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Small Barrels Make Lousy Whiskey.


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#1 cowdery

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Posted 15 January 2012 - 03:15 PM

Please excuse the provocative headline, or don't.

Back in December, when on my blog I plugged the new issue of my American whiskey newsletter, and its lead article about Buffalo Trace's experiments with small barrels, the response was phenomenal. The blog got tons of hits and new newsletter subscriptions went through the roof. I have taken that article, and some related material, and published it as an ebook (Kindle format), which you can buy for a mere 99 cents. By the way, you don't need a Kindle to read a Kindle book. They have a free reader or you can just use your web browser.

I kindly ask that if you want to comment on the article, pop for the 99 cents and actually read it first.

You can get it here.

#2 bluestar

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Posted 15 January 2012 - 03:41 PM

Grabbed, and while I was at it, finally added your Bourbon book to my library, thanks.

#3 NathanAEmery

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Posted 15 January 2012 - 07:05 PM

Read it and agree on some of the points. However, don't like some of the blanket statements...just sayin.

#4 WI Distiller

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Posted 15 January 2012 - 08:44 PM

Alright Chuck, you win, you have my 99 cents just so I could respond. I had already read Lew Bryson's article on the same experiment when I responded to your blog post, but I was curious to read the whole article.
I want to first say that I do not currently operate a distillery, though I am working on getting one started. I have no plans to make whiskey in the way you describe small distillers doing so in the article, and I am a huge fan of many of the same large-distillery products that you love. I enjoyed reading your book, regularly read your blog, and have nothing but respect for you and the Buffalo Trace distillery. I do not have a horse in this race, and am simply giving you my opinion on this "controversy," because I feel you need to hear it.
The huge responses you got to your blog post were, as you said, due to the provocative title "Buffalo Trace Proves Small Barrels Don't Work." You are right that the purpose of a title is to get people's attention, but the title should also meet basic journalistic standards and be accurate. This title is simply false. All that buffalo trace did was prove that when you put their distillate into those specific small barrels for that specific period of time they create a whiskey that you and the others who tasted it found to be unpleasant. If you think this experiment "proved" anything beyond this, as your "provocative" title clearly asserts, then you need to re-learn the basics of the scientific method.
As to the kindle article I just read, I learned nothing new about the experiment or your feelings on it. I will repeat what has been said many times; 5 years is an absurd amount of time for a small barrel, and I know of no one who ages whiskey that long in these barrels or advises anyone to do so. You continually assert that many micro's think that whiskeys in small barrels will keep getting better, and that is simply not the case. If anyone is saying this, I haven't heard it.
I have heard many people make age claims like you mention, the "two years is as good as six" claims. Even Bill Owens says something along these lines in one of his books. I completely agree with you that this is a foolish statement. Whenever you change a variable in such a significant way, you will obviously end up with a different product, especially when the variable in question is so vital to the flavor of the product. But I still disagree that a bourbon made in this way is not a bourbon.
I think one of the reasons people on this forum dislike much of your writing is that you have a very aggressive writing style. You jump to conclusions about other people's views and often state your opinions as fact. For example, in this piece you write "Whether or not Hudson Baby Bourbon...has a pleasing taste is subjective...but none of the small barrel bourbons taste like bourbon. There is nothing recognizable as bourbon about them. They taste nothing like the whiskey that most people recognize as 'bourbon'." After saying that taste is subjective, you assert a subjective opinion about "what most people recognize as 'bourbon'" as though it were a fact! And, as a long time lover of bourbon and someone who has nothing but respect and admiration for the big Kentucky distilleries, this is a subjective opinion I completely disagree with! To me, the Hudson Baby Bourbon and Four Grain Bourbon have all of the qualities I associate with the heart and soul of bourbon. Do they taste different than any bourbon aged in 53's? Of course. But in my subjective opinion everything that makes a bourbon a bourbon is there in those whiskeys. I have no doubt there are many who agree with you, and I know some people agree with me, but you will never hear me assert my opinion about these products as anything other than my opinion.
Reading your blog and the many posts you have made on this forum, I get the feeling that you are a bit of a provocateur, and get some satisfaction out of ruffling people's feathers a bit. There is nothing wrong with this impulse, as long as it doesn't go to far, but I have no doubt that when you wrote that teaser you knew exactly what kind of response you would get. The whole piece reads as if you are trying to teach craft distillers a lesson, but when you write a piece with this title and jump to unfounded conclusions, many of the people who might benefit from understanding this experiment will simply tune out, assume you have a bias against craft distillers in favor of the big Kentucky distillers, and not read further. It's counter productive. Having read more of your work, I know that you often have nice things to say about craft distillers and give your honest opinions about their products. The unfortunate thing is, I do think that Buffalo Trace did a valuable thing with this experiment, that it was interesting and that craft distillers should read about it and think about what it means, and that you may actually be discouraging people from doing so.
Ok, there's my unsolicited opinion, take it or leave it. I will continue to read your blog as I feel it is a very valuable place to find out about many things going on in the world of whiskey.
Cheers.

#5 Curtis McMillan

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Posted 15 January 2012 - 09:31 PM

Why battle age & size, when we need to battle the type of wood. B)

#6 Rickdiculous

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 12:11 PM

To WI distiller,
Thanks for that response it was the way everyone should respond to things on boards like this.

With all due respect to Cowdery,
The tastes of some segment of the the american spirit drinker have obviously grown beyond the limits of bourbon from 53 gallon barrels made in Kentucky. The numbers don't lie and the success of Tuttletown's Hudson or baby bourbon is a testament to it. As one who regularly tastes many of the bourbons made by the big Kentucky producers (and here I include the claimed single barrel/ "small batch" claims of those like woodford) The tastes have immense variation and levels of smoothness. To claim some type of standard bourbon taste exists seems a bit dubious to me. My experience may be limited to yours as I don't know your age or experience (I don't have your book), I am always wary of those claiming the absolutes which you are asserting about small barrels.

#7 Rickdiculous

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Posted 17 January 2012 - 10:46 AM

One other thing I feel is worth mentioning. I believe the whole point of doing what many of us are doing in the craft distilling industry is to try and make something unique. Much like craft brewers could have made the same fare offered by the big three brewers they didn't. They went out and created old world flavors and used unique grain combinations to give us a world now flush with amazing beers, full of flavors many of my friends wouldn't drink twenty years ago. Now the big three are following the steps of the craft industry and offer darker more full bodied beers which reach a wider more diverse audience. We could make our bourbons, vodkas, ryes, and liqueurs with the exact same ingredients, barrels, waters, and aging. What would be the fun in that? Should we become copy cats just to fit a narrow definition of what Kentucky Bourbon is. If this is really what you want, for the world of whiskey, is all of us to taste the same then go to washington DC and change the law defining a Bourbon so we all have to use the same stuff. Personally I will take the Four grain recipe from Hudson, and weird combinations of local grains to make a world of more interesting tastes. I am sure Buffalo Trace will be happy to know you will continue to drink their stuff. I find it most interesting to see many of these big distillers now following in the steps of the craft distillers offering single barrel premium versions, and limited runs, like booker's, Jack Daniels single barrel, and Marker's mark 46. I guess they think these little guys, with their little barrels are something to worry about.

#8 cowdery

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Posted 17 January 2012 - 11:33 AM

You can't have it both ways. Either it's a different product that can't be compared to mainstream whiskey and must be judged solely on its own merits, or it's a better-made version of the mainstream style.

It can't be both.

Contrary to the conclusions of many, I'm not hostile to small producers. I simply suggest they should focus on the former and not claim the latter, as most currently do.

#9 absaroka

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Posted 17 January 2012 - 06:19 PM

Posted Image

#10 delaware_phoenix

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Posted 20 January 2012 - 06:46 PM

The idea that if it doesn't conform to what is made by the majors, it isn't whiskey, is the biggest crock of doo-doo foisted on the whiskey drinking public in a long time. Just because the majors make whiskey a certain way using certain kinds of column stills, with certain grain bills, water ratios, fermenter sizes, barrel sizes, aging, etc simply provides a limited description based on current industrial practice.

#11 Curtis McMillan

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Posted 21 January 2012 - 01:13 PM

Bryan thats the best image EVER!

#12 cowdery

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Posted 21 January 2012 - 05:45 PM

The idea that if it doesn't conform to what is made by the majors, it isn't whiskey, is the biggest crock of doo-doo foisted on the whiskey drinking public in a long time. Just because the majors make whiskey a certain way using certain kinds of column stills, with certain grain bills, water ratios, fermenter sizes, barrel sizes, aging, etc simply provides a limited description based on current industrial practice.


No, it creates a baseline for consumer expectations. And the only person saying that this is about what is or isn't whiskey is you, Cheryl. I've been drinking "bourbon" for 40 years and "know" from that experience what bourbon tastes like. Give me something that tastes completely different and tell me it's not only bourbon but better bourbon than what I've known as bourbon for 40 years and you've set a very high bar for yourself. It will be the consumer who makes that judgment, not the maker. This ain't no David v Goliath play, regardless of how attractive the would-be David's find that narrative.

Be excited about making something new and different, and stop trying to co-opt established terminology.

#13 Jedd Haas

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Posted 21 January 2012 - 08:52 PM


I've been drinking "bourbon" for 40 years and "know" from that experience what bourbon tastes like.
...
Be excited about making something new and different, and stop trying to co-opt established terminology.


Bourbon is defined by the Beverage Alcohol Manual (via CFR 27). If you follow the rules, you can call your product bourbon, whether it tastes like "commercial bourbon" or not. There's no "co-opting" going on in that case, Chuck. I'm sure you knew that, but it seems precision often eludes you when you're telling all them newfangled whiskey punks to get off your lawn.

Keep rocking the boat, Cheryl.

#14 cowdery

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Posted 22 January 2012 - 01:59 AM


Bourbon is defined by the Beverage Alcohol Manual (via CFR 27). If you follow the rules, you can call your product bourbon, whether it tastes like "commercial bourbon" or not. There's no "co-opting" going on in that case, Chuck. I'm sure you knew that, but it seems precision often eludes you when you're telling all them newfangled whiskey punks to get off your lawn.

Keep rocking the boat, Cheryl.


Of course I acknowledge that and always have, and that's a red herring. It is, in fact, those rules that allow micro-distillers to call something "bourbon whiskey" even though it tastes nothing like what experienced bourbon drinkers expect bourbon to taste like, which is the point you keep ignoring in favor of the straw men you can more easily knock down. But just because you can do something (call lightly aged white dog bourbon) doesn't mean you should. Micro-distillers are fighting a losing battle trying to convince the public that what they've been enjoying for years is now garbage and only this new over-priced, underaged, "craft" bourbon (or rye) is worth drinking. Sure, people who are new to the category get caught up in the excitement of small, local producers, and I think that's terrific, but it's a different matter when you put it in front of people who have been drinking bourbon all their lives. I'm sorry, it just is, and you ignore that reality at your (not my) peril.

Though if what you are saying is that the opposite of what you disdain as "commercial" bourbon is "uncommercial" bourbon, then maybe we're not so far apart after all.

#15 JohninWV

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Posted 22 January 2012 - 06:37 AM

I'm not arguing with anyone, just giving my $.02. I can only tell you what we tell people in front of us. We make bourbon (our Yearling) that we believe tastes exactly what it's supposed to taste like. A very nice, young, craft distilled bourbon. Is it exactly like most people think "normal" bourbon tastes? To some, yes. To others, no. Do some people like it better? Yep.

We're not going to make a living telling people our stuff is better than X, Y, or Z. We believe me make a great product. We shoot them straight. We let them make up their own mind. We make a great product that has some unique flavor profiles. We also have a lot...a lot...in big barrels. Hedging our bet, I suppose.

#16 WI Distiller

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Posted 22 January 2012 - 11:28 AM

Chuck,
You can speak from your experience, so I'll speak from mine. As someone who has studied journalism and worked as a journalist on a professional level, I find it offensive when someone prioritizes provocation over accuracy and conflates opinion with fact. You continue to ignore the fact that the title of your original blog post was patently false, and also assert to know what other people "expect bourbon to taste like."
I have only been drinking bourbon in a serious way for about five years, so I cannot match your 40 years of experience, and can respect if you feel that none of the new craft bourbons taste like bourbon. I agree with you that many craft distilled products are vastly different from traditional American whiskey and need to be thought of differently. The stuff from Koval comes to mind as being so different that comparisons to traditional rye and bourbon seem misguided. But I don't think this is true of all craft whiskey. I have had a lot of bourbon, have traveled to Kentuck and toured nearly all of the big distilleres and have tasted all of their products. To me, products like Hudson's Four Grain Bourbon are more similar to the Kentuck products than they are different. That's just my opinion, one that you obviously disagree with, but don't tell me that your opionion is a fact or that I am not an experienced bourbon drinker if I disagree with you.
I think your last post points to the source of your frustration with craft distillers, and there is a lot of validity to what you say. I agree that there are a number of small producers who don't show enough respect for the established distilleries. I think this is a tradition that is a hold over from the craft beer movement, where small brewers have always had nothing but distain for the Bud, Miller and Coors's of the world. In beer this made a lot more sense, as the major breweries had made nothing but one bland product for decades, and the argument that craft breweries provided a better alternative was an easy one to make. Large distilleres make a variety of products at different levels of quality and different price points. Condescending toward "commercial" distillers is a big mistake, and I, for one, would never argue that Kentucky bourbon is garbage.

#17 Jedd Haas

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Posted 22 January 2012 - 11:36 AM


those rules that allow micro-distillers to call something "bourbon whiskey" even though it tastes nothing like what experienced bourbon drinkers expect bourbon to taste like, which is the point you keep ignoring in favor of the straw men you can more easily knock down. But just because you can do something (call lightly aged white dog bourbon) doesn't mean you should. Micro-distillers are fighting a losing battle trying to convince the public that what they've been enjoying for years is now garbage and only this new over-priced, underaged, "craft" bourbon (or rye) is worth drinking.
...
Though if what you are saying is that the opposite of what you disdain as "commercial" bourbon is "uncommercial" bourbon, then maybe we're not so far apart after all.


Since my prior comments were my first post on this thread, I'm not sure how you deduce that I "keep ignoring" your point about the traditional taste of bourbon. In fact, I didn't say anything about taste, didn't suggest that "commercial bourbon" is garbage, or suggest disdain for it either.

What's going on is that the definition of bourbon (and to some, quality bourbon) is being expanded. That's a good thing, in my opinion.

You'd do better to tone down the bombast and actually read, rather than trying to put words in my mouth.

#18 Lenny

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Posted 22 January 2012 - 05:27 PM

It's too bad this experiment didn't offer up additional conclusions on the BT product in the various sized barrels along the duration of the study. I'd find a lot more value in knowing how/if/when the BT spirit reached it's peak in each of the various sized barrels. Seems like a 30g would have been a no brainer to include as well. I think it's generally pretty cool that BT publishes the results of their experiments - just seems like this experiment, in it's exact format, had little to prove beyond what would be fairly obvious to most. I enjoyed reading about it just the same

In regards to the discussion that this thread has evolved into... I don't disagree with a lot of the points Chuck has made, but it doesn't seem like the potential range in bourbon flavor profiles has ever been classified in a more granular term than bourbon or straight bourbon. To further use the comparison to the beer industry... I like a good fresh Double IPA. It's a beer with a very definable style guideline that qualifies it as a Double IPA. If I make a beer that conforms to this style and let it age for 3 years, the hops drop out and it becomes a malt forward beer no longer recognizable as a double IPA. If I was to sever this beer I should call it what it's flavor profile most accurately resembles - maybe an old ale or a barley wine. It's still a beer but not a double IPA.

Chuck, what do you propose a craft distillery that produces a <1 year old offering, conforming to the BAM standards set out for a bourbon, call this product that might not fit the exact/expected flavor profiles of a more well known kentucky bourbon? ...Or maybe I'm misunderstanding your position — is your opinion more along the lines that you feel such a product can be accepted as a bourbon but would benefit from some extra verbiage that discusses it's difference from the debatably more standard bourbon flavor profiles?

*edit* Final note: I just listened to the newest episode of Damon Bolte's Speak Easy Podcast on which he speaks with Nick Jarrett about subjects relevant to this discussion. Definitely worth a listen: http://www.heritager...th-Nick-Jarrett

#19 Denver Distiller

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Posted 22 January 2012 - 07:00 PM

There's no TTB Standard of Identity of beer. You can label that Double IPA anything that you damn well please if you were a licensed brewer.

#20 Lenny

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Posted 22 January 2012 - 08:10 PM

There's no TTB Standard of Identity of beer. You can label that Double IPA anything that you damn well please if you were a licensed brewer.


Very true - and in thinking about this a bit more, that's sorta the point I guess. The TTB will define what a licensed brewer can call beer. The rest is up to the brewer and to some extent the market that receives it (in the sense that the market tends to be very vocal about such things). I don't see bourbon being broken down into more granular categories than what already exists beyond bourbon itself being a subset of whiskey. A distillery can choose to use additional terminology in attempt to further define their product to the market (ex. baby, craft, small batch, etc.) or not, but unless some person/group/organization saw fit to further classify the various flavor profiles that are acceptable within a bourbon into subcategories and have those classifications accepted by the industry and the public, what else should a bourbon (regardless of age and size of barrel it is matured in) be defined as? So while I'm very new (newest?) to the game, I'm rolling with the opinion that if a distillery chooses to release a product that conforms to what the TTB defines as bourbon, then it is exactly that, regardless of similarities (or lack of) other bourbon on the shelves. That market will decide if it is indeed a viable bourbon offering — and in the case of you're work, todd... the local market has decided to continuously buy out the shelf stock of your american small batch whiskey (a bourbon I believe) before I can grab a bottle!




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