Number Ten Fourth Whiskey Tasting Symposium: The Finish and Blend Trend

The second Monday of November saw another Number Ten Symposium, and this time we explored the new ways that both blending and second barrel finishing of American whiskeys are changing the market.

As the American Whiskey market continues its apparent never-ending growth, distillers both big and small, long-established and new, have been experimenting with the whiskey-making process. While neither Bourbon nor Rye whiskey, straight or not, can deviate from several standards (e.g., 51% corn in the mash bill for Bourbon; 51% Rye in the mash bill for Rye; barreled in charred virgin American Oak), there a lot of new approaches in treating the whiskey after the original barrel bung is pulled.

A growing number of distillers and non-distillery producers (NDP) are doing new things to whiskeys in the form of unusual blending and/or secondary barrel finishing.  Blending in and of itself is a long-established practice, and, indeed, is one of the main tools that distilleries use to create consistent taste for their various brands. Even Straight Bourbon or Rye (or Wheat or…) whiskey can be blended, at least up to as point, that point being other distillations from the same distillery from the same year, as long as any of the whiskeys being blended are at least two years aged.  Some definitions of “Straight” insist on the whiskey coming from different batches of the whiskey barreled the same year as the other whiskeys, and from the same distillery at that, while others define “Straight” to include other distilleries’ whiskeys, although these other distilleries must be made in the same state if labeled, for example, “Kentucky Straight,” which means that some distillers and NDPs will call their blended whiskeys “Straight” if every whiskey in the mix is itself a straight whiskey.

Blending Beyond

But there are many whiskeys that are now blends that go beyond the typical practice. The discrepancies among the source whiskeys are such that these bottlings whiskeys can’t be called “Straight,” and it is those significant differences among the sourced whiskeys that drive the new efforts.

Typically, it is the smaller and younger independent distilleries and NDPs that are in the forefront of this new trend, and the reasons for this grow from several factors, including:

  • New distilleries and NDPs need to buy sourced whiskey (whiskey made by another distillery, either under specific contract or in bulk purchase from that distillery), because a new distillery simply haven’t been around long enough to have had the time to sufficiently age their own distillate in barrels;
  • New distilleries and NDPs need to sell something, both to gain market recognition and to have cash flow;
  • New distilleries and NDPs, in the face of a tighter supply market for American whiskey, may not be able to contract for or otherwise acquire Bourbon or Rye in quantities large enough to bottle as Straight—large enough quantities, that is, to have reasonable stock volumes for ongoing sales.
Angel’s Envy Bourbon is one of the early and best-known secondary barrel finishes.

The new trends in blending have different strategies that address different challenges.  Here is one example: a new distillery has some young Bourbon in barrels—say a year aged—and it wants to get product into the market.  This distillery’s Bourbon is likely too young on its own to be well-received, but it can be blended with sourced older Bourbon in order to add smoothness and character.  The distillery can now claim that it makes its own Bourbon, and now can sell a tasty product even though little of its own barreled distillate may be in the bottle.  If the distiller is smart, it has gotten its hand on Bourbon that is in the style and with the taste characteristics that its young Bourbon wants to age into, and over the years, as its young Bourbon ages into the whiskey they intend, the sourced whiskey becomes unnecessary.

In addition to mixing various aged and/or sourced Bourbons or Ryes for the reasons noted above, there’s a relatively new trend of mixing whiskey types. One of the great stories of mixed types—whether reflecting an actual occurrence, or simply clever marketing—is Wild Turkey’s Forgiven, which mixes Bourbon and Rye, and is said to have happened by error when a bunch of de-barreled Bourbon being readied for bottling had Rye added because someone misread the label on the barrels of Rye, or hadn’t had their morning coffee, or otherwise wasn’t paying attention.  The American Whiskey that resulted—neither Bourbon nor Rye—was found to be very tasty indeed, and all was “Forgiven.”

The Jim Beam Basil Hayden line—the fact of a “line” itself a relatively new development, since Basil Hayden Bourbon had been just one product for ages—has been releasing new post-barrel finishes and blends offerings, including Basil Hayden Two by Two, which blends two Ryes with two Bourbons, perhaps to be twice as nice than Wild turkey’s Forgiven.  This same line also has Basil Hayden Dark Rye, which is a blend of American and Canadian Rye, plus “a splash of port.”

Après Barrels…More Barrels to Finish

Basil Hayden Dark Rye is both a new-blend and an after (original) barrel or secondary barrel finish whiskey.

What is a barrel finish? From the website of J. Henry and Sons, a new small distillery, out of Wisconsin, which specializes in barrel finished whiskey:

Basil Hayden Dark Rye, with its splash of port, puts it in the “new finish” category, but not the “barrel finish” one. But barrel-finished American Whiskeys is an increasingly crowded category. Angel Envy Bourbon is finished in port barrels, to good effect, and their Rye is finished in “Caribbean Rum” barrels. Dad’s Hat Rye is finished in vermouth barrels, with questionable results due to the extremely young age of the Rye, which secondary barrel can’t hide, except, that it, if the Rye was kept in the second barrel to age long enough, which in this case it isn’t.  Hillrock Estate Distillery Bourbon Whiskey Solera-Aged is a different process for aging, “by fractional blending in such a way that the finished product is a mixture of ages, with the average age gradually increasing as the process continues over many years. The purpose of this labor-intensive process is the maintenance of a reliable style and quality of the beverage over time,” at least according to Wikipedia.  If you had guessed that Solera-Aged meant a port barrel finish, don’t be too hard on yourself, since the origin of this process is out of the Iberian Peninsula, and Solera, which is a type of port wine, is the traditional barrel source for secondary aging in this process. Hillrock is actual Bourbon if the original barrel is American virgin charred oak, although the secondary, tertiary, etc. barrel types are unknown to me.

High West Whiskey, which distills young whiskey, uses sourced whiskey for blending, but they’ve been doing some very interesting things, including masking some tasty products, with their blend approach.

The new trend is an out-one-barrel-into-another strategy, with the characteristics of the second barrel, and/or the further time in said second barrel contributing new flavor characteristics.  Examples include Cabernet Sauvignon and other wine barrels being used for secondary finishing, such as Amador Double-Barrel Bourbon that uses “Napa wine” barrels; various wood-focused barrels or finishing, such as Jim Beam’s Double Oak Bourbon barrel, which starts out in a Bourbon barrel, and then goes into another Bourbon (i.e. virgin oak) barrel, or Burnside Oregon-Oaked Bourbon, which has a few months in a secondary barrel of, presumably, Oregon Oak; or Slaughter House’s American Whiskey, aged in Papillion barrels, which, when I looked this word up, has something to do with butterflies, but here references a Bordeaux-style California red wine that supplies the secondary finishing barrel.

There’s getting to be a lot of secondary barrel finished American Whiskey, even if just looking at port barrel finishes.  In addition to the aforementioned whiskeys, here are a few more examples: 1792 Port Finish Bourbon, from Barton 1792, Sazerac-Distillery; Breaker Bourbon Whiskey Port Barrel Finished, from Ascendent Spirits; Big Bottom Straight Bourbon Whiskey Port Cask Finish, from Big Bottom; Breckenridge Bourbon, from Breckenridge Distillery; and Batcher’s Port Cask Finished Bourbon, from Litchfield Distillery. There are many more examples, but the above list is illustrative, in that most of these are new distilleries from all around the country, and most of these are using sourced whiskey. Heck, even Bob Dylan has gotten into the act, with one of “his” three Heaven’s Door whiskeys, Double Barrel Whiskey, using a secondary Charred American Oak barrel, which sounds like the Jim Beam Double Oaked process.

Sometimes there isn’t a secondary barreling, but instead an odd first barreling. A case in point is Hudson Baby Bourbon, a darling example of the rise of new local distilleries. Hudson Baby Bourbon is a very young Bourbon but aged in tiny barrels (2 gallon tiny) that explode the exposure of the distillate to the barrel effect, more or less more rapidly “aging” the whiskey.  Smaller barrels—although typically, these will be 13 gallons, versus the standard 53-gallon whiskey barrel—do help the aging process, some think, but there is no question that smaller barrels make the whiskey look a lot older (i.e., darker), which is why Hudson Baby Bourbon sure as heck looks like a much older Bourbon.

And Speaking of Labels and Age Statements

Some whiskey labels have a lot of information on them, although most often that is not the case. If the phrase “bottled by” shows up, it means just that: the whiskey was bottled, but not distilled, by the stated company.  Only if the bottler also operates the distillery that produced the whiskey may “distilled by” be added to the label. Bourbon labeled “Blended Bourbon” is not the same as the whiskey blends discussed here but is rather much a different type of product; even though it requires that there be a majority of Bourbon (i.e., at least 51%) used, such products then get mixed with neutral grain spirits, coloring agents, or even flavoring agents.

“Bottled-in-Bond” on the label of a Bourbon or Rye means that the whiskey has to be at least four years old, but specific age statements are not always required on Bourbon or Rye labels, and only if the whiskey in the bottle is under two years of age.  Required or not, I suspect that many labels that should include this information manage not to or do so in ways that are hard to find, which practically speaking ends up being the same thing.  When it comes to Bourbons or Ryes that hold more than one Bourbon or Rye, age determination is a kind of averaging effort, where, for example, a Bourbon made of 30% Bourbon that is a year old is mixed with another Bourbon that is two years old for another 30%, with the rest (40%) a Bourbon that is 3 years old, and so that blend would not be required to have an age statement on its label because the age average is over two years.

Of course, well-aged Bourbons or Ryes are likely to note that on the label, but still often don’t. A case in point: Heaven Hills’ Elijah Craig Small Batch used to carry an age statement (12 Year Old), but because of high demand, the distillery has taken to blend different aged Bourbons to achieve consistency even while producing greater volume and therefore new bottles have dropped the age statement, because the actual age averaging varies from batch to batch.  (By the way, Elijah Craig Small Batch is still an excellent Bourbon, with Heaven Hill doing a great job both in producing more and keeping the quality and characteristics of the Bourbon consistent.) Big brands, like Wild Turkey, won’t show age statements for most of their products, and haven’t for practically ever, because they’ve been blending for consistency forever; still, age statement approximations are widely known and pretty accurate, and based on the rough averaging of the Bourbons and Ryes going into the products, which is why one can claim with high confidence that Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon 81 approaches 5 year age, while their Kentucky Straight Bourbon 101 has a one or two years more time in barrels.

Getting to the Finish Line

The tasting was more of a “survey” of whiskey treatments, more to explore examples, and less to rate or make tasting notes.  With the focus on whiskeys that are either blended using a range of aged whiskeys, or post-barrel finish, or blending of different types of whiskeys, or secondary barrel finish, or odd-primary barrel finish, the focus was actually all over the place. Here’s what we tasted:

  • Wild Turkey Forgiven
  • Amador Double Barrel Bourbon
  • Angel’s Envy Port-Cask Finished Bourbon
  • High West Distillery, American Prairie Bourbon
  • Hillrock Estate Distillery Bourbon Whiskey Solera Aged

 

One Comment on “Number Ten Fourth Whiskey Tasting Symposium: The Finish and Blend Trend”

  1. Dear David,

    As a life-long non-drinker, I was surprised to find this history fascinating. For nuance, complexity, and reasoned argument, it reminds me of philosophy journals I read. But, speaking to whiskey aging and blending as a science, the dependent variable is the taste appreciation of the majority of consumers, or even small minorities, not readings on measurement tools, and the history of the whiskey making — including you, too, as the whiskey historian and critic — itself conditions that appreciation, adding mystery and uncertainty. Thank you for taking me a few steps into this curious domain.

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