Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bourbon – The art of the dusty hunt – pt. 4

Decoding the Label continued….

We discussed in the previous blog the Universal Product Code (UPC) on bottles of bourbon. As I stated, knowing the UPC will assist you in identifying the distiller for a particular bourbon but there are other indicators on the label that will also narrow down the provenance. Some bourbon is designated with a Bottled in Bond (BIB) statement on the label and this relates to the Bottled in Bond act of 1897. In short, the act in effect provided a guarantee with this designation since whiskey back then was adulterated with all types of additives primarily for purposes of greed. Coloring and flavorings were added tainting the whiskey. The Bottled in Bond act ensured to the consumer that what they were buying was genuine "straight whiskey". I mention this one, because it's interesting, but also because on each bottle of bonded whiskey, the label will indicate the Distilled Spirits Plant (DSP) number of the distillery. This is important because many distilleries in production 20, 30 or 40 years ago are no longer in operation. Knowing the DSP of a bottle of bonded whiskey tells you exactly who made the bourbon. I'll go back to my example of the Old Fitzgerald BIB which indicated DSP-KY 16. This tells me it was distilled by Stitzel Weller Distillery. Today's Old Fitzgerald BIB is designated DSP-KY 1 which is Bernheim Distillery that is now owned by Heaven Hill. Armed with this information while dusty hunting will quickly tell you whose bourbon is in the bottle. Now before you start looking for the DSP number on each dusty bottle you find, chances are good you won't find the DSP number on any non-BIB bottle. This is because distilleries are required by law to indicate the DSP on bonded whiskey. For example, a bottle of Old Grand Dad 86 proof bourbon indicates it's from the Old Grand Dad Distillery which in fact does not exist (anymore) and is distilled by Jim Beam. Likewise, Old Weller Antique is not distilled by W.L. Weller & Sons but rather Buffalo Trace Distillery.

As a general rule, I like my bourbon at higher proof. There are few types of bourbon I will drink at 80 proof just because it's not a very exciting dram for me at the lowest legal proof. The exception to this is a couple of dusty bottles I found recently that I do enjoy even at 80 proof. Early Times Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (KSBW) from early 80's and older and early 80's Old Crown and older. The reason I like these two is because I believe they contain glut whiskey. What's glut whiskey you say? Well, this would be whiskey older than what's stated on the label. Because whiskey sales had gone soft from the mid 70's and into the 80's, a lot of product sat in the warehouses aging not going to market. Because of this, bourbon was typically older than what the label stated.

Other indicators on the bottle include the proof, age statement and location of bottling or distillation. There are a number of occasions where distilleries have lowered the proof of their bourbon in order to stretch profits or maybe because they like making silly decisions, but whatever the case, understanding when a proof change happened is another key indicator of dating a bottle. Age statements on bottles are also a way to know when a bottle was produced. For instance, Old Fitzgerald's 1849 used to carry an 8 year age statement. Today, there's no age statement. Evan Williams 1783 used to be a 10 year old bourbon. In 2007 Heaven Hill dropped the 10 year age statement and now the 1783 simply says Old No. 10. Fancy huh? What's now in the bottle is a younger whiskey. Finally, knowing when the location change happened on a label is another factor in dating a bottle. Many times, the change in location (e.g. Louisville, KY vs Frankfort, KY) is a change in ownership. An example may be Old Charter 12 year Classic 90 which was produced by United Distiller showing Louisville, KY on the label. When Buffalo Trace picked up the brand, the label then indicated Frankfort, KY.

While this seems like a lot of information, it is. But, if you're serious about dusty hunting and want the ability to zero in on dusty bottles, this information is necessary in your quest. You don't want to purchase blindly as you may end up with a dusty bottle that's also a nasty bottle.

In the next blog, we'll do a wrap up and speak briefly about shopping techniques, safety and etiquette during your dusty hunting.

Next, part 5 - final post.

17 comments:

  1. Greg:

    Very informative post! I liked it a lot. Thought I would leave a comment before I go back and check out the rest of the series. I've been all over this topic on the Bourbon Enthusiast, but I am a little jealous if you guys that aren't in control states. We can't get a dusty bottle out here. If it doesn't sell the state puts it on sale at a discount, then they never carry it again. I may be able to pick up on some bargains that way eventually. They had some Makers Mark at $2 off last week, but you probably know my feelings about Makers. Not my favorite, but I've been thinking about picking up another bottle for comparison purposes when I do my wheat posts. We'll see. Have a great week.
    Don

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  2. Don - I actually live in a controlled state but have access to non-controlled states that are an easy drive. VA does the same thing in that product is moved pretty rapidly and if you don't stay ahead of the distribution curve, you're caught dead. That happened to me with the Ancient Ancient Age 10 that VA stopped carrying, abruptly. I managed to scrounge 8 bottles before they were all gone.

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  3. Greg:

    Just finished reading the entire series! WOW! that is great stuff. Unfortunately I live in Idaho, and my closest neighbors are Oregon, Washington, and Nevada. Oregon and Washington are both control states too. I'm not entirely sure about Nevada, but I have to run to Twin Falls next week, so I'll be headed to Jackpot to check out their shelves and see what I can find. Thanks for the great information. Do you have a strategy in talking to the clerk to see if they may have dusties in the Basement?

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  4. When you walk into the store, you should be able to determine pretty fast if they have additional dusty's laying around. If all you see on the shelves is new release stuff, then they probably don't have older stuff sitting in a back room. My experience has been that if you see dusty's on the shelves, there's more to be found in the back. If there are dusty bottles, my suggestion would be to pull what you can from the shelves which then lays the groundwork for gaining access to the storage room. While I may not purchase all they've pulled from the shelves, seeing that many bottles sitting on the counter usually greases the skids to go looking for more.

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  5. I am definitely going to Nevada next week! They pulled Old Fitzgerald off the shelves in Idaho! Not a bottle to buy in the state! Can you believe that?

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  6. Thanks for these tips, Greg. I found 2 bottles of Eagle Rare 101 from '02 for $15 each!

    These posts have been very helpful.

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  7. Hank - awesome whiskey for an even more awesome price. The ER 10/101 is another one of my favorites. I have some bunkered and will consume those at a very measured pace to make sure they last a long time. Did you ask the store owner/manager if you could look behind the counter or in the storage room? I can't tell you how many "additional" bottles I've found doing just that. There's lots of stuff hidden away that even the store owners know nothing about.

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  8. I went back the next day to ask if there was more back there, but to no avail. I'm going to go back another day with a bottle to show them, and to look to see if other bottles showed up on the shelf.

    How do you ask to go look for yourself?

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  9. Gauging how comfortable the owner/manager is with you is important. I've had some that are very closed so I don't even attempt to ask; others are more open. Sometimes it takes a couple of trips so they recognize me before I ask to poke around. I usually start by having a friendly conversation with the owner/manager about last weeks game, the weather, whatever just to break the ice so the defenses come down. It's kind of like working as a door to door salesman, you have to make a connection before you can pitch.

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  10. Greg, I recently visited a fairly local spirits shop and came across some old fitzgerald BIB. Using your dusty guidelines, these bottles of old fitzgerald have me a bit stumped. Their was a half gallon with a 1994 bottle date, a distilled/aged/and bottled at dsp-ky-16 statement on the label, but a 88076 barcode. Their was a also some half pint bottles with 1994 bottle dates, but with distilled at dsp-ky-16 and bottled at dsp-ky-24 on the label and another 88076 barcode. I passed on these bottles being a bit confused on the origins. Are these truly stitzel-weller made and are they decent bourbon? Did I make a mistake in not purchasing?

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    1. Those are the tail run of the last distillate that came out of SW. As long as it shows DSP-KY16, then it's second gen Stitzel Weller. The bottled DSP doesn't mean anything other than they transported to another distillery to bottle. I have bottles that have both UPC 88508 and 88076; all DSP-KY16. I would go back and grab those as they are getting harder to find. So in answer to your question.....you made a mistake but hopefully easily corrected.

      PS: SW stopped distilling around mid summer 1993....doing the math, bottles dated as late as say 1997 could be SW...the key is looking at the DSP number on the front label.

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  11. Thanks for the information, Greg. Mistake corrected, they all have a new home with me.

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  12. great info. but, how accurate is the juice if in my case a 1.75 liter is dated 84? a wl weller special reserve to be exact?

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    1. I guess I'm not what you mean by "how accurate is the juice"? If your bottle is dated "84" and WSR is age stated at 7 years, then a best guess for distillation would be somewhere around 1977. As I've stated in other posts, distilleries did not store bottles....they came and went out. It's possible the distillery had bottles dated 84 but used them early in 85. So as I said, it's a best guess. In any case, if you have WSR distilled later 70's.....that should be some good drinking.

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    2. thanks Greg! its pretty tasty stuff. cant really tell if its s/w juice tho. in any event i reached out to sazerac via email with some pics. they also couldn't confirm the juice year. lol oh well, im gonna drink it regardless. cheers buddy.

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    3. Unless BT was buying contract distillate, the WSR should be SW. At the end of the day....if it's good, then you win.

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