by Gregg Glaser
"I was brought up to believe that Scotch whisky would need a tax preference to survive in competition with Kentucky Bourbon."
Hugo L. Black, Associate Justice of the
U.S. Supreme Court, June 1, 1964
Coincidentally, 1964 is also the year that Bourbon was declared to be "America's Native Spirit" by an Act of Congress. From Bourbon's beginnings in Kentucky in the late 1700s until today, this distinctively original American spirit has earned a special place among the whiskies of the world.
Returning in the 1930's after Prohibition, with a number of new Bourbon makers setting up their stills in the Kentucky hills, Bourbon drinking in the U.S. was steady for the next few decades, but unremarkable. Then the single malt whiskey craze hit in the late 1980s. Bourbon makers took notice. A response was necessary in order to maintain market share.
Small Batch and Single Barrel Bourbon
Small batch and single barrel Bourbons were the first lines of response of Bourbon makers to the influx of single malt Scotch whiskeys. Blanton's (7-8 years old), the first single barrel Bourbon, started the super premium Bourbon revolution in 1984 ahead of the pack. Evan Williams' Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old appeared in 1986. Then came Jim Beam's Small Batch Bourbon Collection. Although Beam dates these special Bourbons to 1992 with the introduction of Basil Hayden's (8 years old) and Baker's (7 years old), the term "small batch" goes back to 1988. This is the year that Beam Master Distiller Booker Noe created Booker's (6-8 years old) as a holiday gift for his special friends. Knob Creek (9 years old) rounds out Beam's small batch Bourbons.
Today, the biggest news in Bourbon is small batch and single barrel Bourbons, available from all the large and small distillers. Although a small percentage of overall Bourbon sales, less than 10 percent in Beam's case according to Beam's Rachel Levy, they are creating the buzz in the Bourbon world and are attracting new customers - especially the all-important younger customer.
"If Bourbon is the appellation wine of American whiskeys, then single barrel and small batch Bourbons are the Grand Crus of Bourbons," said Mark Vaughan, editor and publisher of Santé Magazine. The longer aging of these Bourbons, six to twelve years in many cases and sometimes longer, is prominently displayed on the bottle labels, adding to their allure. They are also most often higher in proof than ordinary Bourbons. And then there are the bottles. Bourbon makers put their single barrel and small batch Bourbons in distinctively shaped, highly attractive bottles and pretty package can't hurt sales.
One of the newest small batch Bourbons on the market, Ridgemont Reserve 1792, comes from Barton Brands, whose biggest selling Bourbon is Ten High. Ridgemont Reserve, re-launched this September in 20 markets in the U.S., is aged for eight years.
"I've been impressed with the overall quality of Bourbon over the past several years," said John Hansell, editor and publisher of Malt Advocate. "Distillers are more organized and scientific."
Dave Halliday of Tower Wines & Spirits in Atlanta, agreed that small batch and single barrel Bourbons are the big news in Bourbon. "There's an ongoing interest in them," said Halliday, "Small, but growing."
Halliday said his customers have shown a great deal of interest in Woodford Reserve, a Brown-Forman brand. "We're buying Knob Creek by the barrel," continued Halliday, as well as Jack Daniel's." (Although Jack Daniel's is a Tennessee whiskey and not legally Bourbon, most consumers consider it Bourbon and it ranks as the biggest selling America straight whiskey, just ahead of Jim Beam, according to Adams Liquor Handbook 2003). Halliday said he's also selling a great deal of Van Winkle, Maker's Mark and Wild Turkey and that Bulleit is new in Atlanta and doing well. "We have steady sales in Bourbon," said Halliday.
Costco sells Bourbon in its discount warehouse stores across the country. Jeff Brenner, Costco's northeast liquor buyer, said that Bourbon sales were up five percent last year. "It's been mostly the highend brands, Knob Creek, Blanton's, Jack Daniel's Single Barrel and Booker's," explained Brenner.
Heaven Hill, the second largest Bourbon distiller (Evan Williams Black Label is the number two selling Bourbon), has responded to the trend by introducing several super premium bourbons into the market: Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Bourbon (9-10 years old), Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel Bourbon and Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old.
The Bourbon industry may have gotten out of the starting gate a bit late with super premium products, but, as Hansell pointed out: "Better late than never." However, small batch and single barrel brands will never reach the profusion of single malt Scotch brands. There simply aren't as many Bourbon distillers as Scotch whiskey distillers and Bourbon is tightly controlled by federal law.
Cost and Value
It wasn't until the mid- to late-1990s that the Bourbon makers' emphasis on small batch and single barrel Bourbons began to pay off. The category emerged from a steady 25 year decline aided by a new interest in spirits by younger consumers. Distillers began to put their products in a more favorable light, and the drinkers came.
According to Wayne Rose of Brown-Forman, since 1997 the lowest priced Bourbons (under $10 a bottle) and premium Bourbons ($10-$20 a bottle) have both been down 2.5 percent each year, but super premium Bourbons (over $20 a bottle) have been up 16 percent each year. With the introduction of small batch and single barrel, Bourbon makers have followed the lead of brand building seen in other categories of sprits, such as vodka, tequila and rums.
The super premium Bourbons give makers, distributors, bars, restaurants and retailers a higher profit margin. As Larry Kass of Heaven Hill explained, the percent of sales of super premium Bourbons on the market is less than that for single malt Scotch and high-end tequila, which means there's more room for growth with these special Bourbons.
Hansell believes super premium Bourbons offer big benefits and advantages over other similarly high-priced spirits. "A great Bourbon at about $15 a bottle," explained Hansell, "is in the same quality range of a $35 single malt Scotch or an $80 Cognac."
The New Bourbon Drinker, Cocktails, Tastings and Dinners
"Bourbon is still more of a man's drink," said Halliday, and for many years it was mostly an older man's drink. But that's changing with the country's new demographics. From post-WWII to the 1980s, Bourbon was an everyman's drink. This demarcation in drinking habits began to shift in the late 1980s as single malt Scotch became popular.
The rise of cocktail culture has also brought new interest and sales for Bourbon. Although many brown spirits have suffered by a move to the use of white spirits in the current cocktail craze, the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned are classic Bourbon-based drinks that are important for Bourbon sales. Dylan Prime in New York City is a great example of this, with their Maker's Mark Manhattan being the restaurant's signature drink. Partner Michael Waterhouse designed the drink with a slight variation on the classic recipe by including bitters and adding lemon, lime and orange flavors. He said it's remarkably popular, especially with women. Waterhouse added that Bourbon sales are up, mostly through cocktails.
Bourbon makers are also offering tastings of their super premium Bourbons much the way wine is tasted. Customers are led through the classic nose-looks-taste-after taste ritual at tastings, enhancing the "'classiness" and stature of these Bourbons. Bourbon dinners are also new on the scene. Beam has held several of these dinners at McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants across the country.
With a rise in popularity due to consumer interest in small batch and single barrel Bourbons, the outlook for Bourbon sales seems to be on the upswing. And then there's the long historical legacy of Bourbon in the U.S. Well-known politicians and personalities such as Lyndon Johnson and Mark Twain were Bourbon drinkers. On the centenary of the birth of her father, President Harry S. Truman, in May 1984, his daughter, Margaret Truman, remarked to a joint session of Congress: "He was prouder still to be a member of that even more restricted group, Uncle Sam Rayburn's Board of Education - the Bourbon and Branch Water College of Congressional Knowledge."
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