I’ve been a very, very bad Bourbon drinker. I had a half paragraph written on witty stuff about the last episode of “Breaking Bad” — before it aired. This topic on batch variation has been stewing a bit.
Two bloggers have gotten to it a bit already, but never fear: I’ve got new stuff, good enough to add to make Clyde want to take his monthly shower early. I’ve been busy. As in, I-can’t-find-time-to-write-my-next-blog-post kind of busy. So on with it before the masses change the channel or whatever it’s called.
Whiskey stuff is really getting complicated. It’s worse than the complexities of picking out a new car. Love that shiny new car on the lot but I really don’t want to get navigation and a rear DVD player just in order to get heated mirrors . No one really needs either of these two things that have become obsolete in record time. So let’s say I want those heated mirrors and five identical cars are in front of me on the lot. I can’t read the window sticker or look inside. So how’s a person to know if they get the heated mirrors they really want?
Then five customers walk up and start looking at them, too. These are popular cars; the last five, in fact. If I don’t rush to buy one, it might be my only chance. This puzzle is similar to finding the “right” good bottle of the same booze. Identical or almost identical bottles except that perhaps a small group are better than many of the others. Or, most are good, but some are dogs.
First, an unavoidable need to cover a “batch.” The term “batch” used to mean a vatting of several barrels to make up a larger bottling. This can be Four Roses Small Batch, Van Winkle, or hundreds more. Whether it’s small batch or large batch is irrelevant. Then there are annual batches like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection of Weller, Stagg, Handy, Eagle Rare 17 and Sazerac 18. Each year is different, each year proof is different, which tells the tale of the year it was released if it’s not outwardly printed.
Last year’s Four Roses 2012 and this year’s Small Batch are different (as the recipe and ages are), but still great. Each year’s Whisky Bible attempts to state batch numbers. Whisky Advocate lists batches and bottle numbers when it can. Unfortunately, batches reviewed should always be listed when possible. Lots of brands vampire their marketing off of a special barrel or batch, then run with it for years and years.
Old Pulteney 21 (Whisky Bible’s best for 2012), Elijah Craig 20 (Whisky Advocate Best for 2012) come to mind, whereas Pulteney was a batch and Elijah was a product of two special barrels sold only to lucky Visitor Center/Bourbonfest customers. In these two cases, the follow-up versions and batches were still very good, just not the same. This doesn’t stop the brands from printing the accolades earned years ago as if it was that very bottle it’s printed on. Jim Murray in the Whisky Bible goes as far as listing most if not all of the 21, 23, and 25 year old Rittenhouse Rye barrels that were bottled as a “batch” per barrel.
Perennial annual favorite Parker’s Heritage this year is all single barrels. Last year’s Parker’s Different Mash Mills had four batches, which many don’t realize. So today, I don’t consider a batch a mix of barrels, but I include a single barrel as a micro batch. Can’t see how you don’t. How the hell do you do that, Truth/Lloyd, you may ask?
I can’t tell you how many people in bars to whom I’ve explained that every barrel a bottle of Willett Estate 9 or 10 and so forth are different — a micro batch, even if the age is the same. It’s unlikely to find a Willett Estate of the same age a year later from the barrel you loved (unless some odd freak of nature lets you find another brother/sister from the same barrel) that will be the same. So for my purposes, batch and barrel are now synonymous with each other.
As of late, some significant batch variation has been noticed and discussed. Again, I think it has always existed but has become more noticeable due to how far this “hobby” has come and the interests that hundreds of mainstream and social media outlets have been addressing. Perhaps some modern examples and impetus for this post are Jefferson 18 and 21, George T. Stagg Jr., Angel’s Envy Rye, Whistle Pig, etc. I believe there are variations to the taste of Whiskey beyond the bottle.
Back last winter, I went to Kentucky and tasted more than 50 barrels of whiskey. When I got home, smells seemed to oddly jump out at me that I had never noticed before. My palate was super sensitive. I’ve been able to make out things in Coca-Cola at times: clove, lime, vanilla, chocolate, orange, etc. There are times people are just more in tune with what’s in their glass.
I was speaking with a fellow Whiskey fan recently, and he said distillers in Scotland have done some work looking at environmental factors that changes taste: full moons, tides, etc. Amazing but outlandish things. I personally think from a less individual point of palate that oxidation plays much more into taste than I had ever previously thought. To me, a Whiskey is almost always better with time in a glass. Try this: don’t buy your bar Whiskey by the single glass. Get a flight or multiple one-ounce pours all at once; share if you can. Say, with five to six people. Drink them responsibly over a three-hour period if you have time. Make/take notes and visit each Whiskey with some time in between. You’ll be astounded by the change. Also, try it with water. Take a sip of whiskey and before swallowing, take a tiny sip of water. Swish and taste. But beware too much oxidation+time is a bad thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had one of the last pours from a bottle that’s been lovingly preserved for a little/lot more time than it should have to find its died. Think Mohammed Ali in his prime and now, no punch left. So batch variation isn’t always the Distillers fault it can be the bottles treatment, palate changes, weather, food you ate, perfume the lady has on the next to you, cigarette smoke, etc.
The George T. Stagg Jr. I first had was a pre-release sample, followed by three subsequent tastes of different bottles of a few earlier shipments. I’ve now sampled up to 8 bottles of Jr. I hated the first released bottles/batch for a bunch of reasons, but they all had the same consistent taste. Then I tried it out in Vegas and was expecting to spit it out, but I was amazed how good it was — a great, not nasty, finish. I spoke to the master chemist from Buffalo Trace on this and he said there have been two to three batches. I asked Craig Beam last year which Heritage 6th Ed. batch he liked best and he said it was the first one. I heard a few things about Angel’s Envy Rye. It’s a LDI/MPGI-sourced 95 percent rye which I’ve had and wasn’t too crazy about, as it tasted young. However, since this was finished in Caribbean rum casks, it’s changed much for the better and I’m now a big fan.
Whistle Pig had the Whiskey guru Dave Pickerel search for a few years in Canada for the best barrels. The first few batches had great reviews and were nice but not so much now for my tastes. I just had the new Beam 12 year. I found it dead with hardly any finish. Nothing offensive, just nothing memorable to smile at or to give me a reason to grab a bunch of it. I had it in the same very famous Whiskey bar with four staff members. We also tried Old Forrester Birthday Bourbon 2013 and another new Stagg Jr. bottle they hadn’t tried. No one was a fan to the point we didn’t finish samples of the Birthday. I noted that others had started chiming in that they liked it or sounded much more complimentary about it than I would have expected. I could give a dozen more examples, but in these modern selections there are no excuses like old or open bottles, bad storage, the air got to it, counterfeit issues, etc. These are bottles that have existed a very short time and some right off the truck or samples the distillery sent out to friends that let me try.
One of my favorites is E.H. Taylor Tornado Bourbon. In just a short time, it’s become cult-ish. Awesome stuff until THAT bottle. Turns out I had bought a case that I wouldn’t call a dog, but nothing like what I had had before. I told the Master Distiller my story next time I saw him and he said I had gotten a later batch, most likely. I was a bit dumbfounded. Elijah Craig 12 year was released at barrel-proof followed up by other batches as the ABV are different. It’s easy to track the the Craig 12 and get exactly the ones you want. It could be transparency or marketing so the geeks try to get one of each batch or a bit of both. Of course it’s the law too which works out. It certainly worked out because they are all gone. Whiskey geekdom now not only wants Pappy but specific bottle codes of Pappy, certain ABV/years of Stagg Sr., Lawrenceburg-bottled Pappy vs. Buffalo Trace produced, etc. It’s become über-snobbish, with micro-snobs of sub-batches — and I’m in that group at times.
Batch variation is very curious, exciting and concerning at the same time. I’ve got five bottles of Jefferson 21 open, representing five batches. I heard independently each subsequent one was great and I refused to open a sixth, expecting to finally find it. I kinda feel duped out of over $700 worth of looking. Staying on the Jefferson track, the 18 year old had cryptic labels saying it came from Stitzel-Weller Barrels of the Fall of 1991, thought to be the last season of Stitzel-Weller distillation. This was until someone uncovered several Old Fitzgerald barrels stamped with the distillery that would become Buffalo Trace. The early labels were written by hand for batch and bottle, followed by a printed batch and bottle. The early ones are far superior. I don’t think it’s because the last ones came from barrels that got too old, either. They just aren’t that good; they’re different, in a suspicious sort of way. I’ve heard things from very reliable people that increase the suspicion, so who knows for sure? My palate certainly knows something is very different.
At Whiskyfest in New York I re-tried Stagg Jr. — I believe it was the last batch. Different, but still not great. Last two Birthday Bourbons were much better than the first, which had a terrible chemical/medicinal trait. Not something that you miss if it’s still there because you ate some fried chicken. Four Roses 2013 is truly a large vat for the entire batch of 12,000 bottles confirmed by Jim Ruttlidge. So you may ask, “has this always been an issue and it was just never noticed?” I don’t think so. In prior years, I think there was one release and batch. This stuff would sit on shelves, and often when the next years release came out, the last year was still masquerading as a dust magnet. No need to bottle more (the next batch) of something that wasn’t selling. Now these often super-high profit margin items move, and move fast. It’s usually necessary to bottle a batch then move right on to the next batch to dump and bottle. Sometimes many times. It isn’t necessarily a ploy to call it a “small batch” as there is no definition. Small Batch can be a barrel or two or 500 or 5000. Each time it’s not going to be the same and maybe not even much effort in duplicity for something limited or annual. Much more consistency goes into something like Buffalo Trace Brand year after year than a one off or annual release in my opinion. With so many new Bourbon/Rye fans not only aren’t they noticing variation, they may not notice it’s completely different. Black Maple Hill no age statement (that I’ve written on) is an example. Many see it as the old stuff because they don’t know the difference or ever had the “old stuff”.
I just got a call from a store offering me a Stagg Jr. bottle for $150. I said no thanks with a laugh. Shop keeper says, “No problem, I’ve got a long list of people begging me for it.” Begging at a three- to four-times mark-up, and a very, very good chance it will suck really bad. My two biggest fears are: It’s a license for mediocrity, and this mediocrity continues with most people as happy as Clyde with a Jug of Ripple. Worse, people like do Clyde catch on, realize the emperor is nude and as fast as this rage happens, it dies. That’s dangerous. Many distilleries are now running 24/7, adding third shifts, expanding distilleries with more fermenters and stills, etc. Variation isn’t good — it’s dangerous and it is becoming far too common in far too short of time.