It’s the early 1970s and America’s bourbon industry is tanking. After hitting an all-time high in cases sold, the industry is at the start of a free fall that will last well into the ‘90s. It’s suddenly seen as your old man’s spirit, stuffy and way too robust in flavor, especially compared to the light, “clean” spirits now taking America by storm: blended Scotch, tequila, rum, and, most notably, vodka.
And that’s when Kentucky decides to adopt an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em attitude. What if they simply made a whiskey that looked and tasted like vodka?
Enter light whiskey, first allowed to be sold on July 1, 1972 and produced by distilling your standard bourbon mash to at least 160 proof, though often as high as 190 proof, the minimum for where vodka must be distilled. (The higher something is distilled, the more flavorful congeners that are stripped from the liquid.)
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Some 200 million gallons of light whiskey were distilled and some 50 new brands were launched that year by most of the major distilleries under names like Crow Light, Galaxy, Royal American, Honey Go Light, and Four Roses Premium, which boasted that it had a “taste that underwhelms.”
“This is not a big-black-cigar whiskey,” an industry researcher told Time that year. “It’s more a filter-cigarette whiskey.”
Despite wanting to capture vodka’s market — if not pretend it, too, was vodka — light whiskey was a massive flop.
A Slap in the Face
It’s 2022 now and bourbon is, once again, the hottest thing going. Today, it is a $9 billion industry in Kentucky alone, creating more than 22,500 jobs in the state, and it is seemingly still booming.
Suddenly, it’s the other spirit categories that want to taste like bourbon.
Bayou Reserve Rum is, according to its motto, “The rum for bourbon drinkers.”
Courvoisier Avant-Garde is a Cognac “that is sure to appeal to … bourbon drinkers.”
Hornitas Black Barrel tequila “gives whiskey makers a run for their money.”
There’s even a vodka “inspired by bourbon.”
“When a [non-whiskey] brand goes so far as to actually say, hey, we’re chasing whiskey drinkers, it’s like, wow, OK. That’s a real slap in the face,” says Brian Miller, a longtime bartender, beverage consultant, and rum aficionado.
Miller was sitting at home last year and stumbled upon an article mentioning that The New York International Spirits Competition had given one of only eight double golds to Brugal 1888 Doblemente Añejado.
“And I went off on a rant that was just like, ‘You’re f***ing kidding me!’” he recalls. “How does a rum that openly admits that they are going after whiskey drinkers win a rum competition?”
On its website, Brugal touts the Doblemente Añejado as offering the “rich flavors of bourbon” — it is matured for eight years in ex-bourbon barrels followed by six years in oloroso sherry butts — and even suggesting it be used in an Old Fashioned.
That’s not acceptable to Miller and what he sees as just the tip of the iceberg for his beloved spirit.
“I feel like rum is ashamed to be rum,” says Miller. “Because it’s always like, oh, this is a bourbon drinker’s rum, or this is a Scotch drinker’s rum. It can never just be: rum.”
A Simpler Time
There was, of course, a simpler time when gin tasted like juniper, tequila existed for people who craved the vegetal notes of agave, and rum brands offered spirits for those who enjoyed the unique aromas, flavor, and even terroir of various regions’ cane- and molasses-based distillates.
If you didn’t like the peppery bite of a dry gin or the campfire notes of peated Scotch, that was fine, you didn’t need to. There were plenty of other categories out there for you. But those times are no more. Seemingly, everyone just wants everything to taste like bourbon.
There are reasons for this, obviously. Bourbon is wildly popular. But it’s also wildly approachable too. There are no piney hints or soil notes or tastes of Band-Aid and iodine; good bourbon is always going to be a friendly caramel and vanilla bomb. That’s due to the new oak it legally must be aged in. Thus, if you age other categories of spirit in new oak, you can develop that same great bourbon-y taste. But is that really a good thing for these other categories?
“Rum will never break out of being seen as a third-tier spirit if it continues trying to ride other spirits’ coattails. If you say ‘It’s the Pappy of rum’ [a common refrain], then it’s always living in the shadows of bourbon,” says Neal Hirtzel, a Los Angeles-based bartender and rum fan. Besides, as he notes, “bourbon drinkers are the worst” anyway.
It doesn’t hurt, or maybe it doesn’t help, either, that most brands are now owned by multinational conglomerates with countless spirits of all categories in their portfolios. And that’s, perhaps, how you get Doblemente Añejado, first released in 2013, just a few years after Brugal was acquired by Edrington, the Glasgow-based spirits company best known for all the whiskey it owns, like The Macallan, Highland Park, and even Wyoming Whiskey.
Why not create a new rum that also tastes like whiskey? Which is to say, why not eke out every last dollar from whiskey drinkers that we can?
Miller doesn’t think we should just ignore this. He believes we need to hold these brands’ feet to the fire for how they are perverting so many great categories.
“When bad rum comes out,” he says, “it just makes it so much harder to get people to drink real rum.”
But What About Juniper?
But, it’s not only rum.
Recently, I said to a friend that I liked a new gin that was “juniper-forward.” She laughed at me. Isn’t all gin “juniper-forward”?
Well, maybe 30 years ago, but not today.
The laws for gin are pretty lax. It must have “its main characteristic flavor derived from juniper,” but that’s not necessarily quantifiable. Simply try some of the newest gins on the market and you’ll taste coconut and blueberries and olives, but you’ll struggle to find juniper.
Miller recalls once talking to some Nolet’s Silver Gin ambassadors at Tales of the Cocktail around the time of its launch to market.
“They listed all of these ingredients,” he recalls. “We have this and this and this and this. And I was like, I didn’t hear you guys say juniper. That’s what makes gin gin. If that’s not your first building block, then you’re just doing flavored vodka, right?”
Indeed, Nolet’s website touts rose, peach, and raspberry as being botanicals, without ever mentioning juniper, calling itself “an undeniably modern take on gin, reflecting the tastes and preferences of a new generation.”
You can find countless articles, listicles, and videos touting gin for gin haters, even from this publication.
But if you don’t like the taste of gin, why drink it? There is no law that says you have to drink gin. Or mezcal. Or funky, Jamaican rum. So if you don’t like those things, you can simply move onto a category you do like. But these days, there are so many choices within every spirits category and the competition is so intense, that brands can’t afford for not everyone to choose their products. Thus, you have all spirits moving toward a similar middle.
The Futuristic Hellscape
These so-called ashamed spirits aren’t always un-tasty, either (I’m ashamed to admit).
In early November I attended a media tasting at Cosme, one of New York’s best Mexican restaurants. It was the debut of the Expresiones del Corazón 2022 Collection, two añejo tequilas distilled at Casa San Matias Distillery before being aged in some of Buffalo Trace’s most coveted whiskey barrels, both from its highly allocated Antique Collection. There was the Corazón Eagle Rare 17 Añejo aged for 17 months in those bourbon barrels as well as Corazón Thomas H Handy Sazerac Añejo, aged for 19 months in the rye barrels.
Sazerac touts the lineup as being for “bourbon lovers,” but unlike other brands that will call something a rum for bourbon drinkers or a tequila for whiskey fans only in the marketing copy, these tequila explicitly depicted the well-known logos for Eagle Rare 17 Year Old bourbon and Thomas H. Handy Sazerac rye right on the front label. On top of that, the Sazerac employees conducting the tasting had gone so far as to include pours of 2022’s Eagle Rare 17 and Thomas H. Handy Sazerac alongside pours of the tequilas.
“These are great for converting bourbon drinkers to tequila drinkers,” Katy O’Donnell, Buffalo Trace Distillery national brand ambassador, told me at the time.
It seems self-evident that it would behoove the company to create more tequila drinkers as they can barely keep their bourbon in stock anywhere. (Having said that, these tequilas are surprisingly more allocated than the five bottles in the Antique Collection.)
And yet, even if it goes without saying that these are tater bait, they do taste great.
“There’s a beautiful balance between the tequila and bourbon,” added O’Donnell. “Just a hint of bourbon.”
And there’s no shame in that.
Neither is there in some of the well-aged rums and brandies that have taken off recently. I’m a huge fan of Foursquare Rum (that aforementioned “Pappy of rum”) and L’Encantada Armagnac, both of which very much appeal to bourbon drinkers. The difference is, both weren’t specifically designed to appeal to bourbon drinkers. (Both also have the underlying taste of their respective categories too.)
Coincidentally, neither of those are owned by massive corporations with full C-suites and teams of marketers who get say over the distillers, something Miller thinks will be the downfall of the spirits industry.
“The marketers are some of the worst people out there because they don’t know what the original spirit should taste like,” says Miller, who recalls when he worked for Diageo. “They treated their spirits like cookie cutters. It’s like, oh, man, you ran Tanqueray. Great. Now you run Cîroc.
“But it’s a totally different spirit!”
For him, it’s not hard to imagine a world where everything is aged in new oak, where everything is designed for bourbon lovers, and where these centuries-old categories hardly seem to matter anymore.
“It sounds like some futuristic hellscape,” says Miller. “Where there is no difference in any of the alcohols. And they all basically taste the same.”