Anything that deviates from the norm of bourbon and rye is generally greeted with dirty looks and disdain from bourbon drinkers. While other spirit drinkers enjoy and even embrace this experimentation, the bourbon community still hasn’t quite warmed up to the idea. Maybe it has something to do with bourbon’s rapid popularity and a distrust of producers trying to hitch a ride on the bandwagon. Maybe it’s the sheer amount of these types of whiskeys that have hit the market over the past few years that gives them a bad name with bourbon drinkers. These releases (in part because of their marketing) can come off as mechanical, market-driven cash-ins that immediately turn people off to them and as a result, aren't taken seriously.
There’s certainly a segment of these type of releases that rightfully can be called gimmick whiskeys and they have done more harm than good to this unique subset of whiskey making. But it’s probably a lot harder to release a new traditional bourbon and have it stand out in a crowded marketplace than it is to release a whiskey with a unique catch.
Because of this, many outspoken opponents of these releases call them gimmicks, while producers call them new creative expressions. In reality, these type of releases are more than simply gross attempts at your wallet. If you remove the smog that surrounds them and call them what they truly are: Innovative whiskeys, they’re arguably the most interesting thing going on in the bourbon industry right now.
Let's be clear about this upfront, interesting doesn’t automatically mean good, but it’s probably safe to say it’s better than boring. Besides being a bad whiskey, there isn’t anything worse than a boring whiskey. How many uninspired limited releases do we need to be subjected to? How many bland and underaged craft whiskeys need to be released each year? How many average sourced bourbons distinguished from one another merely by a different label need to clutter the shelves?
These “innovative whiskeys” are much more than a cash-in on bourbon’s popularity. They are wild cards that offer drinkers a lot more than you may think.
Innovative whiskeys are often true one-offs. While every barrel of whiskey is one-of-a-kind and unique in its own way, many innovative whiskeys are true one time experiments. Many times producers only plan on releasing one batch due to their unpredictable and unproven nature in the marketplace. If a release was ignored by drinkers altogether, it usually kills any chance of another batch. As a result, these unique whiskeys might be gone forever once they leave the shelves.
Innovative whiskeys create new discussion points. An enjoyable side effect of these whiskeys is the radical difference of opinions they create. It’s often hard to find a clear consensus of critical reception from whiskey reviewers. A lot of times this is because there is no clear point of comparison for them, which results in many different opinions. The fun continues when you open one of these whiskeys with a close group of friends and opinions begin to fly. Where one person may love it, another may find it to be the worst whiskey they’ve ever tasted.
Purchasing innovative whiskeys is a gamble. More than any other whiskey, purchasing one of these bottles means taking a chance, which brings with it uncertainly. No one likes wasting money and it’s certainly a terrible feeling ending up with a bottle of whiskey you dislike. But if you end up enjoying the bottle, an extra sigh of relief and a feeling like you “won” can’t be beat. You might not feel the same rush you get by playing the tables in Vegas, but purchasing a innovative whiskey can be exciting and one of the biggest gambles you can make as a whiskey consumer.
Innovative whiskeys provide a spark of excitement. Sure, I’ll take a bottle of traditional bourbon over an unproven innovative whiskey if I had to pick just one, but sometimes bourbon is just plain boring (especially when you have a shelf of them). How many bottles of bourbon can I own before they just all start to blend together? In a way you can describe traditional bourbon as being a mile wide and a foot deep. There are many choices, but arguably only a seemingly narrow range of flavors. Innovative whiskeys can provide a much needed disturbance in the predictable release routine and help alleviate bourbon fatigue.
Innovative whiskeys offer a chance to strike it rich. As I’ve said above, you’re gambling on the unknown with innovative whiskeys, but the payout could be great both for producers and drinkers. A surprise experiment could lead to the next big thing. A potential one-off now becomes a full time brand. This benefits the producer financially, but also the whiskey drinker by having more choices in the marketplace. For the true early adopters of these types of releases, if a innovative whiskey hits it big, batch 1 is always the most sought after and comes with increased bragging rights if you were first to “believe” in it.
Innovative whiskeys fuel innovation. Growth won’t happen by being complacent. Innovative whiskeys don’t necessarily mean reinventing the (whiskey) wheel. The experiments Harlen Wheatley is doing at Buffalo Trace and Chris Morris at Woodford Reserve are stretching, bending, and breaking what it means to be a bourbon/whiskey. They’re not all going to winners, but it’s this questioning the norm and forward thinking that is the most exciting aspect of innovative whiskeys. Sometimes you just don’t know what will work and what won’t until you try.
It’s very easy to react to innovative whiskeys with disdain or flatout disgust. Look at it this way, small batch, single barrel, and barrel proof were some sort of low level gimmicks at one point (and could still be considered today). Even wheated bourbon could have been considered a gimmick in the early days of bourbon when William Larue Weller pioneered it. Maker’s Mark ran with it in the mid 20th Century and is now one of the most popular brands in the world. Without Weller experimenting with a wheated bourbon, the world may have never had Pappy Van Winkle (for better or worse).
The point is, there’s no way to know what will be the next big thing without trying it, both with producers taking the risk making it, and with consumers giving it a chance. If you want to be a traditionalist that’s fine. You can state all you want that innovative whiskeys are gimmicks and cash-grabs, but know it’s where a lot of the creative growth is happening in the bourbon industry. Feel free to disagree. I’ll be happy to take that bottle of William Larue Weller off your hands.