With the announcement that High West would be turning their ongoing release of Rendezvous Rye into an annual one that includes more of their own younger distillate, replacing older sourced distillate, it got me thinking again about how whiskey is always in flux. In what can be a blessing, but also a curse, whiskey is always changing whether you make it in-house or source it. Consistency is one of the hardest aspects a distiller or blender can ever truly master, and why preservation is so important.
Creating whiskey requires so many ever-changing variables and no matter how hard any whiskey company tries, no two barrels will ever taste the same. It's unlike the majority of products sold, where despite some minor manufacturing inconsistencies, the end product is largely the same day to day, year to year.
Maker’s Mark is one company that takes great pains to maintain a high level of consistency with their products. Opening and closing rickhouse windows to better control temperature, using limestone-filtered water, an heirloom yeast strain that is more than 150 years old, and complete barrel inventory rotation with frequent tasting checks are all strategies employed. These are time consuming and expensive steps the company takes to maintain as much consistency in their bourbon as they can.
Creating consistency is a major reason why companies started blending their whiskeys into larger batched products. It helped even out the highs and lows of a given barrel and created a more uniform flavor profile a company could continuously maintain. But companies like High West who have relied on sourcing their whiskeys for their blends have undergone drastic changes to their products over the years due to the changing landscape of sourced whiskey.
The idea of a whiskey time capsule came to me the last time High West saw a major change in one of their products. In 2018, the company announced plans to change Double Rye!’s percentages of older sourced rye (16 year old Barton), with more of their own younger distillate (4-7 years old). Sound familiar?
Even before that when High West started quietly adjusting Rendezvous Rye, I came to the realization that companies who sourced high aged whiskeys for their products were going to dry up, and it predictably did. I began to buy bottles of Rendezvous Rye to bunker - not in an attempt to cash in on the older bottle when the product would eventually change to a younger distillate, but to preserve the product as it was in 2015 and 2020.
I quickly realized my time capsule didn’t need to just contain bottles going through blending changes, which was becoming much more common during those years. The time capsule could include anything and everything. I didn’t have to go dusty hunting because I was creating my own dusties.
It’s easy to create a whiskey time capsule that includes bottles with age statements that might disappear in the future. But it’s worth thinking beyond that.
Bottles undergoing label changes can be good inclusions, as bunkering the older bottles can provide a stark visual change and make referencing their time frame easier. A good example of this is when Four Roses changed their standard blended release from yellow to tan.
One-off blends or blends that will never be replicated exactly the same are also good inclusions. The recently released Barrell Seagrass is an example of this. Depending on how successful the release is, this very unique blend may never be offered again, or if it is, Barrell Craft Spirits will be hard-pressed to replicate it because of how complicated its finished ingredients are.
Single barrels with exact bottling or barrelling dates are also ripe for time capsule admission as they can be timed to special events in your own life. While Blanton’s is a good example of this, it has become much harder to find. Instead, consider the annual Evan Williams Single Barrel release which is much easier to find, and offers both a vintage bottling year as well as an exact barrelling date. Saving bottles with the date of when your child was born is a very popular example of this.
Of course brands that rely on sourced whiskey, like Bulleit Bourbon or the aforementioned High West, are also great examples of bunkering as the brands have seen drastic changes to their sourced whiskey over the years. I specifically put away bottles of Bulleit Bourbon when they were sourcing mainly from Four Roses years ago.
But sometimes you don’t even need a specific reason. There is nothing wrong with grabbing a standard bottle of Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon or Buffalo Trace Bourbon and setting those aside. In 10-20 years you can explore the subtle changes the brands go through with a really low investment.
I got that idea years ago when I visited Jack Rose Dining Saloon. Before COVID, and its unfortunate effect on the establishment, I would forgo ordering rare and expensive whiskeys and instead ordered common whiskeys like Old Forester and Maker’s Mark from the 70s and 80s. Not quite considered full-on dusties - their prices reflected that - I began to notice stark differences in their taste compared with the current bottlings of those same brands today. The Old Forester in particular (an unopened bottle I had the honor of cracking open), was noticeably creamier and indeed, different tasting from what I was drinking from the company at that time. In this case, I could taste firsthand how a whiskey can change over time even if it's from the same brand. Sure most whiskey drinkers know whiskey changes, but not everyone has the opportunity to actually taste that difference.
One of the only things that is constant with whiskey is that it changes. Weather changes whiskey. The oak the barrels are made from changes. Water changes. Equipment changes, Distillers change. Whiskey is always in flux.
A whiskey time capsule can help preserve the present, for in the future when you want to reflect (and taste) back to where whiskey once was, you can do just that (as long as you store it properly). Years from now if your 21+ year old child comes to you and says “older made whiskey is better than what is being made today,” (something you hear all too often today), you’ll actually have the bottles to put that statement to the test once and for all. And you know what? You'll probably have a great time doing it too.