Out with the old, in with the… older?
First off, a belated happy new year to all our readers, friends, and supporters. After a brief holiday respite spent recharging my batteries, I am now looking forward to the year ahead. Paradoxically, I’m doing this by returning to the past, for reasons that I hope to make clear to you soon.
It’s an interesting time in whiskey broadly, and in bourbon specifically. This recent New York Times article by Clay Risen (full disclosure: Clay quoted me in the article and was kind enough to provide a link to Malt) muses on the cultural crosswinds currently blowing on the bourbon landscape. That landscape itself is shifting, with several large transactions announced in the past year or two; most recently, Campari’s acquisition of craft distillery darling Wilderness Trail springs immediately to mind as a tectonic shift.
The top-down overlay from the economy also portends change; recession is imminent, if not already upon us. The conventional wisdom from the financial world is that alcohol consumption is relatively insensitive to economic fluctuations. However, in an environment where interest rates are elevated, stock markets are off their highs, and consumers are feeling the pinch of increased prices at both the filling station and the grocery store, it stands to reason that whiskey consumption might necessarily shift (e.g. trading down to more affordable brands or expressions), if not decline outright.
Ask whiskey producers and consumers about what happens next, and you’ll get answers that (for the sake of tidiness) I’ll simplify into two categories. The first is the expectation that history will repeat itself, with whiskey (like all industries) riding the inescapable rollercoaster of boom and bust. Fatalists will point to the bourbon business’ travails in the decades following 1960, or perhaps the Scotch “Whisky Loch” glut of the 1820’s, or indeed the “Pattison Crash” in the later part of the 19th century. I find that consumers are more likely to embrace this view, though I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s due to prudential pragmatism or wishful thinking.
The second camp – in which I find more representation among industry participants – entails some variation of “it’s different this time.” As a longtime participant in financial markets who has heard this hopeful proclamation about any number of asset classes (emerging markets equities, China A shares, cryptocurrency), there are few combinations of four words that make me more certain that a bursting of the relevant bubble is imminent. Suspending my skepticism, there are indeed some secular tailwinds to whiskey demand that might compensate for the natural ebb and flow of fad and fashion which turns today’s popular potable into tomorrow’s dead drink.
As you might have guessed, I fall into the first group, though not without feeling a twinge of sadness. I’d love to be able to tell you that downturns shake out the weakest whiskeys in terms of product quality, leaving the cream of the crop to fight another day. In reality, business decisions about financing and leverage – and the patience of investors and debtholders – likely have greater significance for a distillery’s survival than whether it was producing superior whiskey. Even those casually acquainted with whiskey history will be able to rattle off a list of great distilleries that are no more, and of formerly illustrious brands that have been lost or reduced to bottom shelf swill.
Returning to the aforementioned example: the whiskey in my hands today is, in some ways, a microcosmic encapsulation of the history of bourbon in the second half of the 20th century. It captures all the ups and downs catalogued above, plus so much more. Please join me in considering an Old Fitzgerald from 1985.
I have explored the twists and turns of the brand’s history before; kindly refer to that piece for a refresher. As a consequence of being passed around like a hot potato, it’s often difficult to be sure where the whiskey in a given bottle of Old Fitzgerald was distilled. I have previously put on my detective cap in an attempt to triangulate between facts and historical dates in order to guess at the likely source of the liquid.
Fortunately for us, this is a Bottled in Bond expression, meaning the DSP of the distillery is required on the label. This bottle specifies “DSP KY 16” which corresponds to the Stitzel-Weller distillery. Stitzel-Weller is in the pantheon of great shuttered distilleries; its meandering history (and that of the Van Winkle brand, for which it has become posthumously famous) can be found in this review. Retracing my prior steps and subtracting four years from 1985 would put this in the range of 1981 or before, during the time Norton-Simon owned the distillery. My previous run ins with Stitzel-Weller bourbon (at least, bourbon I have been certain was Stitzel-Weller) has me very excited to get into this sample.
Speaking of which: this came to me courtesy of Scott, who has my continued thanks for his generous support. I shudder to even guess at what a bottle of this would even cost, though north of $500 (and perhaps even in the four figures) is a safe guess. As per the Bottled in Bond regulations, this is 100 proof (50% ABV).
Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond (1985) – Review
Color: Medium-dark chestnut.
On the nose: A classic dusty bourbon profile is immediately evident. Two of the hallmark notes (for me) of bourbons of yore are butterscotch and a musty funk; this Old Fitz has both in abundance. There’s a lot more, though, mostly grounded in the darker end of the spectrum. Pencil shavings, cigar box, and a worn leather journal meet with earthier aromas of volcanic soil, as well as a spicy accent of star anise, ground cinnamon, and a touch of coriander. There’s some woody notes of sarsaparilla and mesquite playing in here as well. In total, this comes of as very serious whiskey.
In the mouth: By contrast, the first impression on the palate is of a light and airy sweetness, in the manner of freshly whipped cream or confectioners sugar. This subsequently presents some of the butterscotch-y flavor, albeit in a less rich and dense form than on the nose. That notes amps up in intensity toward the midpalate, at which point the whiskey pivots to a tight and sharp woodiness married to some subtly integrated sticky fruit flavors reminiscent of brandied cherry. That funkiness creeps in a bit at the start of the finish, though this quickly recedes into a slightly tannic astringency before quieting down abruptly. An aftertaste of black licorice, a bit of tingly heat, and some drying minerality linger for a while before the bourbon disappears.
Drinking older whiskey is always instructive. What has this bourbon taught me?
Things change. You’d be hard pressed to find this aromatic profile replicated in any modern whiskey; revolutions in production processes have altered contemporary bourbon. Is this good or bad? It could be either, depending on your proclivities. Those who like their whiskey fresh and fun, or packed full of luscious fruity goodness, probably wouldn’t care much for this. On the other hand, fans of leather, cedar, and tobacco notes – found, for example, in some of the better Wild Turkey releases – would greet this old timer enthusiastically. Ditto for lovers of pot still rum. There’s simply no faking the funk.
Things also stay the same. As demand for bourbon has grown in excess of supply, the market has been flooded with younger and weaker offerings, particularly from craft distillers and NDPs. As a consequence, the bottled in bond designation has garnered increased appreciation for its guarantee of minimum age and potency, as well as the labeling rules that stipulate clear communication of a whiskey’s distillery of origin. This hundred-and-twenty-five-year-old regulation remains a good benchmark for what savvy drinkers should expect (read: demand) from producers.
As for the merits of this particular whiskey: the nose is better than the palate, though the latter is satisfactory for the most part. The wood becomes shrill at points, particularly toward the back of the mouth, but there’s enough countervailing flavor and texture development elsewhere to redeem this overall. It’s not the best example of Stitzel-Weller I have ever tasted, but there’s enough of that glorious distillery’s character in this bourbon to make it an adequate ambassador for the memory of Stitzel-Weller. I’m feeling qualified positivity toward this, thus I’m giving it a mark above the middle of the range.
As far as starts to a year go, this one is pretty good. Twain asserted that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Whether or not the years to come look identical to, similar to, or completely different from years past is yet to be determined. However, we can be certain that whiskey will grow and contract, evolve and change. Nothing is guaranteed except what we have right now, and I’ve resolved to spend this year in a thankful state of mind for the great folks in bourbon and the great bourbons they create. I wish you all a very happy, healthy, and prosperous 2023.