Monday, November 28, 2011

Q&A #3/4 with Four Roses Master Distiller - Jim Rutledge

Q1: Jim, many of the members here are passionate about "dusties".... whiskey that I will describe as being produced pre-1990 for lack of a better description. When one tastes many of these whiskey's, most of which are between 80 and 100 proof, they find a great concentration of flavor, a very creamy and coating mouth feel, little heat from alcohol and overall a very different "style" of whiskey than we find being produced today. One that jumps out for me is the Benchmark bourbon from the "old days". What was different pre-1990 that produced this different style of whiskey? Folks have speculated it is different corn, lower off the still proofs, different distillation techniques, etc, etc, etc. Can you shed some light on what you feel has changed over the years in whiskey style and the reasons for it?

Q2: What has been the most detrimental development or change in the bourbon/rye distilling industry? Examples: Dry yeast instead of liquid, change in water sources(from wells to city water), higher barreling proofs, higher distilling proofs, change in sources of barrel wood, consolidation of factories and therefor styles(range) of products, change to stainless fermenter rather than cypress, etc, etc....

Benchmark was an excellent Bourbon distilled at Seagram's Calvert Distillery in Louisville. Going back further in time Henry McKenna was one of my all time favorites when it was distilled at Seagram's Fairfield distillery in Nelson County, prior to its closing in the late 60's.

I think increasing the barreling strength in 1984 had more of an impact on finished product than the optional higher distillation strength. I only know of one distillery that distills near the maximum 160 proof, and I believe too many good flavors are lost at higher distillation strengths. Most distilleries stayed relatively close to the distillation strengths of pre-1984. However, too much influence was exerted by the finance/accounting people in distilleries relative to barrel entry.... Moving the entry strength from 105 or 110 proof up to 125 proof or there about generated huge annual savings in the cost of barrels.

Distillers, blenders, quality personnel argued and argued with the change but their words and logic fell on deaf ears. In the end it was found that it generally took at least an additional year of maturation for the barrels at higher entry proof to be somewhat equivalent to the barrels in which the entry proof was less. As a result the anticipated savings were nearly off-set by the necessity to age the barrels longer to attain target flavor profiles, but I still think something was lost with the higher entry strengths.
Also, since 1990 the focus has been on premium single barrel and small batch Bourbons - many of which are bottled at higher proof.

The additional strength will mask some of the flavors present with lower strength bottling, but the perception is that higher proof means quality.
Economics may have an impact on the purchase of grains as well - negotiating lower costs for bulk purchase of millions of bushels of grain. This has had no impact on Four Roses. Since the early '60's - when Seagram opened its own grain division. Mr. Sam (Sam Bronfman) once said "to be the best of the best we must start with the best raw materials." Hence, Seagram's grain division. Since that time we've paid a premium for our corn and we're still purchasing corn from the same small geographic area in Indiana, and from many of the same farmers - or their families.

I can only speak to what we (Seagram > FRD) does today and yesteryear.
I don't see much difference in today's distillation process, except we are A Lot better today than years ago. Computer technologies in operations has made us (the industry) a lot more consistent in what we distill today. Another Big influence (perhaps the biggest difference) was the trend to age Bourbon barrels longer. The perception was/is that if Scotch gets better with age the same must be true with Bourbon, but that's not so - if you like sweeter and creamer Bourbons. The sweet flavors of Bourbon are generated by the natural sugars present in the white oak barrels, and the peak of Bourbon maturity is between 5 and 8 years age. Beyond that age too many of those sugars have been depleted and the product is dryer (less sweet) and begins to pick up too much of a woody character.

If you look at those "dusty" Bourbons most of them were aged 4 to 6 years, so the older Bourbons of today are very different in flavor profile. I believe that's the biggest change. (That expression of opinion will probably cause a long-lasting debate.)
To me (again a controversial statement) the "perception" that the more age on a barrel the better the Bourbon of rye. The perception is augmented by very high costs of bottled older whiskeys. But, keep in mind that the distilleries are paying ad valorem taxes every day a barrel is in a warehouse and that in combination with the industry average outage factor (angels share) of ~4.4% the cost per bottle must be A Lot higher to re-coop much higher costs that are spread over far fewer proof gallons and we all know if it's expensive it's got to be good. Right? - Not in my opinion. There are some really good older Bourbons, but they're the exception to the norm - 5 to 6.... In addition to recouping tax dollars handling costs are also higher with older Bourbons - more barrels being handled.

We only use dry yeast for distillery start up (one yeast tub) or in an emergency situation. Other than that we propagate our yeast from a test tube slant. I don't like dry yeast. When a distillery uses city water it loses too many of the minerals that create flavor. Most distilleries have their own water source - rivers and wells. I believe today's barrels are better than they were decades ago. In the 1960's and `70's long-term experiments proved that it doesn't make a difference if fermentation takes place in wood or steel or any container. The construction of the fermenter and the materials used have no impact on the chemical process.... These experiments were again confirmed in the `90's. We use both red cypress and stainless steel fermenters, and one's not better than the other. Today's technologies in distillation have come light years since the `60's, `70's and even the early 90's. Distillation has improved, in my opinion, but other influences may have offset enhanced distillation processes. 

Question #5/6