Keeping up with the changes in American whiskey is a full-time job. Just ask retailers, with customers lining up for limited-time offerings of rare releases, new line extensions and brands, vintage offerings and the latest batches from small distillers.
American whiskey’s popularity has altered the landscape dramatically. As Jeff Arnett, master distiller at Jack Daniel’s puts it, change is rapid, frequent and significant. “When I became master distiller ten years ago we had three products in the market; today we have ten. That’s not so much reflective of my desire to create a lot of different expressions, but of what’s been happening in the whiskey category.”
Most distilleries have programs in place to create new products that won’t be ready for years. At Heaven Hill, for example, an innovation team meets every month to discuss what’s in the pipeline, what’s special enough to be considered for high-profile limited releases (like the annual Parker’s Collection), and what might be available as long as a dozen years away.
“Innovation for us in this industry isn’t something you decide today,” says Heaven Hill master distiller Denny Potter. “It is a process that for one project could span decades – we’ve got a 27-year-old coming out this year that I doubt anyone really planned on, for example.”
Long gone are the days when distillers offered one or two expressions of a single brand, and the pace of innovation isn’t likely to change soon. Current American whiskey innovation evolves from a variety of steps, but the significant developments come from changes related to time, wood, ingredients, locations and blends.
Time in a Barrel
Most whiskey producers have long used length of time in the barrel as a way to innovate and extend interest in their brands. Lately, producers have been testing the limits of the age bourbon and other whiskies can reach and still be palatable, both from a drinkability and financial standpoint.
“Experimenting with different age ranges tends to be a big draw for our diehard customers and whiskey collectors,” says Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell. “With our Master’s Keep series, I’ve been able to play with whiskeys as old as 20 years. We’ve also released two Russell’s Reserve Vintages – 1998 and 2002. Both have been extremely limited and we’ve already seen their retail value go up exponentially.”
Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig Single Barrel, with 12-, 18- and 23-years expressions, have done well, and now the distiller is releasing a 27-year-old Heaven Hill bourbon, unusual in that the namesake brand has long been considered a value whiskey (generally selling for around $10-14 per 750-ml.). But as Heaven Hill’s Potter says, “People have become disassociated from our distillery, who we are and what we make, so we wanted to educate people about who we are as a company.”
American whiskey tends to age out fast, with most distillers saying 6 to 12 years is the sweet spot. So unlike with single malt Scotch, it’s rare to find many over 12 years old. Beam now offers Jim Beam Signature Craft 12-year-old. But with American whiskey selling out so fast, don’t look for many older expressions anytime soon.
It’s the Wood
The oak barrels used to age spirits rarely receive the credit they deserve for the creation of spirit flavors, but most whiskey professionals are quick to point out that without wood, there is no whiskey as we know it.
Single barrel whiskeys were the first of the contemporary distiller’s innovation tools. “To me, the single barrel style of whiskey is for people who drink whiskey for whiskey’s sake and want the purest experience they can get,” Arnett says. “Brown-spirits lovers think of single barrel as something special.”
While the Scotch whisky industry pioneered barrel finishes, the trick is emerging more and more in the US. Angel’s Envy is perhaps the signature success story.
“At the time it was a pretty novel thing for bourbons to do,” says Wes Henderson, co-founder with his late father (and whiskey legend) Lincoln. “Beam had its Master Distillers collection finished in Cognac and sherry barrels, but it was before its time. We were the first that have been commercially successful at secondary barrel finishes and we’re growing the brand based on that.”
In addition to the port barrel-finished bourbon, Angel’s Envy has released a rum barrel-finished rye, and Henderson says they are exploring other finishes. “We’re working on special releases now of different types of finishes, especially limited production barrels – those are really exciting to me because they are special barrels with great stories.”
Even Wild Turkey, where tinkering with the basic recipe hasn’t been front and center, has introduced a Texas-Kentucky hybrid whiskey.
“When Matthew McConaughey and I sat down to create Wild Turkey Longbranch, we talked at length about how to make a product that represents elements of both Texas and Kentucky,” Russell says. “Our goal was to make a straight bourbon whiskey with a soft sweetness that was still unmistakably Wild Turkey.” Two filtration methods – one through American White Oak charcoal and the second Texas mesquite, were used.
Russell has played with barrels as well – the just-released Master’s Keep Revival is Oloroso sherry cask-finished. “This is just the beginning, and we will continue to see more of the finishes of other type of casks,” he says.
While most finishes follow tried and true paths, Heaven Hill went outside the box for the 2018 Parker’s Heritage Collection: bourbon aged for seven to eight years in the upper floors of a single rickhouse, finished in orange curaçao barrels for four months.
Finding the Right Spot
Buffalo Trace has been known for pushing the limits with a range that included the Experimental Collection. Now there is Warehouse X. The warehouse has four distinct chambers and was built to test various factors that impact the aging process.
“The main driving force is for us to completely understand why our whiskey tastes the way it does,” says Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley. “In order for us to do that we have to understand how the environment influences our whiskey. Warehouse X is designed to explore the environment through air flow, sunlight, humidity and temperature. This will give us clues on what to expect based on what we know about the whiskey.
The goal is to improve established brands, as well as look at limited offerings or new brands. “We have tried to use the information to create more consistency with our legacy brands and also create new flavors and ultimately new brands,” he says.
“The age of the bourbon and the warehouse floor location are two of the most important factors that influence flavor while it’s in a barrel,” Russell says. “We have seven floors in our warehouses and the middle or center cut are truly the sweet spot given how the Kentucky climate of hot summers and cold winters impacts the aging process These middle floors give the caramel, vanilla and fruity flavors we look for.”
Going with the Grain
For much of the post-Prohibition era, American whiskeys were made with mash bills that included three (or sometimes four) grains: corn, rye, wheat and barley. The different qualities the brands would offer were based on the proportions in the grain bill – Maker’s Mark with a high proportion of wheat, Wild Turkey with a high proportion of rye, and so on.
But lately, distillers have turned to not only different grain bills, but even some heritage grains.
At Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Kentucky, different strains of corn including Boone County White, Japonica Striped and Neon Pink Popcorn have been planted annually and made into whiskey in a small, distillery-side farm.
“We continue to explore all the variables that go into making whiskey,” Wheatley says. “Grain and recipe are always a very important part of the process and we have developed many tests for determining how the grains influence the whiskey.”
At Heaven Hill in Bardstown, a similar project called “Grain to Glass” has brought in seed growers to find the optimum strain for a 55-acre spread near the distillery.
“We get so excited to do all this – grow it, mash it, ferment it, distill it – but we look at it and don’t know what we’re going to do with it in next five or six years,” Potter says.
It’s nothing new; more than 20 years ago, Booker Noe and son Fred cooked up batches of rice, oats even triticale at Jim Beam, eventually to be released as the Harvest Collection. It may have been before its time, Harris says. “Some of that innovation that Booker started led us to the thoughts we’re having today,” he says
For brands like Jack Daniel’s, the expansion into rye has been a big opportunity.
“There are so many brands right now but a lot of them are non-producer brands, so we wanted to be clear that we made it ourselves,” Arnett says. He decided that, with most ryes in the market at either 51 percent or 95 percent rye grain bill, it would be most interesting for the brand to try a 70 percent bill that would be big and spicy, but well rounded.
It took many years, but “blend” has shed its bad reputation among whiskey consumers. Some credit can go to High West Distillery, where BouRye, Campfire and other whiskeys were proudly offered as blends of spirits.
Recent notables from larger distillers include the second annual limited release “Little Book” whiskey from Beam Suntory, a project in which Booker Noe’s grandson Freddie tried his hand at creating new styles.
Named Chapter 2, “Noe Simple Task,” mixes 8-year-old Kentucky straight rye whiskey, 13-year-old Canadian rye whisky aged in a re-charred barrel and 40-year-old Canadian whisky aged in a once-used bourbon barrel. The previous release was a mix of corn whiskey, rye, bourbon and malt.
Beam has toyed with this part of the innovation world often. They also offer Basil Hayden Darkest Rye and Two by Two, a blend of two ryes and two bourbons. “Basil has always had that approachable, 80 proof, full flavor with a slight shot of rye,” Harris says. For Darkest, they mingled port with the high rye bourbon, and Beam Suntory has plans for more liquid finishes with Hayden.
The future is also likely to hold more bottled in bond whiskies, especially after Heaven Hill’s Henry McKenna 10-year-old bottled in bond took best bourbon at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition, which has already made it scarce.
The innovations are unlikely to cease anytime soon. Wheatley puts it best. “We continue to try and satisfy the variety of flavors and options that consumers demand,” he says. “Consumers are interested in authenticity. They want to know where the brands come from and the stories behind them.” BD
Jack Robertiello is the former editor of Cheers magazine and writes about beer, wine, spirits and all things liquid for numerous publications. More of his work can be found at jackrobertiello.com. Contact Jack at email@example.com.