About three years ago, I predicted the end of the American whiskey boom, assuming the fervent fanaticism surrounding cult Bourbon and rye had reached its peak and a softening of the market was in order.
I was dead wrong.
As I drive around LA these days, moving from retailer to retailer, the Pappy Van Winkle phenomenon remains incredibly powerful with prices continuing to hover around $2000 for the 20 year old in most places. The biggest difference between when I was a retail buyer and now is that price gouging seems to be the rule rather than the exception. I wouldn’t have dared consider marking up my rare Bourbons to the public, lest I face the wrath of a thousand whiskey nerds on social media. Today, however, a certain acceptance of reality seems to have settled upon geekdom; an understanding of how supply and demand ultimately works, for better or for worse.
If you’re new to the whiskey scene, it wasn’t always this way. How did we get here? I can tell you fairly quickly. When I was working retail back in the late aughts (circa 2008), you could get a bottle of Pappy 20 year old for $100 whenever you wanted it, right off the shelf. Then one day the entire world decided that Bourbon was the drink du jour (the Mad Men effect, we sometimes call it) and curious consumers began Googling things like “Best Bourbons” on the internet, looking for some quick advice. Given that the Van Winkle expressions were some of the oldest and most expensive on the market (at a fraction of what their Scottish counterparts were charging, no less), they were at the top of many a list. As an added bonus, much of the juice still came from the old Stitzel-Weller distillery back then, thus the attraction of historical authenticity combined with sweet, saturated, high-proof brown water was too much for grown men to handle. It was like catnip for executives, looking to bypass all the starter sets and get right to the good stuff.
“What makes Pappy Van Winkle so good?” people would ask me almost every single day thereafter. I knew the whiskies were tasty, but beyond that I didn’t have the answer. Not one who enjoys looking clueless on a daily basis, I decided to reach out to Julian Van Winkle and Buffalo Trace distiller Harlan Wheatley, who joined me as guests on a podcast about spirits I was hosting back then (Buffalo Trace is the distiller for the Van Winkle products today). I asked them the same question: what made these particular Bourbons so special? Both men told me the exact same thing: wheated Bourbons, as they age, taste sweeter than traditional rye-flavored Bourbons—those that use rye as a flavor grain alongside the corn. That sweetness makes them immediately approachable.
A Bourbon mash bill, by law, has to have at least 51% corn in the recipe, although many contain somewhere between 60-70%. Most distillers use some malted barley as well, usually 5-10%, just to get the fermentation going. That leaves somewhere between 20-30% for the “flavor grain,” which has traditionally been rye considering that its peppery character acts like a ballast against the sweetness of the corn. The Van Winkle family, however, dating back to the Pappy’s days at Old Fitzgerald, liked to use wheat instead of rye because it added a creaminess to the Bourbon, while eliminating the rye-based herbaceous notes.
That was a good enough answer for me. I ran with it.
I began sharing that information with my customers, along with Harlan’s note that Pappy and Weller were made from the same wheated Buffalo Trace recipe, and just like that I was selling cases of wheated Bourbon in mere minutes. If we were out of Pappy, I’d sell Weller 12 year. If we were out of Weller 12 year, I’d give people the Weller 107. Eventually we couldn’t keep that in stock either, so we were down to the Weller Select Reserve. There was no putting the genie back into the bottle at that point. It was like a runaway freight train and I was one of dozens of retailers shoveling coal into the engine.
Surprisingly (or maybe not if you know how trends work), the unbridled passion for wheated Bourbon didn’t cross over to other producers. Maker’s Mark, for example, has used a wheated Bourbon recipe since its inception in the 1950s, but customers didn’t seem all that interested in the red wax seal as a Weller alternative. Heaven Hill decided to release Larceny as a viable competitor, but even those efforts fell flat against the relentless Weller wave. Breaking down the Pappy popularity into a series of simple marketing factoids definitely helped to sell more Pappy, but the a priori approach to creating new alternatives fell short with consumers. The craft scene began pumping out its own wheated Bourbons, even 100% wheat whiskies, hoping to capitalize on the craze, but they too fell short of expectations. It turns out that there was more to the Van Winkle/Weller magic than just a recipe.
Having stepped away from the booze industry for a year, I’d lost track of the micro-distilling scene and, to be honest, I’d given up hope on its success. Considering the Bourbon boom ultimately fed the foundation of several hundred new craft whiskey distillers around the country, you’d think at least a dozen of them would have launched a compelling Bourbon by the year 2018, but most of the attempts I’d tasted over the years were thin, woody, and forgettable, not to mention expensive. “You can’t expect whiskey consumers to drink a mediocre Bourbon just because you made it in small batches,” I told producers repeatedly. Once again, a priori reasoning was fueling the craft market (small, local, and scarce = good). Once again, that logic was soundly rejected by consumers.
This past November, however, I was given a bottle of McKenzie Bottled in Bond Wheated Bourbon from Finger Lakes Distilling in upstate New York and asked for a professional opinion. I was familiar with the McKenzie whiskies, having worked with them in my retail days, but this Bourbon was an entirely new product in a sleek, updated package. At 4 and a half years of age and 100 proof, I decided to taste it against an open bottle of Weller 107 I had sitting on my counter. Mind you, I’m not one that breaks Bourbon down into commodities, looking to compare apples to apples. I just needed a control for my experiment, seeing that it had been at least ten months since I had tasted anything on a professional level. I tasted. Then I went back for seconds. Then thirds. I tasted the Weller, and then the McKenzie once again. It was the moment I’d been waiting almost a decade for.
“It’s taken off like gangbusters for us,” Brian McKenzie told me as we caught up over the phone recently. “We loved the whiskey and we knew it was going to be well-received, but it’s taken off more than we ever could have imagined.” It’s not hard to understand why. At around $50 a bottle, the McKenzie Wheated Bourbon is everything the craft distillation renaissance promised us, but rarely delivered. Using local grains from the New York countryside, the team at Finger Lakes Distilling has put together a mash bill of 70% corn, 20% wheat, and 10% malted barley that absolutely sings with richness, baking spices, and toasted vanilla. “We’ve been making wheated Bourbon for a while,” Brian continued, “but most of it was allocated to single barrel releases. We figured it was time to make it a standard release.”
So why BIB? Why use the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, a definition meant to protect consumers at that time from adulteration and fraud, to make a craft whiskey in the modern age? “We think Bottled in Bond is a way to help differentiate serious craft producers from others. There aren’t many craft producers out there who have 4 year old Bourbon,” Brian added, noting that a number of small producers release their whiskies while still in their infancy. The BIB requires that a whiskey be the product of a single distillation season, of a single distillery, at 100 proof, and at least 4 years of age, which certainly gives the McKenzie a boost in its authenticity. What’s interesting is that the 100 proof bottling strength is the same potency McKenzie fills its barrels at.
“Our whiskey comes off the column still with the thumper at 130 proof, but we fill our casks at 100,” Brian continued. “We tasted a number of whiskies made in the fifties and sixties from our dusty hunting collection—old Jim Beam and Wild Turkey bottles from that era. From what I understand, they were filling at lower proofs back then.”
Why fill at a lower proof? Brian explained:
“Two things: a higher water content acts as a solvent so far as pulling flavor out of the oak. I don’t think we can scientifically explain exactly what that does, but it pulls out different flavors for sure. The second thing is we use less water to cut when it’s time to proof down for bottling, which means we add hardly any water when it’s time to bottle.”
And what about the New York maturation conditions? Is there a hot and cold contrast between seasons, similar to Kentucky?
“Our aging conditions are similar to Kentucky, but we do heat the rick house in the winter to make sure it gets ample cold and hot fluctuation, as our winters tend to last a bit longer. We’re right on Seneca Lake where there’s a microclimate that gets a little hotter compared to towns further north. It’s the same reason the vineyards around here do well, because they can survive the cold winter with the water helping to keep it temperate. The lake holds the heat from the summer time and the surrounding hills help to trap it.”
With all the care that Brian and his family put into the careful production practices, it’s clear that the wheated Bourbon mash is only one of many factors that contribute to the whiskey’s ultimate flavor. But I eventually asked Brian the same summative question that I knew most consumers would ask me: why does it taste so good? “We pay very close attention to the fermentation process,” he answered, alluding to the sweet and round flavors in the whiskey; “We make sure the conditions are ideal to prevent any negative flavors. That’s a big part of it since we don’t have much temperature control around here.”
Given that we’re still in the midst of the Van Winkle era, the fact that McKenzie is selling a wheated Bourbon recipe certainly helps with marketing and sales, but it’s not the sole reason for the whiskey’s success. There’s simply no substitute for attention to detail, time in the barrel, and a little TLC, which is what I should have been telling customers back in my retail days. Good Bourbon comes from good producers. It tastes good because these guys know what they’re doing. The singularity of a secret recipe is always a sure fire marketing bullet, but the devil is really in the details.