Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Mystery at 9,600 Feet

What is in a bottle of Breckenridge Bourbon? Some say every drop is distilled and aged at the World's Highest Distillery in that ski resort town. Others say it is young bourbon from a Kentucky distillery, or maybe Indiana. Still others say it is both, some locally distilled liquid mixed with liquid made elsewhere.

But wait, here is a written statement attributed to Breckenridge owner Bryan Nolt in 2013. "Due to demand we function at max capacity but over deplete our Bourbon barrel inventory at times. When that happens we contract time at other distilleries to produce the identical mash bill, fermentation, and distillation process. And while I'd say there's a lot of KY tradition in our Bourbon, we've never made, bought, or contracted any Bourbon in or from KY."

Huh? That doesn't make sense. If he said that, what was he trying to say? Or was it deliberate doubletalk? The problem is you can't suddenly make bourbon when you don't have enough of your own to meet demand. That new bourbon still has to age. So unless you're contracting via time machine, that statement doesn't make sense.

He does say unequivocally that not a drop of Breckenridge Bourbon was made in Kentucky. That leaves Indiana unless the contractor was another micro-distillery. Micros don't often do contract, but some now have enough capacity (usually due to the addition of a column still) that they can, and a few have.

Maybe the contract distiller is another one in Colorado. If Breckenridge is getting its 'extra' whiskey from another Colorado distiller, there is no 5.36(d) problem.

But we just don't know. It's a mystery.

People have asked, but the answers are all over the map, even from seemingly official sources. One person says it's all local. Another says it used to be all sourced but now they're mixing in local-make, increasing the percentage as capacity allows, on the way to transitioning to all local-make. Still another person says their sales are growing so fast they'll never be able to make it all themselves.

That's not the only mystery. How old is Breckenridge Bourbon? Nobody seems to think it is more than two or three years old. It doesn't have an age statement on the label and it is supposed to have an age statement if it is less than four years old. So does that mean it is more than four years old? It would be nice to know.

The evidence against Breckenridge is circumstantial but here it is. The label does not say 'distilled by Breckenridge Distillery, Breckenridge, Colorado.' It says 'produced and bottled by Breckenridge Distillery, Breckenridge, Colorado.' 'Produced' is not a synonym for 'distilled.' You can use 'produced by' even if all you did was bottle it. The wording 'produced and bottled by' is often used by artful dodgers to make it look like they did more than they did. It's used because many consumers think words like 'made' and 'produced' mean the same thing as 'distilled,' but they don't.

Legally, the producer is the company that puts the product into distribution by selling it to a distributor. They don't really have to 'do' much of anything to legally say they 'produced' or 'made' the product.

The web site says the mash bill for Breckenridge Bourbon is 56 percent corn, 38 percent rye, and 6 percent barley. Since that is no one's standard mashbill, that is a point in favor of Breckenridge.

The label featured on the web site says "Special Release." Do they all say that? Is there a 'regular' release?

It costs $50 a bottle here in Chicago.

Much has been made about Caskers declaring Breckenridge Bourbon 'better than Pappy' when they did no such thing, they merely reported that Breckenridge scored one point higher than Pappy 23 at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge (USC) in New York City. If anybody declared Breckenridge Bourbon 'better than Pappy' it was the USC judges, not Caskers.

If you knew anything about the way those competitions are run, you wouldn't be impressed.

Based on all the evidence, the consensus seems to be that it is a young bourbon, some of which was made there, some elsewhere, that was cut from barrel proof (about 65% ABV) to bottling proof (43% ABV) with that precious Rocky Mountain snowmelt water. The water routine we've heard before from Tin Cup and Widow Jane.

What does Breckenridge Distillery owner Bryan Nolt say about all this? I've asked. He hasn't answered.

You can usually figure these things out but Breckenridge is a tough nut to crack. Ultimately all of this detective work is a pain in the ass. They should just tell us, damn it.


Drink Spirits said...

For me, it's always what's in the glass. Breckenridge is uncommonly good for its supposed age and source. My gut feeling is that it's a blend of locally produced and merchant whiskey.

Having said that, it's a pretty good blend, and I wish that the company would be completely forthcoming about their sources. If they said, look it's MPG and Breckenridge blended, OK... That's fine, no shame in that. But look at the ill will surrounding Templeton. The folks at Breckenridge seem like good folks, it would be nice of them to just clearly state what their doing.

Having said that, I can tell you that when I tasted it, my "this isn't what they are saying it is" alarm went off big time. I've tasted thousands of whiskies and almost every major craft whiskey in America, there's very little probability that this was all produced and aged at Breckenridge, there are character notes you can't get with a craft still.

Anonymous said...

I fully believe him when he says "we've never made, bought, or contracted any Bourbon in or from KY"

Because they bought it from MGP of Indiana!

Justin Victor said...

Here's my take: it is a mediocre quality whiskey with a pretty high price of admission. So, unfortunately, I don't really care where it's made. It's not a whiskey that's worth any more of my money. If it is all distilled in Colorado, it's your basic micro distillery white noise. If it's MGPI, they've done something to screw up otherwise very competent whiskey.

Charles_in_TN said...

My, now empty, bottle that I purchased in June of this year while on vacation in Colorado has an age statement on the rear of the bottle. It says "Aged for a minimum of 2 years in charred new American oak barrels." I would like to know the truth about what is in the bottle. I would feel less cheated that way. The whiskey was good but I don't like being deceived.

Sam said...

"If you knew anything about the way those competitions are run, you wouldn't be impressed."

What do you mean? I thought the USC judges are usually pretty legit, and it doesn't seem yo hand out medals to everyone who enters (as I've heard the SF competition does, though I haven't researched it.)

BMc said...

There must be pretty significant batch to batch variations, because I found it youngish and hot, pretty much a dead giveaway of a young craft distillate.

Sort of on topic, have you had the Finger Lakes whiskies? I don't get a "crafty" note from them, at least from the ones aged in 53 gallon barrels.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I don't mean to cast aspersions on the USC judges or any others. My point is just that there are always things you don't know. You do know that Pappy 23 and Breck were not compared side by side. Were they both judged by the same panel? Were they in different categories? Finally, a one-point difference on a 100-point scale doesn't mean very much. Personally, I don't see how you can compare two such different (i.e., apples and oranges) whiskeys and come up with anything meaningful. Remember, no matter how 'distinguished' the panel is, it's still 100% subjective.

And one last thing, saying the declaration came from Caskers is simply untrue. They merely reported the competition result.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Since, as reported in one of the comments, the back label says, "Aged for a minimum of 2 years in charred new American oak barrels," then why isn't it straight bourbon? I can think of two possible reasons.

1. Additives are permitted in 'bourbon whiskey' that are not permitted in 'straight bourbon whiskey.'

2. For a mixture of straight bourbons from different distilleries to be considered 'straight bourbon,' all of the components must have been made in the same state. You can't mix straight bourbon from Colorado with straight bourbon from Indiana and call it 'straight bourbon.'

Alex said...

I'll believe it's 100% MGP product until I hear otherwise. The more they focus on "snowmelt" water, the more I think they're hiding something. My opinion is that if they don't want a negative inference, they should clearly and honestly disclose a provenance.

MadMex said...

First Class Smoke & Mirrors

TipsyTexan said...

The first time I went to Breckenridge Distillery, they wouldn't take us back to the still room. And though the tour guide claimed that every drop of not just their whiskey but also their vodka was distilled on site, a peek around the back of the building revealed a stack of the ubiquitous large totes that one might have a surfeit of when one orders a large quantity of neutral grain distillate from an industrial distiller.

Furthermore, the barrels of whiskey in their warehouse were clearly older than the distillery--this was in April of 2012; I believe they opened in 2010. At that time, their own website mentioned that they commingled whiskeys from various sources. Though I do not have a screen capture of that, I do have an email I sent to Bill Owens of ADI in May of 2012 asking him if he wouldn't mind shedding some light on the subject, since he was organizing a distilling class at Breckenridge Distillery the following month. Unfortunately my email received no reply.

They are nice people but transparency with consumers does not, unfortunately, appear to be a core value.

TipsyTexan said...

I am also curious to see how bourbon ages at 9.600 feet. Given that it doesn't really get that hot in Breck, even in summer, it seems like it would be a slow process. Are there any other similar situations for comparison?

Chuck Cowdery said...

As to altitude, no. As to a cool climate, Scotland.

Truthseeker, said...

Great article. A lot to take away from this. Outside of the physics and the origin something struck me as a great thinking point.

"If you knew anything about the way those competitions are run, you wouldn't be impressed." is quite possibly the best comment on bourbon comparison I have ever read.

By the time the results of a competition and the rating numbers hit the ad people, a score of 96 in the category of a bourbon made with horse urine will often be advertised as better than Pappy when Pappy was judged a 95 in the best overall bourbon category.

Pappy is outstanding. All of it. The rye, the 15, the 20, the 23, Old Rip is outstanding as well. The thing is most of us don't normally come across Pappy. I hate absolutes but it is getting to the point that if a bourbon is compared with Pappy I tend to keep looking. That shouldn't be, but with the carpetbaggers, prevaricators, opportunists and downright dirtbags flooding the market I am at the point where I can't see the forest for the trees. Thanks for a great post, and a great reminder.

Unknown said...

Here's "Master Distiller," Jordan Via, doing a video tour of what can only be described at this point as "the part of the recipe that is made in Colorado."

Chuck Cowdery said...

Since this shows them making malt whiskey, and not a drop of bourbon, the answer is "none of it."