Remember in Part 1 of this story, I told you all about my dad who used to tell me that he didn’t “trust” a bourbon over 6 years old. He drank Ten High (When it was a bourbon, and a monster brand) and he loved Heaven Hill’s Green Label 6 year old 90 proof. He thought if a bourbon got too much age on it that the barrel over powered the whiskey. A lot of distillers thought the same thing…some still do.
The TTB – Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau defines “AGE” as…
- Age is the period during which, after distillation and before bottling, distilled spirits have been stored in oak containers.
- For bourbon, rye, wheat, malt or rye malt whiskies and straight whiskies, other than straight corn whisky (which must be stored in used or uncharred new oak containers), the oak container must be a charred new oak container.
They go on to define “Miscellaneous Provisions” as…
- If used in the brand name, the word “old” or other word denoting age is not considered an age reference
- Age may be understated but may not be overstated. In the instance of a straight whisky aged 59 months, the age may not be overstated as “5 years old” but may be understated as, for example, “over 4 years old”
Older aged American Whiskey isn’t new, but I think that it is a modern phenomenon. People’s tastes for whiskey is changing too, as the world is ever changing. There are also a lot of new whiskey fans joining the craze, and they want and seek out different whiskies than people did in the past. Some of these newer fans got in to the category after hearing about the elusive Pappy, or Parker’s, Antique, or Birthday Bourbon that is highly allocated or a yearly limited release. Heck, I remember when Pappy and all those used to make it to the liquor store shelves, and sit there for a while a few bottles deep, and people complaining that it was just too damned expensive.
Makers Mark bottles by taste profile, not age. Woodford does the same. Old Forester was always around 4 years old with no age statement. Wild Turkey is around six to eight years old, and you don’t see an age statement on it. Blanton’s was the first Single Barrel, and has no age statement. No age statements yet all awesome bourbons!
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Jim Beam had its flagship 4 year old white label, a Green Label 5 year old, and a 7 year old. They followed up with a Black Label that was originally 7 years old, and then 8 years old. When they got whiskey stocks that were getting over 8 years of age, Beam and other distilleries would put that whiskey in their collectible decanters and listed the ages as 100 Months Old, 120 Months Old or 150 Months Old. Perhaps they didn’t want to stay away from stating a higher age by using months to mask that the whiskey was 8, 10, or even 12 years old. It wasn’t until around 1992 that they launched the Small Batch collection after the reception of Booker’s and followed up with Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, and Bakers, with Knob Creek having the most age of 9 years, which is pretty much the upper limit that Booker wanted to bottle anything at the time.
You’d see some Old Charter that was SIX and EIGHT years old, and I always loved how they wrote it out in words crooked across the label. One of my old favorites, Ancient Ancient Age at 10 years, but hardly anyone had a lot of bourbon or whiskey over 10 years old, other than the Van Winkles and Heaven Hill in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. There really wasn’t a lot of bourbon and whiskies over 12 years old out there.
I think that you really have to give the nod to Julian and Preston Van Winkle, and to Heaven Hill for putting an emphasis on older whiskey stocks. If you look at even other distilleries in Kentucky, these are the only folks that were offering older whiskey stocks of 10, 12, 18, 20 years or more on a regular basis since the 1990’s.
United Distillers (later Diageo) had all that old stock from the old Stitzel-Weller distillery so when they got out of the bourbon business there for a while, (boy I bet they regret that decision) they sold a lot of it to the Van Winkles, and Pappy was born. As I recall they had a 10 year old, 12, 15, and 23, and I think only the 15 year and up was really called Pappy. They obviously held back quite a bit too we now know since the Orphan barrels were released.
Elijah Craig was launched in 1986, and I know one guy that works for us that remembers seeing it on his liquor store shelf for $9.99 for a fifth, and only available at top “A” bourbon accounts. In asking our sales guys that were around then, it was a brand that didn’t fly off the shelves and people were almost reluctant to pick up a 12 year old Bourbon! Boy have times changed, but it’s still an incredible value at under $30 in most markets. In 1994, Heaven Hill launched Elijah Craig 18 year old Single Barrel. It came out around $35 – $40. A good number of those single barrels were actually 20 or 21 years old if you remember the dates on the labels.
But those higher aged bourbons and whiskies had a finite number of bottles. They didn’t necessarily plan in a growth of more than say 5 or 10% per year. And now these brands grow at 20, 30, and 40% or more and sometimes became allocated. Buffalo Trace releases an annual press release on the scarcity of their whiskies.
As Pappy Van Winkle himself used to say, “make the best whiskey you can and keep it in short supply”. People always want what they can’t get, and then that starts a snowball effect.
Sometimes the snowball turns in to an avalanche. We find some people out there wiping out whole shelves, and hoard for their “bunkers”. Or they buy them all up and sell them on the secondary market. I’m not a fan or wiping out shelves, or hoarding. It just makes everyone else nervous and want to do it too, and then we have a BIG problem keeping those whiskey stocks available, or at a reasonable price.
Eagle Rare (Buffalo Trace), and Elijah Craig (Heaven Hill Brands) have both come under some criticism lately for a label change. The age statements of 10 and 12 years have been moved to the back label. In the case of Elijah Craig, we put a barrel on the front, and emphasized Small Batch more. Well my goodness when you read some of the threads online you’d think were drowning people’s puppies, or are doing something SO devious that we are just trying to hide that we will definitely take the age statement off, and SOON.
Well we are NOT being devious, or trying to be misleading in any way. Whether the age statement is on the front or the back, or in writing, or in numbers, every drop is still 12 years old – PERIOD. There might be a time where we are faced with a decision of whether to take the age statement off completely, or leave it on forever. But these are just decisions you have to make in real time when reality raises its head and you’re faced with either keeping a whiskey at a certain age, or taking the age off, and trying as best as you can to keep the flavor profile the same.
Since whiskey ages faster on higher floors (you can read more about rackhouse aging here), you can take some slightly younger whiskey from those floors, and mingle it in with 12 year old whiskey on the bottom floors, and with the help of our master distillers and their teams who taste, and do this type of calculating, they’re pretty darn good at it.
Pretend you are a member of the family and executive/brand team, and you have your vote. If you vote to keep the age statement ON the label, then the whiskey becomes allocated, and drives the price and availability up. If you take it off, and try and keep the flavor profile as close as you can, you’ve just ticked off everyone that wants the age statement on. So it’s a Catch 22. Whatever you decide you’ll tick some segment off. So you make the best and most logical decision you can, and MAKE it, and live with it. But it’s not devious, or shady, it JUST IS.
As for me, I’ll be taking my dad’s advice and enjoying my Bottled In Bonds that are 6 years old and younger, (although I do LOVE my Henry McKenna 10 year old BIB) while everyone fights over all that extra-extra aged bourbons and whiskies.
That’s all I have for now folks. Remember, try not to hoard or wipe out shelves…and lets all continue to drink responsibly and be civil and cordial to each other.