Wednesday, April 13, 2016

New Bourbons from Brown-Forman and Beam Suntory Emphasize the Role of Wood



Brown-Forman is the only major American whiskey distiller that also owns cooperages and makes all of its own barrels, a fact celebrated by its new bourbon, Coopers' Craft. Beam Suntory buys barrels from Independent Stave Company and others, and had to buy twice as many to make its new bourbon, Jim Beam Double Oak.

Brown-Forman's last new bourbon brand was Woodford Reserve, launched 20 years ago. Made at the Brown-Forman Distillery where Old Forester and Early Times are also made, Coopers' Craft has its own unique mash bill of 75 percent corn, 15 percent rye, and 10 percent malted barley. That is a little less rye than the Old Forester/Woodford Reserve recipe (18 percent) and a little more than Early Times (11 percent).

But that's not what Coopers' Craft is about. It is, instead, "a celebration of barrel-making and a recognition of the importance of wood when it comes to crafting bourbon. In addition to being matured in barrels raised by master coopers at the Brown-Forman Cooperage, Coopers’ Craft is crafted using a special beech and birch charcoal filter finishing process, creating a smooth and flavorful bourbon."

Do you think they want to position this as a craft whiskey?

The Coopers' Craft neck label describes it as "Toasted Wood Whiskey," but the press release is silent about what that means. An inquiry produced this explanation: "Toasted wood whiskey is the result of Brown-Forman Cooperage’s proprietary process during which we toast the staves ahead of charring."

Although it is not always done, stave toasting is nothing new. It involves heating the wood enough to change its characteristics without setting it on fire, which is the charring process that comes later. Something must be unique about how they toast the staves that is 'proprietary,' which means "we're not telling."

Similarly, charcoal filtering just prior to bottling is an almost universal practice, not to be confused with the Lincoln County Process used at Jack Daniel's, which involves new make distillate before aging and a lot more charcoal. Charcoal filtering just prior to bottling, usually called 'chill filtering' because the whiskey is chilled as part of the process, is intended to prevent 'flocking,' aka 'chill haze.' It is often criticized as removing flavor for a merely cosmetic benefit, but Brown-Forman says it makes Coopers' Craft more flavorful. They are also the only producer to name the woods used for their finishing charcoal. Beech, by the way, is the wood Budweiser claims makes its beer so good.

When it goes on sale this summer, Coopers’ Craft will be available in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. In part, this may reflect where Brown-Forman's two cooperages are located, in Kentucky and Alabama. It will be 82.2° proof. Suggested retail is 28.99 for a 750ml bottle.

Jim Beam Double Oak comes in a little cheaper, at $22.99 for a 750ml bottle. What this is is Jim Beam white label, aged four years, that has gone into a second new, charred oak barrel for some 'proprietary' length of time. It tastes like a wood finish, not unlike Woodford Reserve Double Oaked or Maker's 46. The lab sample I tasted was 86° proof. Jim Beam Double Oak was released in the UK, Germany, and Travel Retail last month but they don't even have a COLA yet so look for it here perhaps late summer or fall.

Wood treatments are generally considered 'authentic' by enthusiasts and are not scorned like products that get their modified flavor by mixing the bourbon with another liquid. That said, Beam Suntory Americas President Tim Hassett just yesterday described Jim Beam Apple (a mixture of Jim Beam bourbon and apple liqueur) as "the most successful launch in the brand’s history."

One thing Jim Beam Double Oak tells us is that the Scots are paying high prices for used barrels right now. American distillers have little use for second-fill barrels except as a by-product. Most are sold to scotch producers. A whiskey such as Jim Beam Double Oak is only practical if the difference is small between the cost of a new barrel and price being paid for used ones.

Both companies are to be commended for introducing new products in the sub-$30 price segment. Coopers' Craft is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey without qualifications. Jim Beam Double Oak is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Oak.

19 comments:

Ron Summers said...

"Both companies are to be commended for introducing new products in the sub-$30 price segment."

This is a great idea, more for the common drinker!

Rob said...

Does Early Times 354, released in the US a few years ago, not count as a new B-F brand? Just a brand extension I guess?

Andy said...

"Similarly, charcoal filtering just prior to bottling is an almost universal practice, not to be confused with the Lincoln County Process used at Jack Daniel's, which involves new make distillate before aging and a lot more charcoal. Charcoal filtering just prior to bottling, usually called 'chill filtering' because the whiskey is chilled as part of the process, is intended to prevent 'flocking,' aka 'chill haze."

My understanding is that these are two separate processes, with chill filtering occurring through a cellulose filter media. I know most bourbon is chill filtered but I am surprised to hear it's charcoal filtered prior to bottling.

CarltonW said...

I'm surprised Brown-Forman didn't try to stop Beam from using the name Double Oak given its similarity to their Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. Possibly they did, and I simply didn't hear of it.)

Eric said...

One thing I've noticed in Glenmorangie's marketing is how their oak staves from Missouri are air dried for two years, seasoned with Jack Daniel's (after forming a barrel) for four years, and then shipped to Scotland. Since Glenmorangie doesn't have a cooperage, I've often wondered if Brown Forman handles that aspect?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Brown-Forman used to be the U.S. distributor for Glenmorangie, so that's how the relationship began. Brown-Forman Cooperage makes the barrels to Glenmorangie's specifications, then they go to Jack Daniel's. After Jack finishes with them they are sent to Glenmorangie in Scotland. As for Scottish cooperages, they mostly reassemble and repair barrels. They make very few new ones.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Re chill filtering, there is usually some charcoal involved, though not very much. The Lincoln County Process is very different but both can be called 'charcoal filtering.'

Chuck Cowdery said...

ET 354, since discontinued, was considered a line extension. It was the same as the ET sold outside the U.S., which is bourbon not Kentucky Whisky.

Eric said...

Thanks for the response Chuck! I also seem to recall Glenmorangie asks for toasted barrels too (their limited edition Ealanta and Astar bottlings specifically used charred and toasted barrels). I'm guessing that Brown Forman's oak toasting method is what Glenmorangie is using then.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Very interesting. Perhaps Glenmorangie asked Brown-Forman to fill its barrels with a bourbon instead of a Tennessee whisky to make it easier for Dr. Bill to describe what they do. Perhaps all of the Coopers' Craft barrels are, in fact, future Glenmorangie barrels. Brown-Forman likes to say having their own cooperage allows them to make custom barrels for each brand but, of course, they won't describe the customization in detail. It's 'proprietary.'

Bullpuncher said...

So much for that barrel shortage that everyone was freaking out about last year:)

Eric said...

Chuck, unless I'm misinterpreting Glenmorangie's marketing blurbs, the distillery actually OWNS the oak from tree to stave that is being made into barrels by Brown Forman. Brown Forman is loaned those barrels for four years and then they are shipped/returned to Scotland. I don't think I've heard of any Scottish distillery that owns the wood for the entire coopering process (without actually owning the cooperage). My guess is Dr. Bill is that serious about wood quality control. And I'm sure Brown Forman is perfectly happy to help since they are also getting access to the same barrels.

Chuck Cowdery said...

There is some interpretation involved, but it is also my understanding that they own those barrels from the get go. However, I suspect they own them from the moment the trees are purchased from the landowner. But maybe they do own a tree farm. I can't say they don't.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Nowhere on the web site do they say they own an American forest. Wikipedia says they do, but there is no source cited.

Mac said...

Chuck, just curious, what did you think of the Kim Beam Double Oak lab sample?

Chuck Cowdery said...

It was a brief taste but it stood out as being a wood treatment. It was good. It would be interesting to compare JB White, Black and Devil's Cut against the Double Oak. It was similar to Devil's Cut, but not quite as bitter.

Anonymous said...

You really had my attention and interest until you mentioned the "82.2" proof! Seems awfully weak.

Anonymous said...

Is this toasting just another word for kiln dried .... not wanting to wait for 18 months to 24 months of air drying?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Toasting is a different process.