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Is the creativity of the bourbon industry its biggest threat?

I read a lot about American whiskeys these days.
And this is a good thing [except, that nothing new and/or great seem to arrive in the Middle East].

For such long time, which spans from the end of the prohibition [respective from the start - depending how you see it] until the early 2000's, American whiskey was quite a shadow - a side remark in the whisk(e)y industry. But now - it is talk of the town [even if it is not this town]. And bourbon and rye have all the right to be en vogue. The flavors are bold - but also absolutely stunning. The prices are compared to other whisk(e)y really accessible.

There were so many great brands and bottlings which resurfaced after the millennium or new distilleries, which gain traction.

However these days, it seems, that the American distillers are loosing their way and it just seems, that they try too hard.
It started with flavored whiskey- while I absolutely love the concept [and house-crafted bourbon infusions can be really amazing], the introduced infusions were more for the casual "shot" market. Nothing really great here [well - there are definitely exceptions]. Also, the infusions traded in the unique selling point of great straight whiskey: its strength [yes - Jack Daniels Old No.7 and Jim Beam White Label are sold on 40% abv - but they can hardly be called great straight whiskeys. Already the surprisingly Jim Beam Black Label has 43% - and Elijah Craig 12 years old has 47% - and then the more expensive Small Batch Collection of Jim Beam are ranging with one exception over 50% abv].

I don't think, that these infusions did so well. Off course Jim Beam sold quite some quantity of Red Stack and Heavenhill as well as Jack Daniel's sold not less of their honeyed whiskeys - but compared to the "normal" spirits, these products might be just a footnote.

Further some really interesting and unique whiskey in the conservative boundaries of Straight Whiskey appeared: four grain bourbon, straight wheat whiskey, whiskeys which were aged in selected oak barrels - and barrels with specially manufactured staves.
All good and well.

But since a couple of months I am keep on hearing about whiskeys, which "feels" wrong. Look, I considered the rules, to make a US straight whiskey, as even more strict than Scotch single malts. And this seems to fade. Examples? Well, port or sherry finished bourbons are one examples. Or cross breeds which mixes different mashbills - yes even different styles: bourbon and rye. Or even one, which mixes bourbon, rye and Scotch or one which mixes bourbon and brandy!

This is not a real problem [and can even increase diversity without negative effect] if this is done as exception. But it seems, that the large producers are getting into the habit to get onto even small trends and offering these products in the market place. And this might very likely change the way, how we see bourbon.

See it like that: strict laws [if written or not] how to produce a product can be a disadvantage for short term success of a product. However on a longer period of time, it gives the customer a guideline as well as a quality security. And renowned spirit categories like Cognac, Scotch single malts or tequila and also American straight whiskey only became successful due to their strict standards.

Trading these standards with short termed trends might be a very risky game!
I believe, that the new "innovative" products will rather insecure and confuse customers, than bring the whole category forward.

Just some examples:

Make no mistake - I would love to try this whiskey: may I introduce you to Labrat & Graham's Woodford Reserve Master Collection Maple Wood Finish.

But didn't we all learned in elementary school [...] that bourbon has to be aged in solely new charred oak barrels? No aging in any other barrels! How they are able to sell this product? I have no clue... maybe because they don't call it a Straight bourbon. Who knows. But it definitely doesn't help for the overall understanding of the spirit.
Similar products: Big Bottom Whiskey, Abraham Bowman [port finished], Jim Beam Masterpiece [however they didn't called it bourbon - sherry, cognac], Angel's Envy [port], Prichard's Chocolate Bourbon.

Like discussed above - flavored whiskey is not necessary bad. However it can further confuse people [if it is done commercially and not in bars]. An example would be this Pow-Wow Botanical Rye. Again - the whole product is really cool - I love it. But calling it rye, doesn't help people to understand, that the US whiskey laws are strict and that American whiskey has in this case even an edge over the so beloved Scotch.
Again - I would not say anything against: Rye-Botanical infusion. But [like other infusions] it says Straight Rye Whiskey. And this shouldn't be allowed.
Other examples: Jim Beam Red Stag... and their other infusions: while they say, that it is straight bourbon infused with things [shouldn't even say that], they also advertise it as "Different Breed of Bourbon" - well it isn't a Bourbon!

Jack Daniel's Tennessee honey, Evan Williams honey... they all say, that they a liqueurs, flavored with honey and based on whiskey. This is how it should be done. Not sure, about the brand association, but it is much easier to see, that it is whiskey, but a liqueur.

And now the most confusing category: cross-breeds.
High West offering the most confusing whiskey - one which mixes Islay Scotch with Bourbon and Rye. They don't call it straight whiskey [they can't!] - but your head is spinning anyway.

They also offer a Rye-Bourbon blend. Which is equally confusing. But then also other, bigger producer catched up with the trend. E.g. Wild Turkey introduced their Forgiven not long ago [also Rye-Bourbon].
While these are the extremes, others mixing mashbills [different Bourbon "recipes"] - like the amazing Parker's Heritage of Heavenhill. What they do is, blending a wheated bourbon with a ryed bourbon.

The result is, that customers don't really know anymore, what to expect of a Bourbon or a Rye.
And this is a pity. And while the producers are innovating their industry, they might very well also harm it - maybe even as serious as it gets!

Only time will tell - but if I would be one of them, I wouldn't play so light-minded with the heritage of American whiskey.

What do you think? Is it only good, to get new, great tasting products? Or do you also think, that it could more harm as help the whole industry? Please comment below!


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