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The Next BIG Spirits Boom

The noted leadership guru, Stephen Covey, once wrote you should always “begin with the end in mine.” With that said, we don’t have the answer as to what the next big spirits boom will be. However, it is a question that we’ve been able to answer distillers, marketers, PR people, etc. in the whiskey industry and the comments far exceed the 280 characters for which Twitter allows us to add context. So, here we go…

Last summer, I had the opportunity to attend the breakfast release party for Heaven Hill’s Parker’s Heritage orange curaçao-finished bourbon. As luck would have it, Denny Potter (at the time) master distiller of Heaven Hill sat two seats away from me and we were able to chat throughout breakfast. At one point as the table conversation lagged, I asked Denny this billion dollar question. Denny immediately answered, “gin.” When I asked him to expand on this curious answer. I was expecting rum, or tequila, or mescal, anything but gin. After all, gin is the choice of college kids looking to elevate their drink order in a gin and tonic, not the sippable spirit that whiskey or rum or tequila is. Denny was adamant the answer was gin. He pointed to the increasing interest in gin in parts of Europe, most notably in the UK. He pointed to many distillers being able to produce high quality gins quickly and infuse interesting and novel flavor profiles that extend far beyond the basic juniper that one associates with most shelf bottles of gin. Locally, New Riff Distillery in Covington, KY is doing some great things with their Kentucky Wild Gin. I own two bottles of their different gin expressions and love that the grains were sourced locally and the citrus notes are far different that the standard Tanqueray, Beefeater, etc. gins obtainable from the local liquor store. Our fellow founder of BourbonScript introduced me to Nikka gin about a year ago and that one too has earned a permanent spot in my bar with beautiful and prominent citrus notes. Both are sippable neat the mark, to me, of a quality spirit. However, when Denny was asked if Heaven Hill was planning a top shelf gin to take advantage of this coming boom, he simply answered, “no.” He pointed out that Heaven Hill brands has bottom shelf gins but not plans to enter into the craft space. However, as others have widely noted, gin and vodka drive profits of new distilleries as these clear spirits can be produced and brought to market quickly. No advance planning or extended aging is required.

As one surveys the spirits landscape, it has become apparent that distillers who produce tequila, mescal and rum have also elevated their products to the level of premium products who can compete in this landscape. I’m enamored with Four Square’s bourbon-barrel finished rums (including 2004, 2005, Criterion, etc.). The more I explore the world of rum, I find that many of these are not the Bacardi mixer quality rums that college students go through by the liter mixed with Coke but rather top notch products that stand on their own with increasingly complex tasting notes that sip like the best allocated bourbons. Frequently, I find myself standing in front of my home bar and choosing a neat pour of rum because of the subtle sweetness, the tamer and more pedestrian proofs and the molasses flavors that present so readily! Rum is truly a wonderful counterpoint for the bourbon lover!

Our fellow founder of BourbonScript resides in Arizona and happens to have a tremendous amount of expertise in agave spirits. In addition to introducing me to Nikka gin, he also turned me on to mescal. I’m always shocked when I order a mescal drink in a bar and I’m asked, “are you sure you want that?” or “do you like mescal” as if I’ve ordered a taboo drink that should only be ordered by the bravest of drinkers. When I share that I occasionally crave the dark smokiness of a mescal or the saltiness of pechuga or top shelf tequila not sullied in a margarita, bartenders are frequently surprised that I know my agave spirits. Tequila bars have been around for decades and tequila has not yet achieved the stardom of bourbon and world whiskies. What is holding them back? Who knows!

Industry insiders we have interviewed over the past 2-3 years believe the whiskey boom will end though they struggle to predict when. A distiller interviewed in a MUCH earlier blog entry indicated that their distillery was ramping up production anticipating at least 10-20 years worth of increased interest. Others have told us the boom may end within the next 5 years as production begins to catch up with demand for some allocated products as their planning 5-10 years ago begins to pay off with significant supplies of 10-20 year bourbons aging in their warehouses. We’re often reminded in Kentucky that there are more barrels of bourbon aging here than residents of the state. How big a deal will Weller 12 be once Buffalo Trace has thousands of barrels of 12 year bourbon in their warehouses? While the demand for the top allocated products the distilleries hype the most probably will not subside as they selectively control for supply, many of the second tier or even tier 1A brands will catch up…this per many top distillers! As supply equals or tops demand, the proverbial teeter-totter will shift and prices will likely decrease leading ultimately to reductions in production and hype-followers chasing the next big thing.

What we know (and believe) is that the whiskey boom is still here to stay for the time being. Drink up! Enjoy! Slainte!

The Open Bottle Effect

We’ve all heard of or experienced the phenomenon of bottles changing their flavor complexion over time once opened. If you search the whiskey literature, industry experts will advise you that once a bottle is less than half full (some say a quarter full), you should drink it or possibly inject an innate gas like nitrogen to prevent the bourbon from oxidizing and ultimately affecting the flavor profile.

I’m a bourbon collector (but mostly drinker). I currently have ~80 bottles open in my home bar and tend to open more before I finish existing ones. Many distilleries have recently announced sherry-cask finished bourbons (Angel’s Envy, Town Branch, etc.). Thinking about those releases and hypothesizing the line up I’d like to have in a blind side-by-side tasting, I was looking through my open bottles of finished bourbons. I poured a solid 2 ounce pour of the Basil Hayden Dark Rye from a bottle that was less than half full and that I haven’t sampled in at least a couple months. From fresh bottles, I detect sweet notes of the port that is added (not finished) to the bourbon as well as a delectable nuttiness that makes me want to pair this bourbon with chocolate. To me, this is not a daily drinker but a ‘special’ occasion sipper for when I want something sweeter and less ‘bourbon-ish.’ However, tonight, I detect the same type of souring that one experiences with a bottle of red wine that has oxidized. The profile has noticeably changed and altered the taste for the worse. I’ve never experienced this phenomenon with a bourbon before and attribute it to the port that is directly blended with the Basil Hayden bourbon. As a scientist, I question the stability of a wine being added to a distilled spirit and recognize that oxidation has taken its effect on the port presumably before affecting the bourbon component of the blend. It’s not yet a ‘drain pour’ but it’s close. For now, I’ll finish this dram but won’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did the first pour from a fresh bottle.

Cheers!

Bourbon Weekly is satire? Lessons Learned…

One evening this week, I found myself in a hotel room scrolling through Twitter reading the latest ‘news’ in the whiskey world when I came upon a post from a Twitter follower from a site called Bourbon Weekly. While the title of the article looked ‘odd,’ the content suggesting that MGP, everyone’s favorite mass producer of whiskies bought and rebranded by craft distilleries and large conglomerates alike was beginning to run low on stock was eerily believable. I live in northern KY only a matter of miles from the nearest distilleries and a mere 15-20 minute drive from the behemoth former Seagram’s distillery in Lawrenceburg that MGP calls home. While they don’t conduct public tours, a Twitter presence with 3000+ followers has afforded us some interesting opportunities not available to the general public. One of those within the past 12 months was the rare chance to peak behind the MGP curtain at the workings of their massive whiskey factory. My tour guide for the day was one of many distillers (they seem to employ master distillers, asssistant distillers and a variety of other folks with distiller in their title). At one point in the afternoon, the topic of conversation shifted not toward production…they seem to have that down to a fine art but rather to their existing supply. My fearless guide, while not revealing any propriety information or trade secrets, shared that MGP has millions of barrels of whiskey aging in their warehouses. He offered that these range in age from day 0 of production to whiskies in the 10-20 year range and hinted that there may be some ‘old’ choice barrels aging well into their senior years in places. I’m sure it comes as little surprise to our followers that if you are a new distillery, recently opened and beginning to produce your own whiskey, that in the meantime, you may work to become profitable by selling a label whose bottle contains ‘juice’ from a mass producer like MGP. Also, it’s not difficult to believe that you likely don’t want 2 year bourbon, you want something aged longer. My guide’s commentary on the whiskey boom (beyond his seeming love for the new and increasing demand for MGP product or what he referred to as job security) also made reference to the bourbon boom having taken its toll on MGP’s supply of aged bourbons.

Fast forward to my discovery of the Bourbon Weekly article. Besides some interesting use of grammar to imply MGP was running low on bourbon, the article seemed believable as the details dovetailed so nicely with a personal account of the bourbon boom’s impact on MGP that my intrepid tour guide had shared. In my fatigued stupor, I retweeted the link to an interesting and awkward response from our followers. “The satire is evident” they wrote. Others suggested that “we thought you were playing into the satire.” I guess the key to good satirical writing is some basis in fact or, at a minimum, some presumption that people may be true. I admit, they got me!

I spent some time today during my travels reading past posts from Bourbon Weekly and enjoyed several of their posts that, while humorous, do reflect the reality of the bourbon craze these days. But, the question remains, is MGP running out of bourbon? The truth is likely somewhere in between fact and fiction. Given their rampant production, there is no question that MGP is barreling tons (literally tons) of bourbon from a variety of mash bills but bourbon doesn’t age over night. I’m sure they have staff dedicated solely to knowing how many barrels are aging where and for how long at any given moment in time…it’s a fine science of balancing the demand for product on the available supply. If you sell 10,000 barrels of 10 year aged bourbon, you can’t replace that over night. We have to wonder if we really will see a slowing of new distilleries acquiring MGP bourbon for bottling over the next few years or a shift toward very young product. Only MGP knows for sure but Bourbon Weekly, you win this round! I believed it because the MGP staff told me they were starting to run out of aged bourbon! Next time, I’ll be a better judge of source material. After all, we at BourbonScript have a reputation to protect as conveyors of accurate information…and the occasional rumor! 😉

Passing through Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport

I’m Delta loyal. There, I said it! For those of us that are Delta loyal, it means connections through Atlanta from time to time…sometimes more depending on your georgraphy. This evening, I rolled the dice on trying to get on an earlier flight home and missed out. With 7 hours to kill, I went exploring for restaurants I haven’t tried here in the airport. I discovered Ecco on the F Concourse. This is an airport satellite of their Atlanta-area restaurants with an gourmet and award-winning menu of entrees, small plates and appetizers. The whiskey list is not the most impressive but with a decent selection, it was not difficult to find and order a High West Double Rye from their menu for a modest $12 charge. My quest for top shelf bourbon will continue but if you’re looking for a gourmet meal, One Flew South on the E Concourse and Ecco (which may be a new favorite) are both great choices. Cheers and safe travels!

Happy 2019

As a new year begins (3 weeks late in this case for BourbonScript), we look forward to a new year by rebooting our blog as an extension of our Twitter and Instagram presence. As we’ve written in the past, the 3 of us behind BourbonScript are all frequent travelers which allow for unique opportunities to drink whisky, craft beer, rum, tequilla, mezcal, etc. in interesting places; to enjoy some of the best bars in the country and their own legendary craft cocktails; great meals at some of the best restaurants in the world and think about spirits pairings, etc. It helps that one of our founders lives in Kentucky a mere 2 miles from the nearest distillery and another founder in Arizona in a region where tequila and mezcal are plentiful. Oh, the options and opportunities!

As I write this entry, I’m completing a whirlwind trip across the country with work meetings in Boston and Atlanta. Sadly, this has meant largely consuming bourbon or, in tonight’s case, rum on airplanes, airline lounges or hotels. The variability of whiskey selections in hotel bars is significant. While I was spending my nights in Boston in a nice hotel, the bar, sadly, stocked only Jack Daniels and some low to middle tier scotch whiskies. As most of you who fly may know, Delta stocks Woodford Reserve on planes but only Jack as their ‘free spirit’ in their Sky Clubs. As I find myself in an Atlanta Hartsfield Sky Club at the moment, I’m sipping on Zacapa 23 rum as a better option to the bottom shelf whiskey. We like rum! Rum has gotten a bad reputation as a spirit best enjoyed by college students, in fruity Tiki drinks or mixed with Coke. Higher quality rums sip like whiskies with a similar smooth finish. In fact, Four Square finishes several of their most popular rum expressions in previously filled bourbon barrels giving these rums a subtle bourbon-esque sweetness that even the most hardened whiskey lover would likely enjoy.

Cheers and here is to a very successful and productive 2019 for all!

Alcohol Consumption and Cancer Risk – What You Need to Know…

We are board-certified in oncology and may as well be board-certified in whiskey, so we are uniquely positioned to give some perspective on this topic in light of guidelines published today linking alcohol and cancer (LoConte NK, et al. J Clin Oncol 2017). (1) data linking alcohol consumption and cancer is mostly retrospective epidemiological. This means establishing cause-effect is rife with error. (2) alcohol is commonly consumed along with other known risk factors (e.g.: tobacco), marring effect of alcohol vs other contributor(s). (3) definition of alcohol use varies widely in U.S. and abroad; lumped in with alcohol use is binge drinking – a separate risk factor for many health maladies. (4) the cause of most all cancers is not well-elucidated (except for tobacco) and ascribing a single activity as a risk factor is dangerous. We at BourbonScript do not espouse excessive drinking, but thoughtful consumption. Also, living a healthy lifestyle has many benefits. This text is not meant to diminish the ASCO statement, but simply add granularity to a very complex issue.

For those interested in the complete article, it is available here: http://ascopubs.org/doi/abs/10.1200/JCO.2017.76.1155

The 50 State Challenge…

For those that have followed us for a while, we are (obviously) lovers of bourbon but we also love travel, food and the finer things in life. Our jobs take us routinely to interesting places and we try to leverage those opportunities to eat and (most importantly) drink local. As I was trying to decide which bourbon/whiskey to drink tonight as I watched the NCAA basketball tournament, I had a thought…what if hunting bourbon/whiskey could be more than a challenge to find the rarest, most valuable bottle? What if it were to diversify one’s collection and drinking options to include a mass- or micro-distilled bottle or bottles of whiskey from every state? The saying is that, in life, the journey is more important than the destination. In the bourbon/whiskey world that journey could include opening horizons to local or regional products that are not routinely available in one’s local store, restaurant or bar. My inner scientist loves this as well. How do the stills, the type of barrel, the climate, even the building materials of the rickhouse affect the final product?

Having been a drinker and collector for many years now, I have amassed a collection of nearly 350 bottles of whiskey. Nearly 100 of those bottles are currently open and being enjoyed, in moderation, over time. While I settled on a ‘bottom shelf’ but truly outstanding Kentucky bourbon tonight (Heaven Hill 6 year white label), I found myself looking at the bottles and thinking about the state of their distillation. Most were obvious: Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Colorado, California, Utah, etc. Most bottles are from large, well known distilleries. However, some of my favorites come from the off-the-path places, including the whiskey from Alpha Tango craft distillery in Indianapolis, IN. That whiskey in particular may not garner the highest score from Whiskey Advocate but the story is important to me. I’ve written about Alpha Tango before. A distillery owned and operated by a disabled veteran. A female master distiller willing to stop her work at the still to give me a tour and talk about a shared love of whiskey. A small building that I’d driven by 100 times and never bothered to stop. As I sip their whiskey, which is, don’t get me wrong, a quite solid and very nice sipping whiskey, I feel more connected to the story than I do when I pour a dram produced by a mega distillery and available on every local store shelf. I hope that the challenge of the journey does more than check a box that says that I achieved my goal. I hope it brings more stories and memories, like Alpha Tango, that  connects me to the distiller’s art into which they poured their heart and soul to create.

There is a quote from Shawshank Redemption that says, “If you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further.” Maybe you, the reader, is willing to become an active participant in this journey. While I haven’t catalogued my collection to know what states I have and which I am missing, if you have a  favorite local bourbon/whiskey (preferably a craft distillery), please feel free to respond in the comments, to Tweet us or to email us. In return, we’ll keep you posted here with a tally of which states we’ve completed and a review of our finds.

Slainte!

Steve