Friday, April 25, 2014
New York Times, Eric Asimov, Highlight Hudson Valley Bourbon
Fantastic piece on Hudson Valley Bourbon by Eric Asimov. The valley's distilleries get a well earned star! And the praise just keeps on coming as the Valley cements its reputation as a stalwart of the US distilling world, and how the Valley just keeps growing in so many different directions. Exciting stuff. - C. DeVito, editor
Bourbon’s Masters of the Craft
Over the last decade, bourbon has been on the kind of streak that horseplayers can only dream about. This is particularly true of the most expensive bourbons: not merely high-end ones, but those that are super-premium, in the parlance of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade association. From 2004 to 2013, sales of these bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys more than tripled, to more than 1.2 million cases from 385,000. Among super-premium whiskeys, this rate of increase has been matched by only that of Irish whiskey, though the volume sold is puny alongside bourbon.
Recognizing the urgency of the moment, bourbon distillers successfully overhauled themselves as a significant option for connoisseurs. Instead of the inexpensive mass-market bourbons that for so long had been the industry’s focus, a new array of small-batch, single-barrel and special-selection bourbons emphasized the complexity and elegance prized by whiskey experts.
This was not simply marketing. It required recognition that bourbon could offer excellence. Rather than diluting greatness by tossing exceptional barrels of whiskey in with the mass of mediocre stuff, distillers realized that a small but significant group of consumers thirsted for what was exceptional. American society had given birth in the last 30 years to a connoisseur class for comestibles and beverages, whether for beer, barbecue, pizza, wine or cocktails. Whiskey was no different.
This was where matters stood in 2007. But bourbon has continued to evolve. Books exploring the spirit and its distillers have come out, including recently “Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit” by Dane Huckelbridge, and “Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide” by Susan Reigler. Cult bourbons have emerged, like Pappy Van Winkle (which incidentally was No. 1 in our 2007 tasting, when you could still find it at retail shops). Most significantly, small craft distillers have turned their attention to bourbon.
In 2007, when Sean Josephs opened Char No. 4, a whiskey bar and restaurant in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, he said he knew of only two American craft distillers. “Since then, the category has exploded,” said Sean, who is also an owner of Maysville in the Flatiron district.
This time, we focused on only bourbons from craft distillers. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Sean and Robert Simonson, who writes frequently on drinks for the Dining section.
Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, not just in Kentucky, though that state and a handful of big distillers, who comprise dozens of different brands, account for roughly 90 percent of the world’s bourbon. By law, bourbon must be distilled from grains made up of at least 51 percent corn, and the whiskey must be stored in charred new oak barrels before bottling at 80 proof or higher. If it is aged in charred oak for two years or more, it qualifies as straight bourbon whiskey.
It is easy to understand the appeal of small craft distillers. Given the perception that corporate ownership diminishes the so-called authenticity of foods and beverages by focusing more on profits and efficiency than quality and craftsmanship, connoisseurs may be drawn to those distillers the way they are to microbrewers and family wine estates. Throw in the attraction of the local — small distilleries can be found all over the country, with more than 30 in New York State alone — and you have a formula for obsession. Of our top 10 bourbons, five came from New York, two from Colorado and one each from Tennessee, Ohio and Illinois.
Yet, as the panel found previously with gin, craft distillers are not automatically successful with bourbon. Or, to be more precise, newer distillers are not always better bourbon producers.
Partly, this may be a function of expertise. The big producers have decades of bourbon-making experience, and, as the marketing term “small batch” indicates, they are not always producing vast quantities. But it’s also literally a question of aging. Start-up distillers do not often have the luxury of aging their spirits as long as they may like, not when they need cash to start flowing. Younger whiskeys have their attractions, but by and large they tend to be fiery and aggressive, while smooth complexity generally comes from time in the barrel.
Indeed, many of the bourbons in our lineup seemed raw and unrefined, tasting more of cereal and grains than more-developed whiskey flavors, though our favorites surprised us with their complexity. In 2007, our top bourbons had plenty of age, at least eight years for most and 20 for the top-ranked Pappy Van Winkle. This time, none of our top 10 included an age statement.
“It’s almost unfair to judge them at this point,” Robert said. “It’s still a nascent industry. We’ll see where they are in 10 years.”
Nonetheless, they are in the market, and at super-premium prices, so they are fair game for judgment.
Most bourbon distillers use 65 percent to 75 percent corn, blended with some combination of rye, wheat or malted barley. Our No. 1 bourbon, Tuthilltown Spirits Hudson Four Grain Bourbon, used, as the label suggests, all four of these grains to produce a lovely, complex, savory and sweet spirit. No. 2 was from Brooklyn’s own Kings County Distillery, a raw yet exotic and deep spirit, while No. 3, from Hillrock Estate in Ancram, N.Y., was aged in a solera system, like sherry, which combines spirits of multiple ages.
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