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.

 

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.