Home > Critic-At-Large > Bourbon for the Holidays
Bourbon for the Holidays
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I've always been a pretty easy guy to buy Christmas presents for, for I've always asked for vices, and my vices are of the sort that you can spend as much (or as little) on me as you want and chances are, I'll still be pretty happy with whatever I get. Whiskey, cigars, pens, and books; for decades now, I've been content to receive any form of these "big four" addictions, and the happy news, for the people obligated to buy for me, is that none of these items are terribly expensive. You can still get a bottle of good whiskey for under $20 bucks, after all, and a handful of decent cigars will cost about the same. A handsome book from Hyde Brothers will make me happy and won't set you back more than $10, and as far as pens go, I don't need some high-school graduation-worthy, silver or gold Cross pen; just a simple pack of gel pens, the kind that feel good in your hand and write smooth and are mass-made by Bic, Pilot, UniBall, Pentel. Eight bucks ought to cover it.
Of course, for my well-heeled friends who want to indulge me a bit, there are some more expensive items available for purchase, and it's probably not irrational for me to expect a big, spangly bottle of Bulleit Bourbon or Booker Noe's in my Christmas stocking this year. I've been a bourbon enthusiast for years now, and the current explosion in the super premium bourbon market dovetails nicely with my own personal predilections. In the past decade, bourbon export sales have nearly doubled, to over one billion dollars, and bourbon production in the state of Kentucky has reached record levels. National sales of bourbon have been on an upward trajectory for more than a decade; in 2011, bourbon sales rose 14% over the previous year, in 2012, it was 15%. The popular "Kentucky Bourbon Trail" tours in the Bluegrass State attract over a half a million visitors annually, and traditional bourbon producers have added numbers of single batch-and hand-crafted selections to augment their already popular flagship offerings.
The unexpected surge in whiskey sales has even prompted fears of a temporary bourbon shortage, which has caused many whiskey aficionados to stockpile hard-to-find, super premium whiskeys, and the boom has also led to some surprising, unprecedented actions from traditional bourbon producers — Maker's Mark, for instance, actually diluted its product in 2013 from 90 proof to 84 proof, to extend its existing supplies, but the decision was met with such universal disdain that the parent company (Beam, Inc.) was forced to reverse the practice. The bourbon craze has created some insane "supply and demand" overreactions and stratospheric prices as well: the "unicorn" of super premium bourbons is Pappy Van Winkle, the incredibly rare and revered whiskey that has become the Holy Grail for bourbon cultists. A single bottle of "Pappy" will set you back a cool $1,000 dollars, provided, of course, that you can actually find it; lotteries and auctions have been set up to facilitate the outrageous demand.
Part of me loves the fact that my own personal taste and preferences are reflected in a growing national trend, but I have to admit that part of me hates it; part of me is profoundly disappointed that I'm just like so many other consumers. I remember buying a bottle of Bulleit Rye in California in 2012, thinking that I was some sort of trailblazer with exquisite taste, but within months I discovered that everybody was drinking Bulleit Rye. You can get it in grocery stores, for God's sake. The recent popularity of ryes in America is certainly not unexpected — the rising tide lifts all boats, after all, and it's hardly a shock that whiskey lovers would try to experiment beyond bourbon — yet I thought I was an outlier, seeking out what I thought was a relatively obscure product. I know there's nothing more tedious than the bitter guy who claims that he "got there first" with regards to some national trend, but that's what I felt, and I could tell that I was starting to develop a ridiculous, contrarian attitudes towards the liquor that I loved. I started buying cheapo brands, Jim Beam, Evan Williams, etc, just to prove that I wasn't some bourgeois sucker who always has his ear cocked toward the newest phenomenon.
Pathetic, I know, especially since I'm certainly not going to return any of the Blanton's or Basil Hayden's or Dickel Ryes that I might be fortunate enough to receive this holiday season. Still, though, I have to say that I'm getting a little wary of the current "connoisseur" fad that has overrun virtually every decent watering hole in the country. At a high end restaurant/bar, I recently ordered one of their proprietary cocktails, and while the drink itself was fantastic — bourbon, ginger, bitters, egg whites (!) — I felt a little, I don't know, guilty; guilty for indulging in something so excessive, so intricate, so painfully constructed. It's like beer — beer has gotten way too complicated for me. In many ways, the popularity of hand-crafted beers in this country has mirrored the growth in the bourbon industry, and again, as a beer drinker, I appreciate the new varieties. But jeez: it's seems that every little town now has some local micro-brewery that specializes in hand-crafted, artisanal ales and lagers and stouts that feature cardamon and orange peel and gun powder and currants and smoked eel and sometimes I just want a beer that's not going to get up on the table and do a tap dance for me.
Of course, a lot of this antipathy is just simple old-man reactionary grumbling, a trait in myself that I've learned to accept and deplore in approximately equal measures. The truth is, I'm a little jealous; I'm getting older, and I simply don't have the resources to handle too many more raging, boozing, four-bars-in-a-night bacchanals like I used to. It's worth remembering that it's always the old guys who can't handle their excesses anymore who are the ones crying out for a simpler time.