The booming American whiskey market has forced new trends due to limited supplies versus soaring demand. This has necessitated creativity from whiskey-makers. Like Steve Beam and John Rempe, whose recent work is emblematic of the category’s current state and future.
Working for Luxco, Rempe is behind the Rebel Yell brand, including its well-received 10 Year Old Single Barrel, and also the Blood Oath series of one-off bourbons.
Beam with his brother Paul founded Limestone Branch Distillery in Kentucky in 2010, sourcing whiskey while theirs matures. With purchased juice (plus a little of their own) they blended together the Yellowstone Whiskey brand, plus Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey finished in sherry casks.
From blends to wheated bourbons to cask finishes to sourced product, these two producers are in the thick of what’s defining American whiskey in 2017-18. We had opportunity to speak with both on Nov. 16 at NYC’s Fine & Rare. Here’s 5 trends they commended on:
1) As Age Statements Vanish, They Become More Noticeable
Age statements have increasingly disappeared from labels for years now. How come? There’s not enough aged product to meet demand. In response, many companies have mixed together blends to put more bottles on shelves. Consumers are not deterred by this. Blended or not, they want more whiskey.
Which was why Rebel Yell did not necessarily have to launch a 10 Year Old. But the opportunity was too good for Rempe to pass. “We were looking into barrels, actually with a mind to blend them into a different product, when we decided that these were so good that they needed to be their own release,” he says.
“The market is perfect to put out a 10 Year Old,” he adds. “The age statement allows it to stand out on the shelf.”
Look for more brands to zig with age statements while others zag towards blends.
2) Nobody Cares When Whiskey Is Sourced
Except for whiskey nerds. “Sourced whiskey seems to be a topic that’s talked about only on certain whiskey blogs and feeds,” Beam says. And these people, of course, comprise but a fraction of the overall whiskey consumer base.
As for everyone else? “I don’t think the consumer cares,” Beam says. After all, new distilleries like his frequently source product to pay the bills while waiting for their initial batches to age properly. (Beam expects his company’s first self-made whiskey, a Bottled-in-Bond release, to hit shelves in 2020.) Even the larger, corporate companies source juice. It’s standard industry practice.
The problem, Beam says, is when producers try to pass off this purchased stuff as their own. Which is why his brands are forthright about their origins. “We try to take it and run with it,” he says. “We use it as our own product, but we put our personal stamp on it.”
The 2017 Yellowstone Limited Edition, for instance, blends sourced 7- and 12-year whiskey with a 4-year-old whiskey made by Beam. The blend then finishes in doubled charred ex-bourbon barrels. The result is a dark, smooth, complex expression, wholly belonging to the Yellowstone brand.
3) Barrel Finishes Meet Consumer Demand
With consumer’s palates as curious as ever, how can distillers quench the consumer thirst for new flavors?
Creative barrel finishes have become a common answer. Like Beam’s sherry cask-finished rye. Most consumers do not care whether whiskey is blended, sourced, or carries an age statement: they just want more flavors. Interesting barrel-finishes give consumers a much-desired taste of variety.
“We thought the sherry finish with our rye mimics the flavors of a Manhattan cocktail,” Beam explains. He expects his company’s rye to remain sourced. “I happen to really like Indiana rye, and if I can put my own spin on it, that’s good.”
Barrel-finishing also appeals to the producer. For Blood Oath, Rempe finished the 2016 release in ex-port barrels, and the 2017 in ex-cabernet casks. “Barrel-finishing brings both the blender and the distiller to the stage,” he says. “It allows the blender to use creativity to really put their mark on a whiskey.”
4) Limited Releases Remain Red Hot
We live in a golden age of allocated whiskey. Small-batch products arrive sometimes only once per year, receive social media attention, and then fly off the shelves.
The Blood Oath series comes out annually with a highly produced blend that’s never repeated. Collectors can hunt down Blood Oath Pact No. 1, No. 2, and now No. 3 to compare and contrast — and to brag about. “People today are looking for that rare bottle to show off to their friends” Rempe says. “The rarer, the better.”
Blood Oath has become an allocated brand. The high-rye bourbon blend is 98.6 proof (the temperature of human blood) and retails for around $100. “The quality of the product can command that price,” Rempe says.
So too can the hype and demand.
5) Wheated Bourbons Are Having a Moment
Oddly enough, the Rebel Yell 10 Year Old is technically rarer than Blood Oath. Only 2,000 cases released shipped nationwide (the same number as last year). Lower in production costs than Blood Oath, this Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey is 100 proof and retails for $59.99.
Its also received acclaims from critics, and moves fast from shelves. Perhaps this partly owes to a mash bill that’s high in wheat.
Wheated bourbons have enjoyed a rise in consumer interest thanks largely to the cult following of the Pappy Van Winkle. When describing Rebell Yell 10 Year Old, Rempe was quick to reference Pappy. “Our recipe dates back to the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery,” he says.
Rebell Yell 10 Year Old is 22% wheat (along with 68% corn and 12% malt). The high-wheat component “lets the corn come through,” Rempe believes, “where a high-rye mash bill would not. It makes for a smoother mouthfeel and a very drinkable whiskey.”
With no end in sight for the Pappy craze, except more consumers to seek out other wheated bourbons like Rebell Yell 10 Year Old. If they can find them.