Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Golden Age of American Whiskey? You're Living in It

A small subset of whiskey enthusiasts are 'dusty hunters.' Since whiskey keeps in the bottle indefinitely and some retailers have lax inventory controls, the odd bottle or two can sit on a shelf gathering dust for decades. Often these finds still bear their original price tags.

Dusties are also found at estate sales and in the liquor cabinets, or under the kitchen sinks, of elderly relatives after their demise.

Especially prized are bottles believed to have originated at long-closed distilleries. Favorites include Stitzel-Weller in Shively (Louisville), National's Old Grand-Dad Distillery in Frankfort, and Heaven Hill's distillery in Bardstown. Some of the best I've tasted came from Cummins-Collins in Athertonville.

Not surprisingly, some practitioners of this pastime declare these old bottles to be universally better than modern production. It's all very subjective, of course, as is this:

American whiskey has never been better, more plentiful, nor more diverse than it is now. We've never had better access to reliable information about what we're drinking and prices, all things considered, aren't bad. Producers large and small are innovating like never before. The Golden Age of American Whiskey? This is it. It's now. Thank your lucky stars and enjoy it.

That's not to take anything away from dusty hunting. It's fun and if you know what you're doing, some terrific drinks can be had.

What about those older bottles? Are they really better? Here's the thing. Although dusties can come from any era, a great many were bottled in the 80s and 90s. It just stands to reason that the most plentiful dusties are the most recent ones.

The 80s and 90s are known as the 'glut period.' When bourbon sales began to tank in the late 60s, most producers assumed the decline was temporary and would be brief so they didn't reduce production right away. As sales continued to decline, that excess (most of it still in barrels) continued to grow and move through the pipeline.

By the 1980s, there was so much excess whiskey in storage that producers were routinely bottling 8- to 10-year-old whiskey in their inexpensive mid-range NAS products. If you were drinking bourbon during that period or have had dusties from it, it is easy to reach the conclusion that whiskey then was 'better.' That phenomenon had nothing to do with how the whiskey was being distilled or aged, except for the length of aging. And that was unintentional.

And although it was a boon for drinkers, it was horrible for the producers. They were losing money hand over fist.

If we're suffering from anything now it's the opposite of that phenomenon, NAS products that are a little too young due to tight supplies of well-aged liquid. That will correct itself in short order, probably.

During the glut period, not a lot of new whiskey was made each year. Distilleries are like furnaces. They don't have variable speeds, they're either on or off. Back then, a distillery might operate for two months in each six-month season, four months for the year. Or it might go on hiatus for a year to 18 months. The long layoffs were hard on staff and sitting idle wasn't very good for the equipment either. I can't quantify exactly what effect that had on quality, but it can't have been good.

When your business is bleeding profits, you don't invest in the future and needed maintenance is delayed. When prices have to be cut, corners are cut too. Nobody enjoys coming to work.

Today, the business is healthy, new distilleries are opening, existing distilleries are investing, and everybody is working. It's exciting to be part of a robust, dynamic industry. Without question, the Golden Age of bourbon is right now. Enjoy it.


Carter R said...

I am so happy someone finally pointed out that bourbon being made now is probably made at a higher standard due to the bourbon boom. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

No chance you are apologizing for a brand, or region, for whom you represent?

Anonymous said...

Bourbon and beer are both experiencing an explosion of production and new producers almost daily. Beer craft is approachable, excellent, and affordable. The Beer Boom will last with most brewers continuing to find great success.

The same I think cannot be said of bourbon and whiskey. There is now so much competition and so many options, almost all of which are over-priced. The bourbon boom is not approachable and affordable like the craft beer boom.

Therefore, there will be a massive washout of distilleries due to non-competition on price. Because there is so much product and so many options for the consumer, the only way now to stand out is both in quality and pricing. None of the new distillers see it this way, or can afford to compete on pricing with the result the same - overly high prices.

The beer boom continues because the producers compete in all areas of the marketplace including pricing; the same cannot be said for whiskey producers.

Chuck Cowdery said...

To the anonymous before the last anonymous, I'm just a guy who writes about the things he finds interesting. I don't 'represent' anyone except me.

Mark said...

Maybe the production process up through barreling is under better control now, but the glut era age stated stuff (which, sadly, now includes Elijah Craig 12 year) I do miss. I've tried Wild Turkey 8 year 101 and Weller Antique 7 year next to the new, NAS versions, and while the new stuff is still pretty good, the age stated version I found to be better.

Chuck, I have to say I'm not entirely on board with this "enjoy the boom" mentality. It's good for your friends that make the stuff, and yes there's increased availability and consumer choice at some places (i.e., more and more bars stock more than Jack/Jim/Makers), but things like the dropping of age statements and the flip for profit mentality many new bourbon customers have make this boom at best a double edged sword.

Richnimrod said...

The 'glut period', where many longer-aged Bourbons were being sold under brands that didn't command high prices was (and still is, if you can find those dusties) a boon for bargain hunters of fine drinking Bourbon. Can you comment as well, about the barrel entry proof of many brands during those halcyon days of the 50's, 60's 70's and 80's; as compared to the current proof of many brands entering barrels? I always thought that was another factor in the perceived 'quality' of the dusties, as opposed to the same or similar brands on shelves today.

Anonymous said...

I second Anonymous at 10:12pm.

The big difference between craft beer and craft bourbon is that craft bourbon producers have not yet offered value to the consumer. I am willing to pay more than average for a bourbon aged for a comparable period to the big producers (6-8 years say) made with better grain, non-chill filtering, pot still, etc.

I am willing to pay a somewhat reduced price for a very young bourbon if such quality methods are used just to taste the difference and see how the product is developing.

I am NOT however going to regularly pay 40-50+ dollars for a craft distillery's white dog or 1-2 year old bourbon.

I am DEFINITELY not going to pay 60+ dollars for a "crafty distillery's" rectified Jim Beam/Heaven Hill juice just because it comes in a pretty bottle and has some fake marketing story on the label.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The industry-wide reduction in barrel entry proofs was something that occurred right after Prohibition and not much changed after that, so most of the 'dusties' you're drinking were barrel-entered at the same proof as the more contemporary stuff.

Michael said...

Take a look at Elijah Craig Small Batch next time you're at the liquor store. It still has a 12 year age statement, they just moved it to the back label. Since bourbon with age statements are still big sellers, I can only assume the change is meant to get consumers used to the look of an NAS label when they eventually go that route.

Patrick said...


They did move that age statement, but they have since removed it. They already went to that route! This happened just recently, so some stores will still have the 12 year sitting around. That being said, once those bottles are gone... That's it!

You can read about it here ( and many other places online.

Erik Fish said...

That's exactly it. Craft brewers had no problem offering better quality. All you have to do to brew better beer than the big industrials is, well, brew beer. But that is NOT the situation in whiskey distilling; it's rather the opposite. Certain factors like aging, storage, barrel selection and just plain experience will always favor a big producer with decades of production and deep pockets, no matter how hard passionate fans try to romanticize craft distillers. And economies of scale make it harder to compete price-wise. That's why I think innovation rather than direct competition is the name of the game for the micros, and the "whiskey boom" in terms of overall sales and new distilleries built by the majors, and then the craft distilling movement, are actually two different animals.

Unknown said...

Actually, the most recent releases have dropped the 12 off the back as well. It was a transitional thing. Right now near me you can find both on the shelves. The NAS is a blend of 8-12 year.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

I have some mixed feeling about the bourbon boom. But, overall, I believe Chuck is right and we should enjoy it. I mean, why not enjoy it? Would you rather be miserable? The choice is yours, of course.

In some ways it reminds me of the cigar boom in the 1990's. There was a huge increase in the number of new cigar brands. Some were legit producers, others merely marketing brands--adding little except for their cigar band, and advertising, to a product they purchased from a bulk maker. Prices were all over the place, but mostly inflated. Yes, some of the newer entries were low-to-moderately priced, but precious few represented real value, when compared to the established brands. Many of the new brands, back then, had stupid names and preposterous stories, and few were upfront (or honest) about the origin of their tobacco blends.

Yes, there were a ton of cigars available, but the cigar you may have enjoyed the most, was probably in short supply. A few of the great cigar makers didn't raise their prices, or release more product (which would have significantly impacted quality). Others compromised their blends, and aging, and released substandard smokes. So, as a smoker, you tried new things. Sometimes you were disappointed (too often for me). But when you found something new and it was good, it ended up being a great surprise. Another stick you could add to your arsenal.

Once the boom subsided, many of the newer brands disappeared or were in trouble. Some of the bigger brands, who compromised their products and/or gouged their customers, had soiled reputations (and are still struggling to revive them). Still others used that time to expand production (for future inventory), experimented with different tobacco and blends, and grew stronger. A few of the newer makers proved to be quite expert. And new brands survived the boom.

So, yes, there were good things, and bad things, about living in the middle of the boom. But when it all shook out, there were more great products available. Prices stabilized (at a slightly higher level, to be honest). But all-in-all the effect ended up being positive, IMO.

Anonymous said...

Don't you get paid as a consultant occasionally or copywriter by Brands. You get paid to speak occasionally, free trips and such. What about the Bookers stuff? Your far from having a clean nose. Your ass deep in partiality. I'm sure you won't post this because you don't have the stones further proving you have guilty. People are out there that know stink from those professing to be clean.

Chuck Cowdery said...

First, I love that all of these accusations come from 'Anonymous.'

I haven't consulted for any producers in many years. I worked in the industry 20-30 years ago, so that's not a secret. In this business, it is customary for producers to pay travel expenses when they want writers to come to their places to write about them. That's everybody, not just me.

It's a hotel for a night or two, a couple of meals, some drinks, and since I usually drive they reimburse me for mileage. That's it.

Most of the Booker's stuff was done over the phone but we did do one in Bardstown, for which they paid our expenses.

I make some of my income from public appearances but I'm not paid by producers. I'm paid by the event sponsor, usually a local bourbon club or some other enthusiast group, not producers.

I get free samples.

If you think the producers are buying me for that I'm not insulted because you question my integrity, I'm insulted that you think I can be bought so cheap.

Erik Fish said...

I admire the patience with which you actually responded to Anonymous. If his reading comprehension is on the same level as his writing skills, I'm surprised he even understood your blog entry. But maybe he was just trying to disguise his real style, and he is actually working in marketing for Diageo or Templeton.... :)

schlimmerdurst said...

"I get free samples. If you think the producers are buying me for that I'm not insulted because you question my integrity, I'm insulted that you think I can be bought so cheap."

Wonderful. So true, for many reviewers. After the Amazon-Fiverr lawsuit (reviews for 5$ and so on), reviewers are under generalized suspicion, and we need to get back the trust of readers, and your statement is a beautiful rebuttal for those who mistrust honest reviewers.

Anonymous said...

More variety can only mean more options and combinations. More Micros buying juice and creating something new can only increase the chances of something special.

Anonymous said...

The bourbon boom is the direct result of one micro-distiller that grew over the course of 60 years, very slowly at first, then much more quickly after being "discovered" by a certain business publication based on or near Wall Street. Any regular reader of this blog knows exactly which distiller that is. The big boys have only been following the leader, and pouring old bourbon into new bottles. Some of this bourbon is quite good. Much is a testament to the genius of P.T. Barnum.

Dan Gardner Four Roses Divisional Sales Manager said...

To address Anonymous about the “one” thing that started the Bourbon boom I call that a reach. Did the Wall Street Journal interview with Bill Samuels Sr have an affect on Bourbon sales? Yes, but only on Maker’s Mark sales in NY at the time. There is not “one thing” that started the current Bourbon boom. I always mention the WSG article in my presentations as a tiny spark but there are other things just as important. The release of Blanton’s Single Barrel in the early 80’s had as much impact. As competitors we thought they were nuts putting a $35 price tag on it. BTW I started my career in the industry in Kentucky in 1980 so I witnessed this first hand.

Key turning point was not in the US to be honest. It was the Japanese market that blew up. It single handedly spark increased production in Kentucky. Seagram sold off the Benchmark and Eagle Rare labels to Ancient Age to save the Bourbon going into those labels for Four Roses in Japan. Benchmark and Eagle Rare sold poorly and the volume was in Japan and Europe for Four Roses. That bit of information is straight from Jim Rutledge.

The next key moment was Jim Beam buying out National Distillers in 1987/88. Beam bought National to get in the gin and vodka business with Gilbey’s and the cordial business with Dekuyper. Beam did not need more Bourbon inventory but National was sitting on an ocean of Bourbon. There were not a lot of NDP’s at that time. Julian Van Winkle was heading a very short list. Beam’s solution was the Small Batch Collection. Basil Hayden, Knob Creek and Baker’s original bottling in the early 90’s was all National Distiller’s Bourbon. Booker’s Bourbon was Beam produced Bourbon. The push with the Small Batch collection had a huge impact on the market.

Because of our success with the small Batch collection a bright mind at United Distillers came up with the idea of the Heritage Collection which was older bottlings of IW Harper, Old Charter, George Dickel, WL Weller and Old Fitzgerald. But I am getting ahead of myself. They did not launch the Heritage Collectionuntil after they ran a test market for super premium priced Bourbon. Google Henry Clay and Joseph Finch Bourbon. Be sure to add 1990’s to that search because there is a new version of Henry Clay out now. The Henry Clay released by UD in the 90’s was 15 yr old Stitzel-Weller and the Joseph Finch was 16 yr old Kentucky Tavern/Glenmore Distillers as Itrmember. UD had purchased both Stitzel-Weller and Glenmore Distillers in the late 80’s.

The 90’s is when all hell broke loose in my mind. Heaven Hill’s fire being a major part of the story. I can talk for another two hours just on the 90’s but my thumbs are getting tired.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Thank you, Dan, for that wonderful contribution to the conversation. I can confirm Dan's account. We were there, y'all. We know what we're talking about.