BORN IN THE USA

American straight whiskey — both bourbon and Tennessee whiskey — is increasing in sales in the U.S. and abroad. On the home front, straight whiskey upped volume by 2.2% to more than 13.4 million 9-liter cases nationwide in 2003, according to the Adams Liquor Handbook 2004. In the control states, straight whiskey growth was similar, up 2.1% in 2003.

Significantly, exports from Kentucky and Tennessee have risen over 60% since 1992 and 26% over the past five years alone. Foreign sales now constitute a significant source of revenue for American whiskeys. Last year, more than 8.8 million 9-liter cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold abroad.

The leading market for American whiskeys is the United Kingdom. And Germany, Australia and Japan follow close behind.

These figures show that the world has developed a taste for American straight whiskey. A quick glance at the leading exports of straight brands reads like all-star roster. Overseas sales of Jack Daniel’s have grown more than 10% per year during the past six years and worldwide demand for small batch Maker’s Mark sent its exports soaring to 80,000 cases in 2002. Exports also account for roughly 40% of Wild Turkey’s annual worldwide sales and 35% for Jim Beam.

BIG, COMPLEX FLAVORS

It’s little wonder why our indigenous whiskeys have sparked the imagination of enthusiasts at home and around the world. Bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys are loaded with big, complex flavors and have about the most captivating aromas in the business. Indeed, superpremium brands are surging ahead at an annual rate of about 16%, mirroring the national trend toward upscale consumption. This is further borne out by the fact that lesser known, popular-priced bourbons continue their slight but steady decline.
So what’s behind the trend? “American whiskey is reinventing itself and communicating more effectively to consumers,” observed Ken Weber, global brand director for Buffalo Trace Distillery. “Today, a number of distillers have gone back to the small batch method that places a premium on producing high-quality whiskey. The reality is that these whiskeys cost more to produce, however, consumers have shown a willingness to pay more for these outstanding products. Their drinkable characters and rich flavors are extremely appealing.”

Larry Kass, director of corporate communications at Heaven Hill Distilleries, is bullish on the category’s prospects for continued growth. “Obviously there are a lot of positive things happening with American whiskeys, particularly in the superpremium segment, where small batches, single barrels and extra-aged bottlings continue to sell exceptionally well and draw attention to the category.”

Contributing to the growth in the category is that American whiskeys are highly mixable spirits. Chris Morris, master distiller of Woodford Reserve, noted that American whiskeys have a tremendous range of flavors due to their mash bills and the maturation in new barrels. “Bourbons in general have sweet aromatic notes and a depth of flavor that make them quite mixable,” Morris said.

One of the intangibles behind their increasing popularity is that there’s little pretense or snob appeal to bourbon or Tennessee whiskey. One doesn’t need a refined, well-educated palate to appreciate their assertive character. And, in general, bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys are affordable as well.

CATEGORY LEADERS

Any discussion of the current status of American whiskey must begin with Jimmy Russell, the famed master distiller at Wild Turkey. For the past 50 years, the Lawrenceburg, KY, native has helped shape the face of the industry.

The latest effort from renowned master distiller Jimmy Russell is Wild Turkey Tribute, a limited edition, small batch bourbon.

To commemorate Jimmy Russell’s enormous contributions, the distillery has just launched Wild Turkey Tribute ($90 suggested retail), a 101 proof, limited edition, 15-year old, small batch bourbon. Fifteen years ago, Russell hand-selected sweet “sugar barrels” in anticipation of this special bottling, which is comprised of only 5,500 bottles.

The main Wild Turkey brand, from Pernod Ricard USA, had another positive year in 2003, gaining 1.6% to 511,000 9-liter cases nationwide. (The brand was up 3.4% in the control states.) Last year, the brand successfully introduced Wild Turkey Russell Reserve ($25), a 10-year old, Kentucky straight bourbon. The small-batch whiskey is bottled at the distillery’s trademark 101 proof. The Wild Turkey portfolio also includes Kentucky Spirit, a single barrel bourbon (101 proof and $45), and Rare Breed, a limited-release whiskey bottled undiluted, unfiltered and at barrel-proof, which ranges from 109.6 to 112 proof. Rare Breed ($35) is made using a blend of 6-, 8- and 12-year-old bourbons to ensure consistency between bottlings.

Produced since 1866, Jack Daniel’s Old Time No. 7 Black Label remains the country’s best-selling whiskey. The Tennessee whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal and aged four to five years. The brand increased volume by an impressive 4.4% nationally in 2003, to just under 4 million 9-liter cases, and was up 3.7% in the control states.

The Jack Daniel’s family of Tennessee whiskies is featuring new holiday-themed merchandising materials for the fourth quarter.

A step up is Gentleman Jack Tennessee Whiskey ($25), handcrafted from a recipe created by Jack Daniel himself at the turn of the century. The whiskey is aged in oak barrels for 4 years, and then mellowed twice in Tennessee sugar maple charcoal, once before being put in wood and once again after. It’s bottled at 80 proof.

Category enthusiasts have reveled in the release of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey ($47 and 94 proof), and with good reason. The whiskey is hand-bottled straight from barrels personally selected by master distiller Jimmy Bedford. Each label is marked with the rick and barrel number, as well as the date of bottling.

THE BEAM TEAM

The Beam family has been distilling whiskey since 1795. Their distillery in Clermont, KY, is among the largest and most sophisticated in the world. Before his recent passing, Booker Noe, Jim Beam’s legendary master distiller, created a highly prized offering called Distillers’ Masterpiece Bourbon ($250). The current release features 20-year old, small-batch Booker’s bourbon finished in Geyser Peak port casks. Every aspect of the bourbon has been softened and enhanced by the port. The overall effect falls somewhere between elegance and savory indulgence.

Fall football-themed merchandising materials are available for Jim Bean White and Black Labels.

The distillery is also enjoying phenomenal success with the relaunch of Jim Beam Black Label ($17). Considered one of the top two or three best values in the category, the bourbon is distilled from a high proportion of white and yellow corn grown in Indiana and Kentucky, and lesser percentages of rye and malted barley. The easily accessible bourbon is then matured in oak a minimum of 8 years and bottled at 86 proof.

The Jim Beam Distillery continues to garner critical acclaim for their family of four stellar small batch bourbons, led by handcrafted Booker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon ($53). This enormous whiskey is drawn from the barrel and bottled in its natural state without being filtered or cut with water. Booker’s is matured for six to eight years, and selected from barrels aging in the center of the warehouse, where conditions are considered optimum. It is marketed at barrel proof, which ranges from 121 to 127 proof.

Small batch Knob Creek Bourbon ($28 and 100 proof) is aged for a minimum of 9 years in new white oak barrels. The inside of the barrels are seared over a low flame to bring out the natural sugars in the wood and then “flash-fired” to create a layer of charred wood. The depth of charring forms a layer of red caramelized wood underneath the charcoal. It is through the interaction with this rich caramelized layer that Knob Creek gets its deep amber color and sweet flavor.

Jim Beam’s small batch collection also includes Baker’s Bourbon, which is fermented using a proprietary strain of jug yeast and aged seven years (107 proof) and Basil Hayden, a sour mash bourbon whose mash bill contains a higher percentage of rye and barley malt and aged for eight years (80proof). Both bourbons retail in the high thirties.

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