GQ is not my magazine. Despite my occasional outbursts of sartorial grace, I get little value from a magazine that chiefly specializes in articles on how athletes and rappers fail to dress like gentlemen, and how actresses and supermodels barely dress at all…. But, via a Gizmodo link, I discovered a recent article of theirs that is worth a discussion.
In The Bourbon Family Tree, GQ excerpts an excellent illustration and some good information from the The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining. Most of that volume (which I’ve ordered for my own library) is a rundown on the how-to of home distilling, an illegal (shakes tiny fist and overweening big government) and daunting task, which the book is unlikely to give me the courage to undertake. It also has a bunch of likely valuable information on craft distilleries and other segments of the modern American whiskey market.
The chart you see atop this post, hopefully an indication of how well author David Haskell communicates information in his book, shows a truly useful “distillation” of the corporate and chemical relationships between most of America’s commercial, non-craft bourbons, ryes, and assorted other brown liquors. Click the image atop this post to pop up a larger version. In thirteen years of booze nerd-dom, I’d already learned most of the information on this infographic, but I think I’m garnering some new insights from seeing it presented all together here. In case you refuse to click through to GQ (you know, because you are afraid you might accidentally run into the aforementioned pictures of hot women in few clothes), you read the chart from the bottom up.
Discuss the bottom row with your broker, as it details the corporate ownership of your favorite brown liquor. Diageo (DEO) has done quite well for me, for instance. How many rednecks out there who argue relentlessly on the relative merits of Jim Beam versus Maker’s Mark would be yanked up short if they knew both were kissing cousins? Thank God, Ford and Chevy still have different stock symbols….
The next row shows the major American distilleries each corporation owns. There are a lot fewer than I think most Americans believe, but happily, a couple more than I had previously thought. The trunks shooting up from each of these distilleries first branch out into whiskey varieties, then individual labels. The farther up the chart, the older, and generally more expensive, the product. The chart prominently features Buffalo Trace’s three mash bill family, but totally glosses over Four Roses’s ten bourbons to make three bottles process. Probably because it would have turned that tree into some futuristic-looking topiary that would better belong in Tomorrowland.
The most important concept for the whiskey drinker to take away from this graph to make him or her a better consumer is how many of these labels can be found on the same stems, representing that they all have essentially the same mash bill, and that bottles as disparate in taste and reputation, such as Knob Creek Bourbon and basic Jim Beam, or RI(1) and Old Overholt, may well have come off the same still, from the very same batch. Nothing could more clearly show the defining truth of whisk(e)y, that having a good white dog may be important, like a good foundation for your house, but most everything interesting and unique happens after it leaves the still. “While the four mash bills contribute to the flavor, the more significant differentiation among brands is done in the warehouse, where the type of construction, placement within the warehouse, and duration of aging have a stronger impact on the finished spirit,” says GQ about the Buffalo Trace bourbon family.
In whiskey, nurture wins out over nature, or Elijah Craig would just be Evan Williams in a fancier bottle.
Which of course leads me to my ding about this article. (I can’t write about someone else’s writing without finding fault. Feel free to find fault with me about this.)
Can’t find Pappy? Go for Weller
Pappy Van Winkle is frequently described by both educated and uneducated drinkers as the best bourbon on the market. It is certainly aged for longer than most premium bourbons, and has earned a near hysterical following of people scrambling to get one of the very few bottles that are released each year. Of the long-aged bourbons, it seems to be aged very gently year-to-year, and this recommends it enormously. But if you, like most people, can’t find Pappy, try W. L. Weller. There’s a 12 year old variety that retails for $23 around the corner. Pappy 15-year sells for $699-$1000 even though it’s the exact same liquid as the Pappy (same mash bill, same spirit, same barrels); the only difference is it’s aged 3 years less.
The only difference is not three years. GQ’s own article, two paragraphs before notes that it is more than just toss the barrels in a rick house and yank ‘em out after the requisite months have passed. Barrels are different. Their placement in the rick house, and the rick house they are in is different. Over the years, the distillers taste each, and determine which are coming along how, slowly segregating them by of what destiny they are becoming worthy. At the end, barrels (in most cases) are blended together to further refine different characteristics for each bottling.
There’s more in GQ’s article, most of it better and more informative than that last quote. And there is more for you to glean on your own from the chart. I especially love details like the honest family tree twining of branches, where you notice things like how George Dickel’s rye whiskey looks an awful lot more like the MGP milkman than George, and his Bulleit bourbon looks more like the handsome neighbor with the rose bushes… Mrs. Dickel gets around, I guess.
Have fun with this, and be sure to read GQ’s article, or Haskell’s book, so you can make sense of things like the dotted lines atop the stump (sapling?) growing up from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers.