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Shades of Gray

Earlier this week I read a post from David Driscoll of K&L Wine and Spirits, an excellent California based retail store. I’ve frequently mentioned K&L and David because they are an example to what I feel wine and spirits stores need to aspire towards. They educate buyers regardless of the price or producer, bring unique products to attention, and really just make sure K&L is a resource for it’s loyal customers.

The premise of David’s post was the fact that the spirit and whiskey industry is complicated. We get caught up in this notion of “small batch” and “craft” and really – what is that? I’ve had the pleasure of emailing back and forth with David over various topics. He’s taught me a great deal about a number of artisan producers – their passion for just simply producing great stuff regardless of volume (or perhaps even profit), and also their relentless pursuit of the best raw materials. We’ve also had some interesting disagreements on a number of subjects. However his post last week titled “It’s Complicated” encompasses a lot of my thoughts about the world of whiskey today.

I urge you to read this if you are in any way “black or white” on craft/micro producers vs. the big boys. David discusses his recent visit from a passionate Grand Marnier representative. Apparently dreading the session, David was immediately engulfed by the guys passion upon hearing him speak (watch the video K&L’s blog a few posts down). I got to thinking about that and I believe the same is true for many of the big boys of bourbon and American whiskey.

The world is shades of gray folks. It’s so common for people to approach both with preconceived notions and opinions that can many times be changed if you are open to it.

Last Spring at WhiskyFest 2011 in Chicago I talked to Kris Comstock of Buffalo Trace in the Hyatt Regency Hotel Lobby. I think we all may share a feeling that Buffalo Trace is a “big boy”. It was so interesting to hear Kris talk about his desire to finally get BT’s flagship bourbon into all 50 states, and just how small their production really is. It’s clear the passion and care Kris takes in BT’s products. Ask Jim Rutledge of Four Roses where he gets the distillery’s corn and rye. But be prepared to spend 10-15 minutes learning just how critical Jim feels his relationships with the absolute best farmers in the country (or internationally for Rye) are to his finished product. To make assumptions that these guys are using lesser ingredients because they are bigger is very uninformed. To make assumptions they care less simply because they produce tens of thousands of barrels per year is an even bigger mistake.

On the flip side, you have micro distillers like Rick Wasmund of Copper Fox distillery going to the time and expense of floor malting barley at the distillery’s Sperryville, VA location. My numbers may not be exact but I believe there’s less than a half dozen distilleries in Scotland that are floor malting today. Rick knows it costs more, but he doesn’t care – he does it because it makes his product better. Head out to High West in Park City, Utah and talk to David Perkins about the lengths he went through to perfect his new OMG Rye. Having tasted a number of iterations, I know the care and time and energy High West put in to making sure it was EXACTLY the way they wanted. Spend a day with St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA, and if you aren’t excited about the state of their whiskey program then you are deader than a door nail.

The point is exactly as David Driscoll eloquently stated – It’s Complicated. We screw it all up when we make ourselves choose between the little guys and the big guys. Why in the hell do we do that? Why let romantic notions of the little guy sway our opinions of the bigger companies without facts. Why stay with the “old brand” just because we *think* those little guys can’t possibly be as good because they are not as established.

My suggestion is simple. If you find yourself in only one camp, do some research and try a few products across the aisle and see what you think. At worse you expand your whiskey palate. At best you may just find something you’ll love.

Drink your Whiskey!

-Jason

16 Comments

  1. JDW says:

    Thanks for sharing your sentiments on this, Jason. I have no problem with craft whiskey companies per se as long as they do not cut corners and as long as they produce their own juice or make it clear where they sourced it. And, of course, so long as their whiskey is potable. This said, I have been in the main disappointed by what I have sampled. Regardless of craft or behemoth, the real question is how good is the whiskey and does it warrant the expense? I might be more convincible than some consumers and am willing to spend a few hundred dollars on something special. Nevertheless, I will not spend $40 on mediocre to swill craft (or other) whiskey when I can get a bottle of Elijah Craig 18 Year. For that matter, I will not spend $14 on Old Crow Reserve which is one of the worst bourbons I recall when I can get Cabin Still. I will try almost anything at a bar but I am much more persnickety when it comes to what I am willing to acquire for my personal collection.

  2. AaronWF says:

    Drink! You whiskey, you!*

    I agree on the article, it’s a great perspective. Passion doesn’t equal quality, of course. Fred Noe could come raring at me with his passion for Old Crow, but I still wouldn’t buy a bottle. Ok maybe I would. If he signed it. But I wouldn’t drink it.

    Make me choose between a $20 bottle from the big boys and a $40 from a small shop, each pleasing me to similar extents, and I’ll want to spring for the small shop’s product, but I might instead use that extra $20 for a few lunches.

    I do love it when producers use their whiskey-making process to sell their product – it’s the best kind of marketing for me. The more intimate I get with the distiller and his relationship to what’s in the bottle, the more likely I am to take a chance on what he’s peddling.

    *If you’re reading this after Jason corrected, at first he signed off with “Drink you Whiskey!”

  3. Aaron, I corrected it but I thought about just leaving it after my little blunder. I agree with both you and with JDW. Passion certainly does not mean a great product, but we tend to judge in absolutes and it’s just not that cut and dried. You just don’t know until you try them.

    Also Aaron your point about letting us in on the process a bit is very important I feel. It helps to demonstrate that passion that the maker has for their product. If it’s an independent bottler, what was your philosophy in choosing these barrels or this age or this mashbill, etc. etc. Give us some input. Of course it can be tough to determine what is genuine and what is marketing.

  4. J Little says:

    As a small distiller, we try to never put down the big boys (at least the whiskey guys, ha!) for any reason. I happen to think most of those guys make pretty damn good whiskey and, of the ones I’ve met, they seem very knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. Most people wouldn’t buy from us if we were constantly putting people down anyway. It’s just a bad way to do business. We tell our story and try to let our enthusiasm and passion for our products shine through and for our products to stand up for themselves. We’re also open and honest about everything we do here, while still trying to maintain that “marketing story” the consumer seems to want.

  5. Zach says:

    Jason-

    Thanks for drawing attention to this, great post and perspective by yourself and K&L, anything to further the passion of the industry be they big or small-

  6. MW says:

    It’s always about the taste w/me. Unfortunately, I’ve tried many of the small “artisan” whatever you want to call them….& frankly, most of them are mediocre at best & not worth the premium they are charging. Too many are “aging” in the small quarter barrels for maybe 2 years at most. That is just not aging & it shows in the taste. You can’t beat the aging/flavor in full-size barrels. So, now I tend to NOT buy bottles from these small distillers unless I’ve first tasted a dram somewhere else – I don’t have unlimited cash & shelf space to be wasting on a bad whiskey. When they actually start aging in full-size barrels for at least 3 years, I would bet money that the whiskey will be good & worth buying. Until then, buyer beware.

  7. Alex says:

    It’s interesting that you bring this up because we seem to be in the midst of a boom in micro distilleries. As a longtime beer geek, I have always favored the micros over the big time breweries, not just because I perceive them as more committed to making great beer, but because I taste the difference. When I started getting into bourbon a few years back, the trend of micro distillers seemed to be just kicking in, and at first, I felt the same quality issues would be at play in the world of bourbons. However, the truth is that I have yet to really taste the evidence that justifies a bias against major distilleries. To some degree, I actually feel that MW is correct – based on what I can afford to spend on booze, I feel that on balance the best quality for the best price comes from major distillers.

  8. Ryan says:

    I think in the US, the big boys do a pretty darn good job with their whiskey. I honestly don’t see how you could be negative about the whiskey coming out of Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, or even Beam. Across the pond, I think you see a big difference in the smaller independent distilleries putting out higher quality malt. The big boys – I’m looking at you, Diageo – over-filter, overuse casks, and bottle at too-low ABV, and you can really tell the difference.

  9. Ryan, I agree – the big boys do quite well.

    Alex and MW – agreed – drink what you like. I’m certainly not saying that you should force yourself to do otherwise, but I believe it’s always healthy to approach a whiskey on it’s own merits. When you do that you open yourself up for a possible pleasant surprise. I certain drink more of the big brands than I do the micros. Like you- I’ve stumbled across a lot of crap, but it’s getting better and better. That will continue to happen.

    Zach, thanks for your comment.

  10. DBMaster says:

    Speaking of micros, I was wondering if any of the Texas folks have sampled the Balcones products. I have tried two of the blue corn whiskies and the Rumble. None of them were really to my liking. Far too young and rough was my assessment. Their story is very good – two guys in Waco building their own still, etc. They hint that they will release a single malt in the future. Hopefully, that means that they will allow it enough time becoming intimately acquainted with oak. I just don’t get how their corn whiskey won a double gold medal.

  11. GQuiz says:

    DBMaster, I’ve sipped the Balcones Baby Blue… corn whiskey. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. It was buttery, but the taste didn’t measure up. I’ve tried the Rebecca Creek 306 out of San Antonio. Very oaky. But not bad. Their Enchanted Rock vodka is incredible (probably another blog site for that). The Garrison Brothers have a bourbon out of Fredericksburg (actually a little town near there called Hye). Haven’t tasted it… 75 for a 750. Little too steep for me.

  12. DBMaster says:

    GQuiz, I guess “buttery” is a possible descriptor for Baby Blue. I thought it reeked of alcohol and had a large amount of burn. I finished my bottle – barely. As far as Rumble went, well, I dumped a good portion down the drain. It’s a good concept and well thought out, but it needs more time in at least a full-sized barrel. I have been reading about Garrison Brothers for some time now. My dad lives in Waco and makes frequent trips to Austin. I have mentioned the brand to him, but there’s no way that it can beat my current maximum-price choice, Booker’s. I am not at the point where I can spend that kind of money on a single bottle of booze. I could not even bring myself to spend $60 on a bottle of Stranahan’s Colorado. Funny you mention Rebecca Creek. I have looked at it, but it’s a “spirit whiskey.” That means it’s kind of like what is known as “blended whiskey.” I am definitely not willing to lay down any kind of major bucks for that. What is interesting to me is that craft brewers in the 80′s had a certain gap to fill. Craft distillers in the 2010′s really don’t have that same market void open to them. What they can do, however, is keep the big boys on their toes and push them into market niches that they may not have contemplated.

  13. Matthew says:

    I live in Chicago where all of the smaller distilleries make an effort to provide sample tastings of their products (via bars, distillery tours, markets). While I have not enjoyed each expression, I have tried one or two samples that I am willing to purchase as a bottle at a price point higher than other products. I am not ready to drop 40.00+ a bottle for every locally produced product, but I do know the labels that are worth a purchase. Also, a good bottle shop will often provide a taste of some products prior to purchase. Ask.

    Whiskey from smaller producers is more expensive that products from larger producers – cost of business. If a bottle is available in a local shop, it may also be available at a local bar and/or restaurant. Spend a few bucks for a small pour, if you like it, buy a bottle. This logic is also true before purchasing a premium bottle from a larger producer. An expensive bottle is an expensive bottle.

    Visiting the distilleries in KY enabled me to recognize that they (the larger producers) are not anonymous “big boys” churning out products for the masses. Staff from all of the distilleries conveyed a genuine a sense of family and pride often associated with small scale operations. Sure, while the equipment, business, and infrastructure are big, the people are as sincere and enthusiastic about their product as any producer on a smaller scale. Humble, humble, humble people.

    Big implies a lack of quality, little attention to detail and development, and bland (generic) flavor that is inherited from Big Beer vs. Craft Beer. That comparison does not map easily to bourbon and American whiskey.

    My bottle cabinet – much like my iPod – is a collection of products from big and small producers. One common trait is that they are all good.

  14. Matthew – I think you absolutely did a much better job than I with the overall point. So thank you for that. There are ways to try the small guys without going all in. Get a group together and pool resources to try a couple, or better yet – do as you say.

    Thanks for the excellent comment!

  15. sam k says:

    Sorry to chime in here so late, Jason(it’s been hectic), but the concept of “shades of gray” needs to extend to more than our concept of whiskey. Our politics need to move to the center of the road, too, if we ever want to get anything accomplished.

    Excellent topic, and, as always, a well-reasoned approach. Thanks!

  16. Sam – here here!

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  1. [...] few weeks ago I posted about the “shades of gray” that exist within the whiskey industry. Add the large vs. small barrel debate to the list. [...]

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