Bourbon Heritage Month gives us the opportunity to both celebrate and reflect on the bourbon industry as a whole, past present and future. In this spirit, I will spend the month exploring various changes and issues from the past, present, and future of the bourbon industry that I think are important. It’s going to be a month of great pours, reviews related to what’s discussed in the blog posts and hopefully some useful information for both the novice and seasoned bourbon drinker. Sláinte!
As September is Bourbon Heritage Month I thought it appropriate to look at the heritage side of things – it’s in the name after all! Bourbon whiskey has an interesting and varied history; for the last 200 years distilleries have risen, prohibition has toppled, repeal has saved, and consumer interests have dipped and dived – to put it lightly. Throughout this time there have been many key moments that have changed the industry. These include the passing of the Bottled-in-Bond Act, the passing of federal regulations that dictate how bourbon is made, and presently a booming craft bourbon scene that is not afraid to both embrace and shun traditional methods to suit a modern palate. Although this history is important to know in order to understand how it has lead us to where we are today, as people that enjoy a pour, sometimes the best way to really get a feeling for this history is to taste it first-hand. ‘How so?’ you might wonder – by drinking old bourbon of course!
Now, when I say old bourbon I mean anything that was bottled 10+ years ago. These bottles, commonly known as ‘‘dusties’’ are often treasured by bourbon drinkers and some can sell for several multiples of what they would have originally sold for back in the day when they were common on shelves. Some of these bottles come from as far back as pre-prohibition, but in my experience most are early/pre-90s or early 70’s/late 60s. You might now be wondering ‘But what makes bourbon made in the early 90s better than what’s made today?’ and the quick answer is as follows.
As the demand for bourbon has risen in recent years, distilleries have been stretched to meet this demand. This has resulted in several heartbreaks for bourbon lovers. Age statements are dropping faster than Wile E. Coyote tied to an anvil, and some would say quality is following suit (i.e. younger bourbon means less flavour and complexity). This is in contrast to the 70’s to 90’s period which followed the first failed ‘bourbon renaissance’ in the 50’s and 60’s (by failed I’m referring to the 50’s and 60’s when the whiskey industry predicted a future of endless growth and consumer demand). In response distilleries were making as much as they could and pumping out barrels to the tune of over 1 million a year. Then came the cold water, and as consumers started drinking more vodka and tequila in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the whiskey industry’s share of the market dramatically decreased and left the industry reeling. The result of this was massive stocks of superior well-aged bourbon that was labelled as younger whiskey and sold to unassuming consumers in order to undo this massive oversupply.
So the question is still:’ Is an older equivalent of a modern expression a better bourbon in terms of taste and quality?’, well there’s only one way to find out – a tasting!
In steps my old friend Wild Turkey 101. This particular Wild Turkey expression has seen many label changes in the last few decades and recently the sad transition to a non age-stated (NAS) product. Originally released to compete with the 101 proof Eagle Rare, this bourbon quickly gained a following and ‘dusty’ bottles can sell for quite a premium with any serious Wild Turkey fan being able to quickly to point out which decade and label held the best release of this mid-shelf classic. What I love about it is that Wild Turkey 101 8 year old was my first taste of bourbon and I loved it from the first sip. In fact, I loved it so much I’ve sought high and low to get my hands on as many different expressions as possible.
Today I’ll be tasting three different expressions blind and side-by-side to see if the quality has changed over time and label changes, and which is my favourite: ‘dusty’ or modern?
Bottle 1: Wild Turkey 101 8 years old (1993 bottling)
A friend that’s a massive wild Turkey fan once told me that anything bottled before 1994 is many years older than the 8 year old age statement, and another told me that if the Turkey’s looking at you the juice is top shelf. This litre bottle has both and was found sitting on a bar in a small Irish town with less than 4 pours (by my estimations) taken out of it. The very friendly barman sold it to me for €25 and I carried it home like a new-born baby.
Bottle 2: Wild Turkey 101 8 years old (2013 bottling)
This particular expression of Wild Turkey is the same as the bottle I bought on that faithful day in 2015 when I first tried bourbon. I found two bottles sitting on a shelf in a local supermarket, bought both, drank both, and loved them both without realising that the transition to the NAS expression was already well under way and that I should have maybe been more conservative with my drinking of these beauties. What followed was a 3 year search to find another bottle (pictured below) at retail in Ireland – a true miracle.
Bottle 3: Wild Turkey 101 NAS (2016 bottling)
After finally striking it lucky and finding another bottle of Wild Turkey 8 year old at retail I knew I’d have to get a bottle of the modern equivalent so I could compare the two directly and see for myself if my years of searching were perhaps in vain. The new label is modern, features more information on the whiskey (i.e. char level of the barrel etc.) and has a very detailed image of a turkey’s head on the bottle that looks like it died in a tragic farm fire and now seeks its revenge by killing people in their dreams – but hey it’s what’s inside that counts right?!
To make this as scientific as possible I had my wife pour 20mls of each into separate Glencairn nosing glasses so I would have no idea which is which until after I’ve ranked them by order of preference – SCIENCE!
Nose: A noticeable alcohol burn greets you, followed by a dampened nose of light cola cubes, cherries, caramel, baking spices and earthy rye spice
Palate: The palate is viscous with light vanilla, sweet caramel, minty herbaceous oak barrels, and a slight rye spice towards the back
Finish: earthy rye spice with light caramel, vanilla, and serious oak tannins in the aftertaste that fades to cherries and cola again
Nose: less alcohol burn than glass one, more vibrant cola and cherries but less rye earthiness in the back than glass one
Palate: viscous with burnt caramel, slight vanilla, and a wave of rye spice.
Finish: roasted peanuts, earthy rye spice, intense caramel, and oak tannins that taste young and make their presence known.
Nose: Intense floral vanilla combines with intense caramel and a touch of rye earthiness in the back
Palate: Viscous with intense vanilla again, slight caramel and a spicy sweet and earthy rye kick
Finish: Intense and sweet floral vanilla continues on the finish, balanced out by the earthy rye and hints of minty oak.
The clear winner of the blind tasting was glass 3 which really ticked all the boxes for me – classic bourbon profile with just buckets of complexity and deliciousness all jammed into one pour. I have to say this was harder than I thought because typically an old bottle will have a certain funk from the mild oxidation that occurs over the years but this was a very close race and a final sip of all 3 in quick succession once the notes were jotted down further confirmed the deserving winner – so time to see which wins!
Glass 3: Wild Turkey 101 8 years old (2013 bottling)
Glass 2: Wild Turkey 101 NAS (2016 bottling)
Glass 1: Wild Turkey 101 8 years old (1993 bottling)
This was definitely an unexpected result and to say that I was completely surprised is an understatement. In my mind the 1993 WT would sour high above the other more inferior versions, with the modern NAS dragging through the dirt whilst the 2013 bottling fell somewhere in between. What I got instead was the 2013 soaring high, the NAS in the middle, and the 1993 barely keeping up – quite a different ending than expected. Don’t get me wrong, the 1993 bottle had all the hallmarks of what should have been an outright win, however, despite being a fantastic pour on it’s own it was easily outshone by the newer versions almost like a newly minted coin compared to an older faded version.
This result just further demonstrates both the mystery and intrigue that surrounds duties as well as the risks involved in a) overspending on a ‘dusty’ whiskey when you can’t be sure what you’re going to get and b) comparing a bourbon to the same expression that’s 20+ years younger. If I had paid the crazy prices that bottles of 1993 WT 101 go for on both the secondary market and at auction I would feel very disappointed after this result. It’s a great pour on its own, but for the money I’d want it to at least outperform the bottle of 2013 WT 101 that I paid €30 for and the bottle of 2016 NAS WT 101 that goes for about €40 a bottle.
However, it’s important to note that when comparing a bottle that was bottled in 1993 to bottles that were bottled in 2013 and 2016 you probably won’t get the scientifically definitive result you were hoping for – just a fun evening getting to drink three great bourbons. There are simply far too many factors that can influence the outcome. For example and when it really comes down to it, these 3 bottles – although bottled under the same product label – are decades apart and probably explains why the 2016 and the 2013 performed so well compared to the 1993 – they simply haven’t oxidised to the same extent (because let’s not forget the bottle cork breathes), as well as several other factors which may have influenced the result.
In conclusion, ‘dusties’ really are a great way to taste both the history and how brands have changed in modern times – sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. In this case the newer versions just happened to outperform the older version but I’ve definitely tasted it the other way around several times. To date, I’ve tasted about 10 different bourbons that would be considered ‘dusty’ (by the 10+ years old standard) and I have to admit the results have been very mixed. One 1960’s Very Old Fitzgerald I tasted was horribly smoky and almost tasted peated, whereas a 1991 Blantons I’ve tasted blows the current expression clean out of the water. When it comes to bourbon – ‘dusty’ or not- you’re always taking a small risk in that you never really know what the juice is like until you take that first sip. Sure you can bet certain brands and labels will deliver a great whiskey but every now and again a game changer like this arrives. Does this result show that ‘dusties’ aren’t as good as their modern counterparts? I’d say the answer will always be inconclusive. There are too many factors involved to give a definitive yes it does answer. Instead I’ll say buy a ‘dusty’ if that’s what you want, but if you don’t/can’t or have yet to find one there’s plenty of great priced bourbon on the shelves from the last 5-10 years at a great price that’s just looking for a good home. Also, as a final thought can I just say kudos to Wild Turkey! Despite expecting the worst, their modern NAS expression is really well put together and demonstrates how much skill Eddie and Jimmy Russell’s team have when it comes to recreating that classic Wild Turkey 101 8 y.o flavour profile – definitely an art in itself!