Posted on | August 31, 2013
Written by | Brandy Rand
Clever spirits marketing has often trumped authenticity, but the revival of American craft distilleries as well as the classic cocktail renaissance have pumped up the bourbon category, a place where most brands have been doing the same thing for centuries. In essence, consumers’ thirst for genuine products made by real people has led them right back to the founding spirit of the United States.
As the birthplace of bourbon, Kentucky lives and breathes whiskey. The state’s 4.3 million residents are currently outnumbered by aging bourbon barrels (4.9 million); and they lead the nation in bourbon consumption (181 cases per 1,000 adults). The Kentucky economy depends on the spirit, not only because the state’s ten distilleries employ so many people, but also because two million visitors pass through its Bourbon Trail last year.
Americans’ fascination with American whiskey is part epicurean, part curiosity. Who is Pappy Van Winkle? And Booker and Elmer T. Lee, and what are their stories? Behind the labels are the personalities of proud family legacies spanning generations. In the early days, most distillers were also close friends, neighbors and collaborators. In fact, the Beams (Jim Beam) and Samuels (Maker’s Mark) families lived next door to each other for nearly 75 years; Bill Samuels Jr.’s godfather was Jim Beam himself. The Beams are also part of the history of Heaven Hill, founded in 1934 with Joseph L. Beam as an investor and Master Distiller; since then, all of Heaven Hill’s distillers have been members of the Beam family.
Staying on Top of the Shelf
With the success comes pressure on shelf space as bourbon’s popularity has fueled innovation. For retailers and on-premise operators, it means tough decisions as to what brands to carry and how best to train staff on all the variants. “It’s the little things that separate one bourbon from the next,” according the Maker’s Mark Master Distiller Greg Davis. Selling bourbon requires an appreciation for those nuances.
With that in mind, below is a guide to a range of labels—separated into the leading brands and notable small-batch products—each with a story, plus a sense of style. Bourbon, as its most basic, is a whiskey distilled in the United States from a fermented mixture of hot water and grain mash containing at least 51% corn. The exact mash bill is often kept secret by the distiller, but general proportions are usually known and can be very useful when selling; when a consumer prefers a particular brand it makes sense to recommend similar styles based on the mash bill.
Largely driven by price, these brands make up nearly half the American straight whiskey category and are growing a collective 4.8%. Jim Beam is the leader, bolstered by the runaway success of the flavored Red Stag line. Evan Williams, which just this year announced a new bottle design with Evan Williams’s signature blown into the glass, has had success with a line of flavors as well as their Single Barrel Vintage Bourbon and 1783 Small Batch. The Samuels family’s first line extension paid off: Maker’s 46 (a $10 premium to Maker’s Mark) added 50,000 cases to the franchise. And by quickly defusing the debacle over the short-lived plan to lower the proof of the flagship, Maker’s Mark is still cruising along and, like many in the category, hoping they can keep up supply. Brands below are presented in order of descending volume.
Jim Beam [ High Rye ]
Jacob Beam created his first batch of corn whiskey, called “Old Jake Beam,” in 1795, and production has stayed in the family for seven generations. It wasn’t until 1933 that the bottle bore the name “Jim Beam” to honor James B. Beam after he revived the business at the end of Prohibition.
Evan Williams [ Traditional ]
Kentucky’s first commercial distiller, Evan Williams emigrated from Wales and began selling his bourbon in Louisville in 1783. The brand is now overseen by Heaven Hill’s father-and-son Master Distillers, Parker and Craig Beam, using the same process and traditional recipe.
Maker’s Mark [ Wheated ]
Bill Samuels Sr. tried jobs as a banker and a car salesman before he had the idea of creating gourmet bourbon in 1954. His wife Marjorie collected 19th century Cognac bottles and pewter, which inspired the name (collectors always looked for quality or “the mark of the maker”). She also designed the bottle, label and red wax seal. Now overseen by Rob Samuels.
Wild Turkey [ Traditional ]
Founded in 1869 by the Ripy family, Wild Turkey got its name when a distillery executive took some samples on a wild turkey hunting trip in 1940. A year later, his friends asked him for “some of that wild turkey whiskey” and the 101-proof brand was born. Master Distiller Jimmy Russell has overseen production since 1954.
Old Crow [ Traditional ]
In 1835, Old Crow bourbon became the first bourbon to use the sour mash process, invented by Dr. James C. Crow. Today, this process is a standard part of bourbon production. Old Crow was a favorite of famous historical figures like Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain and Jack London.
Old Grand-Dad [ High Rye ]
The Hayden family began distilling in 1840. Colonel R.B. Hayden created Old Grand-Dad in 1882 in honor of his grandfather, Basil Hayden, who was known for using higher percentage of rye. During Prohibition, Old Grand-Dad was one of the few distilled spirits allowed to be prescribed as medicine.
Small Batch Brands
The term “small batch” was coined by the late Jim Beam Master Distiller Booker Noe in 1992 to introduce four boutique bourbons, now known as Beam’s Small Batch portfolio (Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s, Baker’s). This segment grew the fastest in 2012, up roughly 12% over the previous year, led by Bulleit (+27%) and Woodford Reserve (+23%). Yet another coup for small-batch brands: Michter’s was named Distiller of the Year by Wine Enthusiast in 2012. There are dozens upon dozens of these often hard-to-find, higher-priced bourbons.
Here are a few highlights, arranged alphabetically:
1792 Ridgemont Reserve [High Rye]
Celebrating the year in which Kentucky received its statehood, this bourbon is made on the site of the historic 1879 Tom Moore Distillery, which was named after a nearby spring from which it still draws its waters today.
Angel’s Envy [ High Rye ]
Former Brown-Forman Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson was talked out of retirement by his son to create Angel’s Envy, which debuted in 2010. Henderson originally wanted to be a doctor, but says “the whiskey business is a much better form of medicine.” They are building a new distillery on downtown Louisville’s “Whiskey Row.”
Baker’s [ Traditional ]
Part of Beam’s Small Batch Bourbon Collection and named after Baker Beam, Jim Beam’s grandnephew, Baker’s uses a special strain of jug yeast that has been in the family for over 60 years.
Basil Hayden’s [ High Rye ]
The higher rye recipe dates back to 1796 and was developed by Basil Hayden, who became associated with this style of bourbon. As part of Beam’s Small Batch Bourbon Collection, a similar recipe was used to launch the brand in Hayden’s
honor in 1988.
Booker’s [ Traditional ]
Beam Distiller Booker Noe bottled his own signature bourbon in 1987 and gave to friends as a holiday gift. It became so popular he decided to launch it to the public in 1992 as part of his Small Batch Collection. The label, in Booker’s own handwriting, actually contains a small error.
Buffalo Trace [ High Rye ]
The distillery site dates back to 1870, when it was named O.F.C. Distillery. Then in 1878, former wholesaler George T. Stagg purchased it and it became the George T. Stagg Distillery. Sazerac took ownership In 1992 and changed the named to Buffalo Trace in 1999, simultaneously launching a bourbon brand of the same name. Over a dozen spirits are produced at the distillery, including acclaimed small batch bourbons W.L. Weller, Eagle Rare, Elmer T. Lee, George T. Stagg, Blanton’s and E.H. Taylor.
Bulleit [ High Rye ]
In the 1930s, Louisville tavern keeper Augustus Bulleit disappeared while transporting barrels of his namesake whiskey to New Orleans. Still a mystery to this day, his great-great grandson Tom Bulleit brought the brand back to life in 1987. The original recipe of two-thirds rye and one-third corn would not qualify as a bourbon today.
Elijah Craig [ Traditional ]
Created at Heaven Hill in 1986 by Parker Beam and Max Shapira. They were inspired by Reverend Elijah Craig, who is credited with accidently coming up with the idea of charring oak after he stored some whiskey in barrels damaged by a fire.
Four Roses [ High Rye ]
The brand Four Roses was trademarked by Paul Jones Jr. in 1888 and was immensely popular from the end of Prohibition through the 1950s. Seagram took over the name in 1960 and began marketing Four Roses as a lower-tier whiskey while the distillery’s real bourbon was sent to Asia and Europe. Now owned by Japanese company Kirin Brewing, Four Roses (the good stuff) became available in the U.S. again in 2002 thanks to Master Distiller Jim Rutledge who has overseen production since 1995.
Knob Creek [ Traditional ]
Knob Creek is named after a creek near the distillery and was created to reflect the style of pre-Prohibition bourbon. The bottle is shaped like a flask and covered in newspaper, like bootleggers used to do.
Larceny [ Wheated ]
Distilled in the honor of the legendary John E. Fitzgerald of Old Fitzgerald Bourbon fame; this lawless bonded treasury agent used his special keys to gain access to the best barrels in storage warehouses.
Dating back to 1753, Michter’s was America’s first distilling company, established by rye farmer John Shenk in Schaefferstown, PA. It’s said their rye whiskey was a favorite of General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Now Michter’s is known for small batch and single barrel bourbons, in addition to its legendary rye and a
new sour mash.
Old Fitzgerald [ Wheated ]
Old Fitzgerald was first produced in 1870, but only for rail and steamship lines and select private clubs. It was released to the public around 1900. During Prohibition, the brand continued production as one of the few medicinal alcohols. It was acquired by Pappy Van Winkle for $10,000 who changed the recipe, replacing rye with a “whisper of wheat.” Now part of Heaven Hill.
Old Forester [ High Rye ]
First bottled 1870 by a former pharmaceutical salesman named George Garvin Brown, who later founded the Brown-Forman Corporation. It has the distinction of being continuously on the market longer than any other brand
Van Winkle [ Wheated ]
Named after bourbon legend Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr., who began his career as a liquor salesman for W.L. Weller & Sons in 1893. In 1910 he acquired the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery which became Stitzel-Weller around Prohibition. The Old Rip Van Winkle was resurrected by Julian Van Winkle Jr. after the distillery
sold in 1972.
Woodford Reserve [ High Rye ]
Distilling began on what is now the Woodford Reserve Distillery in 1780, originally established by Elijah Pepper. In 1878 it became the Labrot & Graham Distillery. It was sold the Brown-Forman Corporation in 1941, eventually ceasing to operate until a major renovation in 1993. The Woodford Reserve brand launched in 1996 and has enjoyed double-digit growth every year, prompting a recent decision to expand the facility to house 165,000 more barrels.