People, there are over 1,800 whiskey distilleries piddling out spirit in the United States right now.
1,800. Just try to process that. It’s well over ten times the number there are in the United Kingdom; New York State alone outnumbers Scotland. (I was told this by a New York distiller, so it must be true…) I’m on a bit of a mission at the moment to get round every whisky distillery in England and Wales. Imagine trying to do that in a country where, on average, a new distillery is opening just over every other day.
In theory this all adds up to a walloping embarrassment of potable riches. A few of my British Bourbon Society cronies make their way Stateside for work every so often and give the green-eyed monster a good old poke with their photos of stacked liquor store shelves and spirituous souvenirs. (One bloke seems to visit America more often than I visit the lavatory.) And yet, more often than not, they return to the UK bearing store picks from Wild Turkey and Four Roses, or the exemplary Old Forester 1920, or (if they’re feeling imaginative) a single cask from Westland.
There are exceptions that prove the rule, of course. Indeed I recently scrawled up a tasty single cask rye from Re:Find, a distillery I’d never have heard of had Brian from Malt Musings not uncovered a bottle and brought it home to share. But, having a bit of a think recently, I didn’t reckon I’d tried whiskies distilled by more than forty US distilleries. No – perhaps fifty at a push. And there are plenty of bigger bourbon-heads than me whose tallies would be a lot lower than that.
The reason, of course, is that most of the new tsunami of distilleries are very, very small and very, very young. And no shortage of digital ink has been spilt in questioning their collective quality for the prices asked. (Granted, that is a very dated article.) I’ve thumped the money pulpit enough to tire out even myself recently, so let’s not go too far down that rabbit hole today, but the nub of it, generally speaking, is that when the likes of Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond six year old cost $12, and such things as Rare Breed, Four Roses Single Barrel and Wellers 12 and 107 clock in well under $50, there’s less incentive to spend – say – $120+ on two-year-old Peerless.
What’s more, a vast number of new distilleries aren’t bottling their own whiskey yet. Instead, whilst their own liquid matures, they’re sourcing aged stock from other distilleries and bottling it under their own brand.
In theory, I don’t have any problem with this. Anyone with more than a passing interest in American whiskey will have tasted bottle upon bottle of superb sourced bourbons and ryes. We’ve covered at least a couple of them here, though Jason didn’t much care for Whistlepig. Let’s not forget that even bottles as vaulted as Pappy Van Winkle and statelier releases from Willett’s and Michter’s fall under the pitched marquee of “sourced whiskey”. And, unlike Ireland, where sourcing is still so often undisclosed and misleading, the USA had its transparency watershed a good few years ago. These days, by and large, most folk admit when they’re bottling someone else’s liquid. And those that don’t are exposed double-quick and decried in no uncertain terms.
The problem – come on, you knew I was going to have a problem – is that the once-unfathomably-deep lake of aged bourbon and rye has now been thoroughly dredged. MGP’s inventory of double-figures-old plonk is down to its dregs and dottle. Not to mention the other suppliers of sourced whiskey who, unlike MGP, have long had their own aged brands to consider. But the new distilleries, thirsty for something to get their brand name into the wild, continue sourcing apace. Again, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with all of this, until one considers the prices that these generally-far-younger sourced whiskies are being released at, and compares them to the figures still commanded by proprietary-bottled whiskey of greater age and stature.
Oiling the wheels of these optimistic price-tags is the endless magazine of marketing buzzwords, Gatling-gunned across press releases and bottle labels. You know the sort. “Limited” this, “rare” that, “premium” the other. Modern launches are as unique and collectable as a marketing department wants to claim them to be, with costs to match their glittery PR flatulence.
Which brings us to Limestone Branch, a new distillery operating out of Lebanon, Kentucky. And they’ve no end of promise for excitement; seventh-generation distillers, Steve and Paul Beam (the surname is a handy selling point), the resurrection of historical brands, quality-focused, extra-mile production methods. It’s all good stuff. Down to their partnership with a National Parks Conservation Association that even a hard-eyed cynic like yours truly can’t argue with.
And yet, once again, I can’t help feeling that the distillery itself offers more to be excited about than the sourced whiskies they are releasing. Take the two lined up for today. Yellowstone is a blend of four and seven-year-old Kentucky bourbons bottled at 46.5% and Minor Case is a two-year-old straight rye, finished in sherry casks and bottled at 45%. Both are family brands that Steve and Paul have resurrected, and that’s all well and good, but besides the name, what’s to make them stand out? Other than the rye having been finished in casks which are described as “ex-sherry”, but which are actually from a Cincinatti winery who clearly don’t give a toss about PDO laws. (I’m sure our friends in the US would be similarly relaxed, should the Spanish make a whisky and call it “bourbon”, of course…)
I understand the need to get revenue into the coffers whilst the building work and subsequent spirit maturation went on. The rod that they’ve made for their own back, though, is that their in-house whiskey is unlikely to taste much like that which they’re currently selling. And that which they’re currently selling is pretty heftily priced at £49 a pop. The rye, in particular, strikes me as a little bizarre, given that it presumably won’t be terribly long before their own stock reaches that age.
The point of all this logorrhoea is that I’d like to see a few more start-up distilleries have the confidence to eschew young sourced whiskies from MGPI, Heaven Hill, Barton et al, and to say “we’re going to make something really, genuinely different.” Not just fluffed up with a bit of spit-and-polish finishing and blending. I’d like, in short, to see leaves taken from the Balcones, Reservoir, King’s County book. And, to be fair, plenty of distilleries are doing just that. Without the sourced whiskey crutch to lean on, the US craft movement ought to be properly interesting. And that crutch is wormy and creaking these days anyway.
To the tasting glasses.
Yellowstone Select Bourbon
Colour: Werther’s Original (do they have those in America?)
On the nose: Another in the endlessly lengthening procession of young, cereal-and-nuts-forward bourbons, lightly drizzled in honey. The whiff of an inveterate snacker trying to half-heartedly diet. Farmyardy. A smatter of higher notes – tangerine, white pepper, sawn wood. Aromatic ground remains resolutely unbroken.
In the mouth: More honey – almost floral – on the palate, ahead of (very) light caramel. And then the grains and the corn oil and the cashew nuts crash predictably in and linger to the finish. Inoffensive stuff. Its shirt is tucked in. Its hair is combed. It waits for its turn to speak. But there’s not much personality. No richness. No heart.
Minor Case Straight Rye
Colour: Old gold
On the nose: Something of a polished wood aroma and, to its credit, the “sherry” isn’t swampy or overwhelming. Maybe because it isn’t sherry? Whatever. Sultanas. Golden syrup. Ginger. A bit of cinnamon and nutmeg – this is spicy stuff. A wisp of flowers and dill – is this MGP? – and a smatter of rye toast. Actually an alright nose, from the “crisp and elegant” school of rye.
In the mouth: Fatter palate than expected – more of the sultanas and baked apples. Candied stem ginger in syrup. Scored through by peppery rye spice, preventing any gloopiness. Again the “sherry” is well judged. More nutmeg too – definitely feels mature beyond its years. Decent stuff. Smacks of really excellent blending.
The bourbon’s rather dull, but I was pleasantly surprised by the rye. Not sure I’m quite pleasantly surprised enough to spend £49, but I’m a penurious miser. Richer, or more collectivist souls will certainly find enough points of difference to the other ryes available for similar cash. But maybe try a glass first.
But I’m still more excited – at least intrigued – by the spirits that Limestone Branch will ultimately make themselves. There’s just, I think, more soul there than there is to a sourced whiskey. Perhaps the dried-up lake of sourceable aged juice will be another spur to craft whiskey innovation. One can only hope.
Samples were provided on behalf of Limestone Branch. For all the good that ever does a distillery on Malt.