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Small Barrels Make Lousy Whiskey.


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#21 cowdery

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Posted 22 January 2012 - 11:10 PM

Remember, I'm not Buffalo Trace. It wasn't my experiment. I got a chance to taste the results after five years. They tasted it along the way but I didn't have that opportunity. Tasting it after 5 years and knowing how bourbon ages, I don't see how there could have been some earlier point in the process when it tasted better.

People who get enraged about this need to remember it was one experiment using certain criteria. Recognizing that, I'll even agree that the title is overbroad. I think it's within the acceptable range and others disagree, but it really is abuse of an equine corpse to keep harping on that aspect of the conversation.

Some style terminology for bourbon may be evolving but it's still mostly descriptive; 'wheater' for a bourbon that uses wheat instead of rye, or 'high rye' for a rye recipe bourbon that is about 30 percent rye, rather than the more common 15 or so. Anything aged for less than four years is usually characterized as young or underaged, both of which could be deemed prejudicial, but historically only cheap, low quality products were aged that briefly. I understand micros need to overcome that prejudice if they want to sell young whiskey, but I object to the way some (not all) go about it.

If something qualifies under the regs as bourbon they have a right to call it that, even though subjectively that might not always be in their best interest. Tuthilltown was smart to call their three-month-old product "baby bourbon."

Mostly I object to producers who put out very young and rough whiskeys and make grandiose claims for them, especially when those claims involve gratuitous trashing of so-called 'commercial bourbon.'

I also don't like it when people decide to make it something personal against the messenger.

#22 bluestar

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Posted 24 January 2012 - 09:28 AM

*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


Bad link. Try here: http://itunes.apple....asy/id428499961
It is the most recent entry right now, Episode 47.

#23 delaware_phoenix

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Posted 25 January 2012 - 06:27 PM

Anything aged for less than four years is usually characterized as young or underaged, both of which could be deemed prejudicial, but historically only cheap, low quality products were aged that briefly


While this may technically be true, the liquor industry of 100 years ago and older was pretty much unregulated. And there were lots of quality problems, not all of which were related to the producers. Due to the generosity of some friends, I've had the chance to taste pre-Prohibition whiskey and I thought they were excellent. I've had some Old Fitz made in 1933 just after Prohibition ended, barrelled for a mere 5 years at most, and it was far superior to nearly all the bourbon on the market today. imo

Mr Cowdery can now happily claim his disassociation from BT, but he certainly was happy with that association so he could produce his exclusive report where his headline screams "ALL WHISKEY MADE IN SMALL BARRELS IS BAD". Of course, just the messenger.

Have to say I have a lot of respect for Mr Cowdery when he writes on the topics of the history of whiskey and the major brands.

Anyone who wants to be successful in this business should just go out and get some nicely aged whiskey from LDI and bottle it. Mr Cowdery and all the experienced whiskey drinkers will like it, they'll say nice things about it, you'll have enough to get a distributor and they'll push the brand for you. Instead of having to buy all that distilling and fermenting equipment you can hire some brand ambassadors for key markets for half the price and you'll move some product and make some money.

Or you can work your butt off non-stop to make something you think is special. Whiskey that's good right from the still. But the bars won't stock it cause they have an exclusive arrangement with the dominant wholesaler in their market for all the major brands at prices you can't compete with; the big box stores won't deal with you for basically the same reason, plus the fact that you can't produce enough to meet their needs; and in the end you struggle just to make ends meet.

#24 cowdery

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Posted 25 January 2012 - 08:52 PM

You assume my access to the BT experiment was exclusive. It was not. Lew Bryson, managing editor of Whisky Advocate, was there and has also written about the event. No exclusive was offered nor requested.

#25 bluestar

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Posted 26 January 2012 - 04:40 PM

You assume my access to the BT experiment was exclusive. It was not. Lew Bryson, managing editor of Whisky Advocate, was there and has also written about the event. No exclusive was offered nor requested.


Chuck, could you point us to Lew's article?

#26 Dan P.

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Posted 26 January 2012 - 05:57 PM

I don't contribute to this forum, really, but I follow it with interest, as I do Chuck's blog.
As a disinterested observer, it is quite clear to me that the BT over-aged small barrel thing is a hatchet job, confirmed by their inviting "on-side" bloggers (journalists, whatever) to come round and agree how disgusting it is.
Chuck writes "Tasting it after 5 years and knowing how bourbon ages, I don't see how there could have been some earlier point in the process when it tasted better." No? Well, what did they put in the barrel? Garbage?
I am surprised how dishonest this appears to be, the whole thing.
And, unfortunately, Chuck, you have allowed it to turn you into a troll.
Well done!

#27 RickWrightson

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Posted 25 February 2012 - 12:55 PM

... 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...


But, I thought you said that tasting was "subjective" ... so, what is it, tastes like what "experienced bourbon drinkers expect" or the subjective drinker? At what point does one become an "experienced bourbon drinker"? I'm 72 and I've been drinking all kinds of whisk(e)y for more than 50 years and I'd still classify myself as "subjective". Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. Call it what you like...you either like it or you don't.

#28 RickWrightson

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Posted 25 February 2012 - 01:03 PM

... the liquor industry of 100 years ago and older was pretty much unregulated ...


Exactly correct. Read the book "BAD WHISKY: The Scandall That Created The World's Most Successful Spirit" by Eward Burns

#29 EllenJ

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Posted 25 March 2012 - 10:17 PM

Okay, let's get something straight right from the beginning...

I could not possibly be more respectful of Chuck Cowdery than I am.

Period.

Chuck is one of the "gods" from whom I learned about what American whiskey is all about. He is also one of (maybe the ONLY one of) my "mentors" who has always stressed the idea of looking beyond the "generally accepted" marketing hype and checking out whether what we're being told actually corresponds to what our own intellegence says. They are often not the same thing. And Chuck isn't afraid to provoke us into thinking that way. Thank you, Mr. Cowdery.

Of course, that doesn't mean I agree with him. Way, WAY, NO!! But it's never been Chuck's point that you agree with him.
It's never been mine, either, and I'm another person who often gets quoted as if I knew what I was talking about.

In this particular case, I totally agree with the good commentator from Chi-town.
I'm not even sure that many who think they disagree would, if they realized what Chuck is saying here... Please take these thoughts into consideration:

(1) "Bourbon" is a particular KIND of whiskey. It has particular qualities that are common to the familiar brands, and which are also LEGALLY applicable to other expressions. The fact is, though, that "Bourbon", like many other "heritage" things, is very narrowly defined in people's minds and is, basically, a fantasy product that exists only as a number of recognizable brands -- even if the actual whiskey no longer bears any resemblance to the whiskey that those brands once represented.

(2) Very good whiskey, often made with processes that are different from "standard" bourbon-distilling processes -- including different maturing styles, is being made today by distillers (and bottlers) that tastes delicious... and TRIES to, but should NOT, attempt to call itself "bourbon"

(3) Among those, there are many very fine-tasting products that have, among their flavor characteristics, the peculiar -- and for many people, quite desireable -- flavor that is inherent in short-term, small-barrel aging. The point -- and I believe this is Chuck's point -- is that that particular flavor is NOT characteristic of what people normally associate with good "bourbon". In fact, it is a flavor that is considered to be INAPPROPRIATE for whiskey that is labelled as "bourbon".

I totally agree. My position (and it might be Chuck's as well, although I can't remember him ever actually expressing it as such) is that "BOURBON" is NOT the "be all" and "end all" of American whiskey, and that products that have (and appreciate) the flavor that comes from aging in small barrels should be compared to each other, and not to a standard that is different.

(4) By the way, when I say "...a standard that is different" it is important to understand that does NOT mean a standard that is "inferior". I believe the term "American Whiskey" needs to be brought out from its present position as "whiskey that isn't good enough to be called "straight bourbon or rye" and given it's rightful position as American whiskey that is NOT "straight" rye or bourbon, even if it really does qualify as "straight" whiskey, but has other features (such as as small cooperage, or non-oak barrels, or whatever) that should put it into a different class of comparison from "traditional" bourbon, rye, scotch, etc.

In other words, it's not that Mr. Cowdery objects to the (sometimes very delicious) new spirits being marketed; it's that he (and, really I as well) object to the makers of these new spirits limiting themselves to calling it "bourbon" when it's really something else entirely. I say, Vive le Differance, and to H#!! with existing categories!

#30 Gwydion Stone

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Posted 26 March 2012 - 07:22 PM

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.

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.

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.

I'm not sure who you're responding to here, Chuck, but since it's just below Rickdiculous' posts, I have to assume it was him. It seems like pretty much of a straw man.

Where do you see him asserting the "different product vs. better-made version of the mainstream style" that makes you claim "It can't be both"? Apologies if I'm not seeing something in the huge wall of words that the thread has become.

Remember, I'm not Buffalo Trace. It wasn't my experiment. I got a chance to taste the results after five years. They tasted it along the way but I didn't have that opportunity. Tasting it after 5 years and knowing how bourbon ages, I don't see how there could have been some earlier point in the process when it tasted better.

Seriously? Because my bourbon tastes pretty damned good before it ever touches wood. It doesn't taste like properly aged bourbon and I won't sell it unaged, but it's damned tasty.

I have to agree that the whole experiment seems like a set-up. Unless you know how bourbon ages and BT doesn't, leading them to leave this bourbon in such small barrels for five years.

Where I agree with you is that most micro bourbons aged in small barrels that I've tasted don't taste like bourbon, they taste like raw wood. Actually, I'd extend that to other whiskies as well. Most micro gins don't taste like gin, either. In both cases—in my own personal opinion—a new category or style has been invented to cover for the general lack of expertise or knowledge of a given spirit on the part of the maker: "I meant for it to taste like that". I know this was the case with absinthe.

I also don't like it when people decide to make it something personal against the messenger.

Then you may want to tone down the smug, self-congratulatory tone, because that's the way you come off some of the time and it puts a chip on your shoulder.

I'm just responding to your comment, as I have no room to complain. But then when I'm right, I don't give a rat's ass who wants to shoot the messenger.

#31 HedgeBird

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Posted 06 April 2012 - 09:03 AM

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.


I have an older friend who have been drinking beer for much longer than 40 years. Its pretty much always Highlife and maybe once in a while Yuengling - you get the idea. When I brought over some micro-brew and tried to tell him it was better beer, well you know I lost that argument.. While I can't say my friend is wrong, the success of hundreds of micro-brewerys says hes not right either.

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



Attractive, cool, yummy, tasty, delicious are subjective terms and whats good in fashion, food, music, achitecture, and whiskey change over time.

I am sure the first cheap bastard to put whiskey in an old burnt pickle barrel, instead of buying a new one, had an uphill climb to convince people his whiskey was "better". And when the trend cought on and the traditionalists cried the sky is falling, I bet they argued against co-opting established terminology as well.

#32 Rickdiculous

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Posted 06 April 2012 - 01:35 PM

I think one of the major things Chuck is trying to get across which is being lost in this argument is about truly taking pride in what you do, and not trying to be what you are not. So let me define this in a set of terms and an example outside whiskey for a second. I am an artist, I primarily work in glass. We often have a debate about Craft vs Art. In todays craft world almost no one wants to define themselves as Craftsman even though that is truly what most of them are. They want to be an Artist, to create a one of a kind item, when what they do is production glass work. Why won't they take pride in saying I am a craftsman and elevate the term rather than seek to be what they are not. So how does this fit within this discussion. First if you make a Bourbon Recipe by what the gov't standards say are Bourbon, then yes, by that narrow definition it is Bourbon. I am not going to argue the semantics of that word as you all have beat it do death. What I think Chuck is trying to get us to do is to define what we do honestly and take pride in it. If you age in a small barrel and make the claim "My whiskey was aged in a ... gallon Barrel for ...period of time and due to the increased ratio of surface to volume it will taste exactly like a (insert your favorite whiskey you wish to compare yourself too) who is waiting 6-15 years in a large 53 gallon barrels" you are hoping to pull the wool over a buyers eyes. Their is no research which supports that claim by any barrel company or whiskey distiller, yet many make that claim. Dr. Shaw at the ADI conference gave a fantastic talk on the science of what happens in barrels and how this works. The ratios of extraction to oxidation are not the same in small barrels as in big ones. After all, the implication of a statement like "Aged for less than 4 years", which is appearing on other bottles since tuthilltown started it on their labels, is the whiskey is aged close to four years. That simply isn't true. Less than is true, comparing 3-6 mos and less than four years is not. I still love my Manhattan Rye and Four grain Bourbon. What I believe Chuck wants is for you to take pride in what you do and make claims more in line with what happens. In small barrels where more extraction and less oxidation( a function of time in barrel) takes place a more oaky flavor occurs than in large barrels where oxidation is happening in greater quantities. Make claims about how the small barrel process is creating unique flavors not experienced in the whiskey world before the influx of craft distillers. Make claims about how this will draw in new fans to a spirit they may have overlooked, and make claims about it broadening our whiskey experience rather than tying it to the history we want to have. We have to make that history, not co-opt it from the existing industry. It is very hard for most people (myself included) to judge themselves. I didn't hear one person at the ADI conference discuss what they made as (I'm making pretty good stuff, but I am still in the development of what Whiskey will be my signature.) They are mostly talking about how they are doing it better, and make the best thing out there. We want our spirits spoken about like the Woodfords, Obans, and Pappy's of the world, but are we really in the same class after making whiskey for a couple of years, after a two day or one week class at a distillery, where they made whiskey before many of our families even came to this country?

I truly believe Chuck is in no why trying to divide us in terms of what is better as many of you are accusing him of. He is trying to get us to define ourselves in a fashion as unique as the spirits we are making. On that I couldn't agree with him more and I believe my earlier comments support that.

I would also like to point something out to those of you making claims he may be a shill for Buffalo Trace. If Buffalo Trace or anyone else thought they could make a truly better product in small barrels in a tenth of the time why wouldn't they? Either it's history or it doesn't taste the same as what they recognize as their bourbons and how They want it to taste. That in no way diminishes the value of the flavors craft distillers are making in small barrels it just makes them different. We should take greater pride in that, as opposed to how much we taste similar to what came before us.

#33 EllenJ

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 09:48 PM

I just really can't imagine how much better that could have been stated.
Thank you.

#34 Max Action

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Posted 24 April 2012 - 01:04 AM

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. However having a 40 year track record of voicing opinions does not give someone the authority to dictate what is Bourbon and what isn't. Personally I don't think it gives them much authority to dictate what is good or bad either. In a blind taste test many consumers might opt for blended whiskey rather than straight bourbon. The consumer might like the smoothness of the blend, but the “expert” insists the bold flavors of the bourbon make it the better product. Those are simply personal preferences, why should one of their opinions carry more weight than the other? That’s also a flaw with many of these so-called experiments. I’ve read many of these same Buffalo Trace experiments, and always wondered why they’d simply rely on the limited opinions of the distiller and a few “experts.” I can just imagine them all standing around patting themselves on the back over their ability to distinguish the good from the bad. The problem is that they all have preconceived notions regarding what they expect a good product to taste like, but they have not provided any evidence that they have the same palate as the average consumer, or that their consumer would not want to try something new. Those experiments seemed mostly to demonstrate whether or not they could use a different process to make the same product they’ve always made.

Bourbon is defined by the law, nationally and internationally. There is no reason a new producer shouldn’t use the name if they meet the requirements. They might be at a competitive disadvantage if they don’t. It seems a bit dubious for someone to insist they “know” what bourbon should taste like, based on their experience drinking the same handful of brands over and over, and then insisting a new brand with a different flavor should not use the name. Should we be expected to believe that Bourbon has always tasted exactly the same way for the last 200 years, and should never change in the future?

#35 Tom's Foolery

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Posted 24 April 2012 - 03:39 PM

Now add to the conversation the requirement that whiskey must "possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky" to be called a whiskey in the US. http://law.justia.co...1.3.3.25.2.html

#36 cowdery

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Posted 03 May 2012 - 03:49 PM

This whole conversation isn't about anyone dictating anything to anyone. It's a discussion. One way to phrase the question might be, is it in a producer's interest to label a product with a term that leads the consumer to an expectation that said product can't deliver? The question isn't whether or not it's legal, although the phrase Tom quotes is part of the regs for every defined type, it's whether or not it's wise. That's subjective. However, if you go into a store and buy ten bourbons at random, and nine taste pretty similar while one tastes completely different, what has the producer of the different one gained by labeling that product bourbon instead of telling the unwary consumer, "this is something you've never had before." Furthermore, which of those approaches would you expect a confident artisan to take?

The historical facts are these. After Prohibition, there was a lot of very young whiskey on the market because aged whiskey was in short supply. As aged whiskey became more available the aged stuff was more costly than the young stuff. People didn't like the young stuff but they bought what they could afford. When aging stocks returned more-or-less to normal, the very-youngs went away. Standard bourbons and ryes were four to six years old, premium bourbons and ryes were six to eight years old, and anything older was considered ultra-premium. A few value brands were sold at three years old and there were virtually no whiskeys sold below three years old.

(And, guess what? They knew how to make small barrels in those days too.)

That's the way it was from before 1950 until about ten years ago, a long time. Tuthilltown came out with its three-month-old "Baby Bourbon" but they smartly labeled it in a way that said, "don't expect regular bourbon." That makes sense. People didn't expect it to taste like regular bourbon, but some people liked it, enough to make it a big success. That's wonderful.

What's not wonderful is coming out with an immature whiskey and claiming it's not only of the same type but better than a fully-aged representative of that type. That does not make sense. It's "Emperor's New Clothes" territory.

I'm not saying anyone has to do anything except follow the rules. I am asking: what's smart? What makes sense?




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