WHAT IS A GOOD BOURBON?
What Is a Good Bourbon?
Ready for a piece of good news? We’re living in a golden age of whiskey. The world is filled with good bourbon—perhaps now, more than ever. In fact, we think there’s never been a better time to be an American whiskey drinker, and Barrell Craft Spirits is honored to be a part of the modern bourbon renaissance.
Early Bourbon History
Bourbon, of course, has hundreds of years of history in the United States. The style’s roots go back to when immigrants from Scotland and Ireland first settled in the Appalachians and Ohio River Valley in the 17th and 18th centuries. They brought distilling know-how with them, which they applied to the grains that thrived in their new home. That included corn, bourbon’s signature ingredient, which is native to the Americas, as well as rye, wheat, and malted barley.
Corn may have been new to those immigrants, but they quickly learned that it makes a delicious whiskey. But those early corn whiskeys didn’t look or taste anything like bourbon. That’s because in the 1700s, whiskey wasn’t usually barrel aged. It wasn’t until the early 1800s when merchants started shipping whiskey down the Mississippi to New Orleans in wooden barrels that American drinkers started to develop a taste for oak.
By the late 1800s, bartenders were busy shaking, stirring, and swizzling American whiskeys into cocktails. Whiskey had become so popular, in fact, that it began to attract the attention of unscrupulous operators looking to make a quick buck. Adulterated whiskey abounded, some containing harmless additives like prune juice, others doctored with poisonous ingredients like lead salts or turpentine. In response, the government introduced a series of laws focused on improving quality.
It began with the 1896 Bottled-in-Bond act, which established standards for a whiskey to call itself bottled-in-bond, like being distilled by a single producer and bottled at 100 proof. Another key piece of legislation was the 1909 Taft Decision, which laid out the categories like bourbon and rye that we know and love today.
The Tough 20th Century
The 1900s were a mixed bag for the bourbon industry. The 1920s brought Prohibition, which led to the permanent closure of many storied producers. Even after Prohibition was lifted, the Depression and World War II didn’t improve matters much (although many distilleries found work supplying the government with industrial alcohol for the war effort).
The post-war landscape brought growing affluence and a marriage and baby boom. You’d think that would have been boom times for bourbon. But just when Americans started enjoying the cocktail hour again, tastes changed, and drinkers began to reach for lighter spirits like vodka and gin instead of bourbon.
In the 1960s, bourbon producers found themselves with a massive glut of aging whiskey. That prompted advertising campaigns that emphasized the relationship between age and quality, with the goal of convincing drinkers that old bourbon was good bourbon. (It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to trace the line from campaigns like those to the modern obsession with bourbons that are 20 years old—or older—with sky-high price points to match.)
The 1970s and 1980s brought more of the same, with declining demand for bourbon and a mysterious love of whiskey-free cocktails like the Harvey Wallbanger, Grasshopper, and Vodka martini. It wasn’t until the 2000s that bourbon really began to rebound—and oh, what a comeback it’s been.
A Great Time to Be a Drinker
Today, there’s a whole new crop of great brands and producers who are building on the success of heritage labels like Wild Turkey, wheated bourbon legend Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, Knob Creek, Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Jim Beam, and Heaven Hill. Barrell Craft Spirits is proud to be part of that modern cohort.
In our mind, a good bourbon has several attributes. It should have a rich, full flavor. No watery whiskey for us, thanks! Its character should also be harmonious and cohesive. “Balance” is a word that gets used a lot in the whiskey industry. We’re definitely not opposed to balance—sometimes we even strive for it—but we’re also captivated by whiskeys with a very distinct sensory point of view.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a good bourbon should be memorable. Drinking it should be an experience you can look back on with pleasure even years later. That’s especially important with single cask or super-small-batch whiskeys, which, by their very nature, are so scarce that they become nothing but memories faster than any of us would like.
Our unique independent bottler model lets us take advantage of today’s incredible proliferation of great whiskey by sourcing, finishing, and bottling whiskey from producers around the country. Most of our bourbon comes from distilleries in Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. While bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, those three states are the most famous (and prolific) producers of the stuff. We’re often prevented by contracts from disclosing exactly where our whiskey comes from. However, we can tell you that it’s taken decades to develop our relationships with suppliers, and that we’re meticulous about sourcing only those casks we think are the very best.
But sourcing is just the beginning. At Barrell Craft Spirits, blending is king. Every Small Batch Bourbon, Rye, or Rum that we create is meticulously assembled from our warehouses. It can take us literally hundreds of trial blends before we settle on our final formula, and even the smallest recipe alterations can make an enormous difference.
To preserve that complex, multi-dimensional flavor we worked so hard to create, we bottle all our bourbons (including our single barrel bourbons) at cask strength, and without chill filtration. Our goal is to replicate the remarkable experience of drinking bourbon straight from the cask, and barrel proof is the best way to do that.