During this ongoing bourbon boom, somehow retail prices of $80 to $200 per bottle of bourbon became normalized. The masses that jumped into Bourbon over the past 3 to 4 years have bought into the fallacy that price equates to quality or rarity. This is a result of masterful manipulation by spirits companies. The chairman of Diageo, Javier Ferrán, said it best, “A key driver of perception of quality is price”.
One factor driving this is the influence from online whiskey reviews via bloggers, youtubers, tik tok, instagrammers, etc. Those new to the game errantly give these folks credibility. Their motivation to review these overpriced whiskeys is largely that they are given free media kits and want to continue to receive free whiskey samples from them. It wouldn’t matter if they bought these bottles from a retailer as there is only one opinion in the world that is important, you and your palate! Seriously, go right now and unsubscribe from any site/person that reviews whiskey online, and indefinitely delete your patreon account. Once that is done, come back to continue reading.
Here’s the deal. Most of those $80-$200 bottles are put out by NDPs, non distilling producers, who sourced overpriced whiskey through a broker. 99% of the time this whiskey is distilled by one of the major US whiskey distilleries. So, until you know the profile of what the major distillers put out and which bourbons align with your palate, you are chasing waterfalls. Just stop! The great news is that these major producers put out plenty of bourbon that is affordable and widely available for the most part. Below is a list from the majors to buy next if you haven’t tried them.
Some of the majors have multiple mashbills so some of them have 2 suggestions. With a few possible exceptions, these should be easy to find at any decent liquor store in the US and for under $30 a bottle.
-Four Roses – Four Roses yellow label (now a tan label)
-George Dickel – Dickel 12
-Heaven Hill – Evan Williams or Elijah Craig. Wheated mashbill – Larceny
-Jack Daniels – Jack Daniels black label
-Jim Beam – Beam Black or Knob Creek. High rye mashbill – Old Grand Dad 100 proof
-Maker’s Mark – Maker’s Mark
-MGPi – they have just started selling their own brands in certain states so if it’s available in your area then look for George Remus Bourbon; this will be the exception on price and more like $38. If George Remus is not available, then look for any Straight Bourbon which the back label states “Distilled in IN”.
-Old Forester – Old Forester Signature 100 proof
-Wild Turkey – Wild Turkey 101
-Willett – Old Bardstown 90 proof square bottle – The square bottle is their own distillate
-Woodford Reserve – Woodford Reserve
These are all the real deal Straight Bourbon Whiskey with no flavoring or extra barrel finishing/staves added. They are all aged at least 4 years. Try all these either by buying a bottle or by buying a pour at your local watering hole. Narrow down your preferences to figure out your favorite. I could tell you my favorite, but this ain’t a whiskey review site. Once you have a favorite, explore other options from the same distillery. The next time you buy a more expensive hyped up bottle, because I know you taters still will, compare them to each other. If your favorite from the list costs $25 and the new hyped bottle was 4 times the cost, ask yourself if the new one is 4 times as good. Is it even better?
I know if you truly take this approach, you will splurge way less often on these hyped bottles and you will begin to enjoy bourbon again.
George Dickel, which is owned by Diageo, recently cleared a new label for George Dickel and for the first time called the product Bourbon instead of TN Whisky. Both Jack Daniels and George Dickel have always met the legal requirements to be called Bourbon although they elected to designate themselves as TN Whisk(e)y. Nothing about the Lincoln County Process prevents a whiskey from being bourbon.
Now what surprised me was that George Dickel used a Diageo address in New York in the Produced By statement on the back label.
But since this was now labeled as Bourbon and not TN Whiskey, this label failed to meet 27 CFR 5.36 (d). My readers likely know this code requires the actual state of distillation to be on the label on certain types of American whiskey if the Produced by or Bottled by statement is different than the actual state of distillation.
I contacted Diageo and the TTB about this clear label code violation. The TTB gave me their typical line; we will investigate it and take action as appropriate. Diageo did get back to me and after a week later they responded back that a new COLA label submission had been filed which now says distilled and produced at Cascade Hollow in Tennessee. I also checked on the old label with New York and it has now been surrendered.
The new label:
I would hope this puts an end to the false argument that Jack and George aren’t bourbons. But since many uneducated fools still think Bourbon can only be made in KY, I doubt it does. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to this release of 8-year Dickel Bourbon.
In my local bourbon group, Houston Bourbon Society, I have run 5 group blind tastings. Each time it has included between 18 to 21 whiskies with 15 tasters. Why 15? Because a 750ml bottle breaks down neatly into 15 samples of 50ml each. Each taster paid the actual cost for the samples. Most of the bottles were obtained at a store for normal SRP. I sometimes included a dusty bottle from my bunker. Each tasting had a loose theme as described below. Beyond the theme, the tastings were completely blind, meaning the tasters had no clue which bottles were included the lot. The tasters picked up the samples and turned in notes on a few each week until it was completed.
The graphs below show the averages, the median, and the ranges. Thanks to Sergo Garcia for putting these together. Of note, after the second blind, I changed my scoring scale. I had used a 0 to 100 point scale, but realistically folks scored in the 60 -100 range. I decided, after consulting with a NASA scientist, that a 0 to 5 scale with 2.5 representing an average whiskey was a better system.
Blind 1 was themed Only Bourbon.
Blind 2 was themed as Any American Whiskey.
Blind 3 was themed as ‘If it’s not Straight, You must Abate’
Blind 4 was themed as ‘The best of Gulf Coast Barrel picks’ with only local area barrel picks included.
Blind 5 was themed as ‘This Isn’t Fair’ as I included some finished whiskies as well as some finished whiskies I made myself. Yes, you can do this at home without overpaying some NDP for young whiskey with additives. See my blog post on this – https://tater-talk.com/2019/03/19/make-your-own-finished-bourbon-at-home-in-the-bottle/. Note that all American finished whiskies are class type 641, whiskey specialties, and as such are allowed to add up to 2.5% by volume HCFBM, Harmless Coloring/Flavoring/Blending Material, with no disclosure required. So making these at home with bitters or other elements is no different than what can be done commercially.
If you have not tasted completely blind, I will ensure you it can be a very humbling experience. My experience has shown that price does not equate to quality. In none of these blinds did the most expensive whiskey finish on top. Drink what you like and be careful of what you pay for.
Link to view/download graphs – https://photos.app.goo.gl/eBSxUWKo1CacEX4MA
Brown Sugar Bourbon? We all know that Bourbon by code can’t have any coloring or flavorings, so how does this grotesque whiskey exist? The answer is ‘Brown Sugar Bourbon’ is not Bourbon but a Whiskey Specialty; it’s listed in this product’s COLA application as a fanciful name.
When a spirit type does not fall under any one clear class/type designation, the TTB encourages the producer to use a fanciful name to describe it. Most products marketed as ‘Moonshine’ use that word on their label as a fanciful name; it does not exist anywhere in federal code as a class/type. It’s all marketing trend words.
‘American Single Malt’ does not exist as a class type yet plenty of producers have this listed on their label. If you check the COLA label on these, you will see they are using this as a fanciful name. The brand name is Westland and the class/type is the general category of Whiskey. This is simply Westland Whiskey with American Single Malt squeezed in between.
The TTB describes a fanciful name as “a term used in addition to the brand name for the purposes of further identifying a product”. The TTB also states that product labels should not be misleading. In the case of American Single Malt, I think it’s fair to say it correctly identifies the whiskey and provides a consumer with a better understanding of the product in the bottle, which is a whiskey derived from malted barley produced at a single distillery in the USA.
But what about Brown Sugar Bourbon? First they are using an actual class/type whiskey, Bourbon, in their fanciful name. That does not help a consumer further identify the product, it does the opposite and creates consumer confusion – is this a Bourbon distilled from brown sugar?
They use the term not once but twice and in a much larger font than the actual statement of composition which is ‘Bourbon whiskey with natural brown sugar & cinnamon flavors & caramel color’. I asked the TTB about this and their response was “they look at labels in their entirety when determining whether a label is compliant (including whether it may be misleading to the consumer).” This is also bottled at 60 proof. Bourbon by code has to be bottled at 80 proof. So the statement of composition should also include diluted with water. How far can a spirit go away from being Bourbon and the TTB allow a statement of composition to cover all? My fanciful name in large type will be Marzipan Bourbon. In the small print statement of composition it will be listed as Bourbon with 60% GNS added with coconut nibs, marzipan and caramel coloring diluted with water to 40 proof. We will see if Fred Minnick will include this in one of his tastings.
Label artwork courtesy of Todd Grube.
The Scotch Whiskey Association would never allow whiskey with these types of flavors added to be marketed as Scotch. In the USA we have the TTB that enforces what defines Bourbon. By allowing products like this into the market they are lowering the bar for what consumers think of bourbon and long term my opinion is that will have detrimental effects.
I stumbled upon a word document that I saved from a 2012 road trip report to KY. My have times changed.
Kentucky Bourbon Trip
Last week, Randy Blank & I left Houston on Tuesday morning for our road trip to KY. We stopped Tuesday night in Memphis and we ate some above average BBQ at Cozy Corner (had been on Food Network’s D.D.D.) and drank some good beer at the Flying Saucer. The next day on our way to Bardstown, KY, we toured the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY. The factory where GM makes all Corvettes is right next door.
We arrived in Bardstown and had a group dinner that night at local restaurant with Wes Henderson from Angel’s Envy Bourbon. Wes spoke to our group about his family’s involvement in the Bourbon industry and their decision to launch this product. While this a “sourced” bourbon that is then aged in Port barrels, they do have plans to start their own craft distillery. Wes did say this was produced for them to their mashbill specifications. They plan to introduce a cask strength version of Angel’s Envy by the end of this year. This will be aged much longer in port barrels; up to 2 years vs. 6 months. Wes brought samples of this cask strength as well as standard Angel’s Envy for us to try. I have to say while I’m not in love with this bourbon, I do love the passion Wes has for the product their family is making. If you ever get the chance to meet Wes, be sure to ask him why he is not allowed in Canada (story involves a road crew and the band INXS).
The group I’m involved with has about 70 members and about half made this trip to KY. After dinner, we had a conference room reserved at our hotel and everybody brought a bottle or 2. It was a great selection of bourbon to select from.
On Thursday, Randy & I got up early and went to friend’s house, Doug, who lives in KY out in the boonies. I think his neighbors next door might be moonshiners. We smoked 3 briskets that made the trip up with us from Texas. One member of our group works as a chef and cooked a bacon wrapped stuffed pork loin that was out this world. I’ve attached a picture – pure food porn. While we were cooking at Doug’s, most of our group went to Four Roses for barrel selection and lunch. Four Roses is at the top of my list and the group agrees, we selected 3 barrels for purchase. These barrels were recipe OBSF, OESK, and OESF – all will be bottled at proof and unfiltered. Doug has been collecting whiskey, both Bourbon and Scotch, for a very long time. He recently finished out his basement and built shelving to display his collection. It’s over 2500 bottles and I bowed down to this like I was at the altar. I have a picture of it on my phone I can show you, but Doug asked for photos not to be posted to internet.
On Friday morning, we visited Buffalo Trace to select barrels of Old Weller Antique (OWA). They rolled out 12 barrels for us to pick from. They were all the same age and all stored in same warehouse location. One might think they would all taste the same, but you would be very wrong. I brought with me a sample of off the shelf OWA. I used this as baseline to compare. After tasting the first 6 samples, I was disappointed and did not find anything I thought was better than the normal OWA. However, started with barrel 7, I knew we had some winners. On barrel 9, Randy looked at me and said If this barrel does not get selected, it’s going home with me. The group purchased barrels 7, 8, and 9 and a subgroup purchased 2 additional barrels.
After the tasting, we received a behind the scene tour. I’ve toured Buffalo Trace many times and was pleasantly surprised that we toured areas I had not seen. This included the barrel fill and barrel dump area. Attached is a picture of me at Buffalo Trace collecting some barrel char on the dump line. These char pieces fall out of barrel and are great to use on your grill or smoker. FYI – I learned to always take a glass with on tours. Also, on this line, I filled my glass directly out of the barrel with some Ancient Ancient Age – very tasty. Later we walked through a lab area where they were preparing for the next release in Old Taylor series. This will be a barrel proof, about 134 proof, bourbon and should hit your retailer in 3-4 months. A Buffalo Trace employee had a 200ml sample bottle he was passing around for us to nose. Again – my glass came in handy!
From Buffalo Trace, we made our way to Independent Stave Company. They make the barrels for several distillers. I’ve traveled back to KY many times over the years without seeing this. It is a very interesting process and while there is some automation, barrel assemble is still an art. The cooper hand picks the staves required for the barrels. Different distilleries specify how many staves per barrel, so the cooper must select the right size staves to complete barrel to the specifications.
From Independent Stave, we made our way back to Doug’s for some porch sitting and sipping bourbon. Bob and Allen Richards had arrived in KY that morning and they caught up with us at Doug’s. Doug has an amazing single malt collection that were open for anybody to sample, so Bob and Allan were both in heaven. From Doug’s we left to go to the Gazebo. Bardstown has a Best Western hotel called the General Nelson (GN). The GN has an outdoor Gazebo that starting in 2001 became a default gathering place for forum members of StraightBourbon.com. I made my first trip to GN in 2003 and have been a regular at the Gazebo table since. Hundreds of folks show up that I might see only once a year but through the years have become good friends. Hard to put in words, but suffice to say, I think it is something special.
The next morning, we visited Drew Kulsveen and KY Bourbon Distillers (KBD). I can say that tomorrow has finally arrived – KBD is now distilling. It took many years, but KBD is now filling 16 full size barrels a day. They are still working on some pump issues and plan to ramp up to 50 barrels a day. Alas, this will not be ready for sale for many years. Our group was there to taste other barrels that KBD owns. Our group had previously purchased barrels from this specific source when it was 7 years old, then again at 8 and now 9 years old. We tasted from 6 barrels and selected 2 for purchase. Honey, maple, brown sugar, cherries – a great bourbon that we will have bottled at barrel proof and unfiltered. We asked to Drew to hold for and age to 10 years 2 additional barrels. Last minute, Drew decided we might be interested in an 8 year wheated bourbon. We sampled 4 different barrels. I thought they could use some more age and passed on this one. Others disagreed and the group has purchased 1 barrel.
Drew gave us the full tour. The distillery is a thing of beauty. Drew has the Willett family original recipe and they are distilling using that mashbill. They are making both Bourbon and Rye Whiskey. After tour, Drew grabbed a drill and took a few of us up to the top of one of their rickhouses. The drill is a quick way to grab a sample from a barrel. Drew pulled samples we tasted the KBD distilled bourbon. Just a camera phone picture but thought this one was a good shot. I have been in rickhouses before, but usually they are full. Being on the 5th floor looking down at empty rickhouse and knowing it would soon be full was surreal. This KBD visit was my highlight of this trip.
After spending the morning sampling 10 different barrel proof bourbons and then some straight from the barrel, I’ll admit I went and took a good nap. Without me, the group went on the Heaven Hill (HH). HH makes many bourbons including Evan Williams and Elijah Craig. One member from California has previously purchased barrels from HH and has developed a very good relationship with them. Our group prefers to buy single barrel at barrel proof unfiltered bourbon. HH has always said no to this request in the past. They would only sell something that went into one of their standard offerings. Well, they finally said OK and decided to show off what they could do. They rolled these barrels for tasting:
Bernheim Wheated Bourbon – same product as in Parker’s Heritage Wheated Bourbon 10.6 YO – 126.9PF 11.6 YO – 122.4PF
Rye – DSP 354 3.6 YO – 126.0PF 3.6 YO – 125.6PF
Old Fitzgerald – distilled at Stitzel Weller 20YO – 130.0PF
Bourbon – Prefire HH 22.1 YO – 152.1PF 22.2 YO – 152.3PF 21.2 YO – 129.5PF
Bernheim Wheat – Straight Wheat Whiskey 7.5 YO – 136.0PF 6.2 YO – 130.2PF
Mellow Corn – corn whiskey aged in used barrels 8 YO – 125.5PF 11 YO – 139.7PF
This group did not have prior commitments for purchase at HH, so we are currently polling members to see what we might purchase. While you might get the most excited about the 20YO Stitzel Weller Old Fitz, all said it was too woody. Most thought the Rye was too young. Corn Whiskey, aka legal moonshine, usually is aged very little. The 8YO corn whiskey tasted has received some great reviews.
Late Saturday afternoon, we had a cookout at the GN. One straightbourbon member who works in a restaurant had Allen Brothers donate 32 steaks. A couple of pork butts were also smoked and I made up some Thai Slaw. Several others brought side dishes and desserts. From here, Bob, Allan, and myself went to KY Bourbon Festival Sampler. Most of the distilleries and brands have booths setup where you can get a sample, typically in a logo-ed glass that you get to keep. Jim Rutledge, Master Distiller, at Four Roses was there and we had a nice conversation with him. Then back to the Gazebo. I was designated driver that night, so my participation was very limited. I did sample of Cabin Still at 90 proof from the 70’s that was remarkable.
We started road trip back early Sunday morning. We elected a different route coming home – stopping at casino resort in Biloxi on Sunday night. This route takes us route by a cousin of mine in Hartselle, AL, so able to stop and have a brief visit. Randy & I both won a little money gambling (although him way more than me). The other great thing about this route is it passes by Don’s Specialty Meats outside of Lafayette, LA. I can’t pass on fresh hot cracklin and also stocked up on boudin, crawfish tail meat (from LA – not China), some rabbit sausage and few other items.
Overall, this was the best trip I have been on the KY. Looking forward to next year’s version.
Without a doubt, in every whiskey group I’m in, someone will eventually ask for advice on a ‘really good’ tequila. These posts are heavily commented on and often with some questionable advice. In the bourbon world equivalent advice would be along the lines of ‘Kentucky Owl Confiscated is the best’. So I’m writing this brief high level overview on Tequila. As in bourbon, the price of Tequila is often more a function of marketing than of quality. Fancy bottles and ties to celebrities are hallmarks of tequila companies which typically pitch subpar products.
Tequila is a spirit produced in certain regions of Mexico and distilled from the Tequilana Weber, or Blue Agave, species of agave. The regions include 5 states including all of Jalisco and portions of 3 other bordering states and a small area of Tamaulipas. It can be produced from 70 to 110 proof, but US laws require a minimum of 80 proof. Tequila is protected by trade agreements with over 40 countries as a product of Mexico in the same way that Bourbon is protected as a product of the USA.
Tequilas can be broken down into 2 types, 100% Blue Agave and Mixto. Mixto tequilas must be produced from 51% Blue Agave but can use other sugar sources for the remaining 49%. Would you buy a whiskey if 49% of the grain in the mashbill was replaced with sugar? The answer should be no and you should not buy any Mixto tequilas which includes the entry level products of Jose Cuervo. Tequilas that are made from 100% Blue Agave will say so on the label, if it doesn’t then it’s a Mixto and you should avoid it.
Production of tequila starts with the piñas. Whiskey is started with grains which are milled and then cooked in hot water to release the natural sugar. The piñas have to go through a similar process but it’s longer as they are very tough and fibrous. The methods a producer uses to accomplish this has a direct effect on the quality of the tequila produced.
The best tequilas are ones where the process starts in a stone or brick oven to cook the piñas. This is a slow process but worth it. A faster way is to use an autoclave; think of this as an Instant Pot or pressure cooker but on a much larger scale.
After this process the next step is extracting the sugars. The traditional method is the use of a tahona, which is a very heavy stone wheel that rolls slowly over the cooked piñas. The yield is low but it produces an very good tequila. A faster modern and more cost effective method is the use of roller mills, which can also produce good results. There are different designs of mills and shredder which can increase yield but also extract more bitter notes.
The above 2 steps can be combined into 1 step to produce the fastest and crappiest tequila. This is through the use of a diffuser. A diffuser is a very long chamber in which the raw pinas are placed and subjected to hot water/steam and/or often sulphuric acid or enzymes. The runoff from this is then fermented and distilled to make poor Tequila. Who would make such horrible tequila using this process? The alleged list includes Jose Cuervo, Tequila Sauza, Casa Dragones, Casamigos, Campu Azul, Herradura, El Jimador, Cazadores and many more.
From here we go through the normal steps that we see in whiskey production – fermentation, distillation and aging. Tequila is typically distilled at much lower proofs from the still than what we see in whiskey. Because of this pot stills tend to produce the highest quality of tequila with large column stills mostly processing tequila produced from a diffuser.
Most tequilas are aged in used bourbon barrels. Blanco tequilas are unaged. Reposados are aged between 2 months and 1 year. Añejo tequilas are aged between 1-3 years, and Extra Añejos are aged for longer than 3 years. If one prefers an Extra Añejo versus a Reposado it’s a matter of taste preference. As with whiskey age is not necessarily an indicator of quality.
Aged tequilas are allowed under Mexican law to contain up to 1% flavoring without disclosure while Blancos are not (see comments for more info). Does that Anejo tequila you are sipping taste highly of vanilla? That vanilla flavor could have very well came from the addition of a very concentrated extract. Diffuser based tequilas are the ones that typically rely on flavoring.
If we see an unknown brand of bourbon that states it’s a Kentucky bourbon and we know that brand doesn’t have their own distillery figuring out who exactly distilled that whiskey is difficult. Tequila has made this process much easier. All 100% blue agave tequilas will list a 4 digit NOM number on the bottle. This NOM tells you exactly what distiller produced the tequila in the bottle. I wish we had this for whiskey. There are several sites and even an app that will let you type in a NOM and see all the tequila brands that they have produced both past and present. And yes, like sourced whiskey, many brands of Tequila have changed where they have their tequila produced over time. Be aware that some of the tequila distilleries have multiple types of equipment and might make some very high quality and some not so much so at the same facility.
So, from above we know a quality tequila will follow some or all of these steps:
100% Blue Agave
Cooked in a stone or brick oven
Sugars extracted using a Tahona wheel and/or gentle extraction methods
Distilled in a pot still
Beyond this, the age and the region where Blue agave is grown has an influence on the taste.
What brands of tequila do I recommend that use most or all of these processes? Start with these listed in alphabetical order:
ArteNom 1414 Cascahuín El Tesoro Fortaleza G4 Siembra Azul Siete Leguas Tapatio Tequila Ocho
They vary in price but some of these are under $40 for the Blanco versions and under $60 for the Anejo. If you want inexpensive tequila for cocktails, I’d suggest Olmeca Altos Plata. It’s 100% Blue Agave and cooked in brick ovens. They mix production with part from Tahona wheels and part from roller mills. It’s copper pot distilled and costs around $20. Not on the list and not recommended are Clase Azul, Casamigos or Don Julio 1942 so just stop suggesting those.
The TTB proposed several new rules and solicited input under a proposal titled “Modernization of the Labeling and Advertising Regulations for Wine, Distilled Spirits, and Malt Beverages” last year. Today they published their response along with which code change is occurring and its effective date of May 4, 2020. Here is my summary on how it affects spirits:
-All spirits other than neutral spirits, which is vodka, can now have age statements so long as once they are dumped from the barrel no altercations are made. Yes Gin can now officially be aged. In addition they removed the line about Gin having to be aged in paraffin lined barrels. Whiskey Specialties class type 641 products should now be allowed to carry an age statement.
-One proposal was to define the size of an oak barrel used for aging. This was the most commented on item and the comments overwhelmingly opposed this proposal. The TTB listened and the current code, which does not specify a particular size, will remain in place.
-Another proposal would have limited age statements to only time spent in the first barrel. This was not implemented. The TTB agrees all time spent in barrels count towards the age statement. However no changes were made to 27 CFR 5.22 which states age for bourbon whisky, rye whisky, wheat whisky, malt whisky, or rye malt whisky, and straight whiskies other than straight corn whisky, means the period the whisky has been stored in charred new oak containers. This also does not affect the current requirement in certain whiskies to disclose if it was aged in used cooperage.
-Agave Spirits is now a new Class with 2 defined types listed under it, Tequila & Mezcal. US producers making Agave spirits in this Class will now be able to do so without submitting a formula
-Brand labels on spirits. Before the brand name with class and type were required to appear together on a label. Now that information just needs to be able to be viewed all at once.
-If whisky is aged in more than one barrel, the label may optionally indicate what types of barrels were used.
-If spirits are labeled with a term describing how many times it has been distilled it must be a truthful statement. Distillation means a single run either through a pot or a column still. Many Vodka distillers in the past claimed something like 50 times distilled, but they were counting each plate in the column as a distillation.
-Laws on personalized labels were relaxed. Producers can now obtain a COLA approval for a personalized label and once approved then make changes to this personalization without a new label approval being required.
-In advertising, you can now display your phone number, website or email rather than your city/state.
-Proof in bottles will now have a wider variance; plus or minus 0.3 percentage points.
-Regarding selecting a class type, the TTB wants distillers to have the option of using the general class type ‘whisky” or the designated type that applies. This has been the TTB policy although it goes directly against 27 CFR 5.35 (a) which states the class and type of distilled spirits shall be stated in conformity with §5.22 if defined therein; where 5.22 defines the main class types. You would think they would revise 5.35, but there was no mention of that.
-The use of the term Straight shall become optional for a producer. My personal note – lf you make a whiskey that meets the qualifications to be labeled Straight, please label it as such!
-Vodka was described in the code as without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color. That has been stricken from the code. It’s now defined as neutral spirits which may be treated with up to two grams per liter of sugar and up to one gram per liter of citric acid.
One of the things that make Bourbon unique is that nothing can be added post distillation other than water. This is true regardless if it’s labeled Bourbon or Straight Bourbon. Other American whiskey types such as Rye, if it’s not labeled Straight, can have up to 2.5% HCFBM, which stands for Harmless Coloring Flavoring Blending Materials. This could include caramel coloring or lab created flavoring. Which is why I often comment with the phrase ‘If it’s not Straight, you must abate’.
I was asked today about a product that said, ‘Straight Bourbon with Dark Cherry and Bourbon Vanilla Beans’. They wondered since Bourbon can have nothing added but water, how this product could be labeled Bourbon? The same question is often posed to me about Bourbons that are finished in a secondary barrel such as port. Obviously, a port barrel will add both coloring & flavoring. Also, Bourbon is only allowed to be aged in new charred oak containers, in which a used port barrel clearly does not meet this qualification.The answer is found in Ch. 7 of the TTB BAM.
The TTB allows a producer to state Bourbon, or Straight Bourbon, on the label of these products as long as it is followed with the statement of what was done to it that made it no longer Bourbon. This is required to be on the front label. The example given by the TTB is the addition of Yellow #5, but this same concept applies to the example above of added cherries and vanilla as well as for whiskies finished in secondary barrels.
The TTB makes it very clear that these additions change the class type if the original class type prohibited any additives. These whiskies become class type 641 – Whiskey Specialties. Bourbon is class type 141 and Straight Bourbon is class type 101. You can look up the COLA label approval for these products and see that they are class type 641. Example:
The label on this product says Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Port Wine Barrels. Is it Bourbon? No, it’s a Whiskey Specialties.
I’m also frequently asked about whiskies that have some type of staves or spires added to them, such as Maker’s Mark 46. These additional staves fall under added HCFBM. They are specifically addressed by CFR 27 5.39 (c) which states “Treatment with wood. The words “colored and flavored with wood ___ (insert chips, slabs, etc., as appropriate)” shall be stated as a part of the class and type designation for whisky, in whole or in part, with wood through percolation, or otherwise, during distillation or storage, other than through contact with the oak container.” So are these bourbon? No, they are Whiskey Specialities.
Many consumers do like these products and this post is not a commentary on the quality of any of these whiskies. It’s an explanation of why these products are class type whiskey specialties. Bourbon does have special protection in the USA. The well documented history of whiskey in America shows that rectifiers cut and added all sorts of materials to stretch whiskey or try to make inexpensive whiskey taste better with short cuts. In some ways I see these class type 641 whiskies as going against the hard fought battle that earned Bourbon it’s place and protection in the USA and around the world. By having the words Bourbon followed by an explanation on the bottle causes consumer confusion. The 641 class type is a catch all for whiskies that don’t fit neatly into any other type. My hope is that the TTB at some point defines some improved class types for these whiskies. I would also like to see age statements allowed. I would suggest calling these products Finished Whiskey on the front label & allowing the producer to then state the type of whiskey used along with whatever process on the back label.
I recently came across a newspaper article about a company, Persedo Spirits, with a patented process that discussed polishing whiskey. The article mentioned turning bad liquor into good. Over the years I have seen and tasted several other spirits produced by some type of contraption, they were poor substitutes for and easy to detect apart from properly aged spirits. I would not have thought twice about this latest company except for the fact they were in my backyard in Alvin, TX which is about 35 miles south from me.
They had convinced the newspaper reporter that their polished spirit “was considerably smoother with richer flavors”. I wondered if they would entertain a local group of bourbon enthusiasts for a visit. I sent them an email and received a phone call back that day from the company President Ricky Ford. We had a nice chat and I was honest about being skeptical, but I committed to approach his products with an open mind. Ricky understood and said he welcomed the challenge and would love to show us their facility. We picked a date and I arranged a group composed of myself and four other members from the Houston Bourbon Society to visit.
For me to be convinced that something positive was really happening I wanted to bring my own whiskey and watch it go through their process then conduct a triangle blind taste test with it. Our group decided to use Evan Williams 100 proof Bottled in Bond for this test. It is a solid economical pour, but in my opinion is on the young side with some rough edges. Ricky told me their process required a minimum of 1.5 liters. I purchased a 1.75 liter bottle and a 750 ml bottle of the Evan Williams and blended the two together to ensure homogeneity. Upon arriving at Persedo Spirits, we tested the proof and temperature of our test Bourbon to compare to the post process.
I knew they were located in an industrial warehouse space so I had a picture in my mind of what the place would look like. I was wrong about that. About one quarter of the location is built out into a beautiful man cave environment with plenty of TV’s, seating, and a full bar. Their crew welcomed us and the bar was fully set up with snacks and Glencairn tasting glasses. Ricky started by telling us the history of the process that his father had invented and how they progressed from that to their more complex patented process. We took our Evan Williams and started the process on their small-scale device, which took about 30 minutes. He then showed us a much larger version that they use in production. Their business is modeled to handle having others send them spirits in totes for processing or they can license their equipment to be installed at their customers facility. They are a federally registered DSP.
One thing they were very clear on is they respect traditional barrel aging. They are not trying to replace it. They have a slogan of “Where Technology Respects Tradition”. So, what exactly does happen in this process? You can visit their website for more detailed information, but I’ll give an overview here. The spirit is placed under a mild vacuum while being subjected to ultrasound waves; it’s also subjected to the addition of food grade Nitrogen and CO2 gas. The parameters can be adjusted based on the desired outcome. Other companies have used ultrasound before in an effort to simulate traditional aging, but the other elements Persedo claims help them be more selective about what changes.
While we were waiting for our sample whiskey to go through the process, our group tasted side by side a few other whiskeys they had previously polished. They have a bar with a large selection of various spirits they had polished. For the first sample, I spotted Wild Turkey 101 on their bar. I drink enough WT 101 that I know the profile well. I could easily tell the difference between the 2 samples. I preferred the before version, but that could be due to how I expected it to taste. We also tried samples of before and polished MGI 95/5 Rye in the form of Bulleit Rye, a local produced bourbon, and Weller SR. For me, I’m not a fan of Bulleit Rye before or after. All five of us agreed that the local Bourbon was much better in the polished version.
By this time our Evan Williams was ready. We proofed the after version and temperature corrected the proof. It had dropped 1 point, which in a 100-proof bourbon is also 1%. My testing in all my drinking for science projects, where possible, is done in triangle blinds. Each taster is given 3 samples which might be 2 of the processed and 1 of the standard or vice versa. Regardless 1 of the samples will be different, so the first step is to determine if the 1 different sample could be identified. The follow up question is, was the odd sample better or worse overall?
3 of the 5 tasters correctly identified the odd sample in round 1. Of the 3 that correctly identified the odd sample, 2 preferred the unpolished sample and 1 commenting they liked the samples the same.
Ricky stated that the processed whiskey tends to taste better a few days after polishing. Based on what I have learned about marrying whiskies I can accept that claim. Ricky had polished another large bottle of Evan Williams 100 proof 1 week prior, so we conducted round 2 with it.
2 of the 4 tasters correctly identified the odd sample in round 2. Of the 2 that correctly identified the odd sample, 1 preferred the unpolished sample and 1 preferred the after polishing sample.
I know this was a small sample set, but 5 out of 9 times in the triangle blind the odd sample was correctly identified. For me, this shows Presidio’s polishing process does change the whiskey. However, in the case of Evan Williams 100 proof, most of our group preferred the unpolished whiskey. In the case of this Evan Williams, for me the difference was subtle but the polished whiskey developed a minerally note to it that makes the whiskey taste different and somewhat artificial. I was able to identify it in the triangle blind. From the visit I did bring home the Evan Williams bottles in hopes to have more participate in a future triangle blind.
In tasting through the other samples provided, I tend to think their polishing process works better with younger spirits. If you are a craft whiskey distillery that needs to sell young whiskey for cash flow, I’d suggest seeing for yourself what your whiskey tastes like before and after polishing.
Time for another drinking for science post. This time it’s a blind tasting conducted within the Houston Bourbon Society, HBS, with 15 tasters of 18 straight whiskies. This is the 3rd time I’ve done a blind tasting with this group. Here is a link that covers previous blind tastings – https://tater-talk.com/2018/01/23/blind-tasting-of-20-american-whiskies/. This time when I recruited the tasters I specifically ask for volunteers that had not participated in the previous 2 blind tastings. HBS has over 6,000 members and if you are a part of this group you’re likely a bourbon enthusiast so you know a little more than the average consumer. Are these folks expert tasters? Perhaps or perhaps they represent and score whiskies like the average bourbon enthusiast.
In the past blind tastings, I’ve used a 100 point scale system. In this system most whiskies score in the 60-100 point range and so below 60 becomes meaningless. This time I switched to a more simple 0-5 scale, with 5 points being the best whiskey possible and 0 points being the worst. 2.5 points would be the middle of the road. Tasters scored each whiskey in either whole or half points. Tasters turned in scores of 3 whiskies each week, so this tasting lasted 6 weeks. I instructed the tasters to score each whiskey on its own, preferably tasted on different nights.
The theme of this tasting was straight whiskies; specifically Straight Bourbon or Straight Rye. Whiskies that are finished in a secondary cask that previously held wine or another spirit are no longer straight whiskies and did not qualify for inclusion. Straight Whiskies are the product of only 1 state and aged at least 2 years. I also tried to keep the proof range much narrower than in my previous blind tastings. This time the lowest proof was 90 and the highest proof was 116.8.
Sorted by Median:
link to graphs in larger format – https://photos.app.goo.gl/UgurGZBgge83ErFt8
So should you draw some sort of line at the top and never try any whiskey below that line? Keep in mind that for every one of the whiskies at least one of the 15 tasters scored it 3.5 points, meaning they really liked it. You like what you like; it does not matter if this particular groups overall score is lower than you expected. For example, I particularly enjoy OF Rye which scored very poorly; I’m still going to buy another bottle, and soon as my open bottle is finished.
Most of the whiskies selected are current versions purchased right before this tasting began. The GB Balmorhea were 2 375ml bottles, which I have been told was the first batch. Barrell Bourbon HBS Mr Blue was a 14 year pick of TN Straight Bourbon done in 2018. The OWA bottle was from my bunker; I included this as a thanks to the volunteer tasters for their time. They were a great group providing very good tasting notes and completing scores on time each week.
My personal observations are current Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a great Straight Bourbon, easy to find and at a reasonable price. Henry McKenna, at least the normal single barrel that us every day folks randomly buy off the shelf, is a solid bourbon, but it’s not the world’s best whiskey no matter what some asinine award show proclaims.