Bourbon is often described as America’s spirit, yet for much of its history, it has been more a niche preference than a dominant domestic force. Despite its 200-plus-year history in the United States, bourbon began gaining momentum as recently as the 1980s, and more so in the last decade.
Bourbon has officially emerged as a massive category that rivals vodka and tequila for American market share. That growth has been fueled by innovation within the industry, distilleries’ diversification of offerings, obsession over rare and old bottles, as well as the craft cocktail and distilling booms.
As we celebrate Bourbon Month on VinePair throughout September, tune into this week’s VinePair Podcast episode to hear Adam Teeter, Erica Duecy, and Zach Geballe explore how exactly bourbon conquered America. Also in this episode, the hosts dish on some of their favorite brands, ways to enjoy the spirit, and whether you can find a decent bourbon that wasn’t made in Kentucky.
Or check out our conversation here
Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Erica: From Connecticut, I’m Erica Duecy.
Zach: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the VinePair Podcast. What’s going on? Summer’s over. Right?
E: It’s done, it’s fall. We have now crossed the Labor Day weekend mark, and it is fall time.
A: Do you subscribe to the idea that summer ends after Labor Day? Or are you some of those people that are like, “Actually it’s not until September 21, and we still have a few more weeks.”
E: No, kids are back in school.
A: That’s what I always think. Summer is over.
E: Summer is done.
Z: For me, the mark for summer being over is when I look in my closet and I try to figure out where some of my sweaters are, and that definitely happened over the weekend.
A: Are you serious?
Z: Yeah, in Seattle right now it is getting coolish and when you go walk the dog at 10 at night you want long sleeves. I’m just starting to prepare. I’m not full-on sweaters during the day — it’s still pretty warm during the day, but I’m taking stocks. I’m not pulling them out of the closet yet, but I’m locating favorites.
A: I’m still shorts and a T-shirt all the way. I’m hoping this lasts through October.
Z: New York is a different climate than Seattle.
A: True. Again, another superior thing. So how were your summers if you were going to take stock in them as a thing? All things considered.
E: We were out in Connecticut for the entire summer. Tuesday, we will have just moved back to Jersey City, so we were out in the country all summer long so there were a lot of evening bonfires and camping — like putting up a tent in the backyard here — and doing a bunch of outdoor stuff. In all of the years past we mostly have stayed in the city with just a couple of country vacations but this entire summer was out in nature and that was super eye-opening. We were amazed to find out how much we loved being out in the country and having a laid back pace of life.
A: That’s awesome. What about you, Zach?
Z: This was definitely the least summery summer of my life, and Covid is obviously a huge part of that. Also, my job for the last however many years has involved a lot of hand-holding of tourists, and I didn’t have to do any of that this year, which was kind of nice — but weirdly, I missed it occasionally. Telling people how to get to the Pike Place Market or the Space Needle. The other thing that was true for me — and I don’t think I realized this until it began — I really missed dining outside and drinking outside. I realize a lot of people were comfortable with that this year but it wasn’t something for me and my family, so besides eating on our deck occasionally, it was a lot of looking at a nice evening and being like, “it would have been nice, but here we are in the house again.” All things said, I’m not going to complain because I have a lot better than most. But a lot of the things I typically associate with summer didn’t happen this year. We’ll try again in 2021, I suppose.
A: My summer was interesting. Weirdly, I think like Erica, I did things I wouldn’t normally have done. Usually, my summer is city-focused almost the entire summer, except for those two to two-and-a-half weeks where Naomi and I go somewhere. And usually, that’s somewhere out of the country and that feels like our big vacation, and then maybe we’ll meet a family member at a beach. But for the most part, we’re in the city doing city stuff, and this summer, because Covid felt so suffocating, we got out of the city almost every weekend with our quarantine buddy Lenna who has a car, and we would go to a beach on Long Island, or we would go upstate. We would take these little adventures and use the metro area to make little discoveries and that was really cool. I actually wound up having a decent summer. Not a summer that felt in the same way as summer, but it was summer, which was cool. For me, it always centers around my birthday because I’m big into birthdays — my birthday, specifically. And I’ll never forget this memory, I wanted to see people on my birthday, and I invited people I knew were in the city — anyone who wasn’t I didn’t invite because I felt like it was too much to ask them to come in because it was still early days of it being late June — and it was threatening rain all day and then poured rain and you had to be outside and I was adamant that I was still going to be outside. And I did and some friends showed up and it was really awesome that we stood in the rain drinking drinks and eating Popeyes fried chicken. And it was a cool memory that I don’t think I’ll forget. I could have had a less remarkable birthday and I think that is something that this whole experience forced me to do something I normally wouldn’t do, I would have given up and went inside. And the same thing that you were talking about, Erica, with being in the country for the entire summer and getting to have these cool memories and making bonfires and camping out, those are going to be memories that people have for a long time and hopefully have some positive stuff that comes out of all of this.
E: I have a question for you guys because Zach touched on dining out, and Adam we’ve talked about this, tipping. So tipping right now at restaurants sitting outside, I have a bone to pick. I saw a Twitter thread earlier today and I was like, are you kidding me? Someone asked how much people are tipping at restaurants and people were saying 20 percent and I weighed in and said are you f***ing kidding? Forty percent, at least. These people are putting their lives on the line to serve you, restaurants are at half capacity. I was blown away that people are still tipping 20 percent at restaurants. Have you seen that?
A: First of all, I can’t believe people told you 20 percent because I’ve seen 10 and 15 percent. And most servers I’ve talked to said that’s what they’re seeing. I tip 40 to 50, like you, but that’s also that we don’t go out as much. But Naomi and I decided that that’s something that is important to us and we have to explain to anyone we go out to eat with. When we went out with her parents, for example, we said this is what we do and we wanted to treat them anyways so we said we’re tipping this and we don’t want to hear it. We’ve explained it to other people, as well. This is how we tip, and you don’t want to come with us — especially with friends where we normally split the bill — then we say it’s cool, we don’t have to eat out. But if you want to eat out, this is how we tip, and that’s been very important to us. But I don’t think a lot of people are doing it, and if you read a lot of the stories coming out of the restaurant industry, a lot of servers are saying they’re getting stiffed, they’re getting low tips, there are a lot of things that we’ve worried about: People not understanding that the restaurants are less staffed. They’re complaining about the length of time it’s taking for them to be served or that they don’t have the one-on-one treatment that they’re used to. People are being just as hard on restaurants as they’ve always been but let’s be real, a lot of consumers are f***ing a**holes.
E: It’s shocking to me that people are not tipping more. The simple math of the situation of a restaurant being at 50 percent capacity on a good day if they have a big outdoor space, just do the math, how are servers supposed to survive? It makes no sense to me.
Z: Well Erica, as someone who spent a long time doing exactly that, and Adam’s right, the vast majority of guests are oblivious to that, if not actively hostile to the idea that they are entitled to anything less than the utmost in terms of treatment. I’ve seen people yell at visibly very pregnant servers for not serving them fast enough. I’ve seen just about everything in the restaurant industry, so none of this surprises me. I’ll say something that is relatively controversial, and I apologize if I offend anyone, but I think choosing to go out to eat right now is a pretty inherently selfish act. It doesn’t mean it’s not something that should occasionally be done. And obviously, there’s a huge issue in this country about what exactly are restaurant workers and owners to do if people don’t dine out, but you’re not just taking your own health into your hands, you’re taking everyone else in the restaurants, the servers, etc., you’re taking a risk with their health. The absolute least you could do in that is compensate them more wholly than you would normally. But I think for a lot of people — Adam you told the story on that last episode of someone coming up and screaming at the host because they had to wear a mask — that kind of behavior, maybe that’s an extreme, for sure, but that general sentiment, we have this issue in this country where service people of all sorts are treated like, frankly, servants. That isn’t the right way to approach the situation, and it’s laid particularly bare in this situation where people in restaurants are not just working hard, but taking real risks to do this, and in many cases don’t have a choice, because our government is no longer providing additional unemployment insurance. Many places don’t have eviction moratoriums anymore, a lot of peoples’ options are taking their lives and their families lives in their hands, or being homeless. That’s an extremely f***ed situation, and one we as a society are not dealing with. And frankly, tipping 40 percent doesn’t do a whole lot, it’s better than tipping 20 or 10 percent but really the issue we have in this country in terms of service is we’re making a lot of people take really unnecessary risks with their health because we can’t get our sh*t together enough to allow people to remain safe. It’s really disgusting, so if you’re going to go out to eat or drink, f***ing tip. And if you can’t afford to do that or don’t want to, then do not go out. That should always be the rule, but it is 10 times the case now.
A: I agree. I have one other thing I want to share with you both before we jump into today’s topic. We talked a bunch about this and this article hit this week and I thought it was interesting data. We’ve talked a lot about whether or not cities are dying and whether restaurants are going to close and if you read a majority of the news they will tell you anecdotal stories that certain moving companies have oversubscribed and everyone’s moving out and they can’t take on new clients to move them as far away from New York City or San Francisco or Seattle as possible, everyone’s going to the suburbs. That’s been the narrative of the summer that’s kept a lot of people very nervous but in actuality, that’s not the case. Curbed published a really amazing article this week where they actually dug into the data and through an exhaustive study using Zillow and other metrics of flight they found that yes, suburb sales are up. But that’s only because the time where suburb sales are at their highest is during the months of Covid where we were locked down. So basically, that sale time transferred to now. People felt comfortable in terms of buying homes. In addition to that, we don’t see suburban homes selling more quickly than urban homes. In actuality, urban homes are still selling faster than suburban homes, and that urban homes and zip codes still have a slight edge in valuation and are still accelerating faster in terms of valuations. And we also are not seeing anything in terms of a suburban housing market booming because of an outbound migration. Instead what we’re seeing is a bunch of people leaving for the suburbs that would have always left for the suburbs. Essentially, it accelerated a little bit, but it’s mostly people that have two or three kids in the family. It makes more sense to live in the suburbs and go to public schools than be in an urban environment which you may not be as comfortable sending your kids to, although you should. Listen to “Nice White Parents,” another great podcast. But the only places where we are seeing the exceptions are San Francisco and Manhattan. Those are actually the only two places where there is a pronounced amount of flight and that’s because those two areas in the country have exploding rents. The bubble of rent is so high people are using this as an excuse to leave. But it’s not happening in Brooklyn, it’s not happening in Oakland, it’s not happening in Queens. So I think this idea that cities are dying is not actually true. So I hope this can be a little bit of a positive note for all of us to feel like if these things aren’t actually happening the way that the press is really reporting them, maybe we can believe that eventually restaurants and bars will come back. And then, Zach as you’re saying, we’d also be as desperate about “We have to go out now. We have to open now.” Because the data shows that people aren’t leaving. They’ll come back when they feel safe to do so.
E: I hope that is the case, because I feel like every article I see is “this house in Westchester had 29 offers and sold for 500 times asking price.” It’s outrageous statistics. That is definitely the narrative that I have seen, and I really hope that that is not the case.
A: I think, like this article says, it’s accelerated for the people who already would. And you can think about it, if you were already thinking about moving to Westchester and now you’re moving, it also can make you feel crazy “it’s the only house we’re going to get, it’s the only house we’re going to get.” So you also drive the price up. I’m sure there’s also houses still on the Westchester market that aren’t selling or haven’t had their price escalate in the same because maybe they’re not in the exact school district you decided you wanted to move into. Or they aren’t the exact size you decide you wanted to have. The same thing was happening in Brooklyn five years ago where there were certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn where the housing price would get inflated so fast because everyone decided they had to live in Park Slope or Carroll Gardens or Boerum Hill. But then there were other neighborhoods in Brooklyn that weren’t having that happen at all, where the house was still sitting on the market in Bed Stuy — and then Bed Stuy got discovered. So I wonder if this is also selective reporting. We’re all guilty of that, we report on what we know. And that’s kind of what the article is saying. A lot of the people who are writing these stories are people who media is based in Manhattan. You live there, you may live then also in the suburbs, and these are the stories you’re writing. But if you look at the data, the data doesn’t support it in the same way that all these different anecdotal stories do. I hope that’s the case. I hope that this article’s correct and that there’s a silver lining, and that it’s not everything else we’re reading.
Z: I just want to add one note as someone who is actually in the process of looking for a house. One piece to this that I think is important to understand is we’re still at what could very well be a very significant and meaningful transformation in a lot of workplaces. No one has a lot of certainty right now about what life will look like when people presumably return to an in-person workspace, whether that’s tech or, for my wife, another white-collar job. We’re honestly having this conversation all the time. We have our priorities about where we’d like to live from a cultural aesthetic standpoint and proximity to restaurants and bars. But there’s also the very real conversation that we’re having to have is: But how do we balance that against the possibility that my wife is going to be working from home entirely or primarily for who knows, years? Honestly, we don’t know. And I do think that some of what you’re seeing right now is a lot of people waiting and seeing. And if the American information economy is largely shifted to an at-home workplace, I think that’s really going to drive more movement. And frankly, it’s going to fundamentally change the restaurant industry because — and we don’t have time for all of this right now — but fundamentally a lot of restaurants and neighborhoods are built around a concentration of people during the day and in the evening. And if you lose that you have to come up with a different concept. You have to come up with a different idea of where you situate your restaurants, how you bring people in, and how you serve them. And I don’t necessarily think that’s bad. It might be bad for a specific restaurant, specific operator, specific parts of cities and things like that. But I think there will always be a desire for people to get food and drink in places that are not their home. But you might have to think about locating yourself differently to be able to meet those evolving needs. And that’s just another accelerating trend I think we were already seeing in the industry where these cities were so difficult for people to open a restaurant in and for employees to live in and work at, and all of that is changing. And like many other things in society, Covid is just an accelerant, it’s not that the driver of the trend.
A: Let’s get into today’s topic, 20 minutes later.
Z: I need a drink.
A: Well, I’m hoping you’re pouring yourself a bourbon because that’s what e’re talking about today. This is the kickoff to Bourbon Heritage Month and at VinePair we are focusing on bourbon and the history and the content, etc. of bourbon this entire month. Erica, you want to tell everyone a little bit about it?
E: Yeah, definitely. So at VinePair, we all universally love bourbon. A lot of us in the office are fans of bourbon, we drink it all year long. But fall is definitely bourbon’s biggest season. So both from a Nielsen data perspective and from our own VinePair audience insights data, you really see a climb in September and throughout the entire fall, peaking in the holiday season. That’s from a sales point of view, from an audience interest point of view — meaning the searches and the interactions with articles and so forth. So that is one of the reasons we decided to focus on September for a big American bourbon celebration. And then it also happens to be National Bourbon Heritage Month. So the timing is perfect. This month we’ll be doing a lot of bourbon coverage. We started out the month with a category report looking at all of the things that are happening in the entire realm of bourbon. If you look at the whiskey category and whiskey sales in 2019, the overall whiskey category was $5.7 billion and then within that category, $1.6 billion was bourbon only for off-premise sales. The numbers are pretty big for bourbon. It has been a booming category for several years. The compound annual growth rate for the category, according to the IWSR, has been about 7 percent by volume for each of the last five years, and it’s just growing and growing. We love bourbon. We are planning a ton of stories, the week that you’ll be listening to this we have “One Man’s Strange Quest to Make a 50-State Whiskey Blend” — many of those were bourbons in there. And then we have bourbon limited releases, we have a look at the military’s own bourbon. I don’t know if you guys knew this, but the military actually sells its own bourbon that you can only get on base exchanges and it’s called Military Special. It’s in a huge $9 plastic liter bottle. Some people love it, some people hate it, but you may not know that it’s made at Sazerac’s Barton distillery, which is really fascinating. We’ll have tons of product recommendations. We’ll have all sorts of new and classic bourbon recipes. We’ll look at the 24 defining moments in 200 years of bourbon history. It is all bourbon, all the time.
Z: Wow. I feel like I just got a double shot. That was something, Erica.
E: We really went deep on bourbon. Anything that you are interested in learning about bourbon, go to VinePair this month because it’s going to be a big to-do.
A: It is.
Z: As Erica very clearly demonstrated, there’s so much to talk about in the topic of bourbon that I don’t even really know where I would want to start other than, you asked us a lot when we talked spirits, Erica and Adam what are your favorite bourbon cocktails?
A: I was just going to get into how you guys like bourbon all that? But you went there immediately.
Z: We can start with how we want it served, that’s fine.
A: No, we can go to cocktails first. This is going to be really blasphemous, but I actually am pretty much a straight bourbon drinker.
E: I feel that way about Cognac.
A: I do not do cocktails with bourbon that often. I really don’t.
Z: Except of course the Boulevardier.
E: Well, that’s my favorite.
A: That would be the one if I had one but for the most part it’s straight. I drink it straight and I usually drink it either with a little bit of water or with one cube of ice. Except if it’s Buffalo Trace, I like it with a lot of ice and I like to chew on the ice and it gets kind of watered down and it’s delicious, I don’t know why. But that’s always been my kind of thing with bourbon. I’m from the South, we drink our bourbon straight. Or if you haven’t learned how to do that yet, then you drink Jim [Beam] or Jack [Daniels] — Jack is a bourbon technically, even though it’s filtered — with Coke. But most of us drink our bourbon straight.
E: For me, I’d say if I’m going to go straight, I love Booker’s. Do you guys know Booker’s?
A: I love Booker’s.
Z: We’re already giving specific recommendations.
E: I can go into the cocktails, too. For a straight bourbon, the one I always have on my shelf at home is Booker’s. Occasionally I’ll have High West, I’ve had Russell’s Reserve, Maker’s Mark. All of them have their own sort of unique appeal to them. So if I’m looking for something really smooth and it’s a Maker’s, if I’m looking for something spicier maybe I’ll go Basil Hayden or something that has a higher rye. There’s just so much product variation in the category, and that’s before you even get to cast finishing. I think it’s such a hugely diverse category and I did see some research — I can’t remember exactly who it was from — they were saying the SKU explosion, the product explosion in the bourbon category over the past couple years has been unprecedented. There’s just so many bourbons coming onto the market.
A: Oh, yeah, totally.
Z: Well, it makes sense because it’s become such a popular category that everyone wants to put bourbon on the label but then offer you a flavor profile that might appeal more to you whether you previously had been a single-malt whiskey drinker or a rye drinker or tequila drinker or whatever. They’re trying to find flavor profiles that still fit under this sort of legal definition of bourbon but that are more expansive. And it makes total sense, that’s how you sell a lot more product than just keep making the same thing. But, Erica, you did not tell me your favorite cocktail!
A: She did!
E: I like the Boulevardier. But I do know the history of it. It was actually named for the publisher of a magazine called Boulevardier. It was a magazine for expats who were living in Paris in the 1920s and the publisher’s name was Erskin Gwinn. It’s a very simple cocktail, it’s essentially a Negroni variation. You just replace the gin with bourbon, and I go a little higher on the bourbon. For a Boulevardier, instead of doing equal parts of Campari, sweet vermouth, and the spirit, for a Boulevardier I would increase the parts for bourbon. If it was one ounce of sweet vermouth, one ounce of Campari, then I would probably do an ounce and a quarter, maybe a little bit more of bourbon. And some people really think that that’s a little sweet, they like a Boulevardier made with rye but I love a bourbon Boulevardier. That’s the one for me.
Z: That would be me.
A: But that’s not how it’s supposed to be made, Zach. Erica is a cultured individual and she understands how the cocktail is supposed to be drunk, unlike Zach, who tried to correct me about a year and a half ago on this podcast or two years maybe by saying that I didn’t know how to drink Boulevardiers because they were made with rye. And then guess what? We pulled the history. And who is correct?
Z: It wasn’t an argument about the history, it was an argument about which was better and I stand by my stance.
A: What about you?
Z: For me, it’s funny, I’ll say my favorite bourbon cocktail — and by this I mean the cocktail where I would only ever want bourbon in it and never would want another spirit, which to me is kind of an important thing here — I honestly love Mint Juleps. We had a weird September Kentucky Derby. I’ve always loved the Julep, I love mint, I like the flavor it brings, I occasionally like a sweeter cocktail. Like you, Adam, I like enjoying the sort of slushy, crushed ice kind of thing at the end. And it was one of the first drinks as a bartender that I really obsessed over getting my own recipe down and technique down. While I think it can be taken as a very simple drink — and obviously, if you were in previous years to go to a crowded bar on the Derby Day and try to get a Mint Julep, you’re probably getting something that was premixed a few days ago. But making one from scratch in the moment there actually is a surprising amount of technique that goes into it. And I always kind of gravitated to those types of drinks as both a bartender and as a drinker. But when it comes to enjoying bourbon otherwise, outside of cocktails, I am also mostly just a bourbon neat kind of person. Every now and then a big ice cube but honestly, I drink a lot of it in the evenings just as is — not so much in the summer but as we move into a fall, as I find out where my sweaters are, I will be drinking more and more of it. And my favorite is Willett. That’s my favorite distillery, I named my dog Willett — not coincidentally. And I have a big 1.75 liter bottle of it on my shelf all the time.
A: You had a bourbon party, right?
Z: My wife and I, our baby shower theme was whiskey. It wasn’t exclusively bourbon, but yes, there was a lot of bourbon at said party. It was fun. And we have a potentially comically large bourbon collection at home. If you’re ever in Seattle, you know where to find bourbon.
A: I like bourbon a lot, I just think, and again I had a lot of issues with growing up in the South. I didn’t love a lot of it. The politics, the issues that people had with people who were different than them, all that kind of stuff. But when I moved up North, I had a nostalgia for some of the cuisine and things like that and I really found more of an affinity than I’d had in the past for bourbon. I really think it’s become my go-to whiskey, which is interesting because my earliest phase of drinking whiskey was Scotch because I just thought that that was what you were supposed to drink if you were cultured. You were supposed to be really into single malt and things like that. And I definitely feel like I’ve gotten more and more into bourbon. And I’m wondering why you both think we as a population have become so obsessed with it. Because it’s growing faster than any other category of whiskey. It’s the dominant spirit in certain months of the year. You now have other categories of whiskey kind of trying to copy the flavor profile. You have single malts that are finishing their single malt now in bourbon barrels and trying to say these are American bourbon-finish Scotches. Irish whiskey is playing with it as well. What do you think the driving force is behind it being so popular?
E: I think it’s because it’s a sweeter spirit. It’s one of the sweetest brown spirits. And that to me makes a big difference. It’s also the original American spirit. It’s got the Congressional Resolution of 1964 that calls it the “distinctive spirit of the United States.” So I think that there’s some part of it that people may go to bourbon because it feels like a patriotic thing or something like that. But I think when you get down to flavor profiles and what drives purchasing decisions, it’s a very accessible brown spirit. And you really can’t go wrong. Even at the bottom shelf like Old Grand Dad — which is less than $30 a bottle anywhere across the country — that is a very solid bourbon. And that you can go from that level of in the high $20s all the way up to several hundred dollars and no matter what you’re going to get a good product, the quality is just there and the versatility is there. It goes in so many different types of cocktails. And it is so good to drink itself. And there’s just such a huge variety of products at this point.
Z: I think that’s all true. I think one of the things that instigated it, though, was that for a while, and I say this as someone who is a bartender and around the bar community, it really felt kind of deeply unappreciated in this country. I think there were a lot of people who gravitated toward it for sort of the same reasons that Adam explained. If you were drinking whiskey 15, 20 years ago, they were probably Scotch drinkers and bourbon wasn’t seen as a serious spirit — spirits in general were seen as not something people took seriously. Cocktails were just having a renaissance in the early 2000s, and a lot of what came out of that was giving people permission to do something which they probably had wanted to do all along because, as Erica said, bourbon is delicious and much more so than any other whiskey and most other spirits. It delivers a lot of pleasure, it can deliver a lot of interesting flavor and complexity, and things that aren’t always purely pleasurable, but at its base it is pleasure and it’s about the sweetness and it’s about the smoothness, it’s about some of the specific flavors. The really intense vanilla, caramel tones that are, because it’s all new oak barrels, it gives you more of that than almost any other spirit. And people just want permission to drink something they find pleasurable. And whether it was through the rise of craft cocktails, whether it was through some sort of on screen, in culture, figures — I think “Mad Men” probably had a lot to do with it, too. It’s been talked about a lot, even though I f***ing hated that show. And I think that a lot of people were either introduced to it or were sort of encouraged to take it seriously for the first time. And what came along with that was, at the time, a huge backlog of really extensively aged bourbon that people could purchase for relatively reasonable prices, which is no longer the case. And you had this concurrent explosion in craft distilling not just in Kentucky but around the country. One of the things I’m curious about and I can get your opinions on and we can get into it now or another time, one issue that I would say about bourbon is I still think once you get outside of traditional bourbon country quality is really interesting.
A: It’s s***.
Z: It’s not all s***.
A: No, a lot of it is.
E: What? No, no, no, no, no. No way. I disagree with that.
Z: I’m more on Adams’s side than on Erica’s side here. I will say that one fundamental issue that challenges a lot of distilleries that are newer is craft distilling in this country is basically a decade old. Maybe. It was the very end of the 2000s when the laws were changed to allow for craft distilleries to open and operate in many states. And the reality is that’s absolutely the bare minimum of time it takes to make good bourbon. Like 10 years. It needs a lot of time in barrels to reach a really good level of smoothness and flavor extraction. And the honest truth is, unless you were hugely willing to invest in your bourbon production right from the get-go, which very few people were positioned to do, the honest truth is most people who are putting bourbon on the market are still shortcutting it. They’re either aging it for less time, or they’re using smaller barrels to get more of that flavor quickly. And it’s not to say that no one can get it right. It also takes trial and error to get your mash bill and your processes dialed in. And the reality is I think there’s a lot of potential in the category outside of the traditional, mostly Kentucky and maybe Tennessee distilleries but it’s definitely not where it could be. And it’s still, unfortunately, a thing where I get a lot of Pacific Northwest-type distilleries where I try them and I’m just like, eh, I don’t see the point yet. Maybe other spirits they’re doing great work with but for most of the distilleries outside of that area, without the heritage and the history, they just don’t have it figured out yet. It isn’t to say they won’t figure it out. But, Erica, it sounds like you have some examples. I would love to know what I should be trying.
E: What’s the one that Nicole Austin was at? Remind me of the name.
A: Now she’s at Dickel.
E: But she was at the New York one.
A: I want to know what you’re gonna say and I’m going to say absolutely not. Kings County?
E: Kings County. Here’s the thing, at the beginning, I think they did not really have it together. I was there years and years ago when they were doing the small barrels. But now over time, just like any other category, you learn and you refine your technique and the product gets better. Now, High West. A lot of these distilleries have now been around for some amount of time and their product has gotten so much better.
A: Kings County, I went very early on as well when they had the small barrels and it was so expensive. I think that’s maybe the issue that Zach and I both have. Zach, I don’t mean to make conclusions on your behalf.
Z: I think you’re probably right.
A: My issue with it is because it’s craft and so, therefore, there is a lot of money that went into it, the output is very expensive. And these whiskeys, at this point in time, are not worth the money. And I think that’s my issue. And there’s a pressure to do it. People are putting it out two years after it’s been in barrel, as fast as they can to try to recoup costs. Which makes sense because there are a lot of people who went into the game raising money, who didn’t do it the way that people who go into wineries do it, they’re multimillionaires who then lose some of their money. People go into whiskey thinking we can go and make money, build brands, everyone’s trying to buy as many new brands as possible right now, let’s go in and do this. And I feel like a lot of these whiskies that came out were just extremely overpriced for what they were. That really put a sour taste in my mouth. I can’t do it when Elijah Craig is $25 and delicious. And that becomes very hard to stomach. And I think you’re right that a lot of these places have gotten better. Admittedly, I have not had Kings County in at least a half-decade — and I’m not trying to badmouth Kings County, by the way. I’m sure there are a lot of people who love Kings County. I just haven’t had it in a while — but because it was so expensive, like $45 for a 375 milliliter, it just felt like a lot to stomach. I felt the same way about Hudson Baby bourbon, which I think now is owned by Beam. Someone bought them but it was the same thing. It was kind of a cool kid thing to drink them. It was the same person that would buy the most local of local craft beers, they would buy Baby Bourbon. But everyone knew it was a rip-off, and everyone knew that it wasn’t as good as drinking Weller, which at the time in New York was when Weller was affordable — it was around $8 a dram. Now it’s ridiculous because it’s connected to Pappy [Van Winkle]. But I think that’s my biggest issue. As Zach said, it takes such time but there’s not that same kind of patience with craft whiskey because you need to make that money back that a lot of it just is not worth the price of what it needs to be charged for.
E: Yeah, I would say if you’re new to bourbon, go and try all the classics, and that is your benchmark. But then once you’ve tried all the classics, I have found it particularly fun to branch out and try bourbon from all around the country and whiskey from all around the country for that matter. I know there’s one that I enjoyed from Breckenridge Distillery. They have a port-cask-finished bourbon that is lovely, incredible. It’s sort of maple-y and delicious. There’s so many bourbons out there and you can try that you almost can’t go wrong. I guess you can go a little bit wrong on price and some of them are very young and some people are also just buying their bourbon and bottling it. But at the end of the day, I find, trying out the whole range of products out there is really exciting.
A: Yeah but real talk, both your favorite bourbons are still the classic producers.
E: That is true.
Z: Yeah, and I don’t see that changing. I’d love to be proven wrong. Distilleries outside of Kentucky, let me know I’ll give you a shot but I think it’s still a category where for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is just the established tradition and the infrastructure, whereas with almost any other category of spirit, even other whiskeys, I might be inclined to pick a spirit from all kinds of places. I’m going back to Bourbon County. That’s just where I’m at.
A: Email us [email protected]. I’m happy to send you the addresses — since we’re all still quarantining and not in the office — of Zach, myself, and Erica. If you’ve got a bourbon you think we should try, we’re more than happy to give it a shot. But I think that’s what has helped drive the bourbon category so much, that connection to “oh my gosh, there were these people who’ve been making this stuff forever and there’s these super-old barrels and they’re mixing these liquids in.” And think about it, I think that is what really has made a lot of people fall in love with bourbon. Going back to the history of it being America’s spirit, and the fact that there some really affordable old bottles. The thing that helped drive it in the beginning were these whiskey people who found bourbon who were like, “Wow. So I can get a super-old bourbon for a lot cheaper than a super-old Scotch.” And they started collecting it. Now, that’s not the case. Now you cannot get a super-old bourbon for cheaper than super-old Scotch. Now, the next big place, I’m telling you, if you want super-old whiskey, is Irish [whiskey]. Because that’s still way undervalued. But that’s another podcast. If you’re looking for old, which a lot of the bourbon hunters are — that is why they were attracted to it, that’s why now they’re the same people who are being attracted to Cognac and Armagnac. I think that’s part of the allure of what it had and this idea that you could be drinking this bourbon that in it there are liquids that are 50, 75 years old. That’s just so romantic. It’s the same reason why people fall in love with collecting wine and drinking old bottles. For me, it’s what makes bourbon so cool and special, even though I’ve never had Pappy.
Z: Still? Oh, my God.
A: I haven’t.
Z: Well, one day, Adam.
A: Have both of you had it?
E: I’m trying to think, I don’t even think I have had it.
A: Yeah. I’ve never had it. Zach, is it as amazing as everyone says it is?
Z: I would say it’s like anything in that category. It’s really good, but it’s nowhere near worth the price. I think you can have 97 percent of the experience for a tenth of the price. I would never pay for it at the price as it is now. But like you were talking about with Weller, even with Pappy, which had more of a rap, you know, it was $20 a shot when I was getting into bartending. I would spend that occasionally. It was fun, it was a splurge. Now it’s 10 times that so I wouldn’t. But it’s really good. But like anything, the romance of feeling like you’ve discovered something is lost when it’s the thing that everyone is clamoring after.
A: And that’s what I’m really nervous about. Recently, Colonel, E.H. Taylor, which also comes out of the Buffalo Trace distillery, just won a ton of awards. And it’s sort of connected to Pappy. I love E.H. Taylor, it used to be around $12 a shot, I’m getting really nervous it’s going to explode and you’re not able to afford it anymore. And that’s sad. That’s really sad. Do you guys know what the going price for Pappy 23 Year Old is right now?
Z: For a bottle?
E: That’s outrageous.
A: It’s just ridiculous. That’s on the secondary market, so on the primary market I think they still do sell it for around $1,000. But that’s just an insane amount of money that people are willing to pay for this bottle of bourbon, which is another reason I’ve never had it before.
Z: You missed your chance.
A: Exactly, I missed my chance and now I have to find other things.
Z: Not until the VinePair IPO.
A: Exactly. But there’s still a lot of really good stuff out there. I think that’s what also makes bourbon so fun. Heaven Hill Distillery is super underrated, I think they do a lot of amazing bourbons. I think a lot of stuff Brown-Forman makes is really great. There’s a lot of really good distilleries — again, we’re talking Kentucky — that have these undiscovered bourbons that are still very affordable and delicious without feeling like you have to have Pappy or you have to have Weller or you have to have the other big ones. There’s so many that everyone wants to collect, I don’t think it has to just be those that you yearn for in order for you to really enjoy this delicious liquid.
E: Right. There’s so much out there. It’s such a huge category.
A: Well guys, this has been one of our longest podcasts ever. So if you stuck through the whole time, we appreciate it.
Z: Pour yourself a drink at this point.
A: Pour yourself a bourbon. Let us know what you think about bourbon, we hope you enjoy the content for the rest of the month. We’ll be back at you next week. As always, send us your thoughts and feelings to [email protected]. Leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, or where else you listen to podcasts. It helps other people discover the show. Erica and Zach, I will see you next week.
E: See you then.
Z: Sounds great.