Truth in the Bottle?

A few whiskey enthusiasts recently had an opportunity to chew the fat with the master distiller at Buffalo Trace (BT), Harlen Wheatley, and they shared their experience with the community at StraightBourbon.com. Over the course of their informal conversation, Mr. Wheatley let a number of cats out of the bag regarding the sources of BT’s Van Winkle line of whiskies, and it affects some of the products that I have reviewed on this blog, namely my two highest-rated (by dollar value) whiskies: Pappy van Winkle Family Reserve 20-year old Bourbon and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye (VWFRR).

The distilled spirits industry  has a long history rife with creative marketing half-truths, made up stories and bald-faced lies. Chuck Cowdery has written extensively about some of these practices both on his blog and in his book Bourbon, Straight. The label on a bottle of American whiskey tells you few things definitively about the booze in your bottle; Bourbon and rye whiskey must be aged in first-fill charred American oak barrels. A straight bourbon or rye must be aged for at least two years, but if aged for less than four years, the label must account for the length of time the whiskey has spent in barrel. A straight bourbon or rye aged for more than four years need not supply any age statement, and an age stated bottle cannot contain any whiskey younger than the stated age. There are other rules having to do with proof in distilling, aging and bottling, but we need not get into that right now.

There are no rules about stating where the whiskey is distilled, with two caveats: 1) Whiskey that is Bottled in Bond (BiB) must list the distillery where it was made by its DSP (Distilled Spirits Plant) number, and all the juice in the bottle must be from barrels that were filled in the same season. 2) Unless the whiskey was distilled in a state other than where it was bottled, only the location of the bottling need be mentioned.

Unless a label specifies that the whiskey in the bottle is from a single barrel, you can bet that you are drinking a whiskey blended from many, many different barrels. At Chicago WhiskyFest the other week, I had a very enjoyable conversation with the proprietor of High West, David Perkins. As I mentioned in my review for High West’s 16-year old straight rye, Mr. Perkins’ first product was Rendezvous Rye, a blend of two straight ryes of different ages and made from two separate mashbills (he has since released a number of other blended American straight whiskies). I expressed my admiration for his products and congratulated him for being the only blender of American straight whiskies. He accepted my compliment, but also humbly acknowledged that all American whiskey producers are blenders. I specified further that he was the only one who was blending straight whiskies from separate distilleries, to which he acceded, but what he said stuck with me, because it emphasizes a fact that I rarely think of in such terms.

I bought the bottle of Pappy 20 that I drank and wrote about in my review in the Fall of 2010, and its bottle code indicates it was bottled in 2009. (See this blog post by Sku for a rundown of BT bottle codes accurate before a recent 2012 change in bottle coding at BT.) One of Mr. Wheatley’s statements was that Pappy 20 is or is partly made up of BT distillate. This goes against the general consensus that, unlike Pappy 15, 100% of the bourbon in Pappy 20 was distilled at the legendary Stitzel-Weller (S-W) distillery. I have an open bottle of Pappy 20 with a bottle code indicating it was bottled in 2011, and it is markedly inferior to the 2009 bottle I reviewed on the blog. Before I read about Mr. Wheatley’s conversation, I had assumed that the 2011 vintage  just wasn’t as good as the 2009, but I have revisited my more recent open bottle since learning that the master distiller at BT is under the impression that Pappy 20 is at least part BT distillate, and with that information in mind, I can taste  a definite family resemblance to the 2011 William Larue Weller (WLW) and the Pappy 15 that I reviewed in these pages. My score of the bottle I reviewed stands, but it’s clear that the label itself rarely tells the whole story.

In my review of the VWFRR, I stated that the whiskey in my bottle was distilled in the mid-80’s at what was once the Medley Distillery in Owensboro, KY, and put into stainless steel tanks at an approximate age of 19 years. According to Mr. Wheatley, however, I was drinking BT distillate. Having been made privy to his offhand remarks, my current assumption is that my bottle contained a blend of the 80’s-era distillate, and a 13-year old rye distilled at BT.

My write-up on the VWFRR contains anecdotal evidence that the quality of contents behind the label changed between 2010 and 2011. I referred to a previous bottle of VWFRR I had acquired and drank that was very disappointing when I drank it, and an obvious dud when compared to the bottle I reviewed. If my 2010 bottle was typical of the whiskey released under the label that year, and the 2011 bottling changed things up by blending in some 13-year old BT rye whiskey, then things are looking up and we can expect great things from the label to continue.

The pursuit of these kinds of details can at once be extremely frustrating for the American whiskey enthusiast, while also being part of the fun. Knowing the history, understanding the time and place behind the whiskey in my glass enhances my enjoyment of it, and can’t help but have an effect, generally, on how I process the taste. For a conscientious drinker, a lie exposed may feel worse than a truth omitted; nevertheless, it’s only fair to keep in mind the rules that govern the industry in which we play.

Unless Mr. Wheatley was blowing smoke just for the sake of it, I was wrong when I called out David Perkins as the only person blending American straight whiskies from different distilleries.

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~ by WhiskeyWonka on April 1, 2012.

2 Responses to “Truth in the Bottle?”

  1. Very thoughtful post. I haven’t weighed in on this whole issue because I’m guessing it will only be a matter of time before one of the Van Winkles says something contradicting Wheatley. The lesson for us should be that, whether it be age, mashbill or provenance, if it isn’t stated on the label, you just never know.

    That being said, there have been examples of blends from more than one distillery. Wood ford Reserve is a blend of pot stilled whiskey from the Woodford distillery and column still whiskey from BF. The word on the old VWFRR was that it was a blend of Medley and Bernheim rye (though who knows) and I would be willing to bet that lots of KBD’s labels (Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, etc.) blend whiskey from different distilleries.

    Cheers,
    Sku

    • Thanks Sku, I forgot about Woodford being partly pot-distilled, and clearly a Medley/Bernheim marriage in the VWFRR would make it a multi-distillery product even before the alleged BT rye was added. It also occurred to me that Kentucky Bourbon Distillers likely sources from different distilleries for their labels, and there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t be blending those barrels together.

      Thanks for the insight!

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