Friday, September 18, 2015
Ain’t that America? We have whiskeys that don’t taste like whiskey (e.g., Fireball) and now a not-whiskey that tastes a little bit like whiskey, Oak by Absolut. Absolut is foundering and desperate. The pundits say it is whiskey, bourbon in particular, that is kicking vodka’s butt in the USA. Ergo, bourbon-flavored vodka. Never let it be said that Pernod Ricard doesn’t see and do the obvious.
It isn't bourbon-flavored vodka exactly, but most of bourbon's flavor does come from the new charred oak barrel in which it labors for several years. (The aging process is much more active than the 'slumber' metaphor usually used to describe it.) Oak by Absolut spends about six months in wood. They can't call it 'aged vodka.' That would be against the law. Instead, like the Tequila makers, they call it 'rested.' 'Rested on oak' is their description of the process.
Believe it or not, this isn't new. Seagram's gin used to have a slight yellow tint because it was 'rested' in used bourbon barrels for about three months before bottling. The neutral spirit (i.e., vodka) component of Seagrams Seven received the same treatment. There is even an official name for it; 'grain spirits.'
Seagrams could do this because their Lawrenceburg, Indiana plant distilled both neutral spirit and whiskey, and aged the whiskey there. The neutral spirit was flavored into gin there using a vacuum distillation process. They had a bottling plant just down the road, so freshly emptied barrels were always readily available.
It was quite a place. Corn and water went in, cases of Seagrams Seven and Seagrams Gin came out.
But then Seagrams was dissolved as a company and its assets sold separately. Today, the owner of the Indiana distillery is MGPI but the bottling plant is owned by Proximo. Although both Seagrams Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey and Seagrams Gin are still made at MGP, they are now owned by Diageo and Pernod, respectively, and shipped out in tankers to be bottled elsewhere. Technically, the 'resting' could still be done -- Pernod is doing it for Oak -- but Seagrams Seven and Seagrams Gin are price-sensitive products, so that extra expense has been deemed superfluous.
We don't know where Oak by Absolut is 'resting.' They say they are using Swedish, French, and American Oak, which might be interesting for a whiskey. For this I'm not sure it matters.
One of the greatest failures in the history of the American distilled spirits industry was Light Whiskey, introduced in 1968. At that time, vodka was kicking whiskey's ass and a nearly-neutral spirit with a little bit of characteristic whiskey flavor seemed like just the ticket. It wasn't. One of the biggest reasons people drink vodka is because they don't like the flavor of whiskey, so why would they drink a vodka that tastes even just a little bit like whiskey? They wouldn't, they didn't then, and they probably won't now.
I have not been offered a taste of it yet but when I am, I'll let you know.