This American whisky review is not brought to you by Taylor—but this piece was inspired by Taylor’s Rare Bird 101 article.
I know. It’s taken me a while to review my first bourbon here on Malt. To be honest, lately, I have not been too into wood-forward spirits. Straight ryes, straight bourbon and first-fill, ex-whatever cask-matured spirits have fallen near to the bottom of my list (but still above the industry waste called vodka). However, the world is round. What is at the bottom sometimes ends up on top, and vice versa.
I see faith as a metaphorical wall. This kind of faith doesn’t have to be specific; it can be faith in religion, or humanity, or whatever you believe in. A wall serves many purposes: as something one can lean on for support; as something that can protect us from being seen in a certain way; as protection against certain elements. While it impedes sight, it won’t prevent our other senses from picking up other sensations. Unfortunately, everything in life is a double-edged sword. Faith can also prevent us from seeing whatever is on the other side.
A metaphorical wall can grow as our faith or bias in something grows, but it doesn’t mean we grow with it. Sadly, getting older does not have direct correlation with being more mature. I think those who do mature and grow wiser do metaphorically outgrow that “wall.” Outgrowing that wall can help us become more open-minded. It helps get rid of biases or other foolish notions. What one sees on the other side as that happens can be surprising.
While you were reading whatever was above, I was putting on my tinfoil hat. A naturally curious person, I like to entertain many ideas, such as conspiracy theories and those that label you a “devil’s advocate.” These are some ways I enjoy passing the time—now, how does this yapping link to whiskey? Well, my open-mindedness easily leads me to tackle brand loyalty—another kind of metaphorical wall.
We see a lot of it now. From Rare Bird’s Wild Turkey obsession to Macallan superfans to Sazerac BTAC and Pappy chasers. Everyone has their own tastes, and we shouldn’t lambast them for their choices…but brand loyalty can bite one in the ass.
In the world of American whiskey, Sazerac seems to be brightest, as well as one to watch out for the most. They have the most interesting American whisky portfolio. I also think they have the loudest and most numerous(?) fans or loyalists. This, for some reason, makes me think they’re like Google.
They’re both big, well-known and loved entities. I love Google. They have a lot of beloved and well-known assets—among them a great search engine, the Android system, to Google Drive, which is free. Gmail is just amazing. They also bought YouTube more than a decade ago. Let’s not forget that Google is known as one of the best companies to work for. They are considered one of the best employers despite their size.
Like Google, Sazerac has a lot of beloved assets. People line up to buy, or even to get a chance to buy, any of the BTAC and Pappy releases. If they can’t, they’re prepared to pay often crazy grey-market prices. Fans are happy to settle for the regular versions of whatever are in the BTAC line up too; for example, since so few can get their hands on a bottle of Van Winkle or Pappy, they drink anything Weller. Blanton’s has even become hard to get these days.
These two large entities have a huge piece of the pie, and both have strong reputations in their respective markets. It’s not often one hears negative things about these brands, which is opposite for their competitors. I know a lot of anti-Apple people. I’m one of them. The iPhone slowing updates is quite worrying. The Apple as a life-style schtick sounds like a way of normalizing a monopoly.
Similarly, Sazerac competitors like Beam Suntory have gotten some flack. One recent case was Booker’s Rye starting at $300 retail price—a huge surprise, as that price tag was a clear sign that they were trying to cut out or take advantage of grey market prices. Another example is the backpedaling of the Booker’s bourbon price a few years ago.
Sazerac has, so far, resisted those kinds of temptations. We can’t say the same for the Scotch industry, who has learned to take advantage of the “fear of missing out” instinct in people. Sazerac has, so far, stayed on the good side of most consumers, despite it being frustrating to acquire a BTAC or Pappy release.
Even so, neither of these beloved, large entities has perfect reputations. Both have faced their own issues and criticisms. For example, Tulsi Gabbard is suing Google for suspending her account before a presentation for no proper reason. Another is the surprising news of Google stalking its users.
There are strong rumors of Sazerac’s BTAC and Pappy store allocations being connected to how a store meets quotas, though the company has been dismissive of those rumors. There is also speculation of them releasing fewer Wellers so they can sell more Van Winkle and Pappy bottles. And, of course, there’s the simple truth of a false marketing story like Weller being the original wheated bourbon, which is demonstrably false.
To me, Sazerac and Google seem like very competent but worrisome friends one can rely on … for now. But change is the only constant thing in life. With this much power, resources and rapport, I cannot stop but wonder if both or any of them can end up being the monster at the end of the book. What if they already, are but they’re just being smart about it?
With my touching on Sazerac, I of course have to review a Sazerac-owned whiskey. What more fitting than to review a couple of Old Weller Antique 107s? One of them was bought in 2015 for $40. The other, the last OWA 107 release with an age statement, was bought in Japan a few years ago for about $200. I’m told this was bottled in 2002 or 2003. I wish I had a bottle of the new OWA 107, but the bourbon boom is not kind to those far from America.
Old Weller Antique 107 – review
On the nose: A strong, fiery, jam-packed but long-lasting welcome party of cinnamon, caramel, vanilla, honey, banana, coconut sugar syrup, muscovado syrup, corn, leather and dusty wooden furniture. Some hints of peach and apple jam mashed with more cinnamon and something spicy, like anise and nutmeg.
In the mouth: More mellow compared to the nose. Oily. Peaches, caramel, vanilla, honey, coconut sugar syrup. Hazelnuts and walnuts. Some buckwheat honey. Varnish, old wooden furniture and different kinds of bananas. Banana with honey. Slightly browning banana. Banana liqueur. Some longer-lasting flavors of banana, honey, cinnamon and coconut sugar syrup.
Old Weller Antique 107 7 year (2002 or 2003) – review
Color: Buckwheat honey.
On the nose: Fiery welcome party of hazelnuts, toffee, toffee nut latte, what peanut butter would be if it weren’t sweet. Some hints of fino and amontillado sherry. There is finally the cinnamon, honey, vanilla, coconut sugar syrup, muscovado sugar syrup, caramel and shy peaches. Civet espresso coffee, apple syrup and of course oak.
In the mouth: Surprising initial notes of honey, persimmon, strawberries, apricots and peaches. Civet espresso coffee, toffee nuts, vanilla, muscovado sugar and cinnamon. The floral notes like peaches, honey and strawberries are surprisingly persistent. Hints of grapes, raisins, diluted PX sherry and cinnamon syrup.
The newer release is not too complex on the nose. The very “in-your-face” scents make up for the lack of depth, but it’s not enough to make up for the lacking finish, while the older release is nuttier and drier on the nose.
The mouthfeel of the newer release is excellent. It is oily and full-bodied. There’s more layering in the mouth, complete with a more satisfying finish—but the older release is more floral and a bit sweeter. It’s just hands down a better whisky. The ‘02’ or ‘03 release just has more to it in terms of complexity and longer-lasting flavor.
It’s interesting that despite the newer release lacking an age statement, it is the with the seven-year in terms of not feeling like 57%. They both feel like they’re somewhere in the 46% to 48% area of ABV.
I sometimes forget that wheated bourbons are easier-liked and more approachable to American whisky newbies. They’re not as aggressive, rough or in your face as the rye-based bourbons. The lighter spices and sweeter notes are more welcoming.
The sherry notes are quite surprising. I’m curious, is it because of “better” casks and older stock in this blend? “Better casks” in terms of oak staves that might have been seasoned longer before the bourbon boom, or staves that came from older oak?
John, I enjoyed reading your notes and musings, and I’m happy the Rare Bird 101 piece could provide some inspiration in the bourbon department.
Frustration with Sazerac/Buffalo Trace is certainly growing here in the U.S. as availability of desired releases (all Van Winkle, BTAC, Weller) is dwindling. Bottles seem to be getting into the hands of folks who are re-selling them at a premium, either via grey market channels or simply retailers who are marking up the price 10x and keeping them on the shelf behind the counter.
However, there’s a long chain of wholesale and distribution between Sazerac and us consumers, and allocations of these expressions are determined in ways that are inconsistent from state to state. Some states with liquor control boards have statewide lotteries. In other states, distributors are free to allocate these bottles as they see fit, perhaps to good customers, to buddies, or to those willing to pay (via increased purchases of other products, as well as in plain hard cash). The recent Bourbon Pursuit podcast interview with the retailer-turned-distributor might be of interest to you and others reading this.
I continue to advocate for responsible bourbon consumption, and I’m not just talking about limiting your intake. I’d like to see more bourbon consumers “walk the walk” in terms of their own behavior. For example: I buy what I need, a single bottle at a time, and I open the bottles. If one changes my life, I might go back later for another bottle to save for a special occasion. Collecting is different than hoarding or flipping. Showing up with five buddies to clean a store out of Blanton’s is antisocial behavior. If we want things to be different than how they are, we need to normalize good behavior and stigmatize bad behavior. Cheers!
Hi Taylor, thanks for the comment.
As someone who hasn’t been able to go Bourbon hunting in the US, I’m curious how these folks acquire the desired bottles. Do they go earlier and further than most?
I’m pretty sure Sazerac has no control over control states. But I’m curious why there’s a disparity over how allocation in the freer markets. Most of what I hear is similar to the Bourbon Pursuit interview you mentioned. (I submitted this before it came out).
Your discipline is admirable. I usually buy 1 bottle at a time but if I see something I’ve been after for a while, I’ll buy multiple bottles. Open one, save the rest for later.
John, not quite certain about the meaning of “these folks” in this context, but to advance the conversation I’ll presume you mean consumers. How does a consumer get his or her hands on a bottle of Pappy or BTAC? As with the distribution, the answer is probably “it depends.” Setting aside states where the liquor control board runs a lottery, I’m guessing almost nobody goes into a retailer and just grabs a bottle off the shelf for MSRP. Maybe a few years ago this was more common, but it’s hard to imagine that happening much today. I’ve seen photos of bottles on the shelf at Costco, but that’s got to be just a drop in the ocean.
More likely, a store owner will get allocated a handful of bottles. He or she probably has a couple good customers who spend $1,000+ monthly in the store, and they’ll get called and offered the bottles.
Otherwise, the owner could put them for sale on message boards at a multiple of the MSRP, though this is risky given the recent crackdown (pushed by the Van Winkles) by law enforcement on these types of activities.
All of this is what I’ve surmised; happy to be corrected by any readers out there who have better information? Cheers.
By “these folks” I meant the re-sellers and hoarders.
Yeah, it seems like “it depends” is the safest answer. Crazy and frustrating times to be a bourbon fan!
Thanks for the insight on what’s going on in the market there.
Thank you for your review. I found your comments about the differences in taste for the 2 different years interesting. I have been drinking 107 since 1979-80 and was my go to bourbon for years. I agree with that its flavor profile has changed. I glad to see someone else agrees
Thank you for commenting. Sazerac has been very consistent with their “the recipe hasn’t changed and it’s 7 year old” narrative. It can fool most people.
What do you know about real whiskey is the question still unanswered
Jumping on a hype train and buying/drinking those brands doesn’t make you an expert.
I need to get back to this review, but I stopped after the bit about faith because I found it to be both profound and insightful. Insightful concerning what makes the whiskey world so pleasurable, in that so many hobbies are about creating, or collecting, and this is one where reflection, and appreciation are paramount (ok there’s a fair bit of collecting too). Point being that reading your thoughts on “faith” as a concept struck me not for their relevance to the article (it may be deeply relevant, I just have to finish reading it to know) but for the fact that a fine dram gives us the *opportunity* to consider such a concept while simultaneously enjoying our favorite hobby. Many thanks for provoking thought, I have faith the rest of the review will be stirring as well.
Faith rewarded, and btw fantastic notes! The degrees of banana notes, coconut sugar syrup, and “what peanut butter would be if it weren’t sweet” take the cake. Kudos!
Hi Frank, I’m glad you like the review and the provoking thought in it. Spirits are an amazing human creation. It just allows us to tap into different things as we think about it or drink it.