American straight whiskey -- both bourbon and Tennessee whiskey -- is increasing in sales in the U.S. and abroad. On the home front, straight whiskey upped volume by 2.2% to more than 13.4 million 9-liter cases nationwide in 2003, according to the Adams Liquor Handbook 2004.
Significantly, exports from Kentucky and Tennessee have risen over 60% since 1992 and 26% over the past five years alone. Foreign sales now constitute a significant source of revenue for American whiskeys. Last year, more than 8.8 million 9-liter cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold abroad.
The leading market for American whiskeys is the United Kingdom. And Germany, Australia and Japan follow close behind.
These figures show that the world has developed a taste for American straight whiskey. A quick glance at the leading exports of straight brands reads like all-star roster. Overseas sales of Jack Daniel's have grown more than 10% per year during the past six years and worldwide demand for small batch Maker's Mark sent its exports soaring to 80,000 cases in 2002. Exports also account for roughly 40% of Wild Turkey's annual worldwide sales and 35% for Jim Beam.
BIG, COMPLEX FLAVORS
It's little wonder why our indigenous whiskeys have sparked the imagination of enthusiasts at home and around the world. Bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys are loaded with big, complex flavors and have about the most captivating aromas in the business. Indeed, superpremium brands are surging ahead at an annual rate of about 16%, mirroring the national trend toward upscale consumption. This is further borne out by the fact that lesser known, popular-priced bourbons continue their slight but steady decline.
So what's behind the trend? "American whiskey is reinventing itself and communicating more effectively to consumers," observed Ken Weber, global brand director for Buffalo Trace Distillery. "Today, a number of distillers have gone back to the small batch method that places a premium on producing high-quality whiskey. The reality is that these whiskeys cost more to produce, however, consumers have shown a willingness to pay more for these outstanding products. Their drinkable characters and rich flavors are extremely appealing."
Larry Kass, director of corporate communications at Heaven Hill Distilleries, is bullish on the category's prospects for continued growth. "Obviously there are a lot of positive things happening with American whiskeys, particularly in the superpremium segment, where small batches, single barrels and extra-aged bottlings continue to sell exceptionally well and draw attention to the category."
The latest effort from renowned master distiller Jimmy Russell is Wild Turkey Tribute, a limited edition, small batch bourbon.
Contributing to the growth in the category is that American whiskeys are highly mixable spirits. Chris Morris, master distiller of Woodford Reserve, noted that American whiskeys have a tremendous range of flavors due to their mash bills and the maturation in new barrels. "Bourbons in general have sweet aromatic notes and a depth of flavor that make them quite mixable," Morris said.
One of the intangibles behind their increasing popularity is that there's little pretense or snob appeal to bourbon or Tennessee whiskey. One doesn't need a refined, well-educated palate to appreciate their assertive character. And, in general, bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys are affordable as well.
Any discussion of the current status of American whiskey must begin with Jimmy Russell, the famed master distiller at Wild Turkey. For the past 50 years, the Lawrenceburg, KY, native has helped shape the face of the industry.
To commemorate Jimmy Russell's enormous contributions, the distillery has just launched Wild Turkey Tribute ($90 suggested retail), a 101 proof, limited edition, 15-year old, small batch bourbon. Fifteen years ago, Russell hand-selected sweet "sugar barrels" in anticipation of this special bottling, which is comprised of only 5,500 bottles.
The main Wild Turkey brand, from Pernod Ricard USA, had another positive year in 2003, gaining 1.6% to 511,000 9-liter cases. Last year, the brand successfully introduced Wild Turkey Russell Reserve ($25), a 10-year old, Kentucky straight bourbon. The small-batch whiskey is bottled at the distillery's trademark 101 proof. The Wild Turkey portfolio also includes Kentucky Spirit, a single barrel bourbon (101 proof and $45), and Rare Breed, a limited-release whiskey bottled undiluted, unfiltered and at barrel-proof, which ranges from 109.6 to 112 proof. Rare Breed ($35) is made using a blend of 6-, 8- and 12-year-old bourbons to ensure consistency between bottlings.
The Jack Daniel's family of Tennessee whiskies is featuring new holiday-themed merchandising materials for the fourth quarter.
Produced since 1866, Jack Daniel's Old Time No. 7 Black Label remains the country's best-selling whiskey. The Tennessee whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal and aged four to five years. The brand increased volume by an impressive 4.4% nationally in 2003, to just under 4 million 9-liter cases.
A step up is Gentleman Jack Tennessee Whiskey ($25), handcrafted from a recipe created by Jack Daniel himself at the turn of the century. The whiskey is aged in oak barrels for 4 years, and then mellowed twice in Tennessee sugar maple charcoal, once before being put in wood and once again after. It's bottled at 80 proof.
Category enthusiasts have reveled in the release of Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey ($47 and 94 proof), and with good reason. The whiskey is hand-bottled straight from barrels personally selected by master distiller Jimmy Bedford. Each label is marked with the rick and barrel number, as well as the date of bottling.
THE BEAM TEAM
The Beam family has been distilling whiskey since 1795. Their distillery in Clermont, KY, is among the largest and most sophisticated in the world. Before his recent passing, Booker Noe, Jim Beam's legendary master distiller, created a highly prized offering called Distillers' Masterpiece Bourbon ($250). The current release features 20-year old, small-batch Booker's bourbon finished in Geyser Peak port casks. Every aspect of the bourbon has been softened and enhanced by the port. The overall effect falls somewhere between elegance and savory indulgence.
The distillery is also enjoying phenomenal success with the relaunch of Jim Beam Black Label ($17). Considered one of the top two or three best values in the category, the bourbon is distilled from a high proportion of white and yellow corn grown in Indiana and Kentucky, and lesser percentages of rye and malted barley. The easily accessible bourbon is then matured in oak a minimum of 8 years and bottled at 86 proof.
Fall football-themed merchandising materials are available for Jim Beam White and Black Labels.
The Jim Beam Distillery continues to garner critical acclaim for their family of four stellar small batch bourbons, led by handcrafted Booker's Kentucky Straight Bourbon ($53). This enormous whiskey is drawn from the barrel and bottled in its natural state without being filtered or cut with water. Booker's is matured for six to eight years, and selected from barrels aging in the center of the warehouse, where conditions are considered optimum. It is marketed at barrel proof, which ranges from 121 to 127 proof.
Small batch Knob Creek Bourbon ($28 and 100 proof) is aged for a minimum of 9 years in new white oak barrels. The inside of the barrels are seared over a low flame to bring out the natural sugars in the wood and then "flash-fired" to create a layer of charred wood. The depth of charring forms a layer of red caramelized wood underneath the charcoal. It is through the interaction with this rich caramelized layer that Knob Creek gets its deep amber color and sweet flavor.
Jim Beam's small batch collection also includes Baker's Bourbon, which is fermented using a proprietary strain of jug yeast and aged seven years (107 proof) and Basil Hayden, a sour mash bourbon whose mash bill contains a higher percentage of rye and barley malt and aged for eight years (80proof). Both bourbons retail in the high thirties.
PROMISING SINGLE BARREL VINTAGE
Heaven Hill's much anticipated Evan Williams Single Barrel 1994 Vintage Bourbon ($25) has hit the shelves. Made in Bardstown, KY, the whiskey was distilled and barreled in the autumn of 1994. After resting for nine years in charred oak casks, the whiskey is drawn straight from the barrel and diluted to 86.6 proof. The previous seven vintages of this critically acclaimed bourbon have sold out within months.
Heaven Hill Distilleries Evan Williams brand sold 925,000 cases in 2003.
Heaven Hill also produces Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel ($36). This bourbon was aged in charred oak barrels for the better part of two decades. Marketed in a cork-finished flask, this extraordinary whiskey experience is bottled at 90 proof.
Commonly accepted as one of the best bargains in the category, Heaven Hill's Elijah Craig 12-Year Old Kentucky Straight Whiskey ($18 and 94 proof) has racked up double gold medals at spirits competitions and many other accolades.
MAKING A MARK
With its distinctive, red wax-dipped bottle Maker's Mark Bourbon ($21 and 90 proof) was the country's first small batch bourbon and is one of the most recognizable whiskeys in the world. The brand is one of only a few bourbons to include wheat instead of rye in its mash bill, which also has corn, barley malt and a sour mash component. The whiskey is made with a yeast strain that is purported to be the oldest in Kentucky. Handcrafted at the Star Hill Distillery in Loretto, KY, Maker's Mark is distributed by Allied Domecq. It remains the fastest-growing bourbon in the U.S., with 2003 sales increasing by 15.3% to just under a half-million 9-liter cases.
The Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY, formerly known as Ancient Age, is well known for its line-up of single barrel bourbons. The first and still most successful is Blanton's ($45 and 90 proof). Introduced in 1984 as the first single barrel bourbon, Blanton's is a rye recipe bourbon with no age declaration on its label. Each barrel of bourbon reaches its peak maturity at a different rate due to various factors such as humidity and temperature. When it comes to Blanton's, age is a relative thing. It's ready when it's ready.
Buffalo Trace produces whiskey from five core recipes. Some have higher proportions of rye, others wheat, while still others feature mash bills with neither. They vary in age from four to 23 years, and in distillation proof and aging conditions. This wide variety of whiskeys has allowed Buffalo Trace to launch and maintain a thriving repertoire of single barrel bourbons, an impressive roster that includes Rock Hill Farms (100 proof); Hancock's Reserve (88.9 proof); Elmer T. Lee (90 proof); and Eagle Rare (90 proof), a 10-year old single barrel bourbon.
The distillery's namesake issue is Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Introduced in late 1999, the 90 proof whiskey is made from rye, malted barley and Kentucky and Indiana corn, and now is available nationwide. All of Buffalo Trace's whiskeys are produced and distributed by Sazerac.
Maker's Mark, from Allied Domecq Spirits, grew by 15.3 last year.
One of the venerable and most respected brands of American whiskey is Van Winkle. The family patriarch, Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle was one of the pioneers of the bourbon industry. The broad range of whiskey that bears his name is now distilled at Buffalo Trace and is highly acclaimed.
OTHER SPECIAL OFFERINGS
In 1870, George Garvin Brown opened a distillery in Louisville and was the first in America to market his whiskey in sealed bottles to ensure purity, a brand he named Old Forester. Today, the descendants of George Garvin Brown still oversee the making of the entire range of bourbons, which now includes the limited release, vintage dated Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. The first two issues in the line were distilled in 1989 (95 proof) and 1990 (93 proof). Each is subtly different from the other, but both are loaded with bakery-fresh flavors.
Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select is distilled in Louisville at the Brown-Forman Distillery. Master distiller Chris Morris hand selects barrels that match the distinctive taste profile he's looking for. He then transfers the barrels to the 100-year-old stone warehouses at the recently restored Woodford Reserve Distillery in Woodford County. Limestone-filtered spring water is used to bring the mature whiskey down to its bottled strength of 90.4 proof. Both Old Forrester and Woodford Reserve are marketed by Brown-Forman.
WILL AMERICAN WHISKEY PROSPER?
By all indications, American whiskeys will continue to grab an increasingly larger share of the popular limelight. Their mixability, affordability and easy to appreciate character seem to be what consumers are looking for. In addition to straight up, where is the category heading?
Buffalo Trace Distillery is well known for its extensive lineup of handcrafted bourbons.
Industry professionals stressed that creating new superpremium products offering consumers genuine points of distinction will grow in importance.
"The trend has already begun," said Heaven Hill's Larry Kass. "Our vintage dated Evan Williams has been hugely successful for 10 years. Where once it was the only bourbon of its type, there is now Old Forrester vintage dated bottlings. Jim Beam has their cognac and port finished Distiller's Masterpiece, and Wild Turkey has just released a sherry-wood finished bourbon for duty free markets. These are viable points of differentiation, and as the category sees new entrants, distilleries will endeavor to create these points of distinction. The real beneficiary will be the consumer."
"American distillers need to continue searching for the perfect whiskey," stated bourbon veteran Ken Weber. "This will entail creating vintage bottlings and special releases. The Buffalo Trace Distillery currently has 1,500 different experiments in our aging warehouse. Obviously, we have manipulated a number of variables. Whether any of these experiments result in the next great whiskey is something only time will tell."
LEADING BRANDS OF STRAIGHT WHISKEY
(Thousands of 9-liter Cases)
||Jim Beam Brands
||Heaven Hill Distilleries
||Pernod Ricard USA
||Jim Beam Brands
||Allied Domecq Spirits USA
|Heaven Hill Bourbon
||Heaven Hill Distilleries
|Total Leading Brands
Source: Adams Beverage Group
All in all, excitement and enthusiasm is pervasive. Master Distiller Chris Morris, who has made bourbon his life's work, is especially optimistic about the future of the American whiskey category. "Twenty years from now this category will be stronger, healthier and held in even higher esteem around the world thanks to the groundwork of quality and innovation that is being laid today." *
Robert Plotkin is the past president of the National Bar & Restaurant Association and author of numerous books including the 4th edition of The Bartender’s Companion: The Original Guide to American Cocktails and Drinks. He can be reached at BarMedia, 1-800-421-7179, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RYE: THE NEXT HOT WHISKEY
Whiskey observers are betting that the next type of varietal whiskey to get hot may well be American rye whiskey. A rye whiskey must be made with no less than 51% of its mash bill comprised of rye, with the balance typically being malted barley and corn. They are hardy, zesty spirits, loaded with dry, singular characters. Ironically, it's their big, intense taste profile that may have caused rye whiskeys to lose ground to the mellower, sweeter bourbons and soft, blended Scotches. Today, however, consumers are in tune with big, bold flavors. In horizontal tastings against bourbon and Scotch, rye whiskeys have faired exceptionally well.
Rye whiskeys have a long and storied history in the U.S. and for much of our history it was the country's most popular spirit. In fact, George Washington distilled rye at his home at Mount Vernon. Production of rye whiskey centered in and around Pennsylvania and Maryland, where Scotch-Irish immigrants settled, bringing with them the artisan's knowledge of distillation.
Several major producers are preparing for the popular rye renaissance and currently are marketing at least one label of rye whiskey.
Jim Beam produces both a six-year old straight rye whiskey (80 proof) and famed Old Overholt at their distillery in Clermont, KY. The brand is made in small batches using a blend of 59% rye and aged four years. It is a sterling example of what's often referred to as Monongahela Rye.
Buffalo Trace likewise has two ryes in their portfolio. Super-premium Sazerac Kentucky Rye is a limited production, 18-year old straight whiskey and a member of their Antique Bourbon Collection. In 2002 the distillery introduced George T. Stagg, a vivacious 15-year-old rye whiskey bottled at barrel strength (137.6 proof), undiluted and unfiltered.
Wild Turkey Straight Kentucky Rye is bottled at 101 proof with no age statement, while the Van Winkle Family Reserve is aged 13 years and bottled at 95.6 proof.
Old Portero Single Malt, from Anchor Distillery, in San Francisco, is made in small batches entirely from malted rye. It is double-distilled in pot stills, aged for one year and bottled at 123.5 proof.
So if you're looking to stack the deck and offer your whiskey-loving clientele a taste experience they soon won't forget, go back in time and offer them a true slice of Americana.
NICHE AMERICAN WHISKEYS
Though the major American whiskey distillers produce plenty of specialty, handcrafted offerings, here are a selection from some smaller producers that are worth knowing about.
Handcrafted at the McLain & Kyne Distillery in Bardstown, KY, Jefferson's Reserve ($50) is a limited-edition, extremely small batch Kentucky straight bourbon. The 90.4 proof whiskey is aged 15 years in heavily charred oak barrels. Also made by the McLain & Kyne Distillery, Sam Houston Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky is distilled from a blend of corn, rye and barley and aged for 10 years.
One of the leading contenders for most individual American whiskey is McKendric Western Style Whiskey. Produced in Abilene, TX, the whiskey is distilled predominantly from corn and aged in charred new American oak barrels. The twist is the mellowing with mesquite chips. The 90.4 proof whiskey has a rather intriguing, smoky aspect to its character. The distillery also makes McKendric Longhorn Creek Whiskey, which is made by the same process but marketed at 80 proof.
Made at the now-defunct Michter's Distillery in Shaefferstown, PA, A. H. Hirsch Bourbon is the only brand on the market that was entirely double-distilled in pot stills. While only a limited stock of these artisan whiskeys remain, they are a tangible reminder of how bourbons were once made. The range of bourbons includes the Hirsch 16-Year Old Pot Still Bourbon (91.6 proof) and Hirsch 20-Year Old Pot Still Bourbon (91.6 proof).
Virginia Gentleman is crafted at the A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredricksburg, VA. It is a small batch whiskey distilled in copper stills and bottled at both 80 and 90 proof ($21).
Another contender for most intriguing American whiskey is McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt. Made at the Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, OR, McCarthy's is made in small batches with peat-malted barley from Scotland. The fermented wash is distilled in Clear Creek's Holstein pot still and aged in used sherry casks, then transferred to air-dried Oregon oak barrels.