One of the most memorable seminars for me at the 2009 Tales of the Cocktail was the one titled “American Whiskey Legends.” The line up included four of the who’s who in the modern whiskey industry (all bourbon) and it was quite the entertaining and informative discussion despite the fact that I have heard a few of the stories in previous interviews.
The focus of the discussion was not only why bourbon has made a comeback in today’s liquor market, but also where the market is headed in the years to come? What new breakthroughs can we expect? Why is bourbon so hot right now? Where does American whiskey stand in the world spirit market? These are the questions that were put to the four panelists by moderator F. Paul Pacult, a legend in liquor industry journalism and author of the Spirit Journal.
The esteemed panel included:
- Frederick (Fred) Booker Noe III - Jim Beam Bourbon and the Small Batch Collection
- Thomas E. Bulleit, Jr - Bulleit Bourbon
- Harlen Wheatley - Buffalo Trace Bourbon
- Bill Samuels Jr. - Maker's Mark Bourbon
Where is bourbon in the 21st Century?
According to the bourbon panel, it is strong and the upcoming innovations have a possible endless stream. The biggest impact over the last 10 years has been, according to Bill Samuels,"the change in what consumers look at." As consumers of whiskey we are looking for quality, mixability and affordability. Harlen Wheatley noticed that the industry is like a "roller coaster, it goes up and down with the economy [yet] people are still drinking good, quality bourbons." And with the American whiskey producers recognizing this desire of the public, it is good news for us because they are catering to our needs more and more. As Fred Noe stated, "Look back to your fathers and grandfathers, they drank a particular brand of spirits and that was all they drank. Now people venture into all different categories."
Another incident noted in the discussion comes from Tom Bulleit with a note that "This wonderful partnership we have with bar chefs, mixologists and bartenders is absolutely amazing. I think certainly the most mixable of spirits is, I guess, vodka and rum o,r bourbon. So bourbon certainly lends itself to the current creativity and classic cocktails." We have seen this use in many of the newer cocktails, just travel to Louisville, Kentucky and visit any of the esteemed bars (Proof on Main being one of my favorites) there, asking what they are doing with bourbon and you will have a seemingly endless list spewed from the bartender's lips.
Though bourbon grew out of the Whiskey Rebellion and many moonshiner's attempts at making a living with what they had, we now appreciate it as a quality spirit that has nearly unlimited potential for our "new" cocktail world. With the quality of bourbons available today it is important that we, as consumers and mixologists, test the waters - meaning that if you see an unknown bourbon behind any bar you are in you should give it a shot.
The Best Way to Taste Bourbons...
Here is the sticky point when we talk about premium bourbons today, we have become inundated over the last few decades with a "Whiskey and Coke, please" or "A shot of whiskey" and the majority do not fully appreciate the quality drink that whiskies can be on their own, which in the end leads to an underappreciation of great whiskey cocktails (many of which are true classics).
This is a challenge to the marketers of whiskies of all origins and the reason why many of the American distillers, who have generations of whiskey in their blood, have become more of "ambassadors" to their brand. Yet, one thing that is unique to the bourbon industry in particular is that these gentlemen (in general they are men to date) are promoting the entire industry and will suggest out right that people sample all whiskies to see what they like. I have found the comraderie among bourbon distillers somewhat unique as they do not necessarily promote their own brand above others but encourage consumers to sample and compare.
That said, the optimum way to taste bourbon straight is to add a little water. As Bill Samuels has put it in each of our meetings, you want to add water to any bourbon "because it opens up the whiskey and gets rid of the alcohol bite - about 10% - just enjoy. Good bourbon was made to enjoy." This sound advice will bring almost anyone into the wonderful world of whiskey, no matter its genre, and give you a better feel for the potential it has in cocktails.
This is especially poignant with any whiskey above the standard 80 proof - they were meant to be cut and not to be shot at their full proof - even if it is a handful of ice in a whiskey and you let it set for a few minutes, you will notice that the flavors open up. Even if you are a shooter person, at least ask for a premium whiskey on the rocks and allow it to set for a bit, then down it if that's your thing. That little bit of rest will do your body and taste buds good.