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American Whiskeys Trending UPWARDS

Posted by on in January 2014 Editions
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The 5 Trends Sending American Whiskeys Upward

As the adage goes, people drink in good economic times and bad. It seems especially true for the American whiskey category, which according to Beverage Information Group grew an impressive 3 percent to 15.7 million 9-liter cases. Prosperity will eventually return, but the question remains, will American whiskeys continue to successfully compete with elder statesmen Irish and Scotch on the world stage?

“We’re excited about the growth potential for the American whiskey category,” says Chris Bauder, GM of U.S. Whiskies at Beam Global. “Consumers continue looking to expand their spirits repertoire, and with all of the bourbon innovations we are seeing, they are discovering the fantastic quality, versatility and different tastes available within the category. There is a level of pride among the category’s pioneers, including Bill Samuels and Fred Noe, in the fact that their products stand up to Scotch and Irish whiskies in the minds of consumers and that this uniquely American spirit is getting unprecedented demand from whiskey drinkers across the world.”

Gable Erenzo, ambassador for Hudson Whiskey and Tuthilltown Spirits Distillers, takes a more global view. “We’re absolutely bullish about the growth potential of American whiskeys. Though there is significant competition in the category and increasingly more craft producers are vying for the same niche market share, there remains a huge piece of the pie to be shared here in the States. The rapidly maturing Asian and South American markets are creating huge potential for American whiskey. Some brands will make it, others will not, but American whiskey is here to stay, and there is a big world out there thirsty for what we produce.”

Curious about what’s behind the steady growth of American whiskeys, we polled our experts and came up with the five major trends that are behind up tick in our indigenous whiskeys.

Trend #1 — Double Barreled & Wood Finished American Whiskeys

A growing trend within the category is transferring traditionally aged bourbon from charred American oak barrels into a different variety of oak—such as French oak or maple wood—or one that was used previously to mature wine or a different type of spirit—be it cognac, sherry or port, chardonnay, etc. Whiskeys derive most of the flavor and all of their color from being aged in wood. Finishing a whiskey in a different type of wood is an artisanal twist that greatly affects the flavor of the finished product.

A recent example is Angel’s Envy Bourbon from Louisville Distilling Company and master distiller Lincoln Henderson, former master distiller at Woodford Reserve. The bourbon begins with a mash bill of corn and rye and is aged between 4 and 6 years in charred American oak barrels. It is then transferred to hand-selected port casks for an additional 3 to 6 months.

Jim Beam’s Bauder thinks that as the bourbon boom continues we’ll continue to see more distillers employ this type of production processes. “Wood finishes should certainly keep things interesting for whiskey drinkers. We are especially proud of two of our latest and most successful launches—Maker’s 46, for which we rest fully matured Maker’s Mark in a 2nd barrel outfitted with additional French oak staves and Devil’s Cut, which is created using a proprietary process to extract liquid from within the barrel wood, producing a bold, intense whiskey. Both of these bourbon innovations have helped us offer new, one-of-a-kind options to our fans. We expect to continue blazing trails through innovation in the future.”

Dan Garrison, proprietor, Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, Texas is also a fan of wood finishing bourbons. “I have tried the double barreled bourbons from Woodford Reserve and master distiller Chris Morris. The Woodford Reserve Double Barreled bourbon is excellent and I love the experimental wood science that Chris Morris used in developing it. Understanding the nuances that different toast and char levels have on caramelizing the sugars in the wood is the key. We are currently developing our own Double Barreled expression, incorporating our knowledge of this science and the effects of the Texas climate, and will know in a few years whether it is something we want to release as a limited edition.

Trend #2 — Limited Edition Releases

Few things pique consumer interest more than scarcity. It is certainly true for aged spirits. Distillation runs produce finite quantities of whiskey. As that whiskey ages, some barrels will reach their maturity faster than others. Every rick house has places where barrels attain peak maturity quickly. Distillers are then faced with the decision whether to move those barrels to a different area of the warehouse, or bottle them as a limited edition offering. The allure for aficionados is when that lot of whiskey has been sold, it is gone and will not be replicated. It’s the category’s version of “here today, gone tomorrow.”

An excellent illustration is the recently released limited edition Elijah Craig 20-Year-Old Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from Heaven Hill Distilleries. In order to manage stock levels in the warehouses, Heaven Hill temporarily suspended bottling of the 18-Year-Old Elijah Craig Single Barrel that it has offered for a number of years. The new bottling will retail for approximately $130 for the 750ml size, but less than 80 specially selected barrels will be dumped, yielding fewer than 1,300 bottles.

“Limited edition releases are fantastic for the category, allowing consumers to explore the depth of the category and experience where the category is heading,” contends Trey Zoeller, founder and master blender of the Jefferson’s portfolio of bourbons. “We’re releasing our Jefferson's Ocean Aged Bourbon right now, with only 250 bottles available nationally. It’s a very limited offering, but it has already excited consumers and garnered substantial buzz because it’s something different to explore in the world of bourbon.”

Erenzo of Tuthilltown Spirits Distillers believes limited edition releases are beneficial and afford brands added stature and media coverage. “As long as these limited editions are truly something unique and worthy of the title, I think this is a good way to keep vitality in brands. In our case, some special barrel finishes or interesting grain blends that differentiate it from our main line compelled us to share them with our consumers.”

Distiller Dan Garrison has some reservations about limited editions though. “Occasionally limited edition releases from major producers are existing casks produced using the same whiskey recipes that would normally go into their standard brands. One exception is what Harlen Wheatley—and Elmer T. Lee before him—is doing at Buffalo Trace with his experimental collection and his antique collection is outstanding—the most exciting thing happening in the bourbon business today. Really, any craft distillery making bourbon is making a limited edition release.”

Trend #3 — Growth of Straight Rye Whiskeys

Straight Rye Whiskeys share a common heritage as uniquely American products with enticing aromas and brilliantly flavored palates, both of which they possess in generous supply. They have a long and storied history in the United States and prior to Prohibition, it was our nation’s whiskey of choice. Following World War II, however, sales of rye whiskeys went into a protracted slump, a decline that reflected the steady rise in popularity of soft blended whiskies and light mixable spirits. By the 1970s, rye whiskeys had all but disappeared from American bars.

Fortunately that trend has reversed and the bold, exuberant flavors of American ryes have again attracted a wide following. They’re whiskeys with broad shoulders and a lot of personality, a character no doubt molded from our collective national self-image. Fueling its revival is the ongoing cocktail renaissance and the rise of the mixologist. As the earliest rendition of American whiskey, rye was almost exclusively used as the foundation of 19th century cocktails that called for whiskey.

“Rye whiskeys are a category unto themselves,” says master distiller Dave Scheurich of The Tennessee Spirits Company, makers of recently released Breakout American Rye Whiskey. “Bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys are corn based by law which gives the whiskeys a decidedly sweet character. Those whiskeys use rye as the second grain to provide spice notes. Rye whiskeys are obviously made from a majority of rye grains and have a completely different flavor profile from their bourbon cousins. They are much more complex, spicier and earthier than the corn-based whiskeys. Because of this unique combination, rye is considered an excellent mixing whiskey for cocktails like Old Fashions and Manhattans.”

Chris Bauder of Jim Beam reports they have certainly seen growth and excitement around the rye whiskey segment. “According to Nielsen, for the past 52 weeks, the category is up 64% in terms of value. Consumers and bartenders are attracted to rye for its mixability, it’s spicy but approachable profile, its historical significance, and its versatility in classic cocktails.”

Beam has long produced some of the bestselling rye whiskies, including Jim Beam—the world’s leading rye whiskey, as well as Old Overholt and (ri)1. This year the company also launched Knob Creek Rye.”

Trend #4 — Extended Aged American Whiskeys

There is a point of diminishing returns with every barrel of aging whiskey, which means that leaving whiskey in a barrel longer doesn’t necessarily mean that it will continue to improve. It’s a delicate process that is as much science as it is art. The climate is a variable. The warmer the climate the faster whiskey matures in oak. Where a barrel is stored in a rick house is also a factor. Suffice to say, aging whiskey to its absolute prime is challenging.

That said, there are increasingly more whiskeys on the market being aged 18 years or older. Likely the first name in extended aging is the venerable Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve from the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery of Lawrenceberg, Kentucky. This rare limited edition is aged 23 years. The barrels were carefully selected from the heart of the warehouse. Only the most careful and expensive distilling method and aging techniques can be used to create a handcrafted whiskey of this caliber. 

“Managing a program like that is extremely difficult,” says distiller Dave Scheurich. “Among the challenges are projecting supply/demand needs so far out into the future, predicting the loss through evaporation—dubbed the Angel’s Share—and managing the barrels in the warehouse so that the whiskey doesn’t get too much interaction with the barrel, which would drive the whiskey toward being too tannic, smoky and woody.”

Dan Garrison of Garrison Brothers Distillery has discovered that in Texas, the climate has a much more pronounced effect on the flavor, character and body of a fine bourbon than does its age. “Loss due to evaporation plays a critical role in how a bourbon whiskey matures. When that loss is dramatically exaggerated, as it is here in Texas, the bourbon whiskey in the barrel will take on a velvety finish that is just not possible to recreate in a cooler climate such as that of the great state of Kentucky.”

Trend #5 — Single Barrel Bottlings

There is something compelling about a single barrel bourbon. As the name implies, the whiskey is drawn from a single barrel and when that individual cask is emptied, that’s it. A whiskey in a neighboring cask may be similar, but its taste profile won’t be an exact match. A typical barrel of whiskey yields around 230-250 (750ml) bottles. In short, the whiskey is a slice of life never to be duplicated.

Introduced in 1984, Blanton’s was the first single barrel bourbon on the market and is likely the best known. The Kentucky straight bourbon is distilled and aged at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. While Blanton’s makes no age declaration on its label, it is aged approximately 10 to 12 years and bottled at 93 proof. 

“Sometimes we find barrels that are just too good to blend,” says Tuthilltown Spirits’ Gable Erenzo. “For us, these are the casks we set aside for a single barrel edition. In larger format distilleries, I still like this expression because each individual barrel will offer slight nuances. For me, those nuances are what make whiskey so interesting. Same grain, same process, same wood, same distillers...slight differences. That’s the beauty of these types of spirits, in my opinion.”

Founded in 1795, Jim Beam launched its first single barrel expression last year. According to Chris Bauder, the distillery waited until it had the perfect whiskey to bottle as a single barrel. “Our first such offering is Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. Aged 9 years, the bourbon is carefully hand-selected and bottled barrel-by-barrel at 120 proof in order to offer fans even more of the signature big, full flavor that they love about Knob Creek.”

American whiskey is constantly reinventing itself and is on track to grab an increasingly larger share of the popular limelight. They are loaded with big complex flavors and have about the most captivating aroma of any whiskey. Their mixability, affordability and easy to appreciate character seem to be what consumers are looking for.


Roberto is a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and author of 16 books on bartending and beverage management including Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails.