I want to start this article by stating something clearly and without hesitation: I have been personally collecting and drinking “dusty” bourbon for more than three years now. In part, because of that ever-growing collection, I was afforded a massive opportunity to start a career in the bourbon industry while in the middle of writing this article. I will in no way use that career change to try and sway my readers or try to push them into the doors of the business in which I have been given this great opportunity.
However, I would be remiss to not state some names, both of the people and their business within the following article. They, and their business, have helped me mold my own palate and collection too much to leave them out. However, for obvious reasons, I do not want to write this article with any intent to further promote either myself or my recent place of hire. With all that said, let’s chat.
In my last article I went into some biographical parts of my own experience with spirits on the whole, and more importantly with bourbon whiskey. As stated: growing up in Louisville, Kentucky with a family that liked to gather often, and never without a drink in hand (sorry mom and dad; we all know it’s true), I had many experiences with great, and what now would be considered “dusty” bourbon.
Although I don’t believe one can really craft much of their personal preference with only “getting drunk” in mind, I will say that those young days of sneaking a whiskey every so often probably spoiled me to some extent, with the likes of Weller-distilled Rip Van Winkle constantly at my fingertips. Wild Turkey Christmas Rye was the well whiskey of choice for everyone sitting around the dinner table from Thanksgiving until my birthday celebration (mid-February). One would be hard pressed not to have some pretty sound early impressions of what the Kentucky whiskey business was doing around the mid 1990’s into the early 00’s.
By the time I was exiting college – and for some years after that experience – Stagg Jr. was the drink of choice… not to be drunk neat or even with a rock, mind you, but to enhance the proof of whatever concoction was being made by the bucketloads in my college and young adult homes. This isn’t a brag, hardly. I feel unbelievably shortsighted – and honestly downright stupid – for thinking those early batches of Stagg Jr. would always be around, always be relatively cheap, and yet still good enough to enhance whatever you were adding it to (rather than making it eye-watering garbage, like other high proof spirits would have and done at that time). You could pretty much always figure out who made that night’s batch based solely on how much it made your eyes well up at just the first nose. The Stagg Jr. always packed a wallop, but without the stingy bits.
As you can see from these events of years gone by, there was hardly a time that bourbon whiskey was not in my life. Most of that time not spent as a connoisseur, but as simply a consumer. I wasn’t there to actually enjoy what I was tasting, but I had one obvious aim in mind: efficiency. However, while I wasn’t giving what was in my cup too much effort of thought, I doubt very highly that my current palate isn’t built on some pretty nice cornerstones.
By 2016, my whiskey journey brought me into the world of collecting things I found to be extremely palatable, and not just drinking whiskey bottle for bottle-one at a time. It also had me looking for those bourbons and whiskies I had found so tantalizing growing up. With that was also my entrance into the world of the “BSM” (Bourbon Secondary Market) which – looking back – was in its fledgling period, but also possibly in its best form.
I didn’t know anyone, although I had a few friends much deeper into the world of collecting that gave me as good advice as they could, given that they were mostly interested in modern bourbon hunting. We could find most of the things we wanted from modernity by simply frequenting distilleries and liquor stores. This was Louisville, Kentucky in 2016, a full two years (arguably) before what I think most of us will recognize as the full upscaling of the bourbon craze. But where and how was one to find a 1991 Wild Turkey Christmas Rye? Even still, what is it’s cost and worth?
This is a rabbit hole inducing question-set: where, how, cost, worth? It still applies – maybe more so now than in 2016 – for even the most modern of releases. You can have something posted for sale via secondary groups on social media before the seller has even paid what SRP actually is. Speaking of SRP: if it’s a distillery-only release, did they even sell it at SRP? A whirlwind.
When it comes to dusty buying and collecting, this has always been the murky waters you find yourself in. That doesn’t even factor in all the other disappointing potentialities. Is this actually what the seller advertised? Is the “juice” real? If shipping, will they even make good on their end of transaction? If in a decanter,: will it decant and be both good (a relative term) and drinkable (not so relative)? I was 30 years old in 2016. Not a spring chicken, but also not at all versed in how this all could shake out, both for better and worse. Not to mention: at the time, a public school teacher’s salary hardly allowed me to splurge and hope for the best.
Luckily for me, at that time the dusty market had already become a thing many people – particularly in the home of bourbon – had made somewhat comfortable… as long as you lived and died by a short list of rules. I think many of the groups that police issues in the bourbon world get their fair share of eye-rolling criticism, most rightfully so. But, just before the full-on boom, these were the places where a fledgling collector could learn.
Value was and is a key concern. What something is “worth” is relative, for sure. But to know, without hesitation, what any bottle can and does sell for – whether at SRP or via the secondary market – is critical to decision making. What may be most important is the reputation of the seller. Do they make good on transactions? All of these questions can be answered with some simple searches of the social media groups that deal in this market. And, while they can cause and have their own issues, they are of invaluable importance to us, whether we are just learning or are working in the industry full time.
Although I did not know him personally in 2016, I was acutely aware of him. Owen Powell was a young local legend in the bourbon hunting groups. He was always around, always helpful, always willing to share both knowledge and whiskey if the occasion called. He is my boss now (just to be fully transparent), but I say none of those things without truly meaning them. It was another two years before I would meet him, and after another year we would become better acquainted as friends. He had a Facebook group at the time that would occasionally get barrel picks, which is how we eventually met in person.
But before all that, more than just hearing his name and seeing him post, I noticed he didn’t mind actually doling out information and knowledge about how to safely navigate the Bourbon Secondary Market, something very few other people were doing. In fact (for those that may not subscribe) Owen was interviewed by the Whisky Advocate for a feature published in June of 2020 about the market. Well before that globally published interview, he was never remiss to school those of us on how to be good and careful buyers via secondary.
While I would like to think others weren’t as giving of their experience and knowledge in the Bourbon Secondary Market as Owen was (and is) for some “good” reason, what I have found in doing this for going on seven years, is that a significant number of people in this hobby are simply not interested in helping others. I don’t know if that was always the case, and I certainly hope it will not be in the future. But whatever comradery and genuine love of the craft of whiskey-making seems to have exited the building sometimes around the COVID pandemic, particularly when it comes to the secondary market.
Maybe I’m being too generous with my memories of what was, but I can say without hesitation that Owen and a few people like him did and do exist in the hobby, and they make it infinity better. This really is all about drinking and sharing, after all; Freddy Johnson explained that most eloquently in “Neat-The Story of Bourbon.”
So, with all the pretext out of the way, is dusty bourbon actually different? In short, yes and unequivocally. The reasons and explanations that are out there as to “why” are as plentiful as the new labels we see popping up in our local liquor stores by the week. I will recount some the reasons I’ve heard that I believe make any sort of sense and could have any kernel of truth in them, but this will not be the exhaustive list. We can save that for another day.
One explanation that has been floated in the change in farming practices. Most recently, I heard this explanation from one of the most knowledgeable people I have had the pleasure of meeting (several times now). Bill, the former single barrel pick host for Heaven Hill Distillery, who has since moved to hosting special tastings for their special release events. In this case, he was our guide for the Heaven Hill Select Stock bourbon and rye tasting and bottle release, finished in chinquapin oak barrels.
While it was a passing comment, it was one I took note of. He stated that Heaven Hill does their absolute best to find and procure the best grain for every mash bill. Hardly surprising, sure. But then he went on to explain the difference in farming, most notably monocrop farming practices (GMO, etc.) and how with all its benefits, it can actually be a deterrent in selecting the best crop for creating the best mash. I can easily see this being one plausible explanation for the difference in modern whiskey and the grain used to make those whiskeys I grew up with. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard this from a reliable source.
While age statements are something that cannot be skirted due to the laws in the spirit industry (thankfully), there was a time that they were more a suggestion than a minimum requirement. In this day and age, where the continuous volumetric ramp up of production is at an all-time high, it can be daunting for the industry as a whole to keep putting out great products with high age statements. No matter how much is made, time is the great distinguisher.
The likelihood that the “10 year” bourbon you’re drinking is not too many days or weeks past that minimum requirement is very high. There was a time that “10 years” could have been and probably was closer to 12 years or more. It’s really simple: demand was low. The days without needing to fill a large production (bottle fill) quota continued to pass. Empty bottles were already produced and labeled. No need to add insult to injury by spending more to remarket a product that actually exceeds its standards simply because no one wanted it. Yep! Put the 15 year aged bourbon in a package that states it at 10 years. This happened… a lot. Any distillery with someone on staff through the 1980’s and 90’s can tell you as much.
While this certainly isn’t the exhaustive list of theories behind the changes that are very evident when you sip a dusty bourbon, particularly in juxtaposition to its modern counterpart, they are the ones that theoretically cannot be argued with. Both things are true common knowledge of the history of bourbon. In fact, they are more categorized and accepted history of the spirit than some of the things whiskey companies can legally put on their own brand labels. Who is the “Father of Bourbon?” That’s actually a hotly disputed and much maligned “fact.” Meanwhile, at least one brand has the right to put it on its bottle.
With those two potential changes being delineated, it’s time to get into a vertical tasting of three Maker’s Mark bourbon’s produced (bottled) between 1973 and 2007. Other than some simplified background information on my personal journey into dusty bourbon, you may wonder why I brought my mentor and friend-turned-boss into this article at all?
Well, before I was hired, this paragraph was intended to bring up Neat Bourbon Bar (and now, Bottle Shop) in Louisville, Kentucky where I found and tried all three of these bourbons. A stunningly well-rounded collection of (mostly) dusty bourbon has been acquired and is for sale by the pour, by the aforementioned Owen Powell and his soon-to-be wife, Danie. “History By the Pour”, as they call it. It really is just that; even if you don’t buy into the arguments of how and why, it is in fact different from its modern counterparts. I won’t try to further sell you on coming to see them (now us), but I will let the current menu (link to follow), along with my Maker’s Mark review entice you to at very least give dusties a try, or maybe come see us on your next trip to Bourbon Country.
Makers Mark 1973 – Review
Color: Bold amber, darkened brass
On the nose: Hints of ethanol (much less than its 1983 counterpart). Oak tannin and cherries, dried fruits.
In the mouth: Just an unreal pour. Crazy complex; long finish-but the classic bourbon with incredible balance. Tongue and the finish, perfectly balanced. Sweet, caramelized sugar. Hints of semi-sweet baker’s chocolate, but doesn’t dry in the mouth like many would with similar notes and character.
Makers Mark 1983 – Review
Color: Medium amber, touch of brass.
On the nose: Heavy ethanol, almost gasoline-esque. Heavy barrel elements (char) and oak.
In the mouth: Totally unexpected, given I was not ready nor pleased with its first nosing. Sweet and sits heavy on the mid-tongue. Barrel char lasts long and lingers, which could be off-putting to some. Finishes much higher than its stated proof of 90. Seems more akin to modern barrel proofs on the finish. Some characteristics of a bold cherry and citrus-although they are just hints of each.
Makers Mark 2007 – Review
Color: Darkest of the three distillates. Gold and gives to hints of light brown.
On the nose: Hints of leather and much more “modern” on the nose. Classic bourbon nose through and through.
In the mouth: The nose gives away everything great about this bourbon; a classic. Light oak, but very well-balanced all the way through. Great finish that lingers just enough; what I would call the “perfect neat drink.”
Using the Malt scoring bands I would score these three bourbons an 8/10 (1973); 5/10 (1983); and a 7/10 (2007). However, with prices per pour (1 ounce) being what they are (at the time of this vertical tasting) I would consider the 2007 to be the value-buy of the trio. The 1973 at $40 per ounce is an unreal pour, but we also know that is a price point that many would not endeavor to taste. Is it “worth” it’s price? Unequivocally yes! But with the awareness that the 2007, with much less fanfare, is only $10 per ounce, it would be hard for me to pass on that price and the beautiful pour it provides. Finally, at $25 per ounce, there is a lot to like about the 1983 variety. I have seen many come through and love that pour for exactly what it is, but I do think the barrel proof era has made that particular bottle more enjoyable, as it drinks more like something from our own high proof era of bourbon than it does anything dusty.
Please feel free to visit the Neat website and check out the current menu.
Editor’s note: as disclosed, Eddy is an employee of Neat. Per Malt editorial policy, this does not affect our scores or recommendations.