In the whiskey community, flavored whiskey has a bad reputation. And if you are only looking at it through the lens of a bourbon purist, you may feel it’s deserved. More than once I’ve heard someone say something along the lines of: “there’s a whiskey shortage and they go use some of that precious liquid for [insert name of your most hated brand here, Fireball, PieHole, Jim Beam Maple, etc].”
I believe this is a misplaced view. In fact, I have a theory that in today’s whiskey environment, the existence of flavored whiskey might even make the bourbon you drink neat taste better. Let me propose a simplistic thought experiment (since admittedly blending is much more complex than this).
To keep it simple, let’s say you fill 100 barrels. Due to the nature of barrels and aging, each of those barrels taste a little different. Some are amazing, a couple are downright funky. Once upon a time you may only have had a couple of brands. You took the barrels that hit a certain flavor profile and blended them to make that brand. The rest might go into a different brand or be sold off to another producer. Today though everyone (both producer and consumer) wants a premium single barrel or small batch bourbon. And while it is possible that about 25-30 years ago everyone got really good at making bourbon at the same time, it’s more likely that they started pulling out the really good barrels that they’d previously been putting into the regular releases.
So back to that thought experiment. You’ve got 100 barrels of fully matured bourbon. You have three products that you put out. You have a single barrel premium expression at a high proof, a “small batch” expression at a lower proof and an entry level expression that’s right at 80 proof to make it as affordable as possible. So let’s look at how you might select barrels for each of these three expressions.
First the single barrel. This is going to get the tastiest barrels. They have to each be able to stand on their own. So if you have amazing barrels, they should probably go here. And out of 100 barrels you’ll get what? Maybe 10 that are that amazing? (Yes, I pulled that number out of my ass and yes, I think that 10% is extremely generous.)
Next is your “small batch” expression. You plan to use a smallish number of barrels to create this rather just dumping everything together. So let’s say you are holding back 25 barrels to make this. These are barrels of varying quality. Each adding just what you need to make it taste just right. Some will be light and fruity, some spicy and rich, maybe even a couple that are basically wood extract. Blending is hard. Even in the small scale experiments I do here at home, using only amazing whiskey, some come out damn near undrinkable. So you are going to have to chose just the right ones.
Finally, the entry level expression. This is whatever is left, right? I really hope not, you took out all the really good ones. Plus, you’re still trying to hit a flavor profile. If you just dumped everything else in there, the funky ones mentioned above are now a higher percentage of what’s left than they were of the original. For simplicity’s sake let’s go with 10% funky barrels to match our 10% honey barrels. 10 funky barrels in the 65 remaining barrels is about 15% funk instead of 10%.
So if you can’t blend funk away as easily, what can you do? Sell them to another producer, of course. But who’d buy them? What if, maybe, there is an in-house market for that. Maybe you dump a bunch of flavor in there, cover up the funk, call it Cinnamon Whiskey and sell it to frat boys.
And so even though neither you nor I drink it, that’s why I like flavored whiskey. But, you are going to say “that’s just a simplistic thought experiment.” Yep, in real life you also make apple pie, honey, maple and black cherry whiskey too.
UPDATE: I mistakenly forgot to mention that Josh Wright of SipologyBlog was kind enough to read this one over before I published it to make sure I didn't say anything too stupid. Any mistakes are mine. Josh, you have my deepest thanks!