Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was in New York city (finally got to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade) and took advantage of the timing to do a whiskey tasting at the Brandy Library, located in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan. About once a week they offer classes on a variety of spirits, usually barrel-aged, and I happened to be in town for a class on “Old” vs “New” whiskey. It was an educational and enjoyable time. The “old” wasn’t well-aged stuff--it was three bottles of old brands that are now defunct that they had purchased at auction, and they were not high-end spirits, even when the stuff was actually on the market, so they were $10-15 bottles then, around 20 years ago. We compared these with similar bottles that are currently available – all with the word “Old” in the name. The goal of this tasting was to compare where whiskey was 20-30 years ago with where whiskey is today.
Twenty years ago, bourbon sales were pretty flat and some distilleries were closing. What we tasted were bourbons that were being produced for the mass market back then; designed to be simple and easy drinking, and not particularly thought-provoking. It was served simply poured into a glass, neat or over ice and drunk that way. Tasting the, now, they were uncomplicated, easy-drinking whiskeys; one in particular was a vanilla bomb. Apparently back then government regulations were less strict with the budget-whiskey lines in terms of enforcing the rules, specifically the rule that nothing can be added to bourbon beyond the whiskey aged in the barrel i.e. it must simply be water, grain, yeast, which are then fermented, distilled and aged in a barrel. NO additives are allowed, but clearly this one whiskey had vanilla extract added to it!
Fast forward to today and the whiskey market is booming, and what is being produced is simply not the same stuff from 20 years ago. In this day and age, the market demands whiskey with much more character, and the next three whiskeys we tasted in the class delivered. Again, these were not fancy high-priced brands, they were all under $25 dollars a bottle. They all were much richer in flavor and were significantly more complex. Whereas the “old” whiskeys could be described with just a few flavors, the “newer” whiskeys had many more flavors that one could pick out. To no one’s surprise, everyone in the class liked the second set whiskies better.
We are coming into a golden age for whiskey drinkers, with many more choices being available and the number continues to grow. Not only are the big producers making some high-end whiskeys, there are now many craft micro distilleries who are freer to experiment with making whiskey. All in all, it is a great time to be a whiskey drinker.