We recently wrote about Copper Cross Hybrid Whiskey, which was designed to be a smooth, great mixing, or on-the-rocks 84 proof whiskey...and not necessarily meant to be a sipping whiskey. This probably came across as a very strange product to a lot of bourbon enthusiasts simply because it didn’t appeal to what they generally look for in a bourbon. They might have immediately written it off as a joke, dismissed it as something that was doomed to fail or questioned its very existence. Sometimes bourbon drinkers seem to forget that not all whiskeys are intended to appeal to them and only them.
It’s probably safe to say that the majority of Kentucky’s major bourbon distilleries didn’t achieve their success solely on the backs of limited edition bourbons. It’s easy to forget that there’s a large segment of the bourbon consumer market that drinks whiskey with water, ice and even mixers. These same drinkers aren’t necessarily all Fireball Whiskey lovers, drink Jack and Cokes or want their whiskey shot paired with a PBR. There’s a very large group of in-betweens that don’t always care about age statements and proof points but are still, dare I say, bourbon curious. This is what many distilleries, especially craft distilleries have realized. There are only so many fantastic barrels of whiskey to go around, and in order to grow market share and brand awareness, companies need to appeal to this evergrowing middle group of bourbon drinkers.
A lot of craft distilleries realized that winning over enthusiasts with their taste for high aged, cream-of-the-crop bourbons was an impossible task. No matter how authentic, local, and farm-to-bottle they tried to market themselves as, they were always going to be up against a no-win scenario with many of these types of bourbon drinkers who are hooked on limited releases from major distilleries. That isn’t quite true when you’re targeting new or more casual bourbon drinkers. Maybe it’s because these types of drinkers don’t know better or even care about these sorts of things, but they are the group that appears to be more accepting of craft whiskey and other unique whiskey products hitting the market.
I wrote a piece entitled Why Gimmicks Are Good for Bourbon in 2016 and stated anything that deviates from the norm of bourbon and rye is generally greeted with dirty looks and disdain from many bourbon drinkers. While other spirit drinkers enjoy and even embrace this experimentation, the bourbon community still hasn’t quite warmed up to the idea. While it’s debatable if the situation has gotten any better in 2018, experimentation is often the key to creative growth. That new product you saw on the shelf might seem weird today, but in the future it might be a pivotal part of what defines whiskey.
There’s a lot of talk about bourbon fatigue lately but who are the people it’s affecting? Are they people with large collections of opened bottles? Are they burned out collectors? Or are they the people that only buy a few bottles a year? Is the fatigue the result of the type of bourbon hitting the market, or of the people who simply own too much or are burned out on the chase? As widespread as bourbon fatigue seems, the bourbon market continues to grow every year despite a segment of their consumers who are bored by it.
Take the public outcry when Maker’s Mark announced in 2013 they were going lower the proof their bourbon from 90 to 84. Or when Heaven Hill removed the age statement from Elijah Craig 12 Year in 2015. These felt like very personal attacks to many enthusiasts, but they could also be seen as moves to ensure these brands would be around for the larger community of bourbon drinkers as a whole.
In the Maker’s Mark case, the company quickly changed their mind on the matter thanks to an ensuring backlash, but where did the backlash originate from? Was it lead by casual bourbon drinkers putting up the fuss? Maybe, but probably not. It was more likely bourbon diehards denouncing the move, but the question must be asked: When was the last time many of these whiskey drinkers even bought a bottle of Maker’s?
A large part of the community was probably opposed to the change for fear it would have a cascading effect on other brands and it’s for good reason. It was unlikely Maker’s was going to lower the price along with lowering the proof, meaning consumers where going to get less for their money. But for a mass market product like Maker’s Mark, would the core segment of their consumer base have noticed or even cared about a six point proof drop? If shortages are to be believed, is an 84 proof Maker’s Mark or a Elijah Craig NAS Small Batch a sign of the End of Times?
In today’s bourbon market is there room for products like Copper Cross Hybrid Whiskey? Are products like it doomed to fail if they don’t have the support of bourbon enthusiasts? There’s certainly proof that it helps to have educated people that are in the know constantly singing a product’s praises. Just look at the effect it has had on Willett, Smooth Ambler, and Barrell Bourbon. It’s just saddening to see time and time again of announcements of a products that are under 100 proof, using different aging practices, barrel size, mashbills or finishes, that immediately get the cold shoulder without a second thought about who the product is actually for or what the producers are striving for with it.
Every product doesn’t automatically deserve a free pass, but they at least deserves a chance. While there is certainly distrust of some producers that are cashing in or taking advantage of people that don’t know any better, there are plenty of others just trying to find their own niche. The next time a product pops up that you have no immediate interest in, take an extra second and try and figure out just what this producer is trying to accomplish with their product. That 80 proof blend might look boring to some people, but that product could be the gateway bourbon that turns someone with a casual interest in bourbon into an enthusiast in the future. There are many hard working people trying to create something special, but like any art form and consumer product, it may miss its mark and ultimately fail. We all just need to remember that not every whiskey is made solely for you. Maybe it was made for the the person just turning 21, or spirits lover just deciding to try something new, or maybe it’s even for that person you were standing next to at the liquor store the last time you were there. The point is: there are a lot of different tastes in the world and yours is just one of them.
Products Targeting a Different Audience
As I mentioned above, Copper Cross was designed to be a smooth, great mixing, or on-the-rocks 84 proof whiskey...and not necessarily meant to be a sipping whiskey. Any company looking to release a new whiskey needs to look at the entire playing field. There is probably steeper competition in high proof whiskey than lower proof whiskey right now. Looking deeper there are even fewer advertising themselves first as an on-the-rocks whiskey.
Although no longer found on the shelf, The Hilhaven Lodge was an $50, 80 proof blended whiskey that left many people scratching there heads. People questioned its price and proof point, but its drinkability, stylish bottle, and high profile name attached to the whiskey along with its unique taste, gave many whiskey drinkers an alternative to the hard-to-find limited edition high proof whiskey.
Basil Hayden’s doesn’t always get as much love as Beam’s other small batch bourbons, but quietly this brand has been very successful for the company. In 2017, Beam expanded this line and introduced Basil Hayden’s Rye and Dark Rye. One of the main complaints leveled against it is its proof point, but that is also key to its success. Basil Hayden’s in all of its forms is very easy to drink and comes from good stock - and as a result marketed as a premium whiskey for the masses. The Dark Rye in particular was engineered as a low proof and extra flavorful whiskey for any level of drinker. That is key as this might appeal to other types of spirit drinkers. It’s low proof may be a turn off for some, but for others it’s exactly why they would pick it up.
Smooth Ambler has made a name for themselves sourcing excellent barrels from MGP over the years. In 2016, they released Contradiction, a blend of their own 2 year wheat-based bourbon and an MGP 9 year rye-based bourbon. This left many enthusiasts (including us) wondering what the company’s end goal was as the product’s flavor profile was a bit unwieldy. We have heard from a number of bartenders that this is a product that routinely is one of their most requested whiskeys. This is a good example of curiosity mixed with an oddball flavor profile having a larger effect on people than what is exactly in the bottle.
One of the first things anyone wants to know about a high-aged bourbon is if it’s over oaked. It is all too common in bourbon aged 12 plus years that there is a fine line between having the perfect amount of oak influence and overdoing it. In 2012, Woodford Reserve threw caution to the wind and went all in big oak flavor. The company produces Woodford Reserve Double Oaked by re-barreling Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select in a second virgin charred oak barrel for a little under a year. The result is a bourbon that isn’t shy with its oak notes and instead beats you over the head with them. This love it or hate it bourbon has since seemed to smooth over many of its haters. Woodford has since experimented with this concept by taking it a step farther with Double Double Oaked. Upon release, Double Oaked may have seemed like a silly product, but now it’s a mainstay with even some of Woodford’s competitors releasing similar heavy oaked products.