Wednesday, April 13, 2016

New Bourbons from Brown-Forman and Beam Suntory Emphasize the Role of Wood

Brown-Forman is the only major American whiskey distiller that also owns cooperages and makes all of its own barrels, a fact celebrated by its new bourbon, Coopers' Craft. Beam Suntory buys barrels from Independent Stave Company and others, and had to buy twice as many to make its new bourbon, Jim Beam Double Oak.

Brown-Forman's last new bourbon brand was Woodford Reserve, launched 20 years ago. Made at the Brown-Forman Distillery where Old Forester and Early Times are also made, Coopers' Craft has its own unique mash bill of 75 percent corn, 15 percent rye, and 10 percent malted barley. That is a little less rye than the Old Forester/Woodford Reserve recipe (18 percent) and a little more than Early Times (11 percent).

But that's not what Coopers' Craft is about. It is, instead, "a celebration of barrel-making and a recognition of the importance of wood when it comes to crafting bourbon. In addition to being matured in barrels raised by master coopers at the Brown-Forman Cooperage, Coopers� Craft is crafted using a special beech and birch charcoal filter finishing process, creating a smooth and flavorful bourbon."

Do you think they want to position this as a craft whiskey?

The Coopers' Craft neck label describes it as "Toasted Wood Whiskey," but the press release is silent about what that means. An inquiry produced this explanation: "Toasted wood whiskey is the result of Brown-Forman Cooperage�s proprietary process during which we toast the staves ahead of charring."

Although it is not always done, stave toasting is nothing new. It involves heating the wood enough to change its characteristics without setting it on fire, which is the charring process that comes later. Something must be unique about how they toast the staves that is 'proprietary,' which means "we're not telling."

Similarly, charcoal filtering just prior to bottling is an almost universal practice, not to be confused with the Lincoln County Process used at Jack Daniel's, which involves new make distillate before aging and a lot more charcoal. Charcoal filtering just prior to bottling, usually called 'chill filtering' because the whiskey is chilled as part of the process, is intended to prevent 'flocking,' aka 'chill haze.' It is often criticized as removing flavor for a merely cosmetic benefit, but Brown-Forman says it makes Coopers' Craft more flavorful. They are also the only producer to name the woods used for their finishing charcoal. Beech, by the way, is the wood Budweiser claims makes its beer so good.

When it goes on sale this summer, Coopers� Craft will be available in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. In part, this may reflect where Brown-Forman's two cooperages are located, in Kentucky and Alabama. It will be 82.2� proof. Suggested retail is 28.99 for a 750ml bottle.

Jim Beam Double Oak comes in a little cheaper, at $22.99 for a 750ml bottle. What this is is Jim Beam white label, aged four years, that has gone into a second new, charred oak barrel for some 'proprietary' length of time. It tastes like a wood finish, not unlike Woodford Reserve Double Oaked or Maker's 46. The lab sample I tasted was 86� proof. Jim Beam Double Oak was released in the UK, Germany, and Travel Retail last month but they don't even have a COLA yet so look for it here perhaps late summer or fall.

Wood treatments are generally considered 'authentic' by enthusiasts and are not scorned like products that get their modified flavor by mixing the bourbon with another liquid. That said, Beam Suntory Americas President Tim Hassett just yesterday described Jim Beam Apple (a mixture of Jim Beam bourbon and apple liqueur) as "the most successful launch in the brand�s history."

One thing Jim Beam Double Oak tells us is that the Scots are paying high prices for used barrels right now. American distillers have little use for second-fill barrels except as a by-product. Most are sold to scotch producers. A whiskey such as Jim Beam Double Oak is only practical if the difference is small between the cost of a new barrel and price being paid for used ones.

Both companies are to be commended for introducing new products in the sub-$30 price segment. Coopers' Craft is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey without qualifications. Jim Beam Double Oak is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Oak.

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