- Historic Sites
The American Spirit
Bourbon whiskey has had a long, rugged ride from the frontier to the top shelf
May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
For bourbon as for that other American cultural pinnacle, jazz, the most intense connoisseurship recently is in Japan.
The first to appear, in 1984, was Blanton’s. Elmer T. Lee, master distiller emeritus at the Ancient Age Distillery, in Frankfort, Kentucky, where it is made, tells how it came about: “The distillery changed ownership in 1983, and the new owners wanted to come up with some kind of super premium that would counter the success of the Scotches, with their single malts. I had worked at the plant since 1949 and had had the opportunity to work with the master distiller Albert B. Blanton for two or three years before he retired. He was one of the major characters in the business. I remembered that when he entertained, he would go into his favorite warehouse and sample the barrels and select an individual barrel that best suited his taste. He’d have that one barrel bottled just for his own private use.
“He taught me that whiskeys will age at different rates depending on their location in the warehouse, and there is some difference in the product from barrel to barrel. Colonel Blanton understood that if someone with good taste and ability could search the barrels, he could pick out the ones with super premium quality. This knowledge was never used commercially until we started bottling Blanton’s in 1984. They called on me to select the individual barrels, and I still do.
“It was slow going for two or three years, but then it started to catch on. As I understand, there’s more being sold in Japan than in the United States. The Japanese people are enamored of the history and quality of Kentucky bourbon products. In this country, bourbon sales are not growing. People don’t drink as much as they used to, but when they do have an alcoholic beverage, they want high quality.”
Ancient Age now has three other single-barrel bourbons, and every other distiller—there are today only ten in Kentucky, one in Virginia, and two in Tennessee making all the world’s bourbon and Tennessee-whiskey brands—now has its own specialty line. United Distillers, of Louisville, for instance, introduced a Bourbon Heritage Collection in 1994 of five whiskeys all aged over ten years: I. W. Harper Gold Medal, W. L. Weller Centennial, Old Charter Proprietor’s Reserve, George Dickel Special Barrel Reserve, and Very Special Old Fitzgerald. All are specially aged versions of whiskeys that trace their roots to the nineteenth century.
The most energetic marketer of the new bourbons is Jim Beam Distillery’s (Jim Beam is the best-selling bourbon brand of all), whose “small-batch” bourbons are for consistency’s sake taken not from one barrel but from several. The first of these was Booker’s, introduced in 1987. It began as a special bottling that Booker Noe sent out at Christmastime as a gift. He still personally selects the whiskey, and it is unique among all bourbons in that it is bottled straight from the barrel without filtering or watering; other bourbons are filtered because unfiltered bourbon can turn cloudy when chilled, and they are cut with distilled water to get a desired proof level. Booker’s generally comes out at 125 or 126 proof and is dark and rich and full and complex. Beam followed Booker’s in 1992 with three other small batches: Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s, and its bestseller, Knob Creek.
Almost every new specialty bourbon claims origins back a century or two, whether through the parent brand’s history, the manufacturer’s, or the master distiller’s lineage, and many say they follow extremely old recipes. But they also are all probably better than anything you would have been able to get a century ago. They’re certainly more consistent and stable. (And they’re not the only niche marketing of bourbon going on; makers and distributors have tried to play every angle. Not only can you buy Rebel Yell, which has been around since 1936; you can also get American Biker, whose label shows a man on a motorcycle—probably the only liquor brand to explicitly mix drinking and driving—and Old Williamsburg, which is kosher for Passover.) “I’ve tasted some of my great-great-grandfather’s whiskey from 1895, and it’s really very heavy,” says Bill Samuels. “You wouldn’t love it. I also have a little moonshine that Jim Beam and my grandfather made during Prohibition. It goes to show that you can’t make good whiskey from corn and sugar. If anyone could, they could.”