On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss what the future holds for the bourbon industry. They debate whether or not dessert-influenced bottles will grow in popularity and scale, as well as if the ever-increasing number of single-barrel bottlings and other limited releases will continue to draw consumer and collector attention. Tune in for more.
On this Friday’s tasting, your hosts try bourbons from Pinhook and Jefferson’s Ocean.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the VinePair Podcast, Friday edition. Bourbon.
J: Thank goodness you don’t need a hype man, Adam. You are your own hype man.
A: Isn’t it great?
J: You’re never going to be lonely.
A: Zach just sitting there silent like, “Ugh.”
Z: I’ve lived it for so long, I’m used to it.
J: It’s true.
A: So this is the end of bourbon month, which is the month we usually designate to kick off the bourbon season, the best season, the fall.
Z: Wait, wait, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You’ve been all over the place on what the best season is here man.
J: Yep, I heard it. I heard it.
A: You know what, you know what, you know what? I can change my mind. It’s another top season. It’s a top-tier season.
A: Yeah, top-tier season.
Z: The top half of seasons? Great.
A: Yeah, see it’s in the top half. It’s a top-half season.
Z: It’s a big honor.
A: Also, spring’s pretty good.
Z: Congrats, fall.
A: Just, no one likes deep winter.
A: That’s the only thing we don’t like, deep winter.
J: Like January.
A: Late January, February, ugh. But anyways, we’re not talking about that right now. We’re talking about fall, f*ckers, and put a gourd on it.
J: Decorative gourd season is what you mean.
A: It is the decorative gourd season. It is time to go. I was just under the farmer’s market recently, hanging out, buying gourds.
A: Just getting real excited, getting real amped, looking at all my basic millennials on the street. Just, I’m like, “What up, you got a pumpkin spice latte?” Yep, they do too. I don’t, because those things are gross. But most people love pumpkin spice lattes — and they love bourbon. And so we’re going to talk about the future of bourbon.
J: It seems like bourbon-spiked pumpkin spice lattes are the future.
Z: That’s what Adam had three of before we recorded this podcast, apparently.
A: So, no, but bourbon just has no signs of stopping. And one of the things we want to talk about, though, is sort of the evolution of bourbon. So there’s a lot of stuff happening in the world of bourbon and we published a really unique story by Aaron Goldfarb about these pastry style-esque flavors coming to the world of bourbon. So, Joanna, you want to summarize that for us? And then we can talk a little bit about where we think bourbon is headed.
J: Sure, so the story talks about the pastry craze that we saw in craft beer. I don’t know, maybe starting a decade ago, that’s kind of reached a fever pitch now, that we are now seeing in the bourbon and whiskey space. Strawberry and cocoa and cherry and different dessert-forward flavors making their way into bourbon. And kind of the varying responses to that happening. For some very serious bourbon people, maybe it’s not such a great thing, but for others who maybe don’t like how whiskey tastes without it, it’s an interesting development for people entering the category.
A: What do you think?
J: Yeah, I don’t know. I think people make some interesting points in the article like, “Okay, if you like a specific type of bourbon, then drink that bourbon. If you take it so seriously, then drink that bourbon.” Nobody’s asking you to have this cherry cask bourbon with cocoa notes and coffee notes and things like that, but you can leave that to the people who want to explore the space.
A: I don’t know, I feel that’s a really great response. I feel the same way about wine and beer too.
J: I mean everything, right? Yeah.
A: If someone wants to try a red wine aged and bourbon barrels, let them try it. It’s not for me, but it’s probably for other people. You know what I mean? There is no one right or wrong way here, and if the distiller or blender wants to mess around and play and create and see what they can do while still being able to call the bourbon bourbon? They’re playing within the rules, right?
A: It’s still a bourbon. They’re just then finishing it in different casks and trying to see what they can get out of it. I mean, to be very honest, that’s basically what Boss Hog is.
A: Boss Hog is the most expensive WhistlePig. Boss Hog is WhistlePig that then they take and they put in the craziest casks to get a flavor that basically makes the whiskey at the end of the day, taste like it has had additives added to it when it hasn’t. I mean, I remember, when I tasted it for the first time a few years ago — it’s a rye, right? So it’s not a bourbon, but Josh and I were convinced there must have been cocoa nibs added and coconut and some kind of cherry, and no. It was all the casks they chose to use to finish it.
A: And good for them, that’s super cool. And people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for that bottle. So if bourbon producers are playing around with it, I think that that’s really cool.
Z: And I think that’s also important to remember that this stuff, the sort of really wild stuff that Aaron describes in the piece is so small in terms of its production, people who are concerned-trolling about, “Well, what about bourbon?”
A: Concern-trolling, I’ve never heard that before.
J: I like that.
A: I like that.
Z: To me, being concerned about this is you can’t possibly be serious. At least I don’t think so, because in the end, there’s no real— it’s not the big bourbon distilleries in Kentucky or wherever are like, “Oh we’re shifting all of our production to these hyper-sweet, dessert-focused styles.”
Z: They’re not even making them, in this case, it’s a blender who is taking the already existing lots and doing this for the most part. And even if they were making a small percentage of this, I mean what we’re seeing right now is that bourbon distilleries are doing all kinds of crazy shit as we’ve been talking about because as the market expands, you both need to offer new things to keep bringing in potential new customers. Because yeah, someone who’s heard about, “Oh well bourbon’s a hot thing, but I don’t know if I like a hundred proof straight bourbon, but I might like bourbon with some additional flavors added in that are kind of complementary.” Or just something that meets people where they’re at as drinkers, and that’s what categories try to do all the time. It’s the same thing tequila’s doing, it’s the same thing that vodka did in its heyday. What’s interesting to me is that there is this kind of subset of people who are both really going wild for these hyper-flavored bourbons and also willing to spend a sh*tload of money on them. That is what I think is new because it’s not really the flavored vodka of a couple of decades ago where they were very inexpensive. Maybe there were some very high-end expressions of flavored vodka, but most of them were relatively affordable. But it’s like, “Here’s some both limited-production, very expensive, and also hyper- flavored versions of the spirit that already has a robust market for it.”
J: Yeah. I mean, I think it makes sense to me that there should be bourbon for different occasions.
A: Yeah, I agree. I agree.
A: Come on!
J: So I think we’re trying to explore, as the category continues to see such success, how producers are figuring out what the future looks like for them to stay relevant. Also, because not every bourbon can be allocated, right? Nobody’s going to be able to drink this stuff.
A: I know.
J: And that’s what keeps happening.
A: I think people are going to have to be able to have things that are delicious on their bar that aren’t…
J: That they can get.
A: Yeah, I mean it’s insane and everything can’t either be allocated or, “Oh, I got to buy this because it’s about to be allocated.”
A: It’s just, there’s going to have to be other things that people who enjoy the brown liquid can enjoy. And so I don’t have any issues with this at all. I think it allows the category to continue to grow and be interesting and not sort of one dimension. The only way that the category really has pushed itself prior to this was, “Okay, let’s go higher proof, let’s go barrel proof, let’s really push alcohol and alcohol level, let’s push age, how old can we release it?” But that’s really all that it’s done and especially with so many newer bourbon producers, this allows them to play earlier.
A: Right? Okay, so maybe, I mean, look, and again, I know that, I don’t mean to go back to WhistlePig as the answer, but this is what WhistlePig did really early on. They were like, “We’re going to take rye that we buy from other people, but we’re going to be expert finishers of that rye.” And a lot of this bourbon, especially by some of these more indie craft producers, is all coming from places like MGP where you have two choices, right? You either release it under your label and hope that no one realizes that that bourbon tastes pretty similar to someone else’s bourbon because you bought barrels that were pretty similar in age and had the same wood and were from the same cooper and all that sh*t, right? Or you say, “We’re going to buy that bourbon but then we’re going to get really good at finishing it.”
A: “And that’s how we’re going to stand out,” and you can have a whole legion of fans that way. So again, ingenuity, man. You have to be creative in this business or else it’s really hard to stand out. So I don’t have any issues with it at all.
Z: I want to ask you guys a question that I think connects to actually both of these pieces and something I’ve been thinking about a lot. So Joanna, a minute ago you were like, “Oh, you need to have a product that everyone can buy.” And I actually wonder if that’s true. I wonder if outside of maybe the very kind of core bourbon lines that we’re talking about, or the brands of bourbon that we’re extremely familiar with. Because one thing that I’ve seen more and more lately is so many different bars and establishments and retailers, all touting their single barrel selection from distiller X or, “We have a special run that’s only available to us from this distillery.” And if you’re not paying attention to this, across the industry, any individual consumer might walk into one of those bars or establishments and be like, “Oh, wow, that’s really cool. You have a barrel from Woodford or from Maker’s Mark,” or wherever. But when you think about how many of these places are doing this and what it really kind of comes down to, which is basically you just go buy a barrel of bourbon and you do some barrel samples, but is the team of people that you’re putting together to do that really better than the master distillers and blenders in these distilleries? Are they really picking out gems? I’m kind of skeptical, so really what you’re getting is a more expensive version of what is already readily available because someone can say it’s a single barrel selection by our bar manager or whatever. I am very skeptical of this as something that’s a value-add for consumers, but I totally get it from the perspective of both the distillers and the establishments. Because again, it’s a way to try and stand out. I just wonder if the market is already too saturated for any of this sh*t to really work.
J: I think that these two things that we’re talking about are for different consumers. I think that there are a lot of brands that would never deign to do, WhistlePig aside, a more dessert-forward, finished bourbon because bourbon people don’t take, a lot of bourbon people don’t take that seriously. And so then there are these other brands who, gosh, the name of the brand is slipping my mind right now, Zach, from the piece. But they’re like, “We don’t give a sh*t.” Basically, you should drink what you want and if you like this then great and more people can drink it. But I think those types of whiskeys are for different consumers who are less, for lack of a better word, snobby about the bourbon that they drink.
Z: Sure. But I think, the snobs are the people who are most likely to notice the presence of all these special bottlings that aren’t all that special, right?
A: Right, and no one cares about them.
Z: But then who are these bottlings for?
J: The snobs? Or the single barrel?
Z: Yeah, who are they trying to sell these to?
A: The snobs.
Z: But those people would notice that seven bars in their city all have a single barrel from the same distillery. Does that make it special? I don’t know, maybe it does.
A: I mean, look, I think if you are a tater.
A: You’re going to convince yourself that there’s nuances in each one of those barrels.
A: And there is, right? I mean at some point there is, it’s not going to be completely homogenous. Different things happen in different barrels.
J: And they’re also people who just collect, right? To collect.
A: Right. So yeah, you are going to convince yourself, I think. And I don’t know, is one bar more famous so therefore did they get a better pick of the barrels than another bar? I mean, single barrels are popular among collectors for a reason, right? People love barrel selects. Barrel picks are really, really popular. And because it adds exclusivity, and exclusivity adds value.
A: And most of the people are collecting for value. So that’s the thing that I would, that’s why I think that they’re aware of it. But I think in terms of this category of what we’re talking about, the finished bourbons that are these stout bourbons, the sort of pastry stout kind of bourbons. I don’t care what they think and I don’t think that the general consumers should either. If they enjoy them, enjoy them. Who cares?
A: I don’t care.
J: Why not?
A: So with that, can now we taste a bourbon? I know I said it earlier, but.
J: Okay, yeah. But we have some interesting stuff here.
A: What do we have?
J: Well, Zach wanted to drink future-y bourbon.
A: So bourbon that signifies the future.
J: The future. Well I have two things here, both innovations in their own right, I suppose.
J: One is a rye, unfortunately. It has this really interesting-
A: One is a rye.
Z: I love this, the future bourbon is rye. I like it.
J: I’m so sorry.
A: We’re not trying that one, Joanna.
J: Okay, but I want to tell you about it anyway.
A: Yes, please.
J: Because I think it’s really interesting. It has a charred oak spiral in the bottle.
A: So it continues to have oak.
J: And that’s the idea that it’s like, it’s being finished while you have it on your shelf.
A: Oh, I see it. Did Tim give you this?
J: Yes. He said it wasn’t great. And then I thought I’d grab an actual good bourbon.
A: This one is cool. Yeah, so I can talk about this one.
J: Please do.
A: The Vertical Series, and every year they’re releasing…
J: 200 bottles.
A: From basically the same casks that are, so aged longer, right? So first a five year, then at least a six year, then a seven year, right? So the idea is you’ll be able to do a vertical of the same liquid just aged for longer in these barrels.
J: That felt interesting to me because it’s different. It makes them stand out, right?
A: It’s very different.
J: It’s a cool thing.
A: It’s a very cool thing. So let’s try that, this one. And what do you have, Zach?
Z: So I have something that is both, I think kind of old and new at once. So it’s old in that this thing happening to bourbon is not new, but it, I think, represents the future in its own way, which is the Jefferson’s Ocean bourbon. So casks that are put out to sea.
J: I almost grabbed that, too.
Z: And to me, the reason why I think it’s interesting is I really like the bourbon. I don’t know that the ocean aging really does much that I can tell to the bourbon and makes a huge difference. But it’s super popular and it gets people to buy it, so cool. That’s a selling point.
Z: It tastes good. It’s not a criticism of the bourbon, I just don’t know that it’s better than some of the other stuff they don’t put on a ship.
J: It’s hard to get, right?
A: It has been. I think it’s easier now that Pernod owns it.
A: Because they’ve expanded the program. But it has been harder to get, it has been harder to get.
J: This smells nice.
A: These are very nice.
J: I like Pinhook.
Z: Wait, I want the… Where’s the charred oak spiral? Come on, I want tasting notes on that.
A: We’re not trying that. It’s bourbon.
J: Yeah, I mean I feel this is interesting with others in the series maybe.
J: But they’re bourbon is very good.
A: Yes, it’s good, I dig. Very cool.
J: Send us your thoughts on the future of bourbon.
A: Yeah, so just also the future of bourbon, but I mean.
J: But also make a Sidecar.
A: There’s so much possibility in bourbon. It’s very exciting, I’ll talk to you about it on Monday.
J: Have a great weekend.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.