Bernie Lubbers, a.k.a. the Whiskey Professor, is the American Whiskey Ambassador for Heaven Hill Distillery out of Bardstown, Kentucky. He is the author of the book "Bourbon Whiskey—Our Native Spirit". Last year he traveled more 150,000 miles preaching and teaching the world about bourbon and American whiskey.
“Why are all these damn whiskey companies taking age statements off bourbon??? I get SO pissed off when I see that another bourbon has lowered the age, or taken it off completely!” This is a chorus that I’m hearing more and more each week. So I think it’s worth taking a step back and looking at history and the evolution of older-aged bourbon and American whiskey.
Older-aged American Whiskey certainly isn’t new. There have always been older offerings from distilleries as their inventory aged and build up. But I do think that it is more of a modern phenomenon of people being attracted to it. There are also a lot of new whiskey fans joining our ranks, and they want and seek out different whiskies than people did in the past. And, quite frankly, they don’t know that older whiskey is something that’s kinda new. Hell, everyone wants Pappy right? Some of these newer fans got into the category after hearing about the elusive Pappy, or Parker’s, or the Antique Collection, or Birthday Bourbon that is either highly allocated or just 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.
Remember in my last column I told you all about my dad who used to tell me that he didn’t “trust” a bourbon more than 6 years old. 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 overpowered the whiskey. A lot of distillers thought the same thing, and some still do.
Maker's Mark bottles by taste profile, not age. Woodford is around 7 years old but doesn’t state it. 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. Larceny Bourbon has a mingle of ages in it and no age declared. No age statements—yet all awesome bourbons!
I remember the decanters. The whiskey companies didn’t think that people like my dad (who were the majority of the market) would want to drink whiskey that were getting over 8 years of age. So many would put that whiskey in collectable decanters. Jim Beam went so far to not let people know just how old that whiskey was and listed the ages as 100 Months Old, 120 Months Old, or 150 Months Old. Maybe they hoped people didn’t do the math and figure out that it was 10- and 12-year-old whiskey in “them thar decanters”. It wasn’t until around 1992 that they launched the Small Batch collection after the earlier reception of Booker’s and followed up with Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, and Baker's, with Knob Creek having the most age of 9 years, which is pretty much the upper limit that Booker [Noe, Jim Beam's grandson] wanted to bottle at the time.
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 every other distillery in Kentucky, these were the only folks that were offering older whiskey stocks of 10, 12, 18, 20 years or more on a regular basis since the 1980s. That’s MY observation from being here in Kentucky then, and in the culture, so I’m going on that history of living through it. Hell, how do you think Julian Van Winkle got to buy all those old barrels from companies? They didn’t want it, or couldn't use it themselves. Or they were out of decanters perhaps.
Elijah Craig was launched in 1986. One guy who works for us remembers seeing it on his liquor store shelf for $9.99 for a fifth. Our sales guys who were around then say it was a brand that got dusty because it didn’t fly off the shelves and people were 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 to $40. A good number of those single barrels were actually 20 or 21 years old, if you remember the dates on the labels.
These higher-aged bourbons and whiskies have a finite number of bottles. Distilleries didn’t necessarily plan for a growth of more than, say, 3 to 5 percent per year. And now these brands grow at 30, 40 percent or more, and as a result their stocks have become 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 into an avalanche. We find some consumers out there wiping out whole shelves to hoard bottles 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, especially at a reasonable price. I buy what I want to drink, and that’s that.
Eagle Rare (Buffalo Trace), and Elijah Craig (Heaven Hill Brands) have both come under some criticism lately for a label changes. 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 comments online you’d think we 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, written out 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 of the rickhouse, you can take some slightly younger whiskey from those floors, and mingle it in with 12-year-old whiskey on the bottom floors. 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.
W. L. Weller 12-year-old kept their age statement on that bottle. As a result it is highly allocated, and the price almost tripled. So, 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 up and availability down. If you take it off, and try and keep the flavor profile as close as you can, you’ve just pissed off everyone that wants the age statement on. So it’s a Catch-22. Whatever you decide, you’ll piss off some segment of your customers. 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.
I’m NOT saying that everyone should drink younger whiskey and be happy about it. Not by a long shot. Gold dust is here and gone with the next wind; but it’s priceless. So when you see these bottles of special offerings, extra aged whiskeys, or similar stuff, remember that’s GOLD DUST on those top shelves. But also remember that people step on gold nuggets on the bottom shelves to reach up to grab that gold dust. Nuggets like Mellow Corn, JW Dant, JTS Brown, V.O.B., and Heaven Hill.
Always reach up and grab all the Gold Dust you can, but don’t forget to pick up the gold nuggets too!
Stay Bonded everyone, and enjoy!