American whiskies. Before the whiskey boom of the past 10 years only a handful of these were actively produced. Between all of the craft distilleries and NDP’s, Non Distilling Producers, introducing new brands we are now seeing many more of these 35 types being introduced. An example is class type ‘Whisky distilled from Bourbon Mash’. Whenever you see a ‘distilled from XYZ mash’ statement on a label, you know the whiskey has been aged in a used barrel. For my money, I want the genuine article so therefore I purchase Straight Whiskey. The word ‘Straight’ carries much legal meaning; it means the whiskey has been aged at least 2 years in a new charred oak container, with an exception for only Straight Corn Whiskey. It also means no flavors or coloring has been added and that it is the product of only one state. A few years back, I put together this spreadsheet showing the differences between the most common whiskey types.

basic whiskey types

link to google sheet – Basic American Whiskey Types
A side note about our spirits labeling laws. The BAM is the TTB’s simplified interpretation of the actual labeling laws found in the CFR’s. If you want to read the BAM here is the link BAM. The TTB also writes regulatory rulings and other guidance such as FAQ’s.

Want to buy an allocated bottle of whiskey?

How should retailers approach sales of limited/allocated whiskey?  And I’m speaking of truly limited bottles where demand far outpaces supply; not the stuff that Casker’s hypes like limited Whistlepig releases. Here are the 5 most common scenarios:

1. Just put it on the shelf at SRP and sell to some lucky bastard that just happens to walk in at the right time.  This is the tater’s dream and it does happen on a rare occasion.  The reality is this does not help the store to build long term profitable relationships with their customers.

2. Conduct some type of raffle/lottery system at SRP. Everybody that participates has equal shot. This does build some good will; even if you lose you at least had a chance. But taters know even these stores hold back a few bottles for their best customers.

3. Announce the release date and sell the bottles, generally 1 per person, to those who line up first.  This is the black Friday sales approach with overnight camping and it seems popular with a few big KY retailers.  Taters have taken to paying folks to line stand.

4. Stores only receive very small amounts of these allocated bottles.  It’s often based on their sales of that brand’s complete portfolio.  This may include cases of vodka or cinnamon whiskey brands they have a hard time moving.  So, they decide to make the most money they can on these allocated bottles. Stores have an idea of secondary prices and will set price even above this.  They know someone is likely to pay it; they usually do.  This approach infuriates taters.  Many seem to think this is price gouging. Whiskey is hardly a life necessity so price gouging laws do not apply.  Taters see the bottle and think they have come so close.  Of course, the only reason the bottle is still on shelf is because the price is so high. It’s capitalism, and consumers are free to take all their business elsewhere.

5.  Reserve these bottles at SRP for the best/most profitable customers. This could be a guy that buys $20,000 of wine a year but wants his bottle of Pappy once a year. Or in some states like Texas where bars/restaurants buy from retailers, this means taking care of these large volume accounts first.  Some stores a use point system that track your purchases.  In smaller stores owners are often working the floor and they know who their regular profitable customers are.

In my opinion, option 5 is by far the best approach for a store owner.   The tricky part is taters often think they are great customers of every store in town.

This covers tater reason 15.  Camp out overnight for Pappiez

Diageo responds

From my last blog post, I noted I had sent an email to Diageo’s compliance officer.  My email was forwarded to their Director of Consumer Affairs.  I received a message from him explaining the surrendered COLA.  Although the TTB initially approved the COLA, they later asked Diageo to surrender it.  Because Diageo already had product ready to go with launch events, packaging and promotional material, they came to agreement with TTB so they could use this label for period of 1 year.  They are required to be clear in any promotions or marketing material that this is not a bourbon.  After the 1-year period if they continue to sell this product, it must be under a different label and name.

So that’s the story.  I’m disappointed that the TTB approved this label to begin with.  Are they overworked or just staffed with some employees that don’t understand our laws?  I’ve seen TTB COLA label approval for low proof fruit flavor liquor that had Bottled in Bond on the label. Another time they approved a ‘whiskey’ that was distilled from potatoes.  Both of those support they don’t understand our laws.  What I suspect happened is when another big bourbon producer like Sazerac or Heaven Hill found out about this label, they contacted the TTB and pointed out why it broke our law.

This leads us to tater reason:

  1.  You purchase a crappy Canadian whiskey because you found out from Tater-Talk that it is now a limited-edition whiskey

Diageo done screwed up

In this industry one of the things I am known for is pointing out producers when they violate TTB federal labeling laws on spirits.  I do so as a consumer advocate.  Prior to 2007 there were about a dozen companies producing whiskey in the US.  Per the American Craft Spirits association as of 2017 there are now 1589 craft distillers in the US.  When a distiller wants to create a new label, they submit a COLA application for approval to the TTB.  Under penalty of perjury, they swear that the label meets all US labeling laws.  Now one might think that the TTB would know all these laws and only approve labels that met them, but that have proven time and time again that don’t.  I however have studied our labeling laws extensively and know them inside out.

Almost all of the labeling mistakes I see are from these newer small craft producers.  Often it is an honest mistake in that they were not aware of a particular portion of the law.  I have pointed out mistakes and had many appreciate it and update their label accordingly.  Others violate label law on purpose because to follow them would mean telling their potential customers more than they want to and potentially hurt their sales.  I rarely see mistakes from the big producers because I suspect they have teams of lawyers that review these labels and know the laws. So that brings us to Diageo, the world’s largest spirit company.

One of Diageo’s brands is Crown Royal.  Crown is introducing a new product in the US called Crown Royal Bourbon Mash Blended Canadian Whiskey.  It’s imported from Canada.  Bourbon is red hot these days so I can see why Crown Royal wants to jump on the Bourbon bandwagon.  The problem is they broke the law in doing so.  Bourbon is distinctive product of the US as declared by the US congress in 1964 and signed by President Lyndon B Johnson.  NAFTA contains a section where Canada agreed to recognize Bourbon Whiskey as a distinctive product of the US.  American law is found in 27 CFR 5.22 (b) (2) – ‘Whiskey distilled from bourbon mash produced in the United States’.

27 CFR 5.22 (l) (1) is the smoking gun.  It states That the word “bourbon” shall not be used to describe any whisky or whisky-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States.  This is exactly what Diageo did.  They used Bourbon to describe a product that was produced in Canada.

Here is their COLA approval – CR Bourbon Mash Label  In my state Texas, it is required to have state approval as well.  Here is their Texas approval – CR Bourbon Mash TX approval PDF  If you notice the Texas approval was approved Jan 04, 2018 and is based off the Federal COLA approval #17206001000359.

This label should have never been approved by the TTB. It should have never even been submitted by Diageo.  And now it gets even more interesting.  This label status is now ‘surrendered’, which means it is no longer valid – picture of this CR label surrendered

When the label was surrendered is unknown.  I have searched the TTB database extensively and I have not found any replacement COLA approval.  Yet, Diageo is continuing to sell this product.  There is even a launch party for it tonight in Houston.

Diageo is the 900 lb gorilla in the room in the spirits business.  Maybe they think they are too big for the law to apply to them.  I for one will call them out on their shenanigans when appropriate.

Update – Diageo’s compliance officer name was on the original COLA label application, so I sent her an email asking about this.  Screenshot of email here email to Diageo

Blind Tasting of 20 American Whiskies

I love blind tastings.  I think too often we get caught up in trap of if something is expensive it must be excellent.  I just finished up running a blind tasting of 20 American whiskies. I obtained 20 different bottles of American Whiskey and broke each one down into 50 ml sample bottles.  In a local Houston whiskey group, I had 15 tasters volunteer.  Each taster paid the actual cost for the samples.  The only 2 clues the tasters knew were that it was American whiskey and that none were secondary cask finished products.  They submitted notes and scores on 2 samples a week for 10 weeks.

American Whiskey is a broad category.  The TTB defines 35 different types.  And I threw the gauntlet at this group; corn whiskey, wheat whiskey, Bourbon, malt, rye, blend of straight whiskey, and even one that was 51% American and 49% Canadian.  I Included whiskies that ranged from $15 to $130.  Included were some hot to trot new brands that are often discussed in social media.  I threw in a real dog, well OK a few, and the group pretty much ranked this appropriately towards the bottom

The attached graph (data graph courtesy of Sergio Garcia) shows the results.  The scores on the 2 most expensive whiskies? slightly above middle of the pack.  Maker’s Mark Cask Strength as winner might surprise some, but not me.  I think the entire line of Maker’s products are under appreciated by whiskey geeks and hope this will get a few to go pick up a bottle.  Whitmeyer’s is a local Houston area craft distillery.  They have just started selling some of their true grain to glass bourbon as single barrel expressions so nice to see them score so high.

One I really enjoyed but the tasters thought middle of the pack was the new Beam Little Book, a blend of straight whiskey.  It was probably the most polarizing of the group.  If you look at it’s median score and top range, it way outperformed its average score.

HBS Blind #2 ranks graph 2

For larger image of graph, see here:  Blind 20 graph

Private picks vs store picks

I have been involved with barrel picks from multiple distilleries: Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Willett, Bowman, Smooth Ambler, High West, MB Roland.  One thing they all have in common is you are almost always picking someone else’s reject barrels.  Let me explain.  The typical process is samples will be sent or if in person barrels rolled out.  It varies but typically from 5 to 10 barrel samples are tasted for your pick.  The barrel you select is then marked and set aside for later bottling.  A new barrel is rolled in and the next group gets in on the process, picking from your reject barrels, just as you picked from the prior group’s reject barrels.

When you walk into a liquor store and see a private pick of a bottle on the shelf, sometimes the store owner/manager was directly involved in the pick by tasting samples.  But plenty of times it is nothing more that the store telling the distillery to send them a barrel pick of xyz.  In this case, someone at the distillery selects the barrel. Pulling and moving barrels from a rickhouse is lot of hard work; I’ve moved my share.  Since barrels have already been pulled for the barrel picks, my theory is if a barrel has been rejected multiple times by groups doing tastings, those are the barrels that become ‘store’ picks.

As they say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Whiskey Tater Reason:

51. You believe all barrel picks are superior to standard bottle expression.