Whisk(e)y – A Family Affair
Cover and feature photos by Bill Bokelmann
I love the Food & Beverage industry for a plethora of reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that this industry, whether it’s on a local, national or global level, is always growing, evolving and trending. Anyone, who knows or follows me, is aware of my affinity (more like beastly obsession) for all things whisk(e)y, regardless of its spelling. I must admit that I have a very fascinating story of my very first whiskey encounters, but that is better saved for another day and time. However, my real fascination of whiskey started about 14-15 years ago where I would learn about it through trade publications, internet, industry professionals, tastings, etc. This is also when I started diving into the vast categories and slowly discovering what was favorable to my palate at that particular junction of my life.
Historically, whisk(e)y has not only played such a significant economical and social role in our country, but throughout the rest of the world. Even though, categorically, whisk(e)y had taken a step back beginning in the 1920s as a byproduct of multiple socio-economic reasons, as well as due to other major spirit categories taking the limelight such as vodka, tequila, gin, rum, Cognac and shochu. Whiskey, within the past 10-15 years, has not only slowly captured the center stage, but has done so in a manner that has never been seen before. With this Whiskey Renaissance we are currently witnessing and with what seems as an endless amount of selections to choose from these days, how is one to know if he or she is making a sound purchase? With Father’s Day right around the corner, I would like to make some recommendations for yourself or your dad by companies whose whiskies were started and currently are produced by families.
The American whiskey industry is truly a family affair. Many brands were either created and/or evolved in the 19th or 20th centuries by families such as the Ripy, Gould, Beam, Dant, Stitzell, Jones, Russell, Van Winkle, Zoeller and Shapira just to name a few. These are brands that were given birth by family patriarchs who typically made their way from Europe and passed their knowledge and love of their craft to their sons. Today, we at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits proudly offer some of these amazing family-influenced brands.
If you’re looking for a company whose whiskey brands are absolutely on fire, then look no further than the Bardstown & Louisville, Kentucky-based, Heaven Hill. This company is the largest independently-owned spirits producer in the US and was founded by the Shapira family and Joseph Beam in 1935. Eventually, it was taken over fully by the five Shapira brothers and Joseph Beam remained as their Master Distiller. Still family-owned and managed by Max Shapira, the company’s great success is also highly attributed to the five generations of the Beam family members (Joseph, Harry, Earl, Parker and Craig) that managed the distillation for the company up until very recent times. Some of this company’s whiskey brands include Elijah Craig (multiple expressions), Evan Williams (multiple expressions), Rittenhouse Rye, Henry McKenna Bottled-In-Bond, Parker’s Heritage (annual limited releases) and Larceny (wheated bourbon) among several others. In December of 2017, in anticipation of Whisky Advocate magazine’s whiskey of the year announcement, Elijah Craig (NAS) barrel proof (Batch 517/124.2 proof) was awarded the distinction. If this wasn’t enough, at this year’s highly coveted San Francisco’s World Spirits Competition, a blind tasting where I am also a judge, Henry McKenna Bottled-In-Bond was awarded a double gold medal and Best Bourbon, overall. Elijah Craig small batch (NAS) was also a finalist and earned itself a double gold medal.
Another heavily family-influenced American whiskey brand is Tyrone, Kentucky-based Wild Turkey (Austin Nichols/Campari America owned). You know the name, but do you really know the brand? The company has roots tracing all the way back to 1869, when Thomas Ripy, son of Irish immigrant grocer James Ripy, purchased the Old Moore distillery and began distilling whiskey. Coincidentally, in 1855, the New York-based Austin Nichols company opened as a grocery. Let’s flash forward to 1935, less than two years after the repeal of Prohibition. Schenley, now owners of the Ripy Family whiskies, constructs a new distillery which later becomes the Boulevard Distillery and eventually the Wild Turkey Distillery. In 1939, Austin Nichols gives up the grocery business and goes into the whiskey business, where it begins sourcing its whiskey from the Ripy Family/Boulevard Distillery (as well as several other producers) and eventually purchases it in 1971. In 1940, Thomas McCarthy, an executive of the Austin Nichols company names his company’s bourbon “Wild Turkey” after he and a group of his buddies went turkey hunting while sipping on whiskey that came straight out of the barrel at 101 proof, so the story goes (name officially taken in 1942). In 1954, a young Kentucky native, Jimmy Russell, begins working at the Ripy family distillery. He becomes Master Distiller, where he still works as Master Distiller Emiritus, going on an astonishing 64 years. His son, Eddie Russell, also began working at Wild Turkey in 1981 and eventually became Master Distiller alongside his dad. Aside from their famous Wild Turkey 101 (and 81 proof) core brands, I highly recommend looking into their line of Russell’s Reserve whiskeys, first introduced in 2001. I have to say, as delicious as they all are, I am slightly partial towards the Russell’s Reserve 10-year bourbon, which is priced at an amazing value, as well as the single barrel rye. The Rare Breed is such a delicious barrel proof bourbon. If you want to splurge a little for yourself or Dad, consider the Master Keep “Decades” with bourbons ranging in ages between 10-20 years, as well as the brand new Master’s Keep “Revival” finished in Spanish ex-Oloroso sherry casks with bourbons ranging 12-15 years of age. With this much experience, knowledge, passion and love for what they do, how can the Russell’s possibly not make stellar whiskey? I suppose I should also mention that Eddie’s son, Bruce, is also working his way up in the company.
A brand not embedded with a very long and rich history, but remarkable nonetheless, is Jefferson’s Bourbon. In 1997, Louisville native and bourbon historian Chet Zoeller and his son Trey, created this brand in honor of former President and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. Chet and Trey purchased large quantities of old whiskey stock and developed a knack for quality blending. If you were not aware, in the US from the 1960s through the 1990s, there was a major decline in popularity in the American whiskey industry for several reasons. So, unlike today, where it’s almost impossible to find American whiskeys with age statements over 15 years of age that are not overly expensive and/or allocated, this was not the case 20 years ago, when the first batches of Jefferson’s Bourbon were being bottled at 15 years old. The ultra-rare Jefferson’s Presidential series that followed really became a collector’s dream with the 17 and 18 year expressions bottled about 10 years ago, sourced from the world-renowned and now defunct Stitzell-Weller distillery (now Bulleit Distillery). Subsequent Presidential releases included
21, 25 and extremely rare 30 year bottlings of both bourbon and rye. But, what is very unique and resounding about Jefferson’s is how avant garde and experimental this brand has become over the past few years when it comes to the amount of expressions with varying wood finishes. If you’re looking for some great gift ideas, a new Presidential Reserve expression was released at 16 years old with a twin virgin charred American oak cask maturation introduced this year, but inventory won’t last long. The Jefferson’s Reserve wine cask finishes such as the Suduiraut Sauterne cask or the Pritchard Hill (Chappellet wine family) Cabernet Sauvignon cask finish are very unique bourbons with some very good age to them. The Jefferson’s Reserve rum cask finishes its bourbon for a short period of time in Goslings old family rum casks. Let us not forget the Jefferson’s Ocean series, a limited and numbered yearly release where Jefferson’s barrels are placed onboard a shark expedition vessel for several months traveling to thirty ports of entry and crossing the equator 4-5 times. The sea salt air certainly gives this bourbon a delicious and unique flavor profile. If nothing else, the very tasty and well-aged Jefferson’s Reserve still uses old stocks of bourbon ranging from 9-16 years of age.
Now, shifting to the single malt whisky consumers… When Japanese whisky was first introduced to the North American market over a decade ago, no one could have predicted the massive demand and popularity of these single malts in such a short span of time. Not even the Japanese themselves. My first encounter with Japanese whisky in the early 2000s is a rather cool story, although it’s also better saved for another time. Arguably the most sought-after whisky in the world, the Japanese are experiencing a major shortage in aged stated single malts, or rather all age statements is more like it. Especially to them, there is no rushing the hands of time.
If you are not yet familiar with Kavalan, allow me to introduce you to one of the best kept secrets in the world of single malt whisky. Kavalan is a family-owned distillery located in Yilan County of Taiwan, approximately 40 miles southeast of Taipei. The name pays homage to the indigenous people that once inhabited the region. The distillery was founded in 2005 and in 2008 released its first whisky. Taiwan offers a very unique set of subtropical and geographical conditions that makes it very warm and humid throughout most of the year, thus creating an environment which greatly accelerates the maturation of its whiskies and causing a very high rate of angel’s share from within the barrels. Just like the Japanese, Kavalan whisky production methods were very highly influenced by the Scottish, even using Scottish Forsyth-designed stills. Most notably, the late world-renowned whisky consultant, Dr. Jim Swan, was hired by the Lee family to oversee the production of the distillery, as well as the operations. Having first visited the distillery in 2015, I was amazed at how much the design and layout reminded me of some of Japan’s whisky distilleries.
Kavalan best reminds me of beautifully harmonic and layered Highland and Speyside single malt Scotch whiskies. A symphony of flavors, some of the expressions are lighter and more delicate like their Classical and King Car expressions. Then, you get into their vast and diverse line of single wood expressions, most of them single casks bottled at cask strength. These are robust, beautifully layered and complexed for days. The Vinho Barrique, ex-Spanish Oloroso Sherry Cask, Pedro Ximenez and Manzanilla are some of my favorites. If you needed any more convincing, Kavalan whiskies have been some of the most highly-awarded in the last five years, including winning World’s Best Single Malt, World Whisky of the Year and World’s Best Single Cask to name a few.
So, now that you have been provided with some stellar whisk(e)y recommendations, go out and try something new that you can share with loved ones or good friends. Drink responsibly and kick back. And, to all the dads out there, Happy Father’s Day!