Monday, February 9, 2009

Invasion of the Bourbon Snatchers

The first reports came from upstate New York, then California, Massachusetts, Florida, and Arizona. Other states quickly followed.

Even Tennessee and Kentucky.

If this can happen in Tennessee and Kentucky, it can happen anywhere. No place is safe.

After the change, they look exactly the same. They sit exactly where they always did. Nothing looks different, so there is no reason to suspect. You don’t have a clue that anything is wrong until it is too late.

This has happened before but our technology is better now. We can detect it much sooner, get the word out much faster.

But still not in time.

It probably cannot be stopped. It is The Invasion of the Bourbon Snatchers.

The latest victim? Ten High Straight Bourbon whiskey. It is now Ten High Bourbon – a Blend.

When did this start? The granddaddy of all switcheroos happened more than 20 years ago, when Early Times changed from straight bourbon to Kentucky whiskey.

Changes aren’t always so drastic. Wild Turkey is still straight bourbon, but it dropped its eight-year-old age claim more than a decade ago. Age claims have disappeared from many other brands since.

A few years ago, Wild Turkey introduced a ten-year-old bourbon called Russell’s Reserve, at 101° proof. Then they reconsidered, changed the bottle, and cut the proof to 90°.

In 2004, an internet fire storm erupted because Jack Daniel’s cut the proof of its flagship No. 7 brand from 86° proof to 80° proof.

A proof cut is a small thing. Yes, you get a little more water and a little less whiskey, hence less life-giving alcohol, for the same price. Yes, it is a rip-off, but a small rip-off.

Similarly, a dropped age statement may mean no discernible change. It just gives the producer more flexibility about how they match the taste profile.

The Ten High change is different. The alcohol level stays the same but instead of being 100 percent 4-year-old whiskey, it is now half whiskey, half vodka. Since vodka doesn’t have to be aged, the new Ten High is much cheaper to make. Those savings are not passed on to you, the consumer.

Now, in fairness, Ten High was already cheap. It was four-year-old straight bourbon that cost less than most vodka. It is still cheap, but now it is half vodka.

Why is this happening? Because straight bourbon is very popular right now and there is only so much of it to go around. The straight bourbon originally intended for Ten High is now too valuable to sell that cheap. This change makes Ten High itself cheaper to make and, therefore, more profitable as they also free up 4-year-old straight bourbon to sell at the much higher prevailing market price.

It is a gift that keeps on giving because all of the bourbon in the pipeline that was intended for Ten High in future years can be diverted too.

We could begrudge producers these changes, attack them as victories of cheapness and greed over quality and heritage, but that would be wrong. The current boom is good for everyone who loves American whiskey, because the industry is healthy and growing, in better shape than it has been for many years. The American whiskey-making regions are benefiting too from an explosion of whiskey-related tourism.

These changes are all good. It is so much better now than it was. It feels good to stop fighting it. You’re the same, really, only better. There is no pain. All you have to do is shut your eyes and relax.

Is there a pod in the basement with my face on it?


Dreff said...

Thank you for one more reason *not* to drink Ten High :)

I'll happily stay with Bulleit and Dickel

Jeff and Leslie said...

Thanks Chuck for bringing this to our attention! I've always enjoyed Ten High for what it is (was); a cheap mixer that isn't (wasn't) offensive. I'll try this when I see it, but I'm betting it'll be only once.