Food & Spirits: Are there Too Many Kinds of Whiskey?

Image borrowed from Stone Cold PR.
Image borrowed from Stone Cold PR.

I have only been of drinking age for three years, but it does appear there are way more whiskeys available now than there were just a short time ago. Chalk it up to the “craft whiskey” movement that is apparently sweeping the nation, following closely in the footsteps of “craft beer”, which tricks potential customers into thinking that smaller batches mean a superior product. Well, maybe “tricks” is a devious word, but advertisers of craft anything operate under that assumption. “We’re a small-time brewery/distillery, therefore our drinks are better than those that are mass-produced”. While this may certainly be the case with some brands (it’s a matter of preference), most of these products are of the same make-up and quality as companies that have been around forever—maybe I’m not hipster enough. Take into consideration an article from last year which blew the barrel-lid right off the craft whiskey movement, stating that a single factory distillery in Indiana, formerly owned by Seagram’s, is producing most of the whiskey that craft companies use. Meaning, these individual companies buy mass-produced (and in some cases barely beverage-grade) whiskey from a single manufacturer, to get the initial stages of processing and some of the aging out of the way, only to finish and age them accordingly at their smaller distilleries. The article posed the obvious yet nearly un-thought of question to back up its case: how else can a company not five years old be selling bourbon aged 12 years or more?

The phrase “small batch” is technically meaningless. Perhaps there is a type of Placebo Effect involved, where if you take a whiskey and label it with that, your brain will process the flavor as better. I am not trying to denounce the craft whiskey movement, because there are some really good and original ones out there, but again, this is a case of there being too many, and some of them being quite deceiving. Take Zackariah Harris bourbon, for example, whose logo is eerily similar to Jack Daniels, nearly identical in design and font. I wonder how that is legal. Its one of many bourbons and whiskeys who throw an “old” sounding name on the label, and instantly people think its good. Then there’s Jefferson’s Bourbon, whose owner openly admitted it was named after the president because people would automatically associate that name with “history and tradition”.

Crap in a small batch is still crap. Greatness produced a million gallons at a time is still greatness. A comparison can be made to single malt scotch, which means the scotch in your bottle was never blended and came from the same distillery. Just because it all came from one place means it is better? Not always the case. I’ll take a blended Johnnie Walker Red at $19 over a $30 single malt McClelland’s any day of the week. It’s all in the name. If it is produced in a smaller quantity and/or they went through the trouble of keeping it together for X amount of years, they have an excuse to charge you more. Small batch = “rare”, therefore, more expensive.

The source named a few of the main culprits. Bulleit Bourbon/Rye was a surprise given its notoriety, and I was shocked to learn that the very expensive and seemingly high-end Knob Creek actually buys from Jim Beam. Basically, if you are buying whiskey from an unestablished name, chances are, the product is coming from that same single source in Indiana. I think I have purchased a few of these myself, accidentally before reading the article. The first is called Lexington, bottled at 86 proof, and I bought it because it was moderately priced ($25, I think) and I liked the label which featured a horse. It looks really nice on my bar. However, the taste leaves me a bit disappointed. The initial bite and alcohol kick is worthy of that of a horse, but after that, there is hardly any flavor. The label bears no age statement, and is worded, “Finest Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey”. Nowhere is the phrase “straight bourbon whiskey”, straight meaning aged at least two years. So, was this whiskey even aged at all? Probably not much more than a year which accounts for the taste.

The next example comes in the form of Bird Dog Whiskey, whose bottle is so similar to Lexington’s that I think they may be the same company. I bought a sample gift pack which included a 750 ML bottle of peach whiskey, and came with four shot bottles of other flavors, including cinnamon, blackberry, maple, and regular. It can be found with the bourbons in any liquor store, but actually comes from Wyoming, meaning it is not bourbon. Their website indicates the product is a blend of the “finest aged white oak barrel Kentucky Bourbon whiskey”. We can take this one of two ways: the barrels the product is aged in were originally Kentucky bourbon barrels, or they are buying real Kentucky bourbon from a mass-producer and just adding their own flavors to it. The latter seems the most logical. The peach version was okay, not too sweet which I liked, but there is an underlying artificial after-taste. The same could be said for the other samples. Again, not bad, just not stand-out by any means, and I would not buy again.

This no-doubt leads me to the enormous flavored whiskey market, which has taken liquor stores by storm. But can there really be such a thing as “flavored whiskey”? In my mind, a flavored whiskey would be your normal whiskey with a hint of natural flavor added, thus maintaining the form and complexion of a real whiskey. Where these flavored versions are concerned comes an addition of God-knows-what, essentially turning these “whiskeys” into syrupy, sugary liqueur that should be labeled as such. Sorry, but if the cap gets stuck to the top of the bottle due to sugar build-up, that’s not whiskey.

The most popular (or at least it was) was Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey. When I turned 21, this was all the rage. Everyone was drinking it. You weren’t cool if your throat wasn’t burning with this vile, shiny, and syrup-like concoction—it’s a cinnamon liqueur, not a whiskey. It is a fact that this contains propylene glycol, an additive commonly found in antifreeze and cosmetic products (as well as select brands of ice cream); one of those only-in-the-United-States-is-this-legal ingredients. They caught a lot of heat when a shipment of American Fireball ended up in Sweden where propylene glycol is banned and they refused to sell it. That’s when people began to realize the pure crap that goes into this stuff. They produce a separate, “healthier” version for European markets, which is where the mistake was made. Well, if it ain’t good enough for Sweden, it ain’t good enough for me. Do yourself a favor, lay off this garbage and go with a Jack Daniels or Jim Beam cinnamon whiskey. It might not “taste like heaven and burn like hell”, but it won’t speed up your journey to any of those places either.

Anyway, not to rain on your parade. If you really enjoy any of the whiskeys in question which aren’t as rare as they seem, then fine. Good for you. It’s all a matter of preference, and who am I to snub my nose at you? See this more as a public service announcement than an attack. People should know where their drinks are coming from, and what is going in them. Remember, food has to list ingredients on the label while alcoholic beverages do not. If something is cheap and sweet, chances are its loaded with some kind of unhealthy additive. Unless you are looking for a quick fix, just want to get drunk, or need something cheap to mix into a drink, why not spend a few extra bucks on something established? A hundred years from now, the likes of Maker’s Mark (my favorite bourbon), Jim Beam, George Dickel, and Heaven Hill are still going to be here. Will the same be said of these “craft” whiskeys?

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