Sunday, July 22, 2007

Last Night's Tipple

The way to growth for most large producers of alcohol these days is to sell less volume at higher prices. People around the world are drinking less than they did, but they are buying more expensive alcohol. Most producers have to accept that their case volume will decline year over year, and the only way that they can make up the difference is to sell better stuff more expensively. Not Jack Daniel's, though. Their case volume (8.9 million cases last year) is increasing at 6% a year. When you combine the increasing case volume with the annual price increases that Brown-Forman, the corporate parent of Jack Daniel's, Jack Daniel's practically has a license to print money. It would be difficult to overstate how influential Jack Daniel's is in the world of whiskey. Brands ranging from Jim Beam Black Label to Evan Williams have copied JD's square bottle shape and label style. Boutique offerings like Maker's Mark raise their prices in lockstep with JD's increases. Used JD barrels go all over the world to producers of just about every kind of spirit: Ardbeg, probably the most distinctive Islay malt whisky, ages their whisky almost exclusively in old JD barrels.

More than three quarters of that is the standard Old No. 7 Black Label bottling, and most of the remaining is either Green Label No. 7 or Gentleman Jack, which differs from the rest in that it's charcoal filtered twice instead of once. I'm not a big fan of the standard Black Label bottling. It's young, one-dimensional, and has some off-putting flavors. I've never tried Green Label or Gentleman Jack, but my understanding is that Green Label tastes even younger than Black Label and that the Gentleman Jack, what with the double filtration, is even more one-dimensional. Which brings us to the last of Jack Daniel's bottlings: the Single Barrel. As the name suggests, "honey barrels" are dumped and bottled one at a time to make Single Barrel. The whiskey contained in these barrels has been aged between 6 and 8 years, or between 50% and 100% longer than the standard 4 year old JD Black Label. I'm not sure if Master Distiller Jimmy Bedford knows that a whiskey will become Single Barrel when he puts it into the barrel, but I would imagine at the very least that he, like every other competent distiller, knows which areas of which warehouses are likely to produce the quality and flavor profile he's looking for. It's bottled at 94 proof, too, which means that it has more concentration and more of a kick than the Black Label, which is bottled at 80 proof. The bottle that I bought on Saturday was from barrel 6-3094, rick L-34, and was bottled on August 17, 2006. This is largely just marketing fluff because these are utterly meaningless to me and I'm unlikely ever to find another bottle from the same barrel (each barrel produces approximately 240 750 ml bottles). In any event, though, the whiskey inside is very good. It has the distinctive JD smoky sweetness, but there's more vanilla and caramel on the nose. It's lighter than a comparably-aged Bourbon, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. At $35 a fifth, JD Single Barrel is not a bargain, but it's not a rip-off. And I'm glad to be able to say that the largest American whiskey distiller is capable of making excellent whiskey if they want to.

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