Last month the President offered us his annual State of the Union address, which received predictably polarized reviews. While the tone of this installment was a touch more upbeat than in years past, I was left wanting for some tangible evidence that America is getting its act together. Since I am an unapologetic whiskey enthusiast, I sought refuge in a glass of good old American bourbon while I collected my thoughts. Why? Because whiskey gives me hope.
Despite its omnipresence on our liquor store shelves and back bars, whiskey remains a bit of a mystery to most consumers. It’s old and it’s trendy. It has been venerated and it has been bastardized. Whiskey is political. So consider the following your State of the Whiskey address, your primer on what’s relevant right now in the world of whiskey.
As it pertains to the world of fine spirits, whiskey has an integrity that sets it apart from its un-aged cousins like vodka and gin. Time is the most elusive and precious component within a whiskey bottle, for it takes years upon years to coax the best qualities from the whiskey distillate. The disciples of high technology and corporate efficiency have pioneered no acceptable shortcuts in the whiskey-making process, though a sharp increase in global demand has certainly motivated them to try. The fact that patience and time have prevailed over the pursuit of the dollar is a victory that deserves our recognition and our financial support.
When fresh whiskey spirit runs off the still, it is completely clear, and it is the young liquor’s interaction with a charred oak barrel that lends the final product its color, flavor, and aroma. Corporate zombies who wish to defy the soul of our beloved whiskey have attempted to vibrate barrels, agitate barrels, shrink barrels, and add oak chips to barrels all in an attempt to accelerate the maturation process. To date, the world’s whiskey enthusiasts have deemed none of these methods acceptable on a widespread basis, and whiskey’s integrity remains intact.
As their efforts to accelerate the aging process fell short, though, the corporate interests came up withan entirely different approach to the aging process: they abandoned it altogether and tried to sell us un-aged “white whiskey.” White whiskey is garbage. I said it and I stand by it. Did the supporters of this trend really believe they stumbled upon a delicious and sustainable secret known only to toothless moonshiners in the Appalachians? Did they really believe they could bypass such a critical step and get away with it? The trend was a flash in the pan, supported only by the corporate interests, the hipster bartenders who sought their praise, and the know-nothing-know-it-all bloggers who perpetually flock to the next big trend like cattle to the feed bin. The consumers soundly rejected the product on its own lack of merit. Some white whiskey is lingering in the system, but for the most part it is a dying trend. And we the people bid it good riddance.
So in the wake of a maturation process that cannot be accelerated and a consumer base that demands an aged product, two results are inevitable. Quality whiskey will become more rare and it will become more expensive. The clock is ticking on the days of readily available, reasonably priced, high- quality whiskey. That the forces of economics have conspired to make it possible for you or I to pay the same price for a 12-year bourbon as a bottle of un-aged gin was a hiccup in the system. It was a window of decadence that was never going to last. And frankly, that window is closing fast.
Don’t despair, but rather go out and buy up some high quality bottles while you still can! This is, after all, the strategy that the corporate interests are taking, albeit on a much larger scale. The Jim Beam distillery, the largest bourbon producer in the world, was sold last month to Suntory Holdings, Ltd. of Japan. Before the nationalists among us cry foul, though, it should be noted that the Americans have been selling off their big distilleries quite a bit as of late. The Kirin Brewing Company of Japan has owned Four Roses since 2001. Campari International, an Italian company, has owned Wild Turkey since 2009… and they bought it from a French corporation named Pernod Ricard.
So where does that leave us? I assert that the future of whiskey will follow the path that has already been established by the beer industry: smaller, local, craft distilleries are the future. New distilleries are opening every day across the country, and even the aficionados on the scene are having a difficult time keeping up with them all. This craft distillation movement is being led by luminaries like Chip Tate of Waco, Texas, who combines a knack for distillation with a love of his local terroir. Chip makes his whiskey from locally sourced Texas Hopi blue corn. He hammered away on pieces of copper until his distillation equipment met his standards. He makes his whiskey, puts it into barrels, and waits. There is integrity in his patience, and that gives me hope.