Thursday, January 27, 2011
Nine Decades, Nine Whiskies
Prohibition Era whiskey.
Those are three words that will easily secure a spirits journalist presence at a liquor event.
The other day, the folks at Brown-Forman invited a select group of booze journos to taste through a collection of whiskies from their library, the earliest dating from the 1930s. The event was meant as a way to publicize the distillery's latest release—the return to full-Bourbon status of Early Times. (I've written about this everything-old-is-new-again product here.) But the tasting had a historical appeal all its own.
The seven whiskies pulled from the Brown-Forman stores were: King Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from the 1930s; Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from the 1940s; Old Forester President's Choice Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky from the 1950s; Old Forester 86 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from the 1960s; Frost 8/80 Dry White Whiskey from the 1970s; Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 from the 1980s; Woodford Reserve Distillers Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from the 1990s; Woodford Reserve Masters Collection Seasoned Oak Finish from the 2000s; and the new/old Early Times, representing the current decade.
Now, whiskey doesn't age the way wine does; it pretty much stays as it was when bottled. But sometimes the way the whiskeys are made and bottled alters slightly over the years. Popular tastes change, and bottling proofs go up and down. So the main attraction here was three-fold: to taste whiskeys and whiskey styles that are no longer made (the King and Frost); to taste extant whiskeys as they were made in the past (the various Old Forester expressions); and to taste familiar whiskeys bottled at bygone proofs (the Jack Daniel's, some of the Old Foresters).
The King came into the Brown-Forman fold when the company bought the old Lynndale Distillery (the distillery they use today) in 1923. It became a blended whiskey in the late '30s, and was a top seller for a while, before being retired in the 1960s. The bottle we sampled was straight Bourbon. Master distiller Chris Morris said it tasted to him like a "Prohibition whiskey," by which he meant more wood-influenced. I agreed. Wood, tannin and spice were prominent, as well as caramel and the other flavors you'd expect. It has a kind of firewater kick, but was a pleasant enough Bourbon.
Old Forester is one of the oldest names in Bourbon and has long been a cornerstone of the Brown-Forman business. This bottle, which came in a round, squat vessel, was 100 proof, a typical alcohol-level at that time. The dry, brittle cork broke off as Morris opened it and he had to employ a corkscrew. Morris said it had a familiar Old Forester flavor. (The mash recipe, he said, has never been changed.) This meant a light Bourbon, a fruity nose, with clean flavors of orange and apricot.
President's Choice was produced from 1938 until 1969. It's named as such because this rendition of Old Forester came from barrels hand-selected by Brown-Forman president Garvin Brown II. Old Garvin appears to have liked a Bourbon with more bite. President's Choice had the Old Forester character, but was more robust, austere and masculine. It was my favorite whiskey of the line-up.
The 1960s Old Forester was called "86" because of it had a "lighter" proof. Prior to this, 100 proof was the common model for Bourbons. This expression was in answer to the consumer's growing desire for the lighter tastes of vodka, rum and the like. Nothing else about the Old Forester formula was changed and, fittingly, this whiskey tasted much like its previous counterparts, except that it was lighter in character.
The continued rise of vodka and the white liquors led to the creation of Frost 8/80. This was easily the strangest (and perhaps rarest) bottle of the tasting. Decades ahead of the white whiskey fad of today, Frost was an eight-year-old Bourbon that had been filtered of all color and brought down to 80 proof. (Hence, the name, 8/80.) Brown-Forman wisely used the remaining stocks of two old Pennsylvania Bourbon houses to create this experiment. It didn't go well, lasting only a short time on the shelves in the early 1970s. The filtering seemed to have not only robbed the liquor of its color, but also much of its flavor. The nose smelled of orange-flavored cough syrup, and it tasted oddly of light fruits and pineapple. Unappealing stuff.
I've never been a great fan of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7. But I found myself liking the 1980s bottle we sampled. This was primarily because it was bottled at 90 proof, a good notch higher than today's 80 proof specimen. It seemed to me a more commanding and interesting liquor at that alcohol level. I also liked the sample of Woodford Reserve, which came from the modern's Bourbon's first batch in 1996. This version contained nine-year-old whiskey, older than the seven-to-eight-year-old stuff found in today's Woodford bottles.
I won't go into the the Woodford Seasoned Oak Finish and Early Times, as I've previously written about them, and these new whiskeys are (or soon will be) familiar to modern drinkers.