Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Something Went Wrong on the Way to "The 25 Most Important Bourbons Ever Made"

Two months ago, I was invited to participate in a project for Food & Wine magazine being helmed by Robert Simonson, a writer I hold in high esteem. The pitch went like this:

"The idea is to catalogue the 25 most significant and influential and just plain excellent Bourbons ever distilled since they started distilling Bourbon. These could be adjudged so for a variety of reasons: innovation, historical significance, social significance, method of production, quality, etc. They can be extant Bourbons handily found on the shelf, or Bourbons that are hard to get, or Bourbons that are extinct and impossible to get and only live on in memory."

The finished product, on the Food & Wine website, is here.

It is disappointing.

What went wrong? It is hard to say. You will notice that all of the products pictured can be purchased today, albeit with difficulty in some cases (e.g., Van Winkle). Was that always the plan? Or was it the decision of an editor, perhaps sensitive to the article's advertising-seeking potential? It is implausible that all of the "25 most important bourbons ever made" are still available. Where are the avatars of "innovation, historical significance, social significance, method of production, quality, etc." from the past? Some of that is in the text, but the overall result is confusing.

Take Michter's, for example. The picture shows a current iteration of Michter's, but the short blurb that accompanies it accurately states that, "This old Pennsylvania distilling name got new life in the 1990s under new owners who sourced, rather than made, their whiskey." It is hard to tell a complicated story in 100 words or less. (It took me more than 100 pages.)

One could argue that Michter's is important for two reasons. The old Michter's, which had a brief history under that name, died in 1990. A few years later, the present owners claimed the abandoned trademark and made good use of it. The whiskey they sourced was excellent and the Michter's line became a leader in the super-premium segment of the market. In August of 2015 (not 2012, as the article states), this Michter's became a distiller, operating a new distillery in the Louisville suburb of Shively.

But the original Michter's was also important, for many reasons but in bourbon lore for being the source of the legendary A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon, the history of which is told in The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste.

Many of the other selections have a similar problem, trying to combine multiple points of significance into a 100-word blurb under a picture of a modern product that may have little or no relationship to the story being told. Then you realize that the list represents a ranking and comes to the conclusion that Maker's Mark is the most important bourbon of all time, which is absurd on its face. Apparently, the method was to add up how many people mentioned a given brand name. Maker's was mentioned most often, hence it was judged the most important.

Here, for what it is worth, is what I submitted:

Old Oscar Pepper/Old Crow made during Dr. Crow’s lifetime, so pre-1856. Crow introduced many practices we take for granted, such as the sour mash process and routine aging. None of his whiskey has survived. I’ve never tasted it, nor probably has anyone in more than a century. Its significance is that it fundamentally changed how bourbon was made.

Very Very Old Fitzgerald, 12-year-old. It was a 12-year-old wheated bourbon made at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery and just about perfect, as in perfectly balanced. It was generally available from the late 50s until about 1990. I’ve gone through several bottles. I have none left.

Abraham Bowman 18-year-old rye-recipe bourbon from Sazerac. It came out in about 2012. Very limited. Very old bourbons are hit-or-miss. They miss more often than not or are okay but nothing special. Very rarely are they exceptional. This one was. I had one bottle. It is long gone.

A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon, any bottling. A rye-recipe bourbon made by a doomed Pennsylvania distillery during a couple of weeks in 1974, that became a phenomenon and is genuinely great whiskey too. Most of it was sold at 16-years-old but even the 20-year-old is terrific. I’ve tasted them all and still have one or two bottles.

Weller 12-year-old. The closest you can get today to the taste of those great Stitzel-Weller wheaters of yore. Still made and widely available though often in short supply as its reputation as ‘poor man’s Pappy’ has spread.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. On the rye-recipe side of the ledger, Kentucky Spirit stands out as an exemplar. It is simply everything you want in a rye-recipe bourbon. Still made, widely available, and modestly priced for what you get.

Parker’s Heritage Collection Master Distiller’s Blend of Mashbills Bourbon (2012). On paper, it’s just a mixture of Heaven Hill’s 11-year-old rye-recipe bourbon with Heaven Hill’s 11-year-old wheated bourbon. The proportions were never revealed. To me, it is one of the best bourbons ever made and a great example of what a veteran master distiller at the height of his powers can accomplish.

Robert Simonson is a terrific writer who I know personally, and who has written kindly about me on at least two occasions. If you read the piece, ignore the photographs and modify some of the subheads, a very different story emerges, one that reads a lot more like the way he writes. I won't embarrass him by asking what went wrong. It only matters what is on the page. Whatever the reason, the article as presented is confusing and unsuccessful. It does not deliver what the headline promises.

By the way, I'm about halfway through Simonson's book from last year, A Proper Drink. So far, it is a delight. More later.


Zeke said...


And while we're at it, the article had four separate pop up ads while I scrolled!

Paul said...

I don't blame you for being embarrassed to be associated with that article. Every person on the "panel of experts" should be equally ashamed.

Punter said...

While it's not what was pitched to you, I didn't find it nearly as bad as I might have expected from your reaction. For a non-spirits venue, it's about as rigorous as you can get without boring people. If I weren't interested in whiskey as a hobby, I wouldn't expect a magazine called "Food and Wine", geared toward actually consuming, to tell me about stuff I can't get anymore either. That did likely drive the editorial thinking here. And the author does make an effort to point out that the ranking and "importance" does not correspond to a quality ranking.
I'd say that for the good of the cause, anything that introduces a wider audience to a bunch of good bourbons (and the article definitely does that) should not be poured out with the bathwater, or whatever that metaphor is :)

Noel Hastings said...

I was happy to see VVOF 12yr up there. When I asked Daryl Corti to recommend a bottle this is what he gave me. Back then $40 or so and easily available. When I asked him why this should be my introduction to my education in bourbon he said simply, "This is what bourbon is supposed to be." He said there were many other different and fine bourbons but this is what "bourbon"
should be. I was so happy someone found a bottle for me recently but I worry it is from a later batch produced differently.

Anonymous said...

Having worked for Somerset Importers, I drank a lot of VV Old Fitz. You are correct-- most excellent bourbon. I scratch my head and try to remember-- I think the distillery made one bourbon but we had many labels (Cabin Still, Rebel Yell, Old Fitz and Weller (both of which had many variations)). I must say that your list lacks an excellent bourbon--that of Brown-Forman. Their product can stand with any today!
Madison Ave and decedents thereof are alive and well. All the hype is a bunch of that which comes from the posterior vent.

Larry Kass said...

I struggled a bit with this as well, Chuck, though primarily because of the historical importance vs. quality aspect. If you are talking about brands that made a major mark on the category it is hard to not include Blanton's, I think, as the first commercially available SB, and I must admit had Robert asked me to participate I might also have included Beam's Distillers Masterpiece, as the first significant wood finished release. If the criterion is strictly quality, though, as you seem to lean toward with the Bowman 18yo or KY Spirit, I think that takes you down a slightly different road than the historical or innovation (funny word to use I always think when talking about Bourbon) criteria. I also think the way the assignment was worded begs that question however, I kind of think you need to ask about most innovative/historically significant brands independent of "quality", or vice versa. If that makes sense...

Erik Fish said...

After reading Fred Minnick's comments and also some other discussions, and a closer look at the various lists bandied about, I feel compelled to point out that (in light of your criticism) your list in part misses the assignment too. Quoting your rendering of the pitch, the criteria being "innovation, historical significance, social significance, method of production, quality, etc.", I see, for example the Bowman 18-year-old on your list, a very limited (your words) edition that obviously impressed you very much but meets none of the criteria given to you except the quality, last on Simonson's list. Just like Weller 12 and Kentucky Spirit have nothing going for them other than being (and I completely agree with you there) the best expressions of their respective well-established lines.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Some of you seem to think 'importance' and 'quality' are mutually exclusive. I disagree. Products such as Weller 12 and Kentucky Spirit set standards and standards are 'important.'

Anonymous said...

Off subject. Is there any difference in export bottles of early times and regular early times. Maybe it's in my head but the export bottle Japanese seemed to be sweeter

Chuck Cowdery said...

The Early Times sold within the USA is 'Kentucky Whisky.' It cannot be called 'bourbon' because it is a mixture of bourbon (aged in new barrels) and bourbon-mash distillate aged in used barrels. About 20 percent of the mix is the used barrel whiskey. Re-using barrels saves money.

That's the U.S. version. Early Times for export is bourbon, i.e., 100 percent aged in new, charred oak barrels. If it tastes different, that's why.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Chuck, are the bourbon labeling rules for export whiskey the same as for that sold in the USA. Just out of curiosity, could Early Times sell the same whiskey as sold in the USA, but call it "bourbon" for some export markets?

Sorry to prolong the off-topic conversation.

Chuck Cowdery said...

There are no 'export rules' as such, just the labeling rules of the individual importing countries. For the most part, rules in importing countries just say that to be bourbon in their country it has to be bourbon in the U.S. So what you suggest is pretty much not going to happen.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Gotcha. Thanks, Chuck.

Colby said...

Chuck, Jim Beam is sold at 74 proof in Austraila, rendering it not bourbon by US standards. I think The Dean's question is a decent one that merits a look into what Early Times is exporting.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. The fluff in that article almost completely obscured any actual substance, which was bewilderingly at odds with level of competence I would have expected from that list of participating panelists.

Anonymous said...

How many "important" bourbons are there, really? Not 25, I'd offer. But there should be no question to any informed person that the most important is the one correctly sitting at #1. It is ground zero for everything people love and love to talk about bourbon today; craft, premiumness, the oh-so-precious value of "authenticity," quality and most of all, something that actually tastes good. Every other brand on that list (many of which don't even qualify as brands; it's more than a logo) is drafting off of what the two Bills and Margie created.