Peruse the bourbon list at the Seelbach Hotel bar in Louisville, in the heart of bourbon country, or even a hip, urban spot like Blue 32 in Hermosa Beach in Los Angeles, and you'll find more choices and higher prices than ever. It doesn't seem too long ago that Jim Beam and Wild Turkey were all most bars stocked. Today, however, it's not uncommon to find the bourbon list as long as the list of flavored vodkas or wines.
That, of course, presents a lot of confusion to even the passing bourbon enthusiast. And with terms like "single barrel," "reserve," and ages on the labels ranging from 10 to 14 years, commanding upwards of $90 per bottle, it's easy to think that such labeling is more gimmick than genuine value, or distinction from core brands that mostly cost around $25 and less.
THE RIGHT RECIPE. But don't suggest to Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell—who has been the brand's chief of taste and whiskey making for 53 years—that there is no real difference between, say, Wild Turkey 101 and Russell's Reserve. Indeed, it's refreshing to know, upon visiting Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg, Ky., on the American Whiskey Trail, that Russell, a round, friendly septuagenarian who comes across as an amiable general store owner inviting visitors to the porch for some sweet tea, is still in charge after multiple changes in corporate ownership. Today, Wild Turkey is owned by French company Pernod Ricard
. But no one has suggested sending a French wine or cognac maker to Kentucky Bluegrass country to show Russell how to make better bourbon.
Russell says a great deal goes into the making of small-batch and premium bourbon, and that he and his competitors, such as Jim Beam's Jerry Dalton and Maker's Mark's Bill Samuels Jr., differ widely about what makes the right recipe. "So much can change the character of the whiskey that the trend toward people asking for different tastes they are willing to pay for has put a lot of fun in the business," says Russell. On a recent humid day in June, Wild Turkey's fermenting vats were empty and idle. "Too hot…whiskey doesn't like to be made this time of year."
Not so at Maker's Mark and Woodford Reserve (also part of the Whiskey Trail through Kentucky and Tennessee), though, where the vats were bubbling and roiling. "That's what I mean. We all have our quirks and opinions that change the nature of the product we make," says Russell.
SUBTLE DIFFERENCES. Wild Turkey makes several bourbons, with different recipes. Wild Turkey 101 Proof ($25.00) comes from mingling 6-, 8-, and 10-year-old barrels. Russell's Rare Breed ($43.00) comes from 6-, 8-, and 12-year-old whiskey. Russell's Reserve ($33.00), the brand's most expensive small-batch bourbon, is made from 10.5-year-old barrels, hand-selected by Russell himself. That's not just marketing malarkey. Russell still ambles around the barrel warehouses, often with his son, who will succeed him as master distiller, where 10- to 12-year-old barrels are stored on different floors. The non-climate-controlled warehouses mean that barrels, made from virgin white oak when the whiskey goes in, will season whiskey with tastes that go down differently, depending on whether it's been sitting on the fourth floor in the northeast of the building or on the first floor in the southwest corner.
As Russell takes me through all of Wild Turkey's different sips, the differences come through. The 101 has a bigger, flowery taste that gets more into my nose. Rare Breed definitely carries the taste of the wood throughout, and is smoother than 101. Russell's Reserve has the wood, and an even smoother finish than Rare Breed. A master distiller like Russell has to labor each month, usually with a handful of tasters, to make sure the mix of barrels each year creates a similar, but never exactly the same, flavor profile.
Jim Beam's Dalton, like Wild Turkey's Russell, likes to keep a broad portfolio, and has created taste profiles of several small-batch brands to complement basic Beam. Knob Creek ($29.00) is a full-bodied whiskey with a long finish. Baker's ($46.00) is a 107-proof, 7-year-old whiskey that has a sweet forward taste, and is a favorite for making Manhattans. Booker's ($55.00) is a 124-proof mingle of 6- to 8-year-old whiskeys that packs a kick, owing to the alcohol content.
CREATING NEW TASTES. If the ages don't sound as exotic as the 18- and 20-year-old whiskies marketed by Scotch whisky producers, Dalton says that bourbons, because they are aged in new oak barrels (Scotch whisky is aged in used barrels, usually from American whiskey distilleries), can take on too much oak, or go "over the hill" after 10 to 12 years.
Aging whiskey and tapping single barrels, of course, are not the only way to create new tastes. Some whiskey makers transfer whiskey to port or sherry casks for a few months of "finishing." Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris is about to release 900 cases of a special small batch in his Master's Collection series: 5-year-old whiskey that has been finished for a few months in Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay barrels. Sounds a bit dainty for bourbon country, but Morris has been experimenting with different barrel finishes since 1999. Indeed, upon tasting a sample, I discover the wine barrel imparts a slight vanilla-citrus note to the taste, something I have never found in a bourbon. When released this year, it will cost $89.99 per bottle. Woodford's main product sells for about $42.00.
One of the brands driving the big spirits makers (Woodford Reserve is owned by Jack Daniel's parent Brown-Forman (BFA)) to make small-batch bourbon is Maker's Mark in Loretto, Ky. Unlike Woodford's Morris, Maker's Samuels only wants to make one product, or, as he calls it, "one expression." Maker's ($32.00) has had 27 straight years of double-digit sales growth. The distillery, about 60 miles south of Louisville, turns out about 92 7,300-gallon vats of bourbon a week. Unlike Woodford, which contains rye and subjects its barrels to prolonged heat, or "toasting," before the whiskey hits it, Maker's has no rye, and instead mashes corn, red winter wheat, and barley, and ages its oak for nine months. The result is an almost cognac-like experience, despite bourbon being made from grains instead of grapes, and with a short finish on the tongue rather than one that lingers. "I think we have a great recipe, and we are a small-batch brand already, so I prefer to concentrate on keeping what we have consistent and great," says Samuels. By David Kiley