Friday, July 20, 2007

Last Night's Tipple

Another pour of Van Winkle Family Reserve 12 year old Bourbon. My impressions largely match those in June, but I did notice an off-putting pine resin note on some sips. Perhaps it's due to the extensive time in wood.

Scotch is different from Bourbon in many ways, ranging from production methods to marketing and distribution to business practices. The Bourbon business and the Scotch business are both dominated by very large companies now, but the way those large companies operate is significantly different. Scotland has over a hundred operating malt distilleries. Industry consolidation there has largely consisted of multinational spirits companies buying up as many of these distilleries as they possibly can. In contrast, industry consolidation in American whiskey has involved spirits companies buying distilleries and brands and aging whiskey stocks and closing the distilleries. The number of large-scale distilleries producing American whiskey is very small: Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, and Heaven Hill probably produce well over 50% of the American whiskey on the market; and if you add in Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, and George Dickel, you likely have over 90%.

The American whiskey and Scotch whisky businesses are both incestuous, but in different ways. American distillers form something of a social club, and they're all more than willing to scratch each other's backs. The master distiller of Heaven Hill is a Beam; and when the Heaven Hill distillery burned in 1996, the Jim Beam Distillery allowed Heaven Hill to distill what they needed on Jim Beam stills. In Scotland, this incestuousness takes the form of each distillery being willing to sell whisky to anybody else, even their competitors. That's why there are many non-distillery bottlings of Scotch and why the various good Scotch blends are so good. There are very few non-distillery bottlings of American whiskey, and what ones there are are likely to become rarer. The modus operandi of American whiskey distillers if they have surplus aging stocks is to come up with a new brand and sell it. There isn't a whole lot of bulk whiskey on the spot market, and it's likely to get rarer in the future. Companies like Kentucky Bourbon Distillers that buy and bottle aging whiskey will find it increasingly difficult to operate successfully.

What does all of this have to do with Van Winkle? Well, it goes to explain the deal that Julian Van Winkle cut with Buffalo Trace in the late '90s whereby Buffalo Trace received the rights to bottle and market Van Winkle whiskeys and Julian Van Winkle received the right to get his pick of Buffalo Trace aging whiskeys for his bottlings. Before this agreement, Van Winkle was an independent bottler (although they did own their own stocks of Stitzel-Weller whiskey). Julian knew that his Stitzel-Weller whiskey was running out and that he would be hard-pressed to ensure that he would able to buy quality whiskey in the future if he remained independent. So he threw in with Buffalo Trace. Given Buffalo Trace's attitude toward distilling and their demonstrated ability to make good whiskey, I have to think that this was a good decision.

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