Bourbon has a long history and there have been brands that have changed our perception of what Bourbon is. I thought I would look back at this history and discuss how each of these six brands made their mark on today’s Bourbon.
The first brand, Old Crow, was the brand that started it all in the 1830s. James C. Crow was the distiller that applied scientific methods to his distilling and kept notes on what worked and what did not. He did not invent the sour mash process, but he perfected it. He created Bourbon that set high standards of quality and consistency. Throughout the 19th century, Old Crow was the standard of Bourbon the other distillers aimed for. All good Bourbon was judged as to how it compared to Old Crow.
Old Forester is the next brand that changed the perception of Bourbon. It was not the first bottled Bourbon – there were many liquor dealers putting Bourbon in bottles before Old Forester. Old Forester was the first brand to be sold only by the bottle, a revolutionary idea at that time. In an age when most Bourbon was sold by the distillers in the barrel and consumers supplied their own bottle or flask when they purchased whiskey, Old Forester proved that a brand could be sold by the bottle at a profit. When technology allowed for inexpensive bottles, all distilleries began to bottle their own whiskey.
In the late 1940s, Julian Van Winkle saw a need in the market. He knew people who remembered buying whiskey from the barrel at the saloon or liquor store. He created Weller’s Original Proof to cater to these people. A Bourbon bottled at the same proof as it came out of the barrel. These original bottlings ranged in proof from 110-112. A few years later, it was decided to bottle it at barrel entry proof so they did not have to get a label approval every year as the proof changed. This brand became Weller 107. It opened the door to barrel strength Bourbons of the future. Deregulation of the industry during the Reagan administration made labeling easier for today’s barrel strength Bourbons with ever changing proof levels.
When a group of Schenley executives pooled their money and purchased the Ancient Age Distillery in the 1980s, they decided that they needed a super-premium brand as their flagship brand. Elmer T. Lee remembered Mr. Blanton picking really good barrels of Bourbon from the warehouses and bottling them one barrel at a time to give as gifts. Thus, Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon was born. It was not the first single barrel Bourbon. Almost all Bourbon in the 19th century was single barrel Bourbons since people were filling their bottles from the barrel. Old Forester and Old Overholt both offered consumers a chance to buy bottles from a barrel picked especially for them in the 1940s. What Blanton’s did was create the modern concept of single barrel Bourbon that was marketed to the general public.
Booker Noe was not a fan of single barrel Bourbon. He knew that the nature of single barrel brands meant that they would be inconsistent and taking the best barrel for these brands would weaken the flavor profile of the brands as a whole. That became the reasoning for the Small Batch concept. Booker had created a brand, Booker’s, to give as gifts in a similar manner as to what Albert Blanton had been doing in the 1940s. However, his gift bottles were filled right from the dump tank without filtering and at barrel proof. Thus Booker’s Bourbon led the way not only as a small batch Bourbon, but also as an unfiltered Bourbon.
The last brand is not a Bourbon, but it is a finished whiskey. In the late 1990s, Jim Beam introduced Distiller’s Masterpiece – a ten year old Bourbon finished in a cognac barrel. The Scotch industry had been doing this for years, but Distiller’s Masterpiece was the first American whiskey to do so in the modern era. This brand opened the door to all of the finished whiskeys coming out of American distilleries today.
These are the six brands that I think changed Bourbon with their introduction to the marketplace. When you look on the shelves of the liquor stores today, you can see the impact of these six brands.