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The volume of new bourbons being released has reached unprecedented levels. Keeping up with every new whiskey maker as well as expanding brand lineups, has become nearly impossible (though we do our best to help with our Bourbon Release Calendar). Continuing to explore new things, bourbon aficionados often find themselves hunting more highly coveted releases. But while anyone reading this would be happy getting their hands on a new bottle of whatever limited edition release they’re after at its “suggested” retail price, they may find themselves venturing deeper down the rabbit hole in search of something else entirely.

That something else is often what the greater whiskey collective calls, “dusties.”

A “dusty” bourbon means exactly what you would think it does. Based on the literal concept of referring to anything that’s old and has been sitting around collecting dust, a dusty bourbon refers to a bourbon that was bottled and released sometime in the past. Exactly how far back a bottle has to go to be considered a dusty isn’t specifically defined, but it’s likely that people exploring dusties for the first time will set a more recent bar than those who have already been down the rabbit hole.

What makes dusties different from modern day bourbons?

he older the dusty, the greater its differences will be as compared to bourbons of today. And the farther back you go, the more legitimately scarce bottles become. Showcasing multiple facets of their eras, dusties are snapshots in time.

Corn, bourbon’s most prevalent ingredient, has a nearly 10,000 year history. The grain, like other grains used to produce bourbon, has changed throughout its history based on many factors that have contributed to how it has been modified and grown. Hybrid corn entered the scene in the early 1900s and GMO seed production started around 1996, both with the intent of higher yields and more robust crop output. Some modern-day brands have focused on the use of heirloom grains, but they’re generally more expensive to produce.

Dating back to the 19th century jug yeast was used as there were no mass marketed dry yeasts available yet, which came later. Some brands, such as Jim Beam, claim to be using the same yeast strain for many decades, and the company has a long interesting yeast history to boot. Increasingly, distillers have been using dry yeast. And the addition of artificial enzymes to kick off fermentation has become more commonplace.

One major contributor to a bourbon’s flavor is the influence driven by aging in new charred oak barrels. Climate changes, whether the timber was harvested from a natural forest, plantation, or nursery, the geographic location of the trees, and other factors have had an impact on the evolution of oak over time. The exact structure of the wood grain has a direct impact on bourbon’s interaction with the barrel staves as it ages in barrels. Barrel production has also evolved over the past century, resulting in changes to the container that have a significant and direct impact on bourbon as it ages.

While it may be difficult to believe based on today’s market, bourbon was not always in high demand like it is today, and it was not necessarily viewed as a premium product either. It was the true definition of the everyman’s drink. Higher aged bourbons did not necessarily command higher desirability (or price points) like they do today, so it was not uncommon for producers to include much older barrels in batches that otherwise may only have been advertised as much younger or maybe with no specific age advertised at all. I’ve noticed this with vintage E.H. Taylor bottles in particular, often only around 80-90 proof, but overflowing with flavor more akin to much older and higher proofed bourbons released today.  

This isn’t an exhaustive list of variables by any means, but these are just some of the factors that may contribute to the differences in flavor profile when comparing modern-day releases to bourbons produced in the past.

Dusties can be fun, but are they better than bourbons of today?

I’ve had some exceptional dusties, but I’ve had exceptional modern-day bourbons too. One aspect of dusty bourbons that’s always a wild card is how well its closure has held up over time. A failed cork or screw cap that dried out or came loose will allow airflow into the bottle, and even a small amount, if the bottle is old enough, can have a large impact. Bourbon technically stops aging when it is no longer resting in oak barrels, but we discovered that even in a well-sealed innocuous glass bottle, just a bit of oxidation caused by the small amount of air within the bottle can have a noticeable effect. Multiply that by the impact of continual airflow, and you can understand how a compromised closure could ruin or at least impact a bourbon’s flavor profile over time. Typical signs of a closure failure include reduced fill level which would indicate evaporation or cloudiness, which sometimes though not always, can indicate trouble ahead.

These are risks dusty bourbon hunters must be willing to take, but the reward can pay off when you discover one that’s truly great. Personally, I find dusties to be a lot of fun, different, but not necessarily better in aggregate than their modern-day counterparts. Thankfully, new laws have started to open up the market for these sometimes stumbled upon gems, with companies such as Revival Vintage Bottle Shop and Neat Bourbon Bar & Bottle Shop offering pours and bottles for purchase, so trying them has become more accessible. If you happen to find yourself venturing down the path into bourbon’s history by the way of dusty bottles, be sure to take a step back to consider how much impact the spirit has had on shaping our country.

Written By: Nick Beiter

March 1, 2024
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