Did my bourbon change in the bottle? 1 year test

Time for another round of “Did My Bourbon Change in the Bottle?”.  My previous post, Did My Bourbon Change in the bottle? discussed 2 prior tests done at 37 and 52 days.  For this test, I extended the time to one full year.

Before I get to that, I want to be clear that I’m testing if changes are perceivable to a group of testers.  This is different than saying the whiskey did not change at all. Also, my tests have been of modern bourbons and not of bourbon from a dusty bottle that has been sitting for 30 years in a sealed glass bottle.  Many critics of this will try to point to changes that occur while sitting in an open glass. That is a different case than opening and closing a sealed bottle. I’ve tried to test what I consider a real-world situation – open a new bottle, have a pour, reseal the bottle.  If you then sit that bottle aside and come back to it in 1 month, or 2 months or even a year, was there a noticeable change in taste?

For this test, I went back to Old Weller Antique (OWA) at 107 proof.  This OWA was a store private barrel pick and NCF (non-chill filtered).  The 1st bottle, 1 liter in size, was opened and over the course of 30 days I had approximate a ½ oz pour each day.  After each pour, the bottle was resealed tightly. At the end of 30 days bottle was about half full. At this point I put it inside a dark closet at normal room temperature for 11 months.

I invited my group of 10 testers to my house for a triangle blind tasting.  An unopened 2nd bottle from this same OWA barrel was opened right before the test.  Testers would taste 3 samples; 2 from the bottle that was open for 1 year and 1 from the just opened bottle, or vice versa.  Either way, one of the 3 samples is the odd sample and if change was perceptible enough then it should be identifiable. As before, I did not ask which tasted better, I only asked if they could identify the odd sample.

Out of 10 testers if they randomly guessed, one would expect 3.33 to correctly identify the odd sample.  So, when I scored up the results, I was surprised that 0 out of 10 correctly identified the odd sample.

One option I gave testers was to state no differences, but none elected this option.  They all believed they could tell a difference and they were all incorrect. One of the comments/questions I see posted on my tests is what was the experience level of my testers?  It has not been the same group each time, but for the most part it is folks I would consider whiskey geeks like myself. A few of the testers work in the industry. So, it’s an above average whiskey consumer group.

The conclusion is this whiskey did not change in the bottle enough to be identifiable to testers.  But did it change at all? To understand why the testers could not tell a difference we turn to GC/MS – Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry.  I shipped sample bottles to a distillery with GC/MS equipment and they tested both samples at 12 different chemical points.  This tests measures levels in PPM.  The result showed these samples were virtually identical. 

OWA no ethano or PG chart

At this point, I’m done with testing “Did My Bourbon Change in the Bottle?”.  The power of the mind is strong; I’ll never convince all no matter how many tests I run.  If you still disagree on this based on your opinion, I would encourage you to perform your own blind triangle test.  I do intend to test “Does My Whiskey Change if Poured into a Glass and Allowed to Sit”; stay tuned in for those results.

BTAC fact sheets into spreadsheet

Just a quick blog post on BTAC info.  I took all the data from the fact sheets and put into a spreadsheet.  There are tabs at bottom for the 5 BTAC brands. You can quickly see how proof, ages, angel’s share, etc changed over time.  There are a few early years fact sheets missing on the Buffalo Trace website; if anybody has those, please let me know.

BTAC spreadsheet

 

 

Is it bourbon and can you trust review websites?

Let’s say you have a bottle Corn Whiskey, Wheat Whiskey, Rye Whiskey and Malt Whiskey and you blend those together with the Corn Whiskey being 51% of the total blend.  What have you just made? What if you are a licensed DSP and replaced bottles with barrels?

I hope my readers would know this product would be “Whiskey”.    If all the above were Straight, then it could even be “Straight Whiskey”.  What it is not and could never be is Bourbon Whiskey. Bourbon must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn with other grains that can be added for the remaining balance.  This must be done at the time of mashing/fermenting/distilling. It’s silly to think otherwise.

Yet that is exactly what a craft distillery in Florida did in creating the first Florida ‘Bourbon’.  Timber Creek Distillery separately distilled and aged these types of whiskies then blended them together to create their ‘Bourbon’.   They have a kit of these separate whiskies and encourage you to create your own ‘bourbon’ at home. They even trademarked this process at ‘Pureblend’.  

From their website:

Individual grain spirits are barreled individually after distillation.  Timber Creek individually barrels and ages each of their 100% whiskeys. Corn, Rye, Barley, Wheat and Oat corn whiskey’s are first given time to age before the distilling team selects the individual barrels. In order to blend bourbon whiskeys, specific barrels are hand selected since they have multiple grains. The hand selected barrels allow the individual flavors to blend to creating Timber Creeks Bourbon Blends.

As many distilleries do, Timber Creek hired a PR firm to send out samples to whiskey review sites. Note, my policy is this blog never accepts samples and if I ever do a whiskey review here, it will be of a bottle that was purchased at retail.  If you run a whiskey review site, you should know the definition of bourbon and at least question this process. That did not happen. The following ran articles on Timber Creek ‘Bourbon’.

Whiskey Wash – https://thewhiskeywash.com/reviews/whiskey-review-round-timber-creek-florida-bourbons

Bourbon Guy – http://www.bourbonguy.com/blog/2017/5/18/3-whiskeys-from-timber-creek-distillery3-whiskeys-from-timber-creek-distillery

-The Bourbon Guy updated his blog with some 2nd grade name calling but then states “…. blog is correct. I did make a mistake when I wrote this post. Though I know better, I didn’t call BS on the process that the distiller is using explicitly enough.”

Southern Living – https://www.southernliving.com/travel/travel/timber-creek-whiskey-distillery

Bourbon Sippers – http://bourbonsippers.com/timber-creek-distillery/

The Whiskey Reviewer – http://whiskeyreviewer.com/2017/01/timber-creek-florida-bourbon-review-011017/

Taste the Dram – https://www.tastethedram.com/single-post/2017/02/03/in-depth-whiskey-making-guide-by-camden-ford-of-the-timber-creek-distillery/

Timber Creek even managed to ‘win’ a few gold medals for their ‘bourbon’.  Of note, on their website they have now updated their product name and now properly call this Florida Whiskey.  Timber Creek is a 100% grain to glass distillery, so they earn my respect for that. I’ve reached out via email to the owner Camden Ford for comment about the change. He responded very quickly with a detailed response.  He felt no category in the TTB definitions accurately described their process. He stated “I have come to the conclusion that the goal of the descriptions were to attempt to describe common characteristics of each product and give them distinctive names that will let consumers understand that what they are tasting has a common set of flavor characteristics across brands and manufacturers in the same category.  With this view, I believe that what we make is, in fact Bourbon, in taste, profile, and chemical make up and follows the intent of the law.”

My reply was when you start trying to infer the intent of the law, you are going to have a 100 companies with 100 different interpretations and most of these are going to be wrong.

Please read the comments.  Camden has made several comments and received some good responses.

Yes, I do want a plastic straw with my cocktail

The number one google link about plastic straws in oceans says we use over 500 million straws a day and most of these end up in our oceans.  Another site says, ‘nearly every plastic straw winds up in the ocean’. I’ve seen alcohol industry groups such as USBG chapters and Tales of the Cocktail as well as some cities take this information and propose bans on plastic straws.  As Penn and Teller would say, bullshit.

By using some basic common sense, one would realize most straws wind up in garbage landfills and not the ocean.  Do folks think waste management companies specifically sort out plastic straws, load them on a boat and then dump them in the ocean? It’s complete and utter nonsense.   

Where did this oft cited 500 million straws a day number originate from?  From a 9-year-old boy who did a phone survey of straw manufacturers in 2011.  I swear I’m not making this up.  https://reason.com/blog/2018/01/25/california-bill-would-criminalize-restau

The more realistic number from market analysts puts the actual number at 1/3 of this kid’s “study”.  That’s still a lot of plastic straws, but that’s nowhere near as impressive as 500 million. How do plastic straws end up in the ocean?  Generally, they are blown there. So, it makes sense to look at eliminating plastic straws from places right next to waterways – ferries, boats, beach bars, etc.  If you live in a typical USA city, your waste straw is going into a landfill and not the ocean.

Plastic straws make up a very tiny percentage of the total plastic in a landfill.  Plastic straws are generally made from polypropylene, which is a highly recyclable plastic resin.  If one wants to reduce plastic going into landfills, it’s easy enough to ask for no straw or to carry one’s own reusable straw.  If you are a restaurant or bar owner and are considering going ‘strawless’ to save the ocean, your heart might be in the right place but the logic is flawed.

 

House Brands

The big liquor stores love their ‘house’ brands and will push them hard to customers. Why? It’s all about the money. Here is a bourbon brand found pretty much only at Total Wine – 2 Stars. It’s KY Straight Bourbon Whiskey at least 4 years old at 86 proof – really some fairly decent bourbon at a cost of $39.99 for a 1.75 liter handle. It’s produced by Sazerac from Bourbon made at their Barton 1792 distillery. Or you can buy practically the same KY Straight Bourbon Whiskey at least 4 years old at 86 proof under the Barton brand, which is not a house brand, for $19.99 for the same size.

As Richard Seale of Foursquare Rum once said ‘drink what you like, be careful what you pay for’

2 StarsVery Old barton

Bourbon with flavor packets?

Most whiskey aficionadas know that Bourbon can’t have any added flavors or coloring.  This is true regardless if the Bourbon is labeled Straight or not. If you question this, it can be verified by reviewing Ch. 7 of the TTB BAM.  This contains a chart of all spirit types and if HCFBM (harmless coloring flavoring blending material) can be added. Both Bourbon and Straight Bourbon are checked as not allowed.  For other types of whiskey, such as Rye or Wheat, which are labeled as Straight, HFCBMs are not allowed. However HFCBMs are allowed in these other whiskey types if not labeled as Straight.

HFC edited
I was surprised when I reviewed the COLA label approval for the newest Blood Oath Pact 4 Bourbon and found a formula.  
27 CFR 5.26 (a) states ‘an approved formula is required to blend, mix, purify, refine, compound, or treat spirits in a manner which results in a change of character, composition, class or type of the spirits’.  TTB regulations commonly require formulas when HCFBM are added to spirits.  

Blood Oath Flavor Packets


This brings us to when is a Bourbon not really a Bourbon?  Spirits have dedicated class types by the TTB. Straight Bourbon is class type 101; Bourbon is 141.   When you start messing with bourbon by adding flavor packets or secondary cask finishes, these products are no longer legally bourbon.  They become class type 641, which is a catch all for ‘Whisky Specialties’. Blood Oath Pact 4 is not a bourbon; it was approved as a Whisky Specialties.  Formulas are proprietary information so who knows what they might have or have not added to this. For these products, the TTB allows Bourbon to still be used on the front label, but the extra process must be listed.  They give an example in the BAM of adding coloring to bourbon. The example specifically states that the product is no longer Bourbon, but the label can state “Straight Bourbon Whisky with Yellow #5 added”.  

If someone put me in charge of the TTB, this would be the first thing I would change.  I would not allow these products to be called Bourbon and would make the front label say what they are – Whisky Specialty.   For my money, I will stick with Straight Whiskies.


Age statements on straight whiskies are now meaningless

Many American whiskey brands have been dropping age statements as the bourbon boom continues to erode stocks of aged whiskey.  As a consumer, I have always appreciated age statements. If an American whiskey has an age statement on the bottle, I have accepted that information as fact.  This blog post will touch on US federal laws regarding spirits labeling which some might find boring. Our laws on spirits are found in the Code of Federal Regulations – CFR’s.  Specifically, laws regarding alcohol are found in CFR Title 27. The CFR’s can be confusing so the TTB developed the Beverage Alcohol Manual – BAM. The BAM is an attempt to take language from the CFR’s and make it more approachable.  In addition, the TTB from time to time will issue additional guidance through ruling’s, industry circulars and other publications including TTB FAQ’s.

27 CFR 5.40 (a) addresses statements of age for American whiskey.  This regulation can be found at:https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/27/5.40

The law states that for straight whiskies over 4 years old, statements of age are optional.  If an optional age statement is included it shall appear in the same form as a whiskey that requires an age statement.  That form shall be the age of the youngest whiskey in “____years old”. The law does allow for straight whiskies of multiple years to be stated if the percent of each whiskey is disclosed.

This information is also covered in Ch. 8 of the BAM.  https://www.ttb.gov/spirits/bam/chapter8.pdf

The BAM points out age may be understated but not overstated.  This means it is fine to bottle 8 year straight whiskey in a product that has a 6 year age statement.

The TTB also has a FAQ on spirits that addresses age statements:  https://www.ttb.gov/spirits/faq.shtml

This FAQ has the specific question of:

How should age be stated if the whisky consists of a mixture or blend of whiskies with different ages?

If the whisky contains no neutral spirits, the age must be stated either as the age of the youngest whisky, or as a statement that includes the age of each whisky in the mixture or blend, and the percentage of that whisky in the mixture or blend. If percentages are listed, they must be based on the percentage of the finished product, by a proof gallon basis, contributed by each listed whisky, and the percentages listed must add up to 100%.

This FAQ also gives acceptable formats for age statements:

What are examples of acceptable formats for age statements?

The following formats are acceptable:

  • _____ years old.
  • ____ months old.
  • Aged _____ years.
  • Aged at least ____ years.
  • Aged a minimum of ____ months.
  • Over ____ years old.
  • Aged not less than ____ years.
  • ___% whisky aged __ years; __% whisky aged ___ years.

If you read the above and followed the links, you should now be well versed an age statements on labels.  I was recently made aware of an interesting statement of age found of the back label of current Wild Turkey 101.   I love WT 101 and I think it is an incredible value for an everyday bourbon.  The label can be found here:

https://www.ttbonline.gov/colasonline/viewColaDetails.do?action=publicFormDisplay&ttbid=16006001000132

This label was approved on January 28, 2016. The back-label states ‘bourbon is perfectly aged for up to six to eight years’.   Obviously, this does not comply with the TTB acceptable age statements.  It would be fine to state Aged 6 years. Or they could state __% aged 6 years; __% aged 8 years.    Stating ‘up to’ does not meet the acceptable formats.  Stating a range of ages does not meet the acceptable format.

When labels are submitted for TTB approval the contact person who submitted label is listed.  I took this name and discovered it was a regulatory compliance director for Campari. I found email contact info and emailed asking about the discrepancies pointing out the same laws I noted above.   After 2 weeks I had received zero response.

I still wanted to find out why this label with an age statement such as this was approved, so I emailed the TTB.  In past blog posts I have complained about some of the labels that the TTB has approved, but I will give them credit in that anytime I have contacted them, I have always received some type of response.  In this case it was a phone call from Marsha Heath, a 20+ year veteran of the TTB. Marsha directed me to 27 CFR 5.40 (e) (2) regarding Miscellaneous Age Representations and pointed out the sections that have been bolded:

If any age, maturity, or similar representation is made relative to any distilled spirits (such representations for products enumerated in paragraph (d) of this section are prohibited), the age shall also be stated on all labels where such representation appears, and in a manner substantially as conspicuous as such representation: Provided. That the use of the word “old” or other word denoting age, as part of the brand name, shall not be deemed to be an age representation: And provided further, That the labels of whiskies and brandies (except immature brandies) not required to bear a statement of age, and rum and Tequila aged for not less than 4 years, may contain general inconspicuous age, maturity or similar representations without the label bearing an age statement.

The labels of whiskies not required to bear a statement of age – This would apply to straight whiskies over 4 years, which includes WT 101

may contain general inconspicuous age, maturity or similar representations without the label bearing an age statement 

Marsha declared the WT 101 back label statement of ‘bourbon is perfectly aged for up to six to eight years’ is ‘general in nature and inconspicuous located’ and therefore allowed by this section.  A few days after this phone call, I received an email response back from Campari that provided the exact same response. Enough so I would be very surprised if there was not some type coordinated response to my inquiry behind the scenes.

Stating 6 to 8 years old is not general, it’s specific and noticeable.  6 to 8 years is not a wide range and I suspect WT includes a good percentage of the 8 year old whiskey.  For me, the issue is not about this Wild Turkey label, the danger is that now a precedent has been set. If the TTB enforces this interpretation consistently to all brands, then there is nothing to stop the next brand from stating 4 to 25 years on the back label of a straight bourbon when just a very small fraction of the whiskey is 25 years old.  This would effectively render age statements meaningless to consumers.