Old Traditions, New Surprises
Bourbon distillers aren’t always set in their ways. Many are tempting American whiskey drinkers with smoldering new delights.
Things move slowly down in old Kentucky. Every morning the sun creeps over the bluegrass countryside while in other parts of the country it takes a veritable leap. But although it might seem as though the people of Kentucky are strolling through life, just taking things easy, they accomplish a great deal during the course of a day. They’re busy thinking about what new whiskeys to bring us.
This year we’re in for some wonderful treats, my Kentucky whiskeymaking sources tell me. You’ll discover that although these guys will fight to the death to stand up for the local whiskeymaking methods, they’re also a very innovative bunch. They want to show off their craft—and what better way to do it than to bring us exciting new products? Here’s some inside information on new Bourbons that have just hit the shelves, and a few others that are still in the works.
The Buffalo Trace distillery in Leestown, Kentucky, has had great success over the past few years with their “Antique” line of American whiskeys, including the wonderfully fragrant, nutty 17-year-old Eagle Rare Bourbon; the spicy, well-balanced 18-year-old Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey; and the 19-year-old W. L. Weller Wheated Bourbon, a big-bodied whiskey with notes of spice, fruit and nuts (and my sources tell me to grab bottles of the 19-year-old Weller now—the distillery is coming to the end of its supply of this huge, spicy whiskey). But they aren’t stopping there.
A new, younger bottling of Sazerac Rye—around six years old—is due to hit the shelves by the end of this year. Or if it’s unfiltered, uncut Bourbon you’re looking for, you can look forward to Buffalo Trace’s George T. Stagg Bourbon, which will be on the market in the near future. The Stagg spends more than a decade in wood before being bottled at barrel proof (126 proof, give or take a few points), and will be completely unfiltered—none of the flavor is removed. (A word to excited shoppers: Buffalo Trace is available in only three states—Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee—and probably won’t make it to other states, because there just isn’t enough to go around.)
While we’re on the subject of unfiltered whiskeys, you might wonder why distillers ever filter their whiskeys—it does mean a marginal loss in flavor. But they have good reason. Unfiltered whiskeys can develop what’s known as a “chill haze,” which means that they appear cloudy if they get too cold. Since most consumers don’t realize that this chill haze is a good thing, most whiskeys undergo some sort of filtration to get rid of the fatty acids that are responsible for the cloudiness. The only way to get around this is to bottle at high proof, in which case the alcohol counteracts the fatty acids. This is why unfiltered whiskeys always check in at more than 100 proof.
High proofs are a signature of sorts for Wild Turkey. The vast majority of Wild Turkey whiskeys are bottled at 101 proof, and here again we come across the filtration issue. These three-digit-proof bottlings are filtered, but they aren’t chill-filtered—chill filtering takes more flavor from the whiskey than does filtering at room temperature (Maker’s Mark is also filtered at room temperature, but company president Bill Samuels says that there’s no new-fangled whiskeys on Maker’s horizon). Turkey’s latest offering is the 10-year-old Russell Reserve Bourbon, named for Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey’s master distiller. He’s a living legend in Bourbon country, and many other distillers’ whiskeymaking hero. It’s about time a whiskey was named for him. Russell has spent almost half a century at Wild Turkey’s Lawrenceburg distillery; the incredibly well-balanced, gutsy, spicy yet buttery smooth whiskey that’s named after him is a testament to the distiller’s skills.
Since its 1999 release, quantities of Jim Beam Brands’ Distillers’ Masterpiece 18- to 20-year-old Bourbons that were aged in new, charred oak barrels and “finished” in Cognac or Port casks—were low, prices were high and reviews were glowing all around. What’s left for JBB, arguably Bourbon County’s brightest star? Their newest project is a collaboration with Riedel: The Riedel Bourbon glass, a vessel that the crystal giants are touting as having the optimal design for Bourbon drinking. As for the next whiskey treat that we might enjoy in them, well, not even my Jim Beam mole would spill the beans.
The final design for the Riedel Bourbon glass was chosen from among a dozen prototypes by distillers and other spirits professionals.
Around this time of year I start to look forward to the next vintage bottling of Evan Williams Bourbon, which is produced by the Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. It’s usually released right after the holidays, but you might still be able to find a bottle of last year’s vintage to hold you over until December rolls around. The fun in having two of these vintages in stock is to try them side by side—Master Distiller Parker Beam likes to issue a different challenge every year, which is why you should never expect that a new vintage will resemble the previous one. Sometimes the whiskey is round and fruity; other bottlings are lean and spicy. The only thing that you can count on is Heaven Hill’s signature mintiness, which is a joy for the palate. Last year brought us the sumptuous 1992 vintage, bottled at nine years old—what will the 1993 bottling hold?
If you can’t wait until the holidays to sample a new Evan Williams Bourbon, though, snap up the Master Distiller’s Select, a 7- to 10-year-old whiskey “bottled” in a fine earthenware jug, which should be on your retailer’s shelves right now. While you’re there, be sure to look for Heaven Hill’s Rittenhouse rye whiskey, which is soon going to be distributed nationwide in both the 4-year-old, 80-proof bottling, and the 6-year-old “bonded,” at 100 proof (my favorite of the two).
The Labrot & Graham distillery in Versailles (ver SALES), Kentucky, is keeping mum about their next bottling, or bottlings, but I happen to know that this plant—the only pot-still Bourbon distillery in the state—has been experimenting with three different mashbills (grain recipes) since it reopened in 1996, so there’s bound to be something special coming from them in the near future. An insider told me that one of the mashbills contains four grains—corn, wheat, rye and barley—and if that’s the case, it will be a one-of-a kind Bourbon.
Last but by no means least, it’s time to raise a glass to celebrate the 156th birthday of George Gavin Brown, creator of Old Forester Bourbon and the first man to offer whiskey exclusively in bottles. (Before Brown, people were never quite sure what was in the barrel from which they were served.) Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, bottled at 95 proof, should be on the shelves right about now. It’s vintage dated—March 23, 1989—and you can expect a new vintage every year around Brown’s September 2 birthday.
If you visit Kentucky (and this month’s a good time to go—the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is September 17-22) and you happen to notice that the people there are moving a little slower than they do in the rest of the country, try to understand that they’re probably all pondering what to wow us with next year. It’s a process that just can’t be rushed.