The on-again / off-again bourbon shortage precipitated by some comments from the Buffalo Trace distillery has caused quite the commotion. Most recently, the Business Insider (Shane Ferro) quoted Buffalo Trace saying "I can assure you the bourbon shortage is VERY real, not a ploy at all. Our intent was never to get people worked up, or to start hoarding it, we did it out of a very genuine desire to let people know this was on the horizon.". The article went on to suggest this wouldn't affect the broad-based, large-market bourbons but rather those specialty bourbons that are aged longer.
Or, as we like to think of it, the really good stuff.
That there's a bourbon shortage on long-aged spirits is not particularly surprising when you work it out. We do not find this to be a marketing scam, conspiracy, or other weirdo-malfeasance going on. For one thing, the marketing departments really aren't that smart to begin with (we know, we've worked for them). Their idea of big coup is getting Mila Kunis to brand a whiskey barrel... which is very cool but hardly devious or groundbreaking. Marketing departments deal in the obvious.
If you're going to make a premium bourbon, then you need lots of barrels and you need to let them age for a good long time: 6-12 years or more. That's a long-term bet. 10-15 years ago, what everyone was drinking was vodka. Producers placed their bets accordingly and that didn't include great warehouses full of aging bourbon. The market shifted and the producers were caught short. The truth is always a lot more boring than the conspiracy.
There is something that does concern us: and that's those same marketing departments trying to stretch their precious stock of old whiskeys further. Here are some things we have been seeing:
- Maker's Mark and their aborted try at reducing the proof of their bourbon from 90 to 84. They tried to tell us that no one could taste the difference. That was a big, fat lie (the kind of obvious like that marketing departments come up with). But it's a good way to make whiskey stretch further.
- Other labels of whiskey have also lowered their bottling proof. Wild Turkey still offers their 101 proof but also now offer an 81 and an 80 proof. Jack Daniels did it back in 2004. Old Grand Dad went from 86 proof to 80. Granted, these aren't big-time, premium labels but that brands are constantly trying to lower the proof signals intent. If they can get away with it for these labels, then the premiums are next.
- We've seen several different whiskey brands cease committing to age statements. This is particularly troublesome because it's one of the places where "truth-in-labeling" practices in the market actually carry some teeth. This is happening a lot in the scotch world at the moment and we'd hate to see this practice leak over into the US.
- Lastly, we're seeing a lot of experimentation in "chipping," small-barrel aging, and even other technological tricks to try and figure out how to age whiskey faster. We don't mind the innovation necessarily—we actually applaud many craft distillers who try out different techniques—but we don't appreciate the diminishment in larger, established brands.
Classic, full-bodied bourbon does best when it's aged for a considerable period of time, in largish charred barrels, in nicely cooled environmental conditions. Magic happens. And if there's not enough magic to satisfy demand, then let the market adjust. We dearly hope that consumers won't tolerate (obvious) marketing tricks to try and convince us that we're drinking something that we're not.
[by Neal MacDonald, editor]