Casting an eye to the future

Casting an eye to the future

This month's debate looks at the future role of age statements on bourbons

People | 16 Jul 2004 | Issue 41 | By Dominic Roskrow

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The Panel
Frank Coleman, Senior vice president for public relations, Distilleries Council of the United States (FC)
Charles Cowdery, Whisky Magazine American correspondent (CKC)
Dominic Roskrow, Whisky Magazine Editor (DR)
Ken Weber, Global Brand Director, Buffalo Trace (KW)The debate: What’s the future for bourbon and what will influence it?Q: Is the move to introducing older bourbons with age statements on the label a fashion thing or are we seeing some genuinely interesting products?KW: As distilleries strive to produce higher quality products, the entire category will grow. I see it as a natural progression that will keep the category from becoming stale and out of touch with what consumers want.CKC: There is always some element of fashion in new product introductions, which isn’t necessarily bad, but there are genuinely interesting products in the mix too. Many of the extra-aged products now available really open up your mind as to how bourbon can taste.DR: Yes, fashion isn’t a bad thing at all. If you’re bringing in 100 new drinkers and 95 move on as fashions change, that’s still five new drinkers. And new trends are the way in which we progress, after all.Q: Is there a danger that a mentality of ‘older means better’ might creep in and damage the reputation of fine bourbon?DR: This is the case with any whisky and it’s the sort of untruth that needs to be dispelled wherever it arises. You hope and presume that anyone finding premium bourbon will get to know enough about it to understand that some great bourbons are at their best at say five or six years old and wouldn’t benefit from lengthier maturation periods. And then again Julian Van Winkle will pluck out a cracker aged more than 15 years old. There’s a huge personal preference thing involved here too.CKC: There is always a danger with bourbon that the category will be harmed because bourbon can age too much and it can happen very quickly. What is interesting about what is happening now is that many drinkers have taken to tastes that the ‘experts’ at the distilleries thought were too extreme. There has been a prejudice in the industry against bourbons that are more than 10 years old and that has been limiting. When the whiskey starts to taste like a campfire, it has gone too far.KW: A wheated bourbon like Weller or Van Winkle may not reach its full maturity for at least 10 years or so, and it seems to get better with age. Wheated bourbon tends to age more gracefully, particularly in the very old ages (20 years plus). The rye bourbons seem to mingle quicker with the natural flavours from the barrel, allowing the extracts to peak quicker. I think it is important to note that no two barrels of bourbon age identically. Simply adding a barrel of bourbon to a batch because it has achieved its required chronological age could be a disservice to the final product. Aging is truly one of the unpredictable arts of bourbon making.CKC: There are some great older whiskies but you have to be careful introducing them to a beginner. You have to understand basic bourbon geography before the extra-aged products will make sense or appeal to you, I like the Ezra B. 15 year old, both Elijah Craigs (12 year old and 18 year old), George T. Stagg (18 year old), and anything from Van Winkle, especially their 13 year old straight rye, which is wonderful. The Elijah Craig 12 year old is very approachable while the 18 year old is a real mind blower.Q: Are we making more of this sector than perhaps is warranted, and is it unlikely to grow much beyond a few special bottlings?CKC: The essence of connoisseurship is variety. If bourbon is to develop the kind of enthusiast community single malts have, there need to be new tastes to explore, and age is one way to get them. But I think producers have to be careful about making sure the product works in the glass and isn’t just about a number on a label.FC: Yes I agree. I suspect that as consumer interest and demand for super premium bourbons continues to explode worldwide we are going to see many new and interesting ‘special bottlings’. And I think this is a good thing.KW: While there’s a chance to improve the sector this is justified. Has the perfect bourbon ever been produced? I have never seen any product receive a perfect score. We are keenly aware that perfection is still out there somewhere. Only by trying new recipes, experimenting with production variables, and closely monitoring aging factors can we move toward perfection. The premium end will only benefit from the hard work of the master distillers.Q: Are bourbons with age statements likely to open up the market to new whiskey drinkers?KW: Education is the key to the long term growth of brands within the bourbon category. The age statement is not the final answer. Consumers need to know why Jim Beam is different from Jack Daniel’s or Buffalo Trace. True, age is a factor, but there are also the recipe and aging conditions to consider. Consumers should realise there are a number of quality brands available and they should do themselves a favour and try something different.CKC: Bourbons with age statements might attract single malt drinkers or even cognac drinkers, if those drinkers perceive the extra aging as producing a more complex spirit. Age statements certainly will help drinkers of other long-aged products see bourbon in a similar context, although they need to understand that while 12 years is young for a malt or brandy, that’s old for a bourbon. However, since an extra-aged bourbon tends to be even more flavourful and, therefore, more challenging than a standard bourbon, I don’t see older bourbons attracting people away from vodka, for instance.DR: I would say though that I come across an increasing number of younger people who are well travelled and have experienced very spicy foods from across the world, and they’re put off by the blander and smoother whiskies. They want a taste challenge and so why not barbecue some hot wings in some genuine Kentucky hot pepper sauce and serve it with a George T. Stagg? I do this a lot with Indian food and the heavily peated Scotches – and I’m always surprised at the number of people who buy in to that sort of challenge.Q: So are age statements for bourbon a good or bad thing?KW: I certainly believe age statements have a place on bourbon labels. However, they should not be the sole point of reference in determining quality. Some high quality bourbons, like Buffalo Trace, include no age statement. The rationale is that this brand is determined to maintain a specific flavour profile that is dependent on whiskey at least nine years old. Often batches of Buffalo Trace include 10 and 11 year old bourbons to maintain the desired taste profile.DR: Yes I agree. It’s horses for courses, really, and as long as it’s understood why some brands have an age statement and others don’t, and no generalisations are made about the quality of specific brands as a result, then the trend is a healthy one.FC: It’s good because it encourages consumers to explore the heritage, tastes and culture of the category. Ultimately it’s about what’s in the bottle. Today’s master distillers and the companies that give them the freedom to experiment are committed to excellence. As Bill Samuels is fond of pointing out, the best bourbon that was ever made is being made today. And I look forward to tasting it whenever he and his colleagues say it’s ready.”
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