This is a young sommelier's adventure through wine, liquor and the world. You will find no ratings here. You will find somethings that are sometimes geeky, sometimes irreverent, and always presented in my own unique (and dyslexic) way. Hopefully, the content inspires exploration, a sense of adventure, a good icebreaker for conversation, and even a good sense of humor about the magical juice we call wine, the insane elixirs of ting the world of liquor, and the culture surrounding all of it. .

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Is Bourbon the New Pinot?

"It's a small batch bourbon, byproduct of Prohibition days."

Recently there have been times when I have sauntered up to a bar, ready to quench my thirst with a
lovely sip of America’s Native Spirit, only to be met with a barrage of questions bordering on judgment. I order one of my favorites, which happens to be Bakers, and instead of asking if I prefer my drink neat or with a few cubes, I am instead prodded with the offer to sample a smaller, more obscure whiskey from who knows where. Me being who I am, I most always oblige the taste to help satisfy my curiosity and expand my understanding. Unfortunately, more times than not I am met by an unrefined or unbalanced whiskey that leaves me feeling less than impressed. To be clear, I love that people are delving into the age old art of distillation and pushing the boundaries of liquor in general. But I am wary of when that experimentation is done to the sacrifice of quality.

 In 2004’s Sideways, Paul Giamatti portrayed Miles Raymond, a failing writer who found refuge from his loneliness and cynically depressing view of the world in the beauty of wine, particularly the fickle Pinot Noir. Putting personal review of the movie aside, it had a very interesting effect on the wine industry, often referred to as the ‘Sideways Effect’. During a tirade in the midst of his Pinot soaked journey, Miles exclaims “I’m not drinking fucking merlot!” and with that one simple line the once ubiquitous merlot dropped off the face of the earth and pinot became the new darling of the emerging wine populace.  Every wine bar began carrying more Pinots by the glass and bottle than ever before and people began blindly ordering it with not interest of its classic flavors and history. Many wine drinkers flocked to the newest star winemaker or region of day and so was born the new wave bottlings of unbalanced and lazy pinots that began to deflate the decades of trial and error successes that had just been gaining devotees of pure pinot noir.  A similar trend seems to be surfacing with bourbon, just in a slightly more concentrated way. We are seeing a rise of “small batch” and single barrel bourbons that are taking over from some of the mainstays of yesteryear who fought tirelessly to create and hone their skills for generations.

It is hard to go into a bar these days and not see a whole back bar full of different whiskies. There are whiskies from all over the world, made of different grains, aged different ways, using different barrels, and each pushing the boundaries of what came before. One of the fastest growing sectors of these whiskies is bourbon and more people are drinking bourbon now than ever before. In fact, Bourbon is now in such high demand that some distilleries cannot keep up and are having to make tough choices on how to give their loyal drinkers the bourbon that they love so much (yes, Makers Mark is a great example this year and no I don’t really want to talk about it). With this growth we are seeing the rise of the small distiller again, harkening back to Pre Prohibition when there were over 200 distilleries in the state of Kentucky alone. While this is an exciting time for those of us who love to try new things and explore what people are making, it does beg the question as to how much is too much and when have we overextended ourselves and forgotten about the consumers? What is the point where we have gone so far that people are turned away and begin returning to the classics or drinking something else entirely?

Micro distilling has a great history in the US. The very first licensed distillery was outside of Boston and used to make rum. But making alcohol was a huge part of our culture before then. Pioneers brought their distilling history with them to the new world, using native grains such as corn to begin making their homemade hooch. As the population grew, so too did the demand for alcohol as well as the necessity of regulating its production. Alcohol was the very first thing to be taxed by the US government, causing a small skirmish in Pennsylvania call “the Whiskey Rebellion”. It has been the subject of great debate, the constant in important decisions throughout history, the product that caused historic events such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and the thing that has helped white men dance for years. The history of alcohol, especially whiskey, is a colorful and eventful one in this country, so much so that it is far too vast for me to go over in this post. I say all of this because we are currently experiencing a renaissance in distilling and alcohol culture that we have not seen since Prohibition. More people are trying their hand at distilling, classic cocktails are coming back and evolving at a rapid rate, and people care more and more about what they drink than ever before. This brings me to the question that I have been asking and want to address; With this flux of new distilleries, are we really getting quality over quantity?

To help understand a little about where I’m coming from, I feel I need to define two phrases; “small batch” and single barrel. Single barrel is quite a simple one. It means that the whiskey in that bottle has come from one single barrel. “Small batch” is a little harder to define.  Each distillery has its own ways of aging and producing their whiskey. There are different ways of making sure that you are getting a consistent style for each “batch”. “Small batch”, which was really first coined by Beam when the “Small Batch Collection” was conceived by Booker Noe in 1992 (the collection is made up of Bookers, Bakers, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden), refers to the use of a smaller number of barrels or barrels in specific parts of the warehouse to give a different style of whiskey. In other words, this term is entirely subjective to the distillery itself. There is no law governing what the term has to refer to. It is for this fact that I actually worry some about the future for some of these smaller whiskeys.

Now, before I go too long winded, as I fear I may have already done, I will simply say this to close this conversation out. I hope that bourbon is not becoming the new Pinot, being blindly ordered simply because it is the IT thing to do without thought for its origins or taste. Rather, I hope that it is being requested to explore and try new things, expanding ones understanding of what makes it so special and interesting. I encourage that thirst for knowledge and understanding and promote that. I also hope that the same goes for those who are making the whiskey; not making it because they can but because they have something to offer and a way to help American whiskey grow and thrive. All I’m attempting to do in implore that we remember the history behind bourbon and enjoy this resurgence of such a great thing, and say to Sideways “I will drink fucking merlot and I’ll like it”, especially if it is the 1961 Petrus he drinks from a paper cup near the end of the movie.

With that my friends, I bid you happy sipping (but of course do implore the doing of such responsibly).